Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
One of the blogs I follow is Robert Bruce’s 101 Books blog, in which Bruce chronicles his adventures reading through Time’s Top 100 books since 1923 (Ulysses is the 101st.). I really love Bruce’s enthusiasm, his writing style, and hearing what he thinks about what he reads. I’ve read some of his other reviews (like this most recent one) and I always appreciate his insights. I’ve been disappointed, however, recently by his attitude towards reading Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. I can understand a middle-aged man’s reluctance to read this book, and I appreciate his transparency about his discomfort. But between his own concerns and the mocking of his commenters (not that he or any other blogger is responsible for what commenters say, but still–), it’s starting to seem a little sexist. First, people wonder what on earth Blume’s novel is doing on Time’s Top 100 list to begin with– because it’s YA? Because it’s about a girl? Because it’s somehow less literary than Deliverance (another recent read)? My readers know that I think YA is an important genre , and plenty literary. As for the ookiness a man might feel reading about a girl’s coming of age– just think of all the male bildungsroman women have read and continue to read (including the very first book on Bruce’s list), and suck it up. If we only read novels about people like us, there will be precious little reading material available.
I’m bringing this up because I think people approach Jane Eyre with a similar prejudice. Because it’s about a girl, and I, hypothetical reader, am not a girl. Because she gets married at the end, it must be a romance, and I hate romances, because I, hypothetical reader, am too tough/too male/too practical. Because it was published in 1847 in England, and I, hypothetical reader, was born in the 20th Century, in a place other than England. Not me = not worth reading. Seriously?
Jane Eyre is, to me, essentially a novel about freedom, independence, and self-actualization. That has nothing to do with you, hypothetical reader? At one point, Jane extemporizes to her reader, “I desired liberty; for liberty I gasped; for liberty I uttered a prayer.” The novel begins with (and, perhaps, belabors) repeated attempts for others to oppress Jane. Her Aunt, cousins, and servants (except maybe Bessie) at Gateshead, followed by the odious Brocklehurst at Lowood, then later by another cousin who proposes marriage — all these people try to tell her that she is wicked, useless, and somehow inherently of less value than they are. Jane’s rebellious character gains some humility before God while at school, but her increasing knowledge further strengthens her own inner sense of right and wrong. She remains true to her own standards of right wrong and in so doing eventually finds the true freedom she sought for so long. This freedom is not merely servitude, though Bronte is Christian enough to marry service to freedom, but genuine independence.
I can understand readers finding this a difficult read. The language is awkward, especially to readers in the Twitter age. It takes some getting used to. And Jane is so entirely herself that sometimes readers might find it hard to sympathize with her. In fact, we can still be friends even if you don’t like Jane Eyre. But before one claims to have “a perfect and encompassing grasp of how long and awful it is, from cover to cover,” (koff koff – Matt! – koff koff), one might want to have a reason for disliking it that is greater than the powerful and necessary message Bronte presents about freedom, equality, and individual worth. In an earlier post, I defended a book based on its thematic value, and a commenter pointed out that perhaps people hadn’t noticed that theme – or any theme at all. As a self-proclaimed charitable reader, I generally try to see the value in what a book is rather than focus on what a book isn’t. Shannon Hale has said some really interesting things about how books rarely fail us, but our expectations of books sometimes do. I think readers of Jane Eyre (or Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.) — or any other book– would get a lot more joy from reading if they’d look for what’s good in a book rather than what’s wrong with it (which is why I try not to write negative reviews). Let’s just pretend we are all sophisticated readers engaging in the pursuit of truth about the human experience and move beyond mere initial preference (or lack thereof).
We’re reading this book for my church book club. I’ll probably have more to say after talking it over with The Ladies.