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Charlotte Brontë Reviews: Jane Eyre, Villette

Friday, 25 November 2016

Jane Eyre

I first read Jane Eyre at sixteen or so - having decided to read something serious for once (note: this was my post-Twilight superfan stage, so I think I needed a bit of an ego-boost in the form of giving my bookshelf some canonical literary merit). I remember being surprised at how accessible it was. Jane Eyre was probably the first true “classic” published before 1900 that I had ever read at that time (maybe excepting Austen) and I think I expected it to be a lot more dense than it was. Strangely enough, the second time around, I had the exact same reaction.


Charlotte Brontë really has the pacing nailed down in this novel. I know things like pacing aren’t what people usually talk about when discussing classics like Jane Eyre, but it’s something that is important to the majority of readers, including myself. For many, classics are synonymous with slow moving prose and dead weight description. While I haven’t read enough classics to be able to entirely disregard that claim, Jane Eyre is certainly an exception to that assumption. 

The movement throughout the various stages of this novel, of Jane’s life, is perfect. There’s really never a moment where you feel that she story should have moved on, or that it has rushed ahead of you. Charlotte Brontë is on time, all the time. 


One thing that certainly gets discussed a lot when it comes to Jane Eyre is its treatment of Bertha Mason, that infamous woman in the attic. Having read Gilbert & Gubar’s eponymous critical text, as well as Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, I am definitely somewhat prepared for those kinds of discussions. However, I also find it hard to move past them. I sympathise so much with Bertha (or, Antoinette) because of Rhys’s ‘prequel’ that I almost can’t see her (and the novel) as anything but a victim of male violence, and, more broadly, of British Imperialism itself. Not that we should be moving past these things, but it can definitely blur your reading sometimes. That said, I don’t have too much of an interest in removing my Feminism/Post-Colonial goggles anytime soon. 


This year I replaced my hideous (sorry, Penguin) neon-green pocket edition of Jane Eyre with one of the lovely (you’re welcome, Penguin) English Library editions. Those little green ones are great because they’re so cheap, but if you can afford it, it’s definitely worth buying something that your shelf will be proud of - especially when it comes to classics. They’re all out of copyright, anyway. There’s nothing to stop you from reading a PDF. So if you’re going to buy a physical copy, I would recommend something pretty! 

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Villette 

Everyone knows who Jane Eyre is, but comparatively few know Lucy Snowe. She’s not even important enough to have an eponymous ‘autobiography’. Lucy Snowe is contained within Villette. And if you’re expecting Jane Eyre out of Villette, then you’re going to be sorely disappointed. 


However, somewhat paradoxically, Lucy has a lot in common with Jane. Young, female, orphan dependents who become teachers and encounter strange things in attics - however, everyone likes Jane, and few like Lucy. Or, I suppose, you are meant to like Jane, and you are not encouraged to like Lucy. 

The amazing Amanda from Amanda Center on youtube did a length review of Villette which I found really helpful (and which you can find here). I say helpful because I needed help to understand this novel. I absolutely still do - my seminar on the text might have just added to my questions rather than answering them. This novel is a bit of an enigma. Too enigmatic for me to write on in an essay, I think. Although I would like to read some criticism, just to see where you can go with Villette



Having read and enjoyed two Charlotte Brontës, I have noticed one strange similarity between them: weird endings. Not only the ending as a whole, but also the literal ending - the closing lines; the final sentences. Jane Eyre ends with a prayer from the pious guy she rejected (who also happens to be her cousin), and Villette ends with Lucy telling us how her enemies went on to live long, happy lives. 

Jane, of course, begins the final chapter of her story by telling the reader that she married him. It’s a typical happy ever after - all the knots have been untangled, the bumps in the road have been smoothed over, and Jane is going to lead a happy life with her one true love. The story of Jane Eyre is that of her overcoming adversity, and once that adversity is gone, her story must end. 

Lucy’s last sentence is an abrupt “Farewell.” She suggests that the man she loves dies in a shipwreck, but tells us to imagine whatever makes us happy. Lucy, over the course of the text, proves herself to be a pretty unreliable narrator (“by the way, I knew he was my cousin all along”), and the ending definitely confirms her unreliability. What really struck me was how Lucy effectively ends her life in that final sentence. Her story just falls short of being tied up nicely, like Jane’s. Instead of continuing, instead of persevering, she seems to just entirely give up on her story, and herself.