Jane Eyre is an orphan girl who undergoes a terribly difficult childhood. After a series of unpleasant episodes, her unloving aunt gets rid of her to the horrific Lowood School. Here, however, Jane eventually finds a place as it comes into better hands, and here she grows into a quiet, plain young woman with great strength of character. Soon, however, she decides to leave her post of teacher to find a position as a governess, and is...well, you know the story...hired by the mysterious Mr Rochester to teach his frivolous little ward, Adele. Mysteries cluster around Mr Rochester and his rambling old mansion: where does the ghostly laughter come from? Who sets Mr Rochester's room on fire during the night? Where did little Adele come from? Yet despite all these questions, Jane finds herself falling in love with her employer, and heading straight toward a ghastly collision with his awful secret!
Jane Eyre is, in genre, a gothic romance, with some kin to horror: you've got the similar elements of a dark and mysterious house, a dark and mysterious man, a dark and mysterious secret, a heroine struggling against terrifying dangers she doesn't fully understand. As a gothic romance, with all the melodramatic sensationalism that involves, it's a corking read.
It also includes some things I'm not so keen about. I find it difficult to imagine any man behaving like Mr Rochester; certainly not an honest man (although to be sure, if he were an honest man the plot would not exist); certainly Jane was unwise in trusting him to the extent she did. Miss Bronte milks the romance for all it's worth: Jane Eyre was one of the most sensational novels of its day. In some ways, Jane Eyre falls on the guilty end of the pleasure scale.
And yet I feel that this book is an important part of any girl's education. At the shattering moment when Jane finally learns Mr Rochester's guilty secret, she is forced to choose between following the laws of God, or breaking those laws to satisfy her consuming passion for Mr Rochester. And, because of Charlotte Bronte's excellent writing skills, you're right there with her. You know that this is the love of Jane's life, that doing the right thing will kill her, that her choice could not possibly be more brutal. And she chooses the right thing.
The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad—as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth—so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane—quite insane: with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs. Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have at this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot.This is a message worth its weight in gold, especially in a culture that seriously considers "If it feels so good, how can it be wrong" a good argument against Christian laws of morality. Jane Eyre acknowledges the fact that something can feel right, and be wrong.
It also underlines the truth about Christian morality, which is that it exists for protection; especially for the woman's protection. Jane's choice--to leave Mr Rochester--is largely driven by a sense of vulnerability: she has no family to protect her from men like him. It is her responsibility to protect herself; it's her self-respect as a child of God that drives her to do the right thing. This, again, is a potent demonstration that Christianity and its "patriarchal" requirement of chastity is in reality the best protection of a woman's worth and self-respect.
My readers will probably want to know something about the religion and worldview evident in Jane Eyre. It's a book with Christians of every stripe in it--from hypocrites like Mr Brocklehurst, to blockheads like St John Rivers, to the really sincere devotion of Jane herself and many of the other characters. Before the happy ending occurs--and yes, there is a happy ending--even Mr Rochester undergoes sincere repentance (something TV and movie adaptations normally omit). It may be a somewhat wispy Christianity; a Christianity somewhat vague and spiritual, that the sincere characters demonstrate, but nothing really objectionable.
I have always enjoyed Jane Eyre, and after reading it various times during my formative years, I've finally come to the conclusion that it's an enjoyable, well-written book which, despite some sensationalism, carries a profound and worthwhile message.
I have seen three of the many, many filmed adaptations of Jane Eyre. The 2006 miniseries starring Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens was the one I liked least; it is difficult for any man to play Mr Rochester without sounding ridiculous, and Mr Stephens sounded ridiculous. I have reviewed the 2011 movie starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender here--I quite liked it, though it changed the tone of the book somewhat. Finally there is the 1983 miniseries with Zelah Clarke and Timothy Dalton, which I think is the best so far. Timothy Dalton gives up any idea of playing Mr Rochester like a real person and eats scenery quite voraciously, which is fun; it's the longest adaptation, and the closest to the tone of the original book.