Writers Reading: Halloween Edition: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

je-vintage“I dreamt another dream, sir: that Thornfield-Hall was a dreary ruin, the retreat of bats and owls. I thought that of all the stately front nothing remained but a shell-like wall, very high, and very fragile-looking. I wandered, on a moonlight night, through the grass-grown enclosure within: here I stumbled over a marble hearth, and there, over a fallen fragment of cornice. Wrapped up in a shawl, I still carried the unknown little child: I might not lay it down anywhere, however tired were my arms—however much its weight impeded my progress, I must retain it. I heard the gallop of a horse at a distance on the road: I was sure it was you; and you were departing for many years, and for a distant country. I climbed the thin wall with perilous haste, eager to catch one glimpse of you from the top: the stones rolled under my feet, the ivy branches I grasped gave way, the child clung round my neck in terror, and almost strangled me: at last I gained the summit. I saw you like a speck on a white track, lessening every moment. The blast blew so strong I could not stand. Is sat down on the narrow ledge; I hushed the scared infant in my lap: you turned an angle of the road; I bent forward to take a last look; the wall crumbled; I was shaken; the child rolled from my knee; I lost my balance, fell, and woke.”

I will stand by my opinion that there hasn’t been a decent film or television adaptation of Jane Eyre since Orson Welles’ adaptation 1943. Why? Because every time it’s adapted, they keep playing up the romance and downplaying serious creep factor of Charlotte Brontë’s brilliant gothic novel. That creepiness is what makes it the perfect Halloween read.

When the novel begins, Jane Eyre is an orphan being raised by her oppressive aunt, Mrs. Reed. Mrs. Reed’s hobbies include doting on her sociopathic little son, and locking Jane up in in a red room where Mr. Reed’s ghost likes to hang out and terrify orphan girls.

Jane is then sent off to Lowood School, where she lives in poverty because the headmaster, Mr. Brocklehurst, likes keeping the finer things in life to himself. But it still beats life at Mrs. Reed’s. That is, until Jane’s only close friend, Helen “The Martyr” Burns, dies during the typhus outbreak at Lowood.

But Brontë’s written a resilient protagonist, so Jane continues to survive, even thrive, at Lowood. She even teaches there for a couple of years before she realizes teaching is a pretty thankless job with crappy pay, and she’s living in pre-union times.

So, she attempts to move up in the world. She takes a job as a governess at Thornfield manor where she teaches Adèle, a spoiled French girl who she adores nonetheless. Her employer, Mr. Rochester, is supposedly sexy in a grizzly older man way, but mostly just seems moody and controlling. That kind of thing works for Jane though, and when Rochester passes up mean girl Blanche and instead proposes to plain Jane, she’s more than happy to accept.

Jane’s not super great at spotting red flags though. The scary noises coming from the attic and the whole fire that almost killed Rochester thing should’ve probably tipped her off to some trouble ahead.

Instead, she finds out about her fiancé’s secret attic wife at probably the worst time you could find out about a secret attic wife: her wedding day. Turns out, Rochester married Bertha Mason when he was young and broke in Jamaica, and since then she’s had more than a few issues with mental health.

It’s hard to figure out what’s creepier here: that Rochester kept a secret this big and was presumably going to keep it quiet for the rest of Jane’s life if he could, or that he decided to stick his mentally ill wife in an attic in a foreign country until she (fingers crossed) died before him.

So, Jane is understandably upset, and flees Thornfield without giving her two weeks notice. Then comes the mostly skim-worthy section of this otherwise awesome novel. Jane almost starves to death, but three kindly siblings, St. John, Diana, and Mary, who are later revealed to be her cousins, take her in. She gets a job at the local charity school. Her uncle leaves her a giant fortune. She shares her fortune with her cousins. St. John (again, her cousin) proposes to her and asks her to come to India as his missionary wife. She refuses.

The novel could’ve easily ended here, but that would’ve been way less ghostly than hearing your past almost-husband calling your name across the moorland. So, beckoned by Rochester’s voice, Jane returns to Thornfield where Bertha’s found a way to finish the arson job at the expense of her own life.

And then, yeah, there’s kind of a happy ending, because this is a 19th century British novel with a female protagonist, so Brontë had to choose between the only acceptable endings for her time—marriage or death—and she chose marriage. But make no mistake; it’s far from a fairytale.

Rochester is living at his new house with two servants, and he’s lost the use of his eyes and one hand. Jane nurses him back to health, and he regains enough sight in one eye to see their first son born. Jane describes this period in their lives as totally happy and equal, because she had to inherit a fortune and he had to be seriously injured for them to be equal, I guess.

With the eerie descriptions of the foggy English countryside, the shadowy candlelit manors, and the more disturbing than romantic love triangle between Jane, Rochester, and Bertha, Jane Eyre is the perfect unearthly novel to get into the spirit of Halloween.

Jane Eyre
Charlotte Brontë
Vintage Books USA; Reprint Vintage Classics edition (2009)
624 pages