Upon finishing and reflecting on Jane Eyre, I think that it would have been a pivotal book in my intellectual development no matter when I had read it, but I'm kind of glad I waited so long. If I had read Jane Eyre as a junior high school-er, I think I would have bonded too fiercely with Jane. I would have imagined her struggles as my own and raged against my teachers and parents even more than I already did. As a high school-er, I would have already been polluted by romance novels and would have been annoyed with long passages that didn't even have the courtesy to be about sex. It would bother me to sit through 520 pages for the prissier version of stories I had read dozens of times before. At 25, the timing was just right!
I was drawn in from the start by the voice, and more so because I wasn't expecting a strong voice in Jane Eyre. Honestly, I didn't think writers had invented real voice yet. My assumption was that Jane Eyre was going to be a chore, and I was going to have to search for the least-dull character in which to invest myself. Not so. She was feisty, observant, and, as was mentioned in the notes, rebellious. She stunned and seduced me in just three pages.
Speaking of pages, I was a bit horrified by the page count.I was sure it was going to go the way of Middlemarch, abandoned halfway through while I convinced myself I was "busy." I had no idea how I was going to get through 520 pages of Victorian-era prose without losing all interest in this project, but here's where Bronte taught me my second lesson in writing: That woman's chapters are tight. There's a beginning, a middle, an end, foreshadowing, conclusion, and a lingering question about what comes next.
That said, Jane Eyre is not going on my "Favorites" list in Amazon's Books application on Facebook. I found Jane Eyre readable and educational, and it made me think about writing and character development and what it means to be a writer, but it didn't make me giggle, it didn't make me cry, and it didn't make me want to tell everyone to go read this book. Maybe every writer ought to, but certainly not every person. While I liked her voice and personality, I found her lack of interest in her inheritance to be wholly implausible, because Jane Eyre is actually a pretty prideful and self-interested character; she's quick to judge, assess, and rank herself against household members--usually highly. Much is made of her humble traits, but she's not, not really.
Bronte erred in allowing Jane to become aware of her inheritance so early in the book but then NEVER DO ANYTHING ABOUT IT. By the second mention of her inheritance without any action on Jane's part, I lost interest completely in what happened to her, and started to read the book with the firm belief that this was merely masturbatory writing; that the book kept going on and on and on pretty much because Bronte just felt like writing.
I'm sure I'm coming at Jane Eyre very much a product of my generation. If I'd been alive and able to read in 1847, I can see how I would have had a different perspective. Which brings me to my last point. I wasn't an English major and I'm no literary scholar, but the long, convoluted, hyper-literary passages and dialogue got me thinking:
1) Did people really talk like that?
2) Wouldn't I have written like that, too?
3) Holy crap, class warfare.
By that I mean: Who the hell has time for all the literary references, the passive voice, and the "hide the ball" story-telling in which the characters indulge? Probably people of leisure and academia. The governesses and the clergy have time to read enough books to refer to them subtly in their everyday speech, because book learning is their, you know, JOB, and Mr. Rochester can because he's got nothing better to do, owing to being loaded and not having to do any real work at all, but the servants speak plainly. They're direct, to the point, and don't pussyfoot about with being coy--well, ok, they do, but they do so much more quickly.
Before getting too rankled, I tried to put myself into a Victorian era woman's perspective. If I'd been fortunate enough to be wealthy, what would I have done all day long? I'd have read. And it would have been the greatest joy of my life, and it would have infected everything I did or said. The same would go for writing.
In a slower-paced world, I think there's a lot more room for literary fiction. Active, direct language is more conducive to moving along a plot, but I wonder if Charlotte Bronte, her peers, and her readers, didn't take a greater joy in the act of deciphering and understanding language than I do. Maybe they loved language for its own sake, while I'm more concerned with what it can do for me. I keep expecting books and writing to change my life, make me think new thoughts, entertain me, DO something. Maybe that's the wrong way to think about it. Maybe I should be changing my life, thinking new thoughts, and, through being an active, engaged reader, I should be entertaining myself.
So. That's what Jane Eyre did to me. You?
PS: Love, love, love Ellen Page of Juno being cast as Jane Eyre. She's perfect for it.