I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.
This week we turn our attention to Charlotte Brontë’s classic nineteenth century novel Jane Eyre. First published in 1847, the book follows the life of an orphan who learns the value of forgiveness and mercy. It has long resonated with young readers who easily relate to its grand, sweeping romantic turns which have become the fodder of soap operas. Underneath the drama however, is the flesh and blood realism of a young girl, learning as she goes.
As Karen Swallow Prior says in Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me:
While most of my literary-minded peers of that time were charmed by the higher Romanticism of Charlotte’s sister Emily in Wuthering Heights, I much preferred the greater realism of Jane Eyre. That’s not to say that Eyre’s Romantic elements—the detainment of a young girl in the frightening bedroom of a long dead inhabitant; an omen-laden lightning strike down the middle of a great tree; the inexplicable, audible voice of a lover calling from miles away; and the mysterious mad woman in the attic—didn’t enchant me. I could certainly be as dreamy as the next teenage girl. Jane Eyre has a little bit of everything in it, enough to appeal to bookish girls of nearly all tastes since its publication a century and a half ago.
What character from literature do you most identify with? Why?
For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.
Literature, Liturgy & The Arts
Raised in a parsonage amid the moors of Haworth, Charlotte Brontë in 1839 refused marriage proposals from two reverends, later stating that “there is no more respectable character on this earth than an unmarried woman who makes her own way through life quietly, perseveringly.” She published Jane Eyre in 1847. Over the next two years, her brother Branwell and her sisters Emily and Anne all died, most likely from tuberculosis; two other siblings had died in 1825. Brontë eventually married in 1854, but died, while pregnant, in 1855, two years after publishing Villette.
The Folio Society’s Edition of Jane Eyre
‘Do you think I am an automaton? – a machine without feelings? … Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! – I have as much soul as you – and full as much heart!’ As compelling in character as she is ordinary in looks, Jane Eyre is one of literature’s greatest heroines. Hers is a captivating love story that encompasses, among other things, loss, deception, devotion and obsession. With themes of madness and forbidden knowledge, and a Byronic male lead – the glowering Rochester – Jane Eyre is also a suspenseful gothic mystery. Its sparse settings resemble those of Wuthering Heights; places which not only lend themselves to the novel’s psychological drama, but in which the air crackles and whispers with forces beyond human control. However, the narrative belongs to Jane, and it is her singularity and the vivid portrayal of her inner life that make this novel exceptional. Brontë’s intimate first-person narrative formed a template for later authors including Joyce and Proust. As a female character, Jane was far ahead of her time. In her fierce meditations on spiritual and emotional dilemmas, and her determination to remain inwardly free when the cruelties and desires of others threaten her integrity, she was a proto-feminist figure quite unlike her pliant predecessors.
Artist Santiago Caruso’s dedication to the fantastique made him sensitive to the novel’s otherworldliness. His illustrations evoke its eerie scenery and the intensity of Jane’s experiences. In most she is central: a small but wilful figure whose ‘obscure’ life is as profoundly engaging as that of the most dazzling heroine. As author Emma Donoghue writes in her introduction, Jane ‘survives all sorts of abuses and humiliations because she is driven on by a sense that she matters, because everybody matters’.
Karen Swallow Prior
Karen Swallow Prior is Professor of English at Liberty University and an award-winning teacher. She is a contributing writer for The Atlantic.com and for Christianity Today, where she blogs frequently at Her.meneutics. Her writing has appeared in Relevant, Think Christian, and Salvo. She is a Research Fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, a member of INK: A Creative Collective, and a member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States.
Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me
Booked draws on classics like Great Expectations, delights such as Charlotte’s Web, the poetry of Hopkins and Donne, and more. This thoughtful, straight-up memoir will be pure pleasure for book-lovers, teachers, and anyone who has struggled to find a way to articulate the inexpressible through a love of story.