Following on from writing my first Desert Island books blog which you can find here, I have held off the next one for simple reason that I knew it wasn’t going to be much of a blog but said book had to logically be the next in the list.
It’s fair to say Jane Eyre has been around for a while, and that I’m sure it’s up there with the most written about books of all time. There’s nothing I can say about the book itself that won’t have already been said considerably better by considerably better writers than me. All I can do is briefly discuss why it’s on my Desert Island list.
When I wrote about my first desert island choice, I was fairly confident that trapped on my island I could happily read Gaudy Night from cover to cover every month without tiring of it (at least for the first few years, and I hope maybe at some point I might get rescued…). I don’t know if I would want to read Jane Eyre in it’s entirety that regularly. However I do know that there are certain sections of the book I could read every day and still love.
I think a fairly key reason why Jane Eyre turns up so high on my list of favourite books probably centres around when I first read it, at 16/17. I had tried Wuthering Heights a couple of years previously and it had left me completely cold (as an aside, it still does) and I think had made the unconscious decision to file all the Brontes together in my mind. When I read Jane Eyre for the first time it made me cry, which despite growing up as a voracious reader, was the first time a book had ever done that. That it had that affect on me says something about the power of the writing. Personally when I’m watching films & TV programmes I tend to not be reduced to tears simply by the story or writing – however I bawl like a baby if anybody on screen cries for any reason at all (sad, happy, stubbed toe…). Bizarrely this also includes animated characters, but I won’t bore you with measurements of the local water table towards the end of Disney/Pixar’s Brave – suffice to say the readings went up 😉 I have always been pretty good at imagining the pictures to go with what I’m reading, but that was the first time a scene in a book where somebody cried had created a strong enough image to have the same affect as if it had happened in front of me.
I’ve also realised over the years since Jane Eyre first slapped me between the eyes, that I am drawn to well written dialogue and writers who can’t do it or shy away from it don’t engage me. I would far rather read a page of believable conversation that tells you something about characters than three pages of description that gives you the same information and I think this theme is repeated in most of my desert island books list. I am trying to think of Jane Eyre written by a writer who couldn’t/didn’t do dialogue and the kind of third hand remembering that people tend to turn to as a get out; I can’t see any of the key moments in the book working at all if they were communicated in that way, ‘then he told me that actually it was me he wanted to marry, so that was nice’.
Finally, why I’d have to take it and why I believed it sat best as the next one on the list is that I think I probably like it so much for many of the same reasons that Gaudy Night. I said when writing about that book that a key element of it for me was he valued her for the contents of her skull, Jane Eyre is canon if you like that sort of thing. I also think the book hasn’t dated as much as it could have done, it’s attitudes and values (apart from keeping the mad wife in the attic) were fairly liberal for the time. I was watching an entirely unrelated programme a while ago (about landscape/places etc) and presenter ended up at some ruin in Bronte country which some people think inspired the post fire Thornnfield in the book. He met up with an ‘expert’ who explained how obviously the book was a reflection of the inequality of the times as Jane and Rochester couldn’t marry until the end when she had some money and they were equals. I personally felt that she had completely and utterly missed the mark, the whole point is he does treat her as an equal (for Heaven’s sake, he is given lines expressly saying that at least twice – I did wonder if said expert had ever read the book…) and while there is a consciousness that a rich man marrying a penniless governess 20 years younger than him might affect his standing a little, there is never any danger of them not marrying because of it. The issue is Jane’s, fairly reasonable, objection to discovering the mad wife in the attic. I don’t think that says an awful lot about inequality, and she does then stand her ground and bugger off which is, again in my opinion, relatively modern. They can get married at the end because the mad wife has tidied herself into a wooden box, not because she is now not a penniless governess. (Maybe I should have done a spoiler alert there but really, not on Jane Eyre? Would be like doing a spoiler alert on a Christmas Carol – ‘shit, you’ve given away that there are ghosts. Well I can’t read it now…’)
I know this book isn’t absolutely everybody’s cup of tea. Some people are allergic to ‘classics’ (to be honest, I am allergic to the view that you should read something just because it’s a classic rather than because it is also likely to appeal to you based on your tastes). I know some people think he’s a prick and she’s a doormat, though I personally disagree. I don’t drum beat for Jane Eyre in the same way as I do for Gaudy Night, which I genuinely would advise anybody to read. Lots of people have read Jane Eyre and loved it, plenty of people have read it and thought ‘meh, not for me’, and I’m sure some people have read it and hated it. There’ll also be plenty who haven’t read it all (though not nearly as many as haven’t read my previous choice) and I do think they ought to give it a shot, except then I’m perilously close to advising somebody to read something just because it’s a classic…
On my Gaudy Night blog I did some links at the bottom to the book on Amazon etc. If you can’t find Jane Eyre for yourself, learn to Google. It has also been adapted for screen about eleventy billion times. Kind benefactors have put many of these up on youtube for you to test the waters before you go DVD buying or Netflix-ing (not sure that works as a verb). My personal recommendation would be the Timothy Dalton version from the 80s. His voice is just heaven, and I think he probably looks most like Rochester as described in the book too.