Thursday, April 16, 2009

Review: Jane Eyre

Charlotte Brontë. Jane Eyre (1847). Wordsworth Classics: 1992.

"A classic [is] something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read" - Mark Twain

Jane Eyre was one of those books that I was never made to read in school (somehow I ended up studying 17th and 18th century novels, but not 19th!) and that I therefore could never make myself read, mostly because it was a classic - old and long and presumably stuffy. It's been on my bookshelf for years, picked up for $3.00 (price tag still on the cover) at some discount book warehouse store. I thought I knew the general plot, and I didn't think I was missing much by not reading it; I was wrong.

This book felt as engaging as a contemporary novel set in Victorian England. It's the story of a plucky teenage heroine mistreated at home and sent away to a horrible school, who then falls in love with her employer at her first job. It has fantastic Gothic elements - although they never appear, you get a strong sense of the ghosts and fairies haunting Jane's imagination as if they literally populated the English countryside. Once I had started the story, I wanted to finish it; both the mystery and the romance kept me engaged, even though I knew how it would end.

I could easily do a feminist reading of this, but I think this is the place for me to just say: I'm glad that I finally read this, and I admit that the prejudice (in the Jane Austen sense) that kept me from it in the past was foolish. It's an impressively well-written book, of course, but it's also the Victorian version of a great YA romance. It was a lot slower to read than most of the novels I read these days, and there were many words I didn't recognize (and I have a pretty good vocabulary - look for an edition with good footnotes*, if you can), but overall it was a highly enjoyable reading experience.

Now that I've finally read Jane Eyre, I'll have to start checking out the many derivative works that refer to it, like Wide Sargasso Sea and The Eyre Affair.

*My Wordsworth Classics edition pretty much only translated the French and gave the references for Shakespeare and Bible quotes. There were times I definitely wanted more historical and cultural information. I'd generally go for the Norton Critical Edition, which will have way more information than you need, but in this case I might choose this illustrated edition instead.

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