Monday, April 23, 2007

Book Review: Jane Eyre

Before you marry the guy, better find out what he's got in the attic.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. Puffin Classics, London: 1995. 656 pages. ISBN: 0140366784.

If you're a guy and think you couldn't possibly enjoy this book, try lavender and tea tree oil. It worked for me.

I'll begin by saying it's a good deal better than her sister's Wuthering Heights, which I didn't care for. Jane Eyre is a first-person narrative following the titular protagonist through boarding school (mercifully skipping several years) and into her job as governess at the mansion of the surly Mr. Rochester, with whom she quickly develops a romance while remaining oddly unconcerned with the murderous crazy person Rochester is keeping in his attic. As in Wuthering Heights, there's a breath of supernaturalism as the story moves to its conclusion.

Come to Jane Eyre for the good prose and stay for the fantastic characters. Brontë's writing is precise and her images evocative. You will never see a prettier use of colons and semicolons. But more than that, she creates a diverse cast of characters with fully developed personalities. Since we sf writers and fantasists often prefer to build characters by layering them with eccentricities, Jane Eyre makes for a good study. None of the characters are especially eccentric, but all are well crafted and absorbing. I am particularly impressed by her depiction of a Calvinist minister in the novel's latter third. Though he has some of the dour qualities of a stereotypical literary figure of that occupation, such dourness is shot through and almost eradicated by a number of complexities and redemptive qualities.

Lots of religious imagery is present. It's hard to get a firm handle on exactly what brand of Christianity-based religion underpins the story, but from certain characters and turns of phrase, I would guess a sort of universalism, though unlike, say, George MacDonald, Brontë doesn't let universalism wreck her story (MacDonald would have had a fine tragedy in Lilithhad he allowed it). The ethics and piety are quite high in Jane Eyre, especially the respect for marriage and virginity. In fact, I officially add it to The Sci Fi Catholic's official list of literature good for inspiring chastity. Requirements for the list are good ethics, marriage or virginity as a central theme, and a significant emotional impact. The last quality, of course, is subjective.

The Sci Fi Catholic's rating for Jane Eyre:

Myth Level: Low (some fairy tale references and one instance of supernatural occurrence, but it's not that type of book)

Quality: High

Religion/Ethics: High
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