In 1847, when " Vanity Fair " was coming out in serial numbers, there appeared a three-volume novel by an unknown author - Currer Bell. In a few weeks the critics were engaged in quite a warfare as to the merits and defects of the new book, " Jane Eyre." Some of them said the plot was loosely knit, many of the characters were absurd, and much of the dialogue was impossible. Others hailed it as a work of genius. Perhaps both were right. But wonder grew to amazement when it became known that this marvellous book was the work of a girl who had never lived outside her father's country parsonage in Yorkshire, or various schools at which she had been pupil or governess. Charlotte Bronte, although she lived in bleak, moorland surroundings, was the daughter of Celtic parents - an Irish father and a Cornish mother. That is where she got her fire from, and her delightful sense of fun. Some of her later books avoided the chief faults of " Jane Eyre," but they have never quite taken the place of that first work.
" Jane Eyre " is the story of a child who is left an orphan when an infant. She is brought up by a hard and unjust aunt, whose children are, one hopes and believes, quite impossible in their dreadful snobbishness, vanity, and dishonourable ways. This is how John Reed, aged fourteen, talks to his ten-year-old cousin, whom he addresses as " You rat ":
You are a dependent, mamma says; you have no money; your father left you none; you ought to beg, and not to live here with gentlemen's children like us, and eat the same meals we do, and wear clothes at our mamma's expense."
From the original by George Rich mond. R.d.
From this unhappy home Jane is sent to a charity school, where, although she suffers many hardships, she makes a great friend in Helen Burns, who is a faithful portrait of Charlotte Bronte's sister Maria. Much of the book, indeed, can be traced to real sources. Helen dies of consumption, and Jane's life becomes monotonous and quiet for eight years.
With the next stage of her life we enter on the real story of the book. Jane goes as governess to the little ward of a rich man, Edward Rochester. He has a strange and gloomy character and appallingly bad manners; his conversation to his ward's governess is a series of brutalities alternating with fairly civil outpourings about himself. Here is a specimen of his compliments: " I don't mean to flatter you; if you are cast in a different mould to the majority it is no merit of yours; nature did it; and then, for what I yet know, you may be no better than the rest; you may have intolerable defects to counterbalance your few good points."
A man who praises in this wise is not likely to be niggardly with his blame. What would have happened to any ordinary, insipid governess with such an employer it is hard to say. He would probably have knocked her downstairs at the end of the first week. But Jane fares very differently. The outstanding charm of this portion of the book is Jane's character, as it is revealed in her own narrative. She is so fearless with Mr. Rochester, so instant with the truth, so brimming with quiet humour; she is such a little mouse about the place - a kind of meek. tame mouse with the unbreakable
The Art8 spirit of a Luther in her; one realises so well why Rochester finds a sort of elfin quality in her; and with it all, she is so human, and not at all above teasing him when he has been too rude even for her humility, that one gets a personal affection for her. Before long she and Rochester are engaged.
Before this time a few little incidents have occurred which would have made a more ordinary governess rather nervous. The house occasionally rings with unaccountable " Ha, ha's ! " and one night Mr. Rochester's bed is set alight, and Jane is only just in time to save his life. On another occasion a tremendous cry and scuffle in the top storey is heard in the dead of night, and Jane is sent for, and left locked up with a half-dead guest of the house, who has apparently been viciously stabbed, to bathe his wounds for two hours while Rochester goes for a surgeon.
These happenings are all put down to a sewing-maid who lives in the house and seems surrounded by mystery.
Not till Jane and Rochester are at the altar is the mystery explained. The ' sewing-maid " is really the keeper of Rochester's lunatic Creole wife, a hopeless maniac. Her brother interrupts the wedding, and the party go back to the house, and Rochester shows Jane the horrible inmate to whom he is legally bound.
Jane is naturally stunned by such a revelation. All her hopes of happiness are clashed to the ground. She appears to feel but little resentment at Rochester's behaviour in planning a bigamous marriage with her; but when he tells her the whole story of his boyish marriage and its awful sequel she forgives him entirely. She has, indeed, other things to think about, for he implores her to stay with him, arguing that the animal-like creature upstairs is only his wife in law, not in reality, and that without Jane his whole life must go to ruin.
Jane has a hard struggle with herself. She longs to stay, to comfort him; she longs to stay, because she does not know whither his stormy, violent character will lead him if she forsakes him. It is this struggle which caused many over-prudish folk, in the squeamish mid-victorian era, to call the book immoral. They thought Jane should have had no difficulty at all in leaving Rochester. But Jane is a real, human creature. She loves Rochester, and the glimpse of the wolfish thing upstairs, running on all fours and yelping, is not like the vision of a human being with a prior right to Rochester's care and love.
It is a struggle; but Jane goes, upheld by her certain knowledge of her duty. She steals away in the middle of the night, to avoid another interview with Rochester. Her scanty money she spends on a coach-fare to a distant part of the country. Then for three days she wanders, penniless and starving, on the Yorkshire moors, vainly asking for work in the villages. Death is very near when she meets with succour.
She is taken in by a young parson, St. John Rivers, and his two sisters, and nursed back to health. She becomes the village schoolmistress, and for a time her life is tranquil, if dull. Then an amazing thing happens. An uncle in Madeira dies, and leaves her twenty thousand pounds, and with this good fortune comes the discovery that Rivers and his sisters are her first cousins !
A very happy time follows. She shares her fortune with her cousins, and they dwell together very comfortably for a time. It is not for long, however. St. John Rivers is of a cold, austere nature, with only one warmth in his heart. He feels a passionate vocation to be a missionary, and is going out to India. Jane strikes him as just the type of woman to help him in such work, possessing the necessary spirit, endurance, gentleness, and sympathy, and he proposes that she shall marry him and go out to Calcutta as his help-mate. In his frozen, controlled way the man is a fanatic, and although Jane refuses so cold-blooded a proposal as his, he pursues his wish with such relentless persistence, and urges it with so many arguments about the beauty of self-sacrifice, that one trembles lest Jane will give in at last.
She is afraid of it herself. They do not love each other; they must marry simply because social conventions forbid them to go to India together unwed; and Jane shrinks from this; but St. John has a great power in him, and late one night he is persuading and arguing, and has all but won a " Yes ! when Jane is saved by a voice, full of misery and longing, that cries 'through the quiet night: " Jane 1 Jane 1 Jane 1 " Rochester's voice 1
" I am coming 1 Wait for me ! Where are you ? " cries Jane, rushing to the house-door. But there is silence. St. John has heard nothing.
Jane goes to her room, and, always quiet and decided, makes her preparations for a journey. She knows that Rochester is in need of her. She goes back to his home - to find it a blackened ruin. It has been burned to the ground, many months before, the mad wife perishing in spite of Rochester's efforts to save her, and he himself is blind, and has lost a hand. Of course, Jane goes to him, and the scenes of their reunion are the most touching in the book. The giant is maimed and weak; pity and help are intolerable to him - but not from Jane. He loves her to help him.
Here the book ends. An epilogue tells us that Rochester regains his sight and that everyone lives happy ever after. That is the bald story of " Jane Eyre." It is impossible to give any idea of the engrossing charm of the book. It deals with an old-fashioned society and an improbable plot; with some out-of-date manners, and some that were never in date , but it remains a famous book and a delightful one. Jane herself is a real friend to all who read her story; and the telling of the tale is the work of genius. Charlotte Bronte dipped her Yorkshire pen in magic Celtic ink.