Notes on a Voice: what makes a gothic fairy tale about a plain governess so raw and exhilarating? Bee Wilson pinpoints what Charlotte Brontë did...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, November/December 2012
No novel ever shared a point of view more effectively than "Jane Eyre". From the minute the child Jane is unfairly locked in the Red Room by her vicious aunt, Charlotte Brontë gets us on her side. We see what she sees; we fall in love with ugly, rude Mr Rochester as she does. The voice of “Jane Eyre” has no distance. It is raw, persuasive, exhilarating, just as it was in 1847.
Brontë had a short, hard life, dying at 38 of sickness in pregnancy, having already lost all five of her siblings, including the writers Anne and Emily. Her life was ruled by her father Patrick, vicar of Haworth. Her biographer, Mrs Gaskell, said he had a “strong, passionate, Irish nature...compressed down with resolute stoicism”. The same could be said of his daughter’s writing. The substance of "Jane Eyre" is a gothic fairy tale: an orphan, a powerful man, his mad wife, all laced with reversals of fortune. Yet the tone is flattened with Yorkshire terseness. "I have no wish", Jane tells Rochester, “to talk nonsense.”
“Do you expect passion, and stimulus, and melodrama?” asks Brontë in a later novel, “Shirley”. "Calm your expectations…Something real, cool and solid lies before you; something unromantic as Monday morning." It is these qualities that make "Jane Eyre" thrilling. Unlike Emily’s wilder imagination, Charlotte’s fantasy is anchored in the recognisable emotions of a small, plain governess. After meeting Mr Rochester, Jane stares at the moon and feels her "veins glow", but is brought back to earth by a clock in the hall. "I turned from moon and stars, opened a side-door, and went in." Brontë knows what it is to be one of the millions “in silent revolt against their lot”. Jane is so “tenacious of life” that your veins glow too. “We open ‘Jane Eyre’," Virginia Woolf said, "and in two pages every doubt is swept clean from our minds."
GOLDEN RULE Keep it subjective. She shows how feelings make a mockery of social and religious dogma. Jane keeps being rebuked for her hunger, whether for bread or love. But she can’t change the way she feels: “I was a human being, and had a human being’s wants.”
KEY DECISIONS (1) Mixing up diction. Sometimes romantic (“clouds low and livid"), sometimes devout (“God pardon me!"), sometimes slangy: “I began the process of ruining myself,” reveals Rochester, “like any other spoony." (2) Starting in Jane’s childhood, when she is most vulnerable and sympathetic, making our identification with her so complete that unless you have read "Wide Sargasso Sea", you don’t give the first Mrs Rochester’s feelings a second thought.
STRONG POINTS Visual description ("what a golden desert this spreading moor"), never lingered over; and characterisation, especially of unlikeable types, from the evangelical St John Rivers, handsome but cold as a statue, to John Reed, a “dingy" boy who grows into a dissolute man. The Brontë scholar Heather Glen has argued that the effect of painting these lesser characters so strongly is to make Jane all the more enigmatic.
ROLE MODELS On those dark parsonage nights, the Brontës read everything from the Bible to the Arabian Nights. Charlotte was a fan of Thackeray, and dedicated the second edition of “Jane Eyre” to him. But Jane’s visceral pain springs from life, not literature: the death of her sister Maria when Charlotte was nine; the wretched opium addiction of her brother Branwell.
FAVOURITE TRICK Addressing us individually, as in “Reader, I married him.” It puts us on intimate terms, but also allows for some sly asides. When Mr Rochester, besotted, compliments Jane on her “radiant hazel eyes”, she deadpans, “I had green eyes, reader.”
TYPICAL SENTENCE “It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it.” (“Jane Eyre", chapter 12.)
Charlotte Brontë’s complete works are on the Kindle, 72p. The Brontë museum is open nearly all year: bronte.org.uk
Bee Wilson is a critic and food writer. Her new book, "Consider the Fork", is out now
Illustration Kathryn Rathke