Today, we have a term that would have been impossible two hundred years ago, when Jane Austen’s novel Emma was published: “Jane-ites.” Jane Austen, not popular in her lifetime, or for decades after her death, is now a full-time literary industry, with cogs that never stop. The sales of Austen-themed coffee mugs alone would have supported an entire quaint English village for years. Imagine the dress Jane Austen would have worn to the Academy Awards, not to mention her response to J-Lo’s skin-tastic frock. As for Jane Austen fridge magnets, Jane asks, “What’s a fridge?”
But it is a different Jane I come to talk about today: Jane Eyre.
The Brontë /Austen divide is not insignificant. Brontë is darker, and the passions of her characters are as wild and unruly as the moors on which the stories by the Brontë sisters were written and take place. There is a perverse sensibility at work in Brontë novels, railing against society and failing to remain neatly in the roles prescribed by the times. Mr. Rochester asks his new governess, “Do you think me handsome?” and Jane says, “No, sir.” Wow. First job? But this is a leading lady a la Brontë. Hers is a world without filter.
Brontë heroines disobey, forget their place, and are free and independent beings, usually thrown into freedom by tragedy. They exist outside of normal society, and while much of their existence is interior, when they use their outside voices it is always to thrilling, dramatic effect. The nearly half a century that stands between Austen and Brontë is partly accountable for their differences, and the Regency era versus the Victorian. But what we are really talking about is a difference in temperament, the shaping influences of environment, and the interior nature of the artist.
For me, the joy of this other Jane, Miss Eyre, is in her soulful, often tormented worldview. Known primarily for its gothic romance, the launching pad of the poor-governess-meets-handsome-single-aristocrat genre that is, weirdly, at the root of what made Fifty Shades of Grey such a blockbuster, Jane Eyre, which innovated in its use of the first person, is packed with brilliant, moving, and bracingly fresh, even now, observations about life. “I spoke as I felt,” says Jane. Charlotte Brontë believed that art was most convincing when it is based on personal experience, and it is for this preternatural wisdom and candid expression of Jane’s private feelings that I come to this novel over and over. Of course, the speaker to whom I am most drawn is Brontë herself. These are her ideas and her heart revealed.
When the Oxford Exchange chose its first title for our Library Collection line of deluxe, leather-bound editions, I went straight to Jane Eyre, not because it is a good “old” book and its first edition would have looked just like the one we produced, although those things are true. I picked it because it is still modern, still relevant, and the communication of emotional and spiritual truths is clear and sympathetic. In short: we can relate.