Re-reading Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte

Some books are simply not meant to be re-read or re-visited. For the older we get, the more we realise the follies of the authors, the narrow-minded constraints that they worked within. I do not hold the authors to fault though, for each one of us are the product of our times. We ourselves stand here in the future, and have to be extremely cautious of our own biases when we evaluate the works of artists past.

Jane Eyre unfortunately has now passed into the realm of a book where the characters I loved begin to irritate me with their self-righteousness. Jane tires me, except in moments of her childhood suffering. Mr. Rochester is no longer the tall (?), dark stranger who steals my heroine’s heart [and becomes the template for many childhood fantasies].

Perhaps the fact that this book was written in the mid 19th century influenced the superlative sense of self, and a disdain of the other. These were the early years of the British domination over the world through its colonies and the empire would shine on until the mid twentieth century. The trait lasts almost as long, with the last example of it (that I know of) being seen in the Agatha Christie books.

This superiority, of course is not a peculiarly British/English trait- this was the case of all literature written by the dominant races until very recently. A sample can also be drawn in our own experience of comic books- the Amar Chitra Katha (ACK).

We would have devoured hundred of the ACK comic strips before realising that the good were always fair, the evil were always dark and broad-nosed. That all the heroes were good and all the heroines were virginal. That avarice and other flaws of humanity were unknown to the lead protagonists of each story. How much such content actually influence us is up for debate- many managed to escape unscathed. Yet, many more may still be following these paths of insensitiveness in ignorance or wilfully. The linked article hete may be interesting to read about our own biased literature.

Returning to Jane Eyre, it was disturbing to read some condescending and dismissive language for foreigners: in this case mostly Parisians and “Creoles” from Jamaica. Adele, a very young child, who is the young ward of Mr. Rochester, is often dismissed as a silly little girl only concerned about her “toilette”, who prattles in lovely little words but has no other talent, and who is solely occupied with pretty things “there is your boite at last: take it into a corner, you genuine daughter of Paris, and amuse yourself with disembowelling it“. Yes, to a young girl of six/seven.

Mr. Rochester meantime seems to have a penchant for bringing abandoned orphans, and women to his estate to metaphorically bury them alive. He has bought the above-mentioned Adele to Thornfield, and then, abandoned her with his housekeeper. Adele is the daughter of one of his continental flings, and this apparently is an act of charity after the mother abandoned the little girl (ah the Parisians!).

The other woman that he has buried within the walls of his family estate is his first wife- Bertha Antoinetta Mason. A woman whom he describes as “..her vices sprang up fast and rank: they were so strong, only cruelty would check them; and I would not use cruelty. What a pigmy intellect she had, and what giant propensities!“. Elsewhere, Jane the narrator, also describes Bertha as “The maniac bellowed: she parted her shaggy locks from her visage, and gazed wildly at her visitors. I recognized well that purple face, – those bloated features“.

For some reason that I have never been able to comprehend, he brings his violent and possibly mentally-disturbed wife to England. Far away from a tropical country and separated from people that she has grown up with! This incomprehension can perhaps only be sorted if I were to read the Wide Sargasso Sea, described by Wiki as a “post-colonial response to Jane Eyre“. This book also ends with the fire that engulfs Thornfield Hall, a fire described (again by Wiki) as “taking residence inside the textual domicile of empire in order to bring about its disintegration or even, indeed, its conflagration.”

Sigh.

We must leave Jane here for good, in the quiet twilight, with a man who was a product of the times the book was written in. We leave them there, after many dramatic moments, with no passing judgement. For many nostalgic hours were spent reading about their adventures, and our generation can be very judgemental of the past and hence others too.

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