Have you ever loved a book so much that it felt like an old friend? Jane Eyre is that for me -- opening its pages is something like finding a familiar face in a crowded room. It has shared equally in times of joy and sorrow, and when I’m feeling down or in an unfamiliar place, I can start reading it and feel right at home.
When I discovered the book for myself, I quickly realized I was reading something truly original. I had been gorging on Victoria Holt novels about orphaned governesses and sardonic, handsome men for years but this one was clearly superior. Jane seemed like a fully realized person, and there was nothing flat or cookie cutter about the story even though I was familiar enough with the tropes. If you’re a fan of the genre and haven’t read it, you can easily recognize the story in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and hear the wilder echoes of it in Wuthering Heights, among other things.
Why has Jane Eyre captured the imaginations of generations of readers? For starters, there’s the romance between Jane and Mr. Rochester. Full disclosure: when I’m feeling particularly self-indulgent, I start re-reading when she arrives at Thornfield or even when they meet in a most dramatic fashion shortly thereafter. Their conversations run the gamut from playful teasing to blood-stirring declaration, and beneath it all is Brontë’s wit and passion. The secret Thornfield harbors may be melodramatic to modern eyes and the language is admittedly a bit archaic, but the banter between Jane and Rochester still holds up. (It’s a shame the actual dialogue rarely makes it to the movie screen untouched, but more on that later.)
Spooky manor-house harboring a dark secret? Yes, there’s plenty of juicy drama here. Storms, fires, secrets -- everything you really need for a great Gothic novel! I don’t know that I could love the story as much without those elements, say if it were set in Peoria in 1972. But all of the fantastic murdery moments aside, it’s Jane herself who makes the novel so compelling. She’s feisty and passionate and grounded by an innate sense of self-respect. “I am no bird and no net ensnares me” isn’t just a Pinterest-worthy pull quote. Without being told by anyone else, living in a society that offered no such promise to women, Jane believes and lives by the premise that she is a “free human being with an independent will.” She defies all who would assert otherwise. Instead, she says, “I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.” As relevant today as ever.
So just to break it down, we’ve got: an epic love story, spoopy Gothic accoutrements, dramatic murder times, and a feisty heroine who was way ahead of her time. If that’s not enough to tempt you, I am not sure how you got here.