Saturday, 1 December 2012

Joyce Carol Oates: Jane Eyre: An Introduction



Reader, if you have yet to discover the unique voice of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, you have a special delight awaiting you.

For this most acclaimed of novels—'English,' 'Gothic,'' 'romantic,' 'female'—is always a surprise, in the very authority, resonance, and inimitable voice of its heroine. 'I resisted all the way,' Jane Eyre states at the beginning of Chapter 2, and this attitude, this declaration of a unique and iconoclastic female rebelliousness, strikes the perfect note for the entire novel. That a woman will 'resist' the terms of her destiny (social or spiritual) is not perhaps entirely new in English literature up to the publication of Jane Eyre in 1847: we have after all the willful heroines of certain of Shakespeare's plays, and those of Jane Austen's elegant comedies of manners. But Jane Eyre is a young woman wholly unprotected by social position, family, or independent wealth; she is without power; she is, as Charlotte Brontë judged herself, 'small and plain and Quaker-like'— lacking the most superficial yet seemingly necessary qualities of femininity. ('You are not pretty any more than I am handsome,' Rochester says bluntly.) Considered as a fictitious character and, in this instance, the vocal consciousness of a long and intricately plotted novel of considerable ambition, Jane Eyre was a risk for her young creator—had not Henry Fielding gambled, and lost, on the virtuous but impoverished and less than ravishingly beautiful heroine of his Amelia, of 1751, arousing the scorn of readers who had so applauded Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones? Jane Eyre, who seems to us, in retrospect, the very voice of highly educated but socially and economically disenfranchised gentility, as natural in her place in the literature of nineteenth-century England as Twain's Huckleberry Finn is in our literature, was unique for her time. She speaks with an apparent artlessness that strikes the ear as disturbingly forthright. (Compare the slow, clotted, indefatigably rhetorical prose of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, of 1818; or the pious and exsanguine narrative of Esther Summerson of Charles Dickens's Bleak House, of 1853; and the melancholy, rather overdetermined self-consciousness of Brontë's Lucy Snowe, the heroine of Villette, of 1853: 'If life be a war, it seemed my destiny to conduct it singlehanded. I pondered how to break up my winter-quarters—to leave an encampment where food and forage failed. Perhaps, to effect this change, another pitched battle must be fought with fortune; if so, I had a mind to the encounter: too poor to lose, God might destine me to gain. But what road was open?—what plan available?')

One of the reasons for Jane Eyre's authority over her own experience, and the confidence with which she assesses that experience, is that, as the romantically convoluted plot evolves, the reader learns that it is history rather than story. Jane Eyre, who is wife and mother in 1819, is recounting the events of 1799-1809 in a language that is unfailingly masterful precisely because it is after the fact: if the Romantic/Gothic novel be, in one sense, sheer wish, Jane's triumph (wife to Lord Rochester after all and mother to his son—as it scarcely needs be said) represents a wish fulfillment of extraordinary dimensions. The material of legends and fairy tales, perhaps; yet also, sometimes, this time at least, of life. For we are led to believe Jane Eyre's good fortune because we are led to believe her voice. It is, in its directness, its ruefulness and scarcely concealed rage, startlingly contemporary; and confirms the critical insight that all works of genius are contemporaneous both with their own times and with ours.

Jane Eyre was written under a pseudonym when Charlotte Brontë was thirty-one years old, a casualty, so to speak, of ten years of servitude as a governess. Though 'Currer Bell' was an unknown author and of indeterminate sex, the novel was accepted almost immediately upon being offered to the publishing house of Smith, Elder; it was published within seven weeks and became an instant success. Like Brontë's romantic hero Lord Byron, the new author 'awoke one morning to find [herself] famous.'

University of San Francisco (USF) - Jane Eyre: An Introduction

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