If nothing else, the Cannonball Read is teaching me that the more I care about a book, the harder it is for me to write about it. In the light of recent personal events, I was having a hard time delving into Jane Eyre's love story without my own romantic baggage weighing my interpretation down. At the very least, I can still say that I bristle whenever someone compares the Twilight series to Charlotte Bronte's best known novel. However, I didn't want to spend the review going on and on about how one version of ideal love is better than another, mainly because I don't think Meyers' series deserves so much of my time and energy. There is one difference I can mark without hesitation, and something I don't think is discussed enough when Jane Eyre is brought up. Unlike Twilight or most other romantic novels, Jane Eyre is much more than the author's romantic fantasy transcribed onto paper. In fact, the title's subheading reads, "An Autobiography," not "A Love Story." While it's tempting to think mainly of the novel's love story (admittedly, it is pretty swoon-worthy), to focus only on that is to give short shrift to a complex and broad-scoped tale. In many ways, Jane Eyre is Bronte's autobiography. I wouldn't call it strictly factual, but the heroine's story touches on the variety of struggles, concerns, pet peeves, and wishes of an educated, imaginative, single woman without money in 19th Century England.
In the first few chapters, we focus on Jane's childhood as an orphan living first as a dependent with unsympathetic relatives, then at a religiously affiliated boarding school. Through Jane's relatives, the Reed family, Bronte makes her first attacks on an unfair social structure of her time, illustrating through her characters that money and a good family line do not necessarily make better individuals. This may seem pretty elementary to many 21st century readers, but linking money and status with personal worth was a surprisingly common mindset in Bronte's time (even more so than today). When Jane enters Lowood School, run by the cruel and hypocritical Brocklehurst, Bronte takes the opportunity to condemn those whose faith inspires false piety and heartlessness (Pat Robertson would do well to read those chapters). On the other side of the coin, Jane learns through a close friend that though some Christians behave monstrously in the name of their faith, it is not worth condemning the faith itself altogether. A belief in a benevolent, loving, supreme being can inspire serenity, compassion, forgiveness, and courage. This is the faith that Jane adopts. Combined with an almost pantheistic belief in Nature, whom she deems a spiritual "Mother," it guides her principles and actions throughout the story.
The narrative flashes forward several years, leading Jane to Mr. Rochester and their well-known love story. While it is undeniably moving, passionate, and charming (they really do make a wonderful couple), there are elements to their initial courtship that make even the heroine uneasy. He is secretive, domineering, possessive, and takes a disconcerting pride in being Jane's only loved one in the world. Loving him as intensely as she does, Jane worries that he is becoming an idol to her, and that she may fall under a sort of passionate bewitchment where her will is no longer quite her own. When circumstances make it clear to Jane that she can not stay true to both Rochester and herself, she chooses herself. (You hear that, Ms. Meyers?) The choice to leave him is excruciating, but she goes. The heartbreak, combined with the physical hardships she encounters, quite literally almost kills her.
It is only much later, when Jane has developed a life, a will, and loved ones of her own, that she is ready to love romantically again. When she does marry, it is as an "independent" woman with money to care for herself, and a position that frees her from personal obligation to others. She has discovered and bonded with distant relatives, creating a loving family life of her own, plus an intimate circle of friends. (Seriously Ms. Meyers, I hope you're taking notes.) When she finds love again, she is thus able to approach her partner on a more equal footing with him. In fact, circumstances make her husband dependent on her for a little while. This brief period evens the scales between them, making them lifelong equals and peers. As such, they become best friends "at once as free as in solitude, as gay as in company." This bolsters their romantic relationship, making it richer and more fulfilling for both partners as the marriage progresses.
This last point may seem like common sense to many readers today. However, in the 19th century, taking such a stance on romantic love was quite unusual. Transcending the dichotomy of love and autonomy was a step very much ahead of the author's time. Throughout the book, Bronte also manages to reconcile reason with passion, Christianity with Paganism, and scathing social critique with a forgiving idealism. Though it is often written off as a girly, romantic novel, it is actually a highly fictionalized autobiography, written by an insightful, though lonely, female Transcendentalist. Through the heroine's life (especially through her romantic involvements) Bronte proposed ideas and confessed truths about individuality in regards to womanhood that had previously been ignored or unconsidered by her culture. With the widespread popularity of romances like Twilight and reality shows where individuals compete with one another for attention and affection, I'm concerned that such ideas are slipping out of our cultural mindset. I'm almost tempted to keep a stash of copies of Jane Eyre at the ready. Anytime a girl or young woman intimates that the Twilight romance is the ideal love story, or gives signs of wrapping up her self-worth in how much (particularly male) attention she gets, or lets her life revolve entirely around an individual or cultural mindset without taking the time to make up her mind for herself first, I'd really, really like to give them a copy of Bronte's novel.