Because it is one of those touchstone books in my life, I've joined the Jane Eyre Readathon at Laura's Review Bookshelf: Jane Eyre Check in #1 to see if feelings have changed over the years. As a young teen, this was the first swoon-worthy novel I'd found. But with the passage of (a great deal) of time, would I feel the same?
Based only on the first two chapters, I feel the same only more so. At the outset, Jane seeks her own company to read in a curtained window seat after a summary dismissal by Mrs Reed, the woman in whose house she lives. It's immediately apparent that no matter what Jane says or does, that woman is going to complain about her. And Jane in her solitary reading spot takes me right back to my own childhood. Even though I knew Jane was miserable, I still wanted that window seat with its red moreen curtain to hide behind and read to my heart's content, just as a wanted to sprawl while reading and eating apples the way Jo March did That window seat has now become one of my madeleines.
Also, I notice anew how Jane's voice is ignored. She has no right to speak. But Jane reads of faraway places while hidden in refuge, a spot of safety while she is held captive by circumstance. But those faraway places are bleak. She is fearful. The unknown holds objects of terror for this unloved child. Even the domestic servant Bessie fills her head with fairy tales. And a bit of independence -- Bessie tells her the story of Richardson's Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, the ultimate "hold out for the ring" novel. Jane also refers to Gulliver's Travels, so Charlotte Bronte is using the same Victorian habit of dropping older novels into her work. I never think of Robinson Crusoe, for example, while not remembering how it was quoted in Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone.
What I do wonder about is why Jane takes so much abuse for so long, then speaks out against it and resists. But I do know that the litany of how the Reed children are horrible and well-treated, while Jane works hard and is reviled, is true in so many parts of even modern society. Just think of office politics and how some are favored while others who work harder may be at least overlooked, or how some relatives are regarded within the dynamics of a family. So while Jane's situation is Cinderella before the ball, it's also part of everyday life.
Jane's conversation with the kindly apothecary after she has a breakdown when left alone in a dark room haunted to her also has some interesting ideas. She says she would "not like to belong to poor people" "even if they were kind" to her, and Jane says she "could not see how poor people had the means of being kind". Hmm, did Bronte, a minister's daughter, think poor people were completely miserable and therefore unkind? Is that how the rest of Victorian society viewed the poor? What about now? And how does the fact that Jane's minister father died carrying for the poor and helping others play into this? This relates so well to Jane's own conflicted feelings in the St. John Rivers part of her story.
These superficial feelings about the poor, and how Jane is viewed because of them, are only exasperated by people's reactions to her looks. After all, as the servants so plainly say, Jane is a toad. If their darling Miss Georgina was reduced to the same circumstances, it would be possible to feel sorry for her. She's pretty. Without even trying hard, Bronte is showing us how pretty is as pretty does. And how people can be so quickly to judge and be so wrong about it.
This judging by appearances is going to play such a large role in Jane's story -- what does Rochester appear to be? What is he, really? Oh, what happens, and how badly it goes, when Rochester himself gives up trying to keep up appearances, when he wants his happiness.