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Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Publication date: 1847
Original language: English


When the novel opens, Jane Eyre is a young orphan living with her unpleasant aunt and vile cousins. After a fit of nervous hysteria following one of her aunt's more cruel punishments, Jane agrees to be sent away to school. The school, Lowood, turns out to be the kind of classic Victorian institution which any reader of Dickens will recognise immediately. The children are half-starved and neglected, in the name of Christian restraint of the senses, but despite all this Jane makes good friends and developes into an educated and intelligent young woman.

Having graduated from her studies, Jane takes a position as governess to the young ward of a Mr. Rochester, and takes up her position as a live-in member of staff at his house, Thornfield Manor. As time passes, Jane and the taciturn, unpredictable Rochester become close. We are aware, though, that there are many secrets behind the facade of Thornfield. Jane's Christian morality and her self-reliance will once again be put to the test when she discovers the truth about Rochester's past...

Why you must read this book

Before being forced to read this novel as a student, I was firmly convinced that I hated it. I picked it up with extreme reluctance, expecting to be assaulted by the Victorian equivalent of a Mills and Boon novel, all romantic puff and little real substance.

How wrong can you be? Unlike her sister Emily, whose Wuthering Heights, while classic, is also somewhat torturously emotional, Charlotte Bronte has an elegantly restrained style. Restraint, indeed, is one of the main themes of this novel, and we encounter the severe wrongs done to human beings both by an excess of restraint and by a dearth of it. In Jane Eyre, Bronte manages to create a heroine whose sense of morality and rectitude develops quite realistically out of a troubled and violent childhood, and who as a result is only very rarely annoyingly pious. Jane is no Fanny Price, whose pathetic hyper-femininity ruins Jane Austen's Mansfield Park. She is a self-controlled, strong and humane woman with whom it is impossible not to sympathise.

Beyond the strengths of her characterisation, Bronte has also created a pretty irresistible plot, whose twists and turns will keep you guessing, filled with the coincidences that writers such as Dickens and Bronte somehow manage to make believable. Perhaps we believe because we just have to; the pull of the happy ending is still one that most of us can't resist. But whatever the case, Bronte sets up her final destination with a well-crafted and compelling narrative, allowing us the satisfaction of a conclusion in which the ramifications of her characters' actions and beliefs are fully played out.

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