Towards the end of last year a strange feeling came over me. With two weeks before my final university assignments were due, in the madness of that final rush to the finish line, in the midst of research, re-writes, and late-night drafting sessions – I felt the strangest desire to re-read Jane Eyre.
At the time, I thought it was odd. Given the amount of reading I had to do for class, it seemed bizarre to me that I would want to add yet another book to my immense reading pile; although, granted, Jane Eyre was somewhat lighter and more enjoyable than my class-related reading, namely Freud For Kiddies (published by the Department for the Elucidation of Freudian Theories of Psychosexual Development, at the University of YouveGottaBeKiddingMe Press, MA, 2011) and The Complete and Absolutely In No Way Abridged, Explicated, or Rationalised Works of Jacques Lacan (University of KillMeNow Press, forthcoming).*
In any case, I felt myself inexplicably in need of a little Charlotte Brontë (even though with Brontë, ‘a little’ is usually about four hundred pages long). So despite the press of assignments and last-minute editing sessions, I decided to take down Jane Eyre and dust it off. Now, I should add that the first time I read Brontë’s book was in my final weeks of high school, just a little bit before my final exams. Was this stupid? Yes. Was it poorly timed? Undoubtedly. Because I found that I absolutely could not tear myself away. I think I read the whole thing in about two days. I can’t remember whether I actually paused to breathe or not, but in either case, I was hooked. It seems I always return to Brontë at the most inopportune times. Perhaps it was something about the stress and anxiety of those few weeks that sent me back to Jane Eyre. Who knows. In either case, I found it a vastly different experience to my first few readings of the novel. So just what was it that made it so different for me?
Well, my main problem with the book can probably be summed up in two words – Mr Rochester. Yep – Brontë’s much-discussed hero: a sardonic, rude, locking-his-wife-in-an-attic-type person. A seventeen-year-old me thought he was just about the most attractive male character ever. I thought he was dark, mysterious, and utterly romantic. Brash but loving. Hot-headed but sexy. You know the drill. Perhaps I’ve become less romantic and more realistic over the past few years. Because this time around, I found myself wondering just what was wrong with my teenage self. Or perhaps Mr Rochester was always a creepy jerk, and I just never saw it before? His flirting with Blanche Ingram? Pathetic. And his behaviour towards Jane? Let’s take a little look at a sample sentence:
He continued to send for me punctually the moment the clock struck seven; though when I appeared before him now, he had no such honeyed terms as “love” and “darling” on his lips: the best words at my service were “provoking puppet,” “malicious elf,” “sprite,” “changeling,” &c. For caresses, too, I now got grimaces; for a pressure of the hand, a pinch on the arm; for a kiss on the cheek, a severe tweak of the ear.
(Volume II, Chapter IX)
But for the word ‘severe’, one might assume that Mr Rochester is being playful; but there is something about these “fierce favours”, and his general behaviour, that makes him seem just a little too forceful. In many ways, he’s like a little kid when his favourite toy has been taken away.
Then, of course, there is the tiny fact of his wife locked up in the attic. It’s the sort of cruelty that to me seems unforgivable; and, indeed, Rochester is ‘punished’ at the end of the book, losing his sight and an arm in the fire that destroys Thornfield. But the question remains – for what? Is he ‘punished’ for locking his wife away, or is he punished for trying to lure Jane into a bigamous marriage? In either case, Brontë lessens his punishment at the end; he eventually regains a little of his sight, which is perhaps a little too kind for such a troublesome character. Personally, if I were Jane Rochester née Eyre, I wouldn’t be able to stop myself from wondering just when my darling hubby might feel inclined to lock me up in the attic. Because if you ask me, that kind of problematic behaviour doesn’t just go away.
In any case, I’ve come to realise that this whole ‘bad boy’ thing really isn’t my style. Somehow, between the ages of seventeen and twenty-two, I’ve developed a dislike for sardonic, forceful characters. What made me swoon at seventeen makes me suspicious and uncomfortable at twenty-two. Is this a sign of ageing? Of changing tastes? Of greater experience of the world? Although the point of Rochester is supposed to be that his bizarre nature complements Jane’s passionate one – the implication being that she is the only woman who would be able to keep him in line – I can’t help feeling that if I were in her position, I would have made a very different choice.
Mind you, if it were a contest between Rochester and the insufferable St John Rivers, I think I’d take my chances with the cruel, despotic bigamist every time….
So what was the result of my dislike? Well, for one thing, as a reader less invested in the love story between Jane and Rochester and more concerned with evaluating every character that crossed my path, I picked up on a few interesting tidbits.
Most importantly, my dislike of Rochester made me doubt everything he says. When reading his description of his marriage to Bertha, I found myself wondering whether his testimony was actually as reliable as one is led to assume. After all, we are never given any opinion but Rochester’s; Bertha is silent – or silenced, depending on your reading – and we never hear her side of the story. Bertha is such a strange presence at Thornfield, and Brontë gives us so little, on the surface, to work with, that at the end of the story one isn’t quite sure what to make of her. It’s probably why she’s been the focus of so much fascinating criticism, including, of course, the work done in The Madwoman in the Attic. Now, I know my feelings about Rochester are in some ways missing the point of Jane Eyre; the novel is, of course, about a woman’s life. The hero is really just a secondary character, the romance a secondary concern next to the larger issue of a woman’s growth and development in a severe and restrictive society. Which is why the final page of the novel, which returns to the intolerable St John Rivers (I cannot stress enough how much I dislike this character) and charts his progress as a missionary – supposedly doing ‘God’s work’ but in reality just another cog in the machine of British imperialism – continues to puzzle and frustrate me. Brontë must have had a reason, whether artistic or just an appeal to the kind of thing contemporary readers would have liked or expected. But just because I trust her as an author doesn’t necessarily mean I always agree with her choices.
Don’t get me wrong – I still adore Jane Eyre. But I feel like I love it for different reasons than I did when I first read it. Which is fine, really. I see it as a sign of growth. It’s a fascinating novel which has readers guessing, engaging, investing. I may not be investing in the same things every time I read it, but maybe that’s one of the good things about re-reading.
Although Jane Eyre argues for greater occupation, respect, and equality for women, it’s impossible to ignore the romance at the centre of the narrative, because it does drive much of the action. And as a romance, there is something unnerving and unlikeable about Rochester that just won’t go away. It brought to mind other heroes with similar behaviour; Edward Cullen, say, to use an increasingly outdated comparison. Re-reading Jane Eyre this time around ultimately left me with an important realisation – liking the bad boy is almost always a bad idea.
How do you feel about ‘bad boys’ in books? And have you ever re-read a beloved book and come away with a very different impression?
*Please note that all book titles are purely fictional. It would probably take seven years and a severe impediment of my rationalising faculties to force me to read the complete works of Jacques Lacan. I have no desire to be found, in three months’ time, gibbering on the floor of my bedroom and trying to stop myself from seeing phalluses everywhere.