Charlotte Brontë – Jane Eyre
The plot is absurd, but this book’s value is as a character study. Jane has an early childhood of Dickensian poverty, complete with a kindly uncle and cruel aunt, straight out of Great Expectations. From there it’s off to boarding school, which is slightly better. She stays on for two years after graduation as a teacher, before becoming a governess in a somewhat healthy household and falling in love with the father, who she marries at book’s end, though by then he is blind and crippled. It turns out he is already married, though, which causes them some difficulties getting married on account of bigamy. The man’s first wife has gone insane, and he keeps her shut up in attic with a servant to tend to her. Jane occasionally hears her murmuring and knocking about the house, and doesn’t figure out until later what is going on. Conveniently, the insane wife eventually commits suicide and dies in a fire, though this also disfigures her husband. Jane also gets a windfall inheritance at some point.
So Jane Eyre doesn’t get points for plausibility, despite a surprising amount of it being based on Brontë’s childhood. But Jane herself is an interesting character. She is fragile and stoic at the same time, and has a way of being strong and weak in different ways at different times. Just like a real person, she isn’t entirely consistent. She isn’t particularly pretty, and other characters remind her of this every so often; the reader feels the sting along with her, even though looks are far from everything. She’s reasonably intelligent but not extremely so, is prone to self-deception, and is a little on the meek side. But she also has a strong sense of integrity, which she struggles to maintain throughout the book against all kinds of temptations. I don’t care for her religiosity, but admire her strong, subtle individualism—a somewhat subversive theme at the time, especially for a woman.
Most importantly, Jane evolves over time. The book covers events from her childhood up until about age 20, with parts narrated at roughly age 30, offering a more mature perspective. Jane is always the same person, but learns and grows, and changes just like a real person does, or should. Brontë has crafted a fascinating person in Jane Eyre, and while this is far from my favorite novel, it was worthwhile along several dimensions.