I first read Jane Eyre when I was 16, it was the first set text on my A-Level literature course.
I’d read classics before at school; an unorthodox mix at that due to a wonderful and inspiring teacher who refused to be contained by the school syllabus. We’d read The Rhyme Of The Ancient Mariner, The Go-Between, Hard Times, poetry by Keats and John Clare and when it came to Shakespeare, rather than Romeo and Juliet or Macbeth she opted for A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Merchant of Venice.
But I’d never gone back to read any of those books for pleasure. They’d never spoken to me personally. I’d enjoyed working on them, but viewed them as cultural artifacts, fossils of a distant age, that had nothing relevant to say about my life.
Jane Eyre was the first text from what we might call the English Cannon that had resonance in my life, that spoke to me and had an impact on my feelings rather than my still developing critical faculties.
I found Jane to be a delight as a character, almost as a friend, because I felt she and I had much in common. I had never considered myself beautiful, but knew that I was intelligent and had the prospect of a good education before me. I knew that I was entitled to my strong character and sense of self, that being economically disadvantaged did not deprive me of the right to love or the right to respect. But before reading Jane Eyre, I would have struggled to express any of that.
Jane, for me, was the first female character who I had ever identified with. She was someone who did not let her disadvantages rule her life and held herself to standards of her own, even when the world believed that she would capitulate. She believed that it would be wrong to live as Edward’s mistress and that was reason enough why she must not do it. She was tempted, she was weakened almost to the point of giving in, but she held to her own standards and that was something that inspired me greatly.
Many characters in books and in films are motivated and changed by the people they meet throughout their story. I admired Jane because she was the person who motivated herself, who changed herself and decided her own destiny. She was, for me, a feminist. She believed that she had the right to decide for herself what her life should be, within the means available to her. She had pride in herself when no-one else did, spoke up when she was trodden down, broken down not only the social orders of the time but the gender barriers to address Rochester as a ‘kindred spirit’ and believed that she had every right to be treated with respect.
To be quiet or reserved is often seen as being suppressed, or even oppressed, particularly for someone who is female. A lot has been written about the contrast between Jane and Bertha, about the suppression of the female sense of self and how this can devolve into madness. But for me, Jane was never suppressed. Or oppressed. People certainly try to do this to her, such as Mrs Reed and Mr Brocklehurst, even Blanche Ingram, but Jane remains true to herself, even if that self is quiet and reserved.
As a teenager and young woman, I was often quiet. I was often self possessed. I held myself within rather than wearing my heart on my sleeve. Reading Jane Eyre taught me that those characteristics were not the same as weakness, in fact they were often synonymous with strength. To be quiet is not the same as to go unheard. To be self contained is not the same as to be empty. To be discrete is not the same as being withdrawn.
I know that I’m supposed to post a picture of myself with the book, but the truth is that I read my copy to bits in the years I was at University and after graduation, because Jane Eyre was often my solace. She suffered and endured and overcame and was rewarded without having to compromise herself. When I suffered and endured in life, re-reading that book gave me the strength to believe that I would overcome. At this point in my life, I feel I am starting to achieve that. And like Jane, I did not have to compromise myself. I had an excellent literary role model before me in terms of how to do that.*[Got something to say? Submit to Project Shandy]*