Early in the pandemic, like many people at home, I looked for ways to spend my free time. I’ve always been a reader and decided to go back to my roots and go through the classic novels on my bookshelf. It was there I found Jane Eyre and decided to give it a try. To read a gothic work at a time that was both transitional in my life (the ages of eighteen through twenty where one is not quite child and not quite adult), and strange on a global sphere, was an experience, to say the least. Like many, I have always had something of a fascination with the sublime, interested in exploring darker and more romantic depths of humanity and relationships.
Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre was my first foray into the gothic realm. I have tried on and off to read it since I was nine years old (making the most progress, about halfway through at an attempt at the age of twelve) but it was only last year I was able to complete it for the first time. Perhaps it was the length, intimidating size of my copy, or simply the fact that as Jane got older, it was harder for me to understand her. It tells the story of Jane: her early life taken in an as orphan to the wealthy Reed family, the abuse she endures from her upper-class relatives, her education at a boarding school, and, most notably, her relationship with Mr. Rochester, master of Thornfield Hill where she goes for employment as a governess to his young charge.
The novel primarily concerns itself with Jane’s spiritual and moral development over the course of her life, and how, through being shown compassion, and her education, she is able to succeed, and make her way in the world. It is through her growth and uncompromising morality and spirituality she finds a match in Mr. Rochester and later marries him. Though often described as a romance, it is Jane’s transition from a submissive orphan into a passionate and uncompromising young woman that constitutes a majority of the novel.
When I first started Jane Eyre, I wasn’t far in age from Jane at the beginning, and her descriptions of her deep emotions and violent passions were the first depiction I’d ever seen of a child that I felt I truly empathised with. Up until then, I’d felt that children were depicted as small, moral beings, without much depth or feeling. Jane’s tantrums, passion, rage, and strong emotions were things I felt in my life and were probably the first portrayal of them I can clearly remember.
Early last year, then around eighteen, I started Jane Eyre again, this time, similar in age to Jane for when she ventures out from Lowood and into the world at large. To reread the beginning brought me back to those days, making me miss my younger and more unrestrained and passionate emotions. I feel a part of getting older and maturing is learning how to deal with your feelings and composing yourself, and in the decade or so since I first tried reading it, I’ve done that. Still, the feeling was bittersweet - I was filled with longing to go back to the innocence and naivety of that pure and undiluted emotion. In Brontë's descriptions of Jane’s earlier life, I found myself longing for the carefree days of childhood when I felt my emotions unrestrained and untampered by age and experience. I realised now that I was an adult, and could better understand a lot of Jane's experiences - her starting her job, falling in love with Mr. Rochester, feeling torn between her feelings, and her personal morality.
Jane’s ability to come up in the world through her education was also something I realised I now had a deep appreciation for. As a child, I had missed the importance of that, and, interestingly, it was later when I read another Brontë sister’s Wuthering Heights that I realised how bittersweet the contrast between Heathcliff and Jane was. Both were orphans adopted by wealthier families and favoured by the guardian that took them in, then abused upon that guardian’s death. It was with Jane’s education and the influence of those that were kind to her that she eventually grew to become the woman she did, forging a clear path for herself in spite of all adversity, and gaining a strong moral and spiritual backbone. It was with Heathcliff’s lack of education and continuous abuse that his social status remained ambiguous and he suffered and was left with a desire for revenge, and ultimately, it is Hareton Earnshaw finally learning how to read and write at the end of the novel that leaves the story optimistic and hopeful.
To read the book as an adult also helped me understand the class conflict a lot better, and helped me notice a lot more of the subtler interactions between the characters, particularly the women. The solidarity between Mrs. Fairfax and Jane felt sweeter, Bessie’s admiration for how far Jane had come from her days at the Reed home touched the heart and Blanche Ingram’s looking down on Jane on the basis of her being lower class made her all the more awful. Reading the book through more of an adult lens made me realise how much I have grown as a person. To realise, bitterly, how cynical I have become as I have gotten older, how morality and social standing colour my viewpoint so strongly made me miss the sweeter and more innocent days of childhood. Yet the book left me with hope, hope that there was still love and beauty and goodness in the world, in spite of all adversity.
Reading Jane Eyre managed to be an exercise in both nostalgia and comfort for me, filling me with longing for childhood and promising comfort for my life now and future aspirations. To realise I was more akin to adult Jane than child Jane was a bit of a trip, but it was reassuring nevertheless to see myself in a character as an adult that I had felt a kinship with as a child. Growing up with a novel is a strange and bittersweet thing to go through, but being able to gain a deeper understanding of it makes it really lovely.
aarani is a twenty year old writer and poet from petaling jaya, malaysia. writing has been her passion for as long as she can remember and she someday hopes to go into journalism. she is an op-ed writer for love letters magazine.