Thursday, August 23, 2012

What I Learned from Jane Eyre

As a summer project, a group of us are reading "Jane Eyre" and sharing our thoughts about it as we progress. For most of us, including me, it is our first reading of the book. It’s one of those books I’ve always meant to read but never got around to. I wasn’t sure if I was really going to enjoy Ms. Bronte’s fiction, or if like cod liver oil, I needed to ingest it because reading a classic was ‘good for me’. Luckily, I found that reading the book was both enjoyable and educational.

Charlotte Bronte had a few things to teach me this summer. Here’s my take on lessons learned from "Jane Eyre":

1. Don’t forget the importance of setting. The novel abounds with detailed descriptions of each of its settings. The austerity described at Lowood School for girls lets us feel the continual cold and the pervasive hunger. Moor House is as warm and homey as Gateshead is cold and prisonlike. And of course Thornfield, Mr. Rochester’s mansion, is described in such a way that it feels impressive and lonely at the same time:

"...advancing onto the lawn, I looked up and surveyed the front of the mansion. It was three stories high, of proportions not vast, though considerable: a gentleman’s manorhouse, not a nobleman’s seat: battlements round the top gave it a picturesque look. Its grey front stood out well from the background of a rookery, whose cawing tenants were now on the wing:…Farther off were hills: not so lofty as those round Lowood, nor so craggy, nor so like barriers of separation from the living world; but yet quiet and lonely hills enough, and seeming to embrace Thornfield with a seclusion I had not expected to find."

I could see, feel, taste and experience each one of Ms. Bronte’s settings. I have to remember to put my readers in my books by using details as well as the five senses.

2. Don’t forget to flesh out characters with vivid description.
Jane Eyre has the uncanny knack of being able to describe people. Here she describes Adele on first meeting her:

"...a little girl, followed by her attendant, came running up the lawn. I looked at my pupil, who did not at first appear to notice me: she was quite a child, perhaps seven or eight years old, slightly built, with a pale, small-featured face, and a redundancy of hair falling in curls to her waist."

3. Don’t forget to make secondary characters come to life. Ms. Bronte has a gift for bringing secondary characters to life. All her characters are interesting, and all are individuals. Every character has a distinct personality. For instance, Adele is shown as being, of course, very child-like, but with a very big personality:

"Descending from her chair, she came and placed herself on my knee; then, folding her little hands demurely before her, shaking back her curls and lifting her eyes to the ceiling, she commenced singing a song from some opera."

4. Make each character unique. In the descriptions of ladies in the party scene, I was able to see each of the eight ladies as separate and unique. I could also form opinions on each of the eight ladies. Which brings me to my next point…

5. In a romance, always show how the heroine is different from any other woman the hero has ever known.
(The same is true about heroes being different from any other man the heroine has ever known.) I think Ms. Bronte introduces Blanche to show the contrast between her and Jane. Blanche is loud where Jane is quiet, beautiful where Jane is plain, oblivious where Jane is observant, mean where Jane is kind, and dim where Jane is smart. Jane observes all the differences between them that would make Blanche, in theory, a better wife for Rochester, including the fact that she is rich and of the same social standing as he. But Rochester would rather have an interesting, unique and piquant (stimulating) companion.
6. Show the characters’ passion. Though Jane rarely shows it, she has a passionate nature that makes her an interesting person to spend over 400 pages with. One of my favorite passages occurs when Jane is separated from Rochester and working as a school mistress:

"…dreams where, amidst unusual scenes, charged with adventure, with agitating risk and romantic chance, I still again and again met Mr. Rochester, always at some exciting crisis: and then the sense of being in his arms, hearing his voice, meeting his eye, touching his hand and cheek, loving him, being loved by him—the hope of passing a lifetime at his side, would be renewed, with all its first force and fire. Then I awoke. Then I recalled where I was, and how situated. Then I rose up on my curtainless bed, trembling and quivering; and then the still, dark night witnessed the convulsion of despair, and heard the burst of passion."

 But Jane controls her passions well. "By nine o’clock the next morning. I was punctually opening the school; tranquil, settled, prepared for the steady duties of the day."

7. Every heroine doesn’t have to be a beauty queen. Charlotte Bronte takes great pains to stress that Jane is plain:

"I sometimes regretted that I was not handsomer; I sometimes wished to have rosy cheeks, a straight nose, and small cherry mouth; I desired to be tall, stately, and finely developed in figure; I felt it a misfortune that I was so little, so pale, and had features so irregular and so marked."

A heroine who is truly original can be much more interesting than one who is merely beautiful. In fact, in the Afterward of the version of "Jane Eyre" that I read, Marcelle Clements quotes the biography of Charlotte Bronte written by Elizabeth Gaskill:

"She [Charlotte Bronte] once told her sisters that they were wrong—even morally wrong—in making their heroines beautiful as a matter of course. They replied that it was impossible to make a heroine interesting on any other terms. Her answer was, "I will prove to you that you are wrong; I will show you a heroine as plain and as small as myself, who shall be as interesting as any of yours."

I must remember that interesting and unique trumps beautiful any day. Jane Eyre proves it.

8. The hero and heroine must suffer before they get to their happy ending.
In modern stories, there must be a compelling reason why the two lovers can’t be together. There must be conflict. Bronte gives Jane and Rochester ample conflict to keep them apart; Rochester is already married. I honestly didn’t know if this story would end happily. When his marriage comes to light and before they get together again, both suffer tremendously. Jane nearly starves. Rochester is disfigured. Perhaps that’s a little drastic, but the point is that the stakes for the lovers must be high.

Though it took me a while to get through it, I’m glad I read "Jane Eyre". There’s always something to be learned from great writers.

Have you read "Jane Eyre"? If not, what lessons in writing have you learned from a favorite writer or book?


  1. I'm still not finished. The good news is I saved a lot of money on books this summer because reading JE is taking the whole summer down to the very last minute. Isn't it wonderful when you read a book and take so much away from it. Things you can add to your own writing. There are many things I'm enjoying about JE, but I do find I'm having trouble switching my contemporary preferences for a story written in days gone past.

  2. Yes, this book took the whole summer to read, and I'm pretty sure I only finished it because we went on a couple of road trips and I read the whole time in the car!

    I too found the the 'classic' style difficult for my modern reading habits to handle. Most of the dialogue I found very difficult. For me, a lot of the dialogue was too long and way to preachy, as if the speaker was making a speech. When the dialogue was shorter and snappier, it shone for me. And the sheer length of the book would put off many modern readers who are used to romances being much shorter. At 504 pages on my e-reader, it's a book that demands committment from any reader!