Sometimes, when the world seems a bit much, a feminist read is the perfect remedy. I did not expect Jane Eyre to provide that empowering read; it was a book I placed in a category of stock nineteenth-century novels. It was on my ‘should read’ list, but I wasn’t going to make it a priority. Plus I could probably rely on one of the many, many film adaptations. I was wrong.
My opinion changed as soon as I actually opened the book. I am here to tell you, reader (to use a Brontë-esque technique), that you are also wrong if you think Jane Eyre is a run-of-the-mill period romance. Instead, it’s a tale of female resistance to authority. Which is not to say that it’s not without its problems. But it is so much more rewarding – and so much more empowering – than I anticipated.
Jane is inspiring but complicated. She has overcome adversity and shows the scars from those battles. The book follows her difficult childhood, boarding school, and her career as a governess, an often-exploited profession occupied by educated women. And, of course, there is romance – but a romance that Jane will only accept on her own terms.
A striking feature of the novel is Jane’s bravery as a protagonist. She calls men out for their oppression of others. She speaks her mind without thinking about the consequences. Calling men out on their bullshit is an age-old tradition which Charlotte Brontë depicts with style.
The classic Victorian plotline, ending with a marriage, might seem to run against the feminist message of the book. But Jane is unrelenting in her focus on herself. She rejects a marriage proposal because she thinks it will disadvantage her. And, when we do get to the happy ending of the novel, she keeps her autonomy and her freedom.
At times, this selfishness can make the novel jarring. The treatment of the first woman who married Rochester, Bertha, is particularly problematic. Both her mental state and her race are alluded to and used as tools for the plot. And that can be hard to read past.
Without dismissing that major problem, Brontë’s novel is revolutionary. She depicted a woman choosing her own path through life in the face of disadvantage and oppression. But she didn’t portray Jane as perfect or heroic. Instead, Jane is realistic. She is selfish, she can be petty, she obsesses over small things, she has mean thoughts. And that step towards showing women as real people was significant given the time in which the book was written.
In creating a heroine who was imperfect, Charlotte Brontë shattered the one-dimensional female characters scattered through earlier literature. Jane is presented a real woman, not an evil witch or a golden angel. Jane Eyre is one of the first novels to recognise that women, like men, have complex internal lives. And in the Victorian era, that was a big step to take.
Jane Eyre is a flawed character, and Jane Eyre is a flawed novel. But it’s an important story. If you want a novel that allows you to escape into another era without depicting women as dependent upon men, Charlotte Brontë has got you covered.Support Villainesse