This great, flawed novel that I have loved since I was ten years old– weird and warped, sad, penitent and impenitent, northern, aloof, and, above all, fierce– is choked with loneliness and all kinds of passion. It has no characters; not even Jane is a personality. The product of a bursting, terrified, shy mind, Jane Eyre does not know how to talk, and yet it speaks; does not know what to want, and yet it hungers. Rochester, Helen Burns, Mrs Reed, St John Rivers and the rest are not bodies but desires, and the desires are all, ultimately, Jane’s.
At times it seems as though Bronte’s protagonist wants to be ‘plain and quakerish;’ at times it appears that she gorges on beauty. It’s a pattern of advance and retreat, a spring tide. She fixates on Blanche Ingram’s perfections as much as she does on the blasted beauty of Rochester’s face: she sketches them both, and–she unnerves herself in doing so. When Rochester desires Jane and wants to prettify her with ‘satin and lace, and roses in her hair,’ she fights back, stubbornly withdrawing into plainness.
Plainness becomes talismanic. She speaks with quakerish fervour and she speaks with obsessive austerity, her words as plain as the ‘grey silk’ dress she insists on wearing. She is right to favour this austerity: the ornate wedding veil (Rochester’s gift) is the one Bertha Mason tears to shreds. Plainness shields her like an instinct. Beauty only combusts.
What is Jane apart from air, air chasing a high and lonely place? She loses herself on the moor before she finds her family and safety. But in reality, she spends the entire novel out in a kind of storm. Her desires and her intelligence fit nowhere. Gateshead, Lowood, Thornfield, Moor House, Ferndean: she leaves them all, ever the fugitive. Only when Rochester is blinded can he see as she sees, which tells us how much her vision habitually turns in and in on itself. She is inaccessible, destructive, conflicted, witty and punctured. She says: ‘It is one of my faults, that though my tongue is sometimes prompt enough at answer, there are times it sadly fails me in framing an excuse; and always the lapse occurs at some crisis.’ ‘It is one of my faults’; ‘anybody can blame me who likes.’ No desire of Jane’s is ever spent; none diminishes because desire is always accusing desire. It rebounds, echoes and increases. It is Jane’s desire that warps Jane Eyre out of a natural frame, so much so that she even seems to hear Rochester’s blind cries from a hundred miles away. There are no walls in this peculiar novel, even between minds.