Last night I finished reading Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte's masterpiece. I read it in high school, I'm certain, and perhaps college, but have not examined it since except to view several movie versions of the story.
I cannot speak for the audience of 1847 when the book was published -- what appealed to them? The horror and gothic effect? The descriptions of stern, depressing Lowood School, or lush, lovely Thornfield estate, or the stark, barren moors where the Riverses live? Modern audiences are all about plot, and Jane Eyre has an unusual plot structure, one that readers struggle with. Why does Bronte spend so long wallowing in Jane's childhood before we arrive at Thornfield? And why-oh-why must we slog through this tiresome detour to Morton and St. John Rivers and his sisters? 'When will we get back to Mr. Rochester?' we ask. We want a story of romance and no other.
I feel Bronte's strongest skill is characterization, and I feel her most complex, fascinating character is St. John Rivers. What a task she set for herself in depicting such a man! He is much more than a classic Christian hypocrite; Jane makes this clear. He is a thoroughly good man, a noble man. He's extraordinarily gifted and devoted to self-sacrifice. He has a fierce will that he applies to his own deprivation for the sake of doing God's work. He's the opposite of a hypocrite; there is no saying one thing and doing another with St. John. His greatest flaw is requiring others to be as he is -- as committed, as sacrificing, as zealous -- and zealous for his cause. But if a man truly believed his cause to be the only best goal, wouldn't he also with equal zeal try to enlist others in its work? Wouldn't he use all his formidable powers of persuasion to do so? He does with Jane, unknowingly using guilt, manipulation, and intimidation, and he nearly wins her over.
St. John Rivers is essential to the story because Bronte must give Jane an alternative to Rochester, a true challenge, a man of equally forceful personality. And considering Rochester, that is no small task. Bronte devotes chapters 27-34 to Jane's absence from Rochester; that is more than a mere diversion. In spite of her deep love for Rochester, her unshakable attachment to him, she nearly goes to India with St. John. She is on the verge of accepting his proposal. "Were I but convinced that it is God's will I should marry you, I could vow to marry you here and now -- come afterwards what would!" The sheer force of St. John's personality and his ability to control and coerce Jane achieve this. She admires him, yes, but she also realizes she has not the strength to refuse him indefinitely; he will wear her down. He is relentless. He is not knowingly cruel and recoils at the idea. He believes absolutely that he is doing Jane great good by taking her to India. He is certain he is right.
I found myself fascinated at the study of this man. He is rare, but there are zealots like him in the world. They support every type of cause. A cause, a campaign, will succeed if such a man is at its head. As military leaders, they are quite effective. They pull others with them like a magnet.
St. John is a foil for Rochester. In presenting such a fierce, righteous, powerful contender -- who loses! -- Bronte is showing Rochester's attractions more sharply. And what are those attractions? Jane has already acknowledged Rochester to be ugly, sometimes bullying, enigmatic, demanding, morally loose. When she returns to him he is also blind and a cripple. Why does she choose him? It is not Rochester that is superior to St. John Rivers; it is love. Jane chooses the man she loves and who loves her. There is no simpler tale, but this is no simple telling. Again, the task Bronte sets for herself is nearly insurmountable! How can an arrogant, annoying, wealthy, ugly 40-year-old man truly fall in love with a homely, orphaned, poor governess who is quiet, lacks confidence, hides in corners, and gives quick, terse replies and only when demanded of them? Why does either man prefer Jane? Both men have lovely alternatives, other women ready to marry them.
Jane's personality is often misrepresented on film. She is not confident and quite plain. She doesn't aspire to greatness. She is not a prude. She is a tiny teenage girl with a will to live who fundamentally believes that she is alone in the world and often finds herself in a solitary struggle for survival. She has a little inner strength and a crumb of pride, but she is not a forceful character. The traits Rochester seems to value in her are kindness and blunt honesty when she does speak. The traits St. John values are hard work and pliability. Factor all this into your picture of the heroine.
Hollywood finds it impossible to give us ugly heroes and heroines. Here are a few pairings: Orson Welles and Jane Fontaine; George C. Scott and Susannah York; William Hurt and Charlotte Gainsbourg; Ciaran Hinds and Samantha Morton; Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska. I won't go into the TV adaptations, in one of which Timothy Dalton plays Rochester. Ugly? I think not. None of these people are ugly. Ciaran Hinds makes a passable Rochester, but I challenge the film industry to make a version where both Rochester and Jane are as unappealing physically as Bronte insists they are. Why do I harp on about it? Because Bronte does. It's important to her that this love story be about the heart only-- St. John Rivers is handsome as an Apollo, a god of a man, but with a heart of stone. He is ice, but oh-so beautiful. His looks do not lure Jane. Rupert Penry-Jones made a pretty St. John, but he was neither icy nor calculating enough. I think it is a difficult role to play.
Movie versions that focus on inexplicable, infatuated love between two beautiful people do not reflect Bronte's book. Bronte paints a heroine whipped by adversity and deprivation but longing for deep affection and attachment. In spite of poverty, she doesn't value possessions. And more than deep love, she values her own character, which she will not sully. But marriage for love (and only love) is one principle she holds -- don't we love it when these 19th century female writers hold fast to that theme? How many marriages without love must have been happening back then, for this theme to cry out in literature so loudly?
Jane Eyre is a classic, and if you've somehow missed reading it, you should correct that omission immediately.