I first read Jane Eyre as a junior in high school–I’d never read anything like it. My reading had previously consisted of a steady diet of Jane Austen and Anne of Green Gables, with some Christian romances thrown in for good measure, so scandal and syphilis was deliciously new to me. Now, as a 29-year-old woman, I don’t have quite the same reaction now, but I still had a good time this read-through.
If you’ve never read Jane Eyre, you really should. There are three distinct “phases” of the novel, in my opinion. In the first phase, a young Jane Eyre is a fearless, precocious orphan, living under her grudging and cruel aunt’s care, but then exiled to a sparse boarding school, where she discovers that faith is more than black-and-white, that her aunt, Mrs. Reed, may not actually represent true Christianity, and to find her interiority as a self.
The second phase is the juiciest. In it, Jane is sent to live as a governess to a young French girl who is the ward (and likely illegitimate daughter) of the mysterious Mr. Rochester. Up until this read, I was enthralllled by the Rochester. And with such depictions as these, who wouldn’t be?
Clearly, Michael Fassbender is way too attractive to play Rochester, but we’re not complaining, are we? No.
Rochester is strangely charismatic, though he is actually too passionate and manipulative for his own good. I used to LOVE HIM. Like, find him delicious and exciting. This time, the magic was gone. Every time the novel got gushy and sentimental, I just sighed huffily and prayed for death to take me.
Of course, it all goes sideways (inevitably), and it’s all linked to the mystery in the attic. I won’t spoil it, but it involves tertiary syphilis (not mentioned by name). Don’t google it. It’s dis.gus.ting.
So, in Phase 3, Jane runs away and finds herself in a rural village a few hundred miles away, living with the Rivers sisters and their clergyman brother St. John. I didn’t know until I watched the 1997 adaptation that you pronounce his name “Sin-jin.” Anyways, St. John is all about crucifying the flesh for the eternal glory of God. He’s determined to become a missionary in India, and he even goes so far as to snub the beautiful Rosamund because she wouldn’t make a good missionary wife (his words). I mean, this pretty girl is in love with him, and he says no to sex. What a kill.joy.
He is, obviously, a coldly handsome man.
So, naturally, he sets his sights on Jane as a utility for God’s grand mission to India. He even makes her learn Hindustani. And he tries to passively-aggressively force her to marry him. Of course.
I won’t give it away, but it’s thrilling to see Jane become an individual and stand up for herself as a person worthy of some agency and independence. That, for me is the greatest part of the novel–the story of a young woman who chooses herself above all else.
This read, I found myself intrigued by the binary masculinities Ms. Brontë presents in the figures of Rochester and St. John. They actually reminded me of the poem, “Fire and Ice,” by Robert Frost:
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
I think the choice in men is interesting–Rochester is this passionate, sex fiend, while St. John probably doesn’t even believe that sex is for anything except producing more missionaries. Is one choice better or worse than the other? It’s an interesting idea, and I’m not sure what I’d pick, if I was forced to choose.
I also said that the choice of Rochester and St. John reminded me of the Big-or-Aidan fanships on Sex and the City. My husband was not impressed with this comparison.