Stripping off the layers of the sexiest Brontë novel
Reader, is it hot in here?
Had I known in advance Jane Eyre would blast my blue stockings off with the intensity of Tsar Bomba, I would have selected it for a colder month instead of during the urgent and renewed stirrings of May.
Next to Moby-Dick, Jane Eyre is the most openly sexual classic I’ve covered so far. Of course, there’s no literal adult content in Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel. What we get instead is the white-fire fusion of intellect and erotic substitution panting wantonly over every line of this politically naughty book.
Eyebrow-raising power dynamics start early for Jane Eyre. At only 10 years old, she’s pinned down by the servants at Gateshead Hall — tied up with garters, no less — for attacking John Reed, her spoiled, imperious cousin.
“Did ever anybody see such a picture of passion!” shouts one of the maids before locking Jane away in the “red-room,” an all-too-obvious symbol for Jane’s anger and dawning fertility.
Jane’s terror-driven fit of hysteria and subsequent loss of consciousness, followed by a visit from the pharmacist (after which Jane is sent away to a charity school), suggest violation beyond bondage with Miss Abbot’s underthings.
Whether readers think Jane’s ordeal is analogous to her powerlessness as the ward of unloving and resentful Aunt Reed, or something more physically traumatic, it’s clear that whatever happened in the red-room is constitutive, which is to say, Jane is never the same.
She emerges a dominatrix, armed with the courage of rage and a reading list (Gulliver’s Travels, Arabian Nights, History of Rome), and clobbers her aunt in a psychologically astute verbal offensive.
This won’t be the last time Jane sees into the mind and heart of an opponent. She first perceives Mr. Brocklehurst, the school supervisor who comes to collect her from Gateshead, as a “black pillar,” activating her vision of his corrupted Christianity, as well as his phallic institutionalism. When Brocklehurst asks Jane how she might avoid hell, she embraces the flesh by answering that she’ll just have to stay healthy and evade death altogether.
The real follower of Christ is Jane’s friend from Lowood residential school, the ironically named Helen Burns, who is a pivotal if short-lived personality in the story. As a transcendent Christian, Helen occupies the same realm as The Scarlet Letter’s Hester Prynne, who welcomes any fate and, as such, gets beyond the earth-leaden frame of selfhood.
It’s Helen, with her asceticism and fundamental humility, who teaches Jane how to survive as a passionate girl in a dispassionate society — not because Jane adopts Helen’s philosophy, but because she cools her own countenance by its waters, that she might avoid blistering her life with the hot and easy choices urged by temper.
And so, Jane, now fully grown at 18, is ready to field the various tactics of Mr. Edward Rochester when she goes to Thornfield to serve as governess to his ward, Adèle. Rochester, a stern, prickly man, by turns a would-be bigamist, a manipulator, and a juvenile trickster — “un vrai menteur,” as Adèle calls him — is nonetheless irresistible to Jane and the reader alike, no matter how vividly we recognize him as the first in an extensive line of men to be under the pall of a “crazy” wife.
Brontë’s treatment of that wife, Bertha, feels distastefully racial to this reader, and might prove difficult for other readers to overcome. And though the question of whether Bertha’s condition was preexisting or brought on by 10 years’ confinement is beside the point for the author, it has on a reader the effect of undermining our affections for Rochester.
But not completely.
It’s hard not to fall for the electric pulse of Jane and Rochester’s nightly talks, their charged verbal sparring, Jane’s fresh and unexpected answers, Rochester’s spontaneous lapses into tenderness. “Your mind is my treasure,” he tells her, a line that underscores the centrality of intellect in their shared and steadily growing attraction.
With our more inclusive and empathetic values, some of us might reproach Brontë’s apparent racism* and mental-health insensitivities, just as we might question, or cheer, the viability of Jane Eyre’s gender relations — the radical and subversive message of which is anchored in a hyper-individualistic, though corseted, setting.
Jane’s first words to Rochester, "Are you injured, sir?” and his subsequent leaning on her after his horse slips on ice, set the tone and theme of this romance — which amounts to something of “The Gentleman in Distress.” Rochester will lean on Jane again when Bertha’s brother crashes in on Thornfield for a surprise visit.
“Jane, I’ve a blow,” Rochester says, taking his usual place on her shoulder.
As for our heroine, she regards Rochester openly, staring at his face and body until he asks if she finds him handsome. Desiring him and reading his thoughts while guarding her own, Jane drives him to extravagant, jealously provoking schemes, including the low point of his emasculation, when he impersonates a fortune-teller to trick Jane into confessing her feelings.
When Rochester expresses a more conventional masculine demeanor, the effect is a harbinger for low-grade fever, as when he sweeps Jane up on his horse, ‘“Step on my boot-toe; give me both hands: mount!” Here, he gets overconfident. ‘“You can’t do without me, that is evident.”’
Sadly for Rochester, she can.
She leaves him, I believe, not out of respect for the sacrament of marriage, but because Rochester hasn’t completely submitted to her command.
If Jane’s time at Lowood with Helen Burns tempered her natural dominance, her time with cousins in volume III brings it roaring back. St. John Rivers, whose despotic Calvinism makes my pupils constrict, is Jane’s icy double and equal in both force and willpower.
For this reason, she must refuse his offer of marriage not because he doesn’t love her — I doubt he’d even screw me, she thinks (and that is only lightly paraphrased) — but because there can be only one boss per household, and Jane, dear reader, is she.
In the interim, Rochester’s eyes have gone dim and he’s missing a hand owing to the finale with Bertha. Re-enter Jane: She’s got him now! The disabled Rochester needs her shoulder more than ever. Luckily, his other parts work just fine, which Jane lets us know about by way of mentioning the birth of their first son.
Do I exaggerate her passion? Here’s a regular day for Jane Eyre: “There was a reviving pleasure in this intercourse, of a kind now tasted by me for the first time — the pleasure arising from the perfect…” And here, “Of these objections wrought my eagerness to climax: gratified it must be, and that without delay, and I told him so.”
If you’ll excuse me, I’ll be in the refrigerator. Reading Jane Austen.
(*There is a contentious debate about race and racism in Jane Eyre. Some readers, like me, have interpreted Bertha Mason to be a woman of mixed ancestry, while others have read her as a Jamaican of European descent.)
Dorothy Reno is a senior review editor and classic-books columnist for the Washington Independent Review of Books. If you would like to share your thoughts on Jane Eyre, please respond in the comments section below. You can join Dorothy in reading Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, which will be the subject of her next column.