I first read the book as a teenager in school. I cannot remember if it was an abridged version, though it might have been, but I do recall noting several points that set it apart from a book like, say, Pride and Prejudice.
Jane Eyre is a plain heroine, indeed quite markedly so. This is different from the books of Jane Austen’s that tend more towards classic romance fiction where the main protagonists dazzle society at large with their looks. Elizabeth Bennett is not the prettiest girl in P&P, but she is “second only to her sister Jane”, who is known to be a beauty. Mr. Darcy is widely touted as one of the handsomest men, but Mr. Rochester is neither young nor known for his dashing good looks.
The other central point of difference is of course the life of the heroine. Jane Eyre is downtrodden and underprivileged to begin with, earns her living by the time she’s eighteen, and [SPOILERS FOLLOW] eventually lands an inheritance from a relative. Jane and Elizabeth Bennett aren’t piling on the riches, but they’re not living in abject poverty either. They manage to deck themselves out for ball after ball, where their primary motive is to find en eligible suitor. This does not apply to Elizabeth, of course, but for quite a few women in Jane Austen’s novels.
In my first reading and interpretation I found Jane Eyre a bit strange. I did not understand or appreciate its beauty, and I closely connected most with the protagonist’s years spent in her school. The whole angle about the woman in the attic, Mr. Rochester’s mad wife, puzzled me. I found it almost unreasonable and illogical that a man could conceal a lunatic in his house and not have anyone in polite society know or discover this fact. I could never understand how Mr. Rochester landed himself in such a tragic situation in the first place.
A second reading of Jane Eyre completed over recent months revealed its beauty and understanding of human nature to me. The prose in the book is dramatic, and it’s interesting how many times Jane is described as plain, leaving no doubt in the reader’s mind that the character in question is no beauty. But she is intelligent and fascinating, considering the strength of conviction she displays in her circumstances.
The first time I read Jane Eyre, the book had a preface that offered a brief biography of Charlotte Bronte and her sisters. I found it interesting that Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte published books under their assumed names Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. Only later when their books became popular did they come to be known by their true names and gender.
If you haven’t read Jane Eyre already, then I suggest you do so straight away. And once you have finished that, you can check out The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, one of my favourite books, that features a literary detective called Thursday Next who allegedly brings about the relatively happy ending of Jane Eyre!
Have you read any of the novels by the Bronte sisters? Which is your favourite?