Charlotte Bronte took nine weeks of my life, and I want them back. Like thousands of high school students, I was promised a timeless Gothic romance filled with burning passion and, on at least one occasion, actual burning. Bronte provides a barely disguised tract on virtue and redemption. Which, apparently, can only be obtained by contracting malaria in the tropics or becoming permanently disabled. All this is force-fed by prose as patient and subtle,as the Spanish Inquisition. Which, at least, features burning.
The only unforgivable crime in the world of Jane Eyre is disliking a spectacularly unincendiary young woman with all the passion and intrigue of an end-stage tuberculosis patient. The standard issue cover shows her gazing wistfully into the distance, presumably longing for wild heaths and bonnie becks or at the very least a good marriage counselor, as if such things existed. Obviously, no psychologists were harmed in the making of this book. The title character alone suffers from an acute persecution complex, low self-esteem, and a crippling inability to sort out her emotional problems without fleeing the county.
Jane Eyre, by the way, is a heroine we should all admire and emulate. No English class is complete without paens to her courage, resourcefulness, and independent spirit. In the first few chapters, she courageously defies her emotionally distant foster mother by throwing a temper tantrum after a time out and is consequently forced to go to school. To be fair, this part of the book is a remarkably accurate facsimile of an angst-ridden teen dairy. A distant aunt who dares to send the spunky, courageous orphan to her room is an abusive monster; a school she doesn’t like is a disease-ridden hellhole. We’ve all been there, and said that. My life is in serious danger from the literal tons of homework that threaten to crush my soul and destroy my backpack- but a least I don’t have consumption.
Ms. Bronte misses the chance to make her character infinitely more sympathetic by giving her a merciful and poetic death in chapter twelve. Instead, she sends her off to a mysterious hamlet where she falls in love with a strange man named Edward, who is about seven hundred years older than her, obsessively controls her actions and dictates her appearance, and generally acts like an emotionally manipulative stalker. Whatever else can be said about romance novelists, they know what teenage girls want- sparkles and self projection. Whatever personality Jane may have had is completely overshadowed by Rochester. I could almost hear her internal spunky orphan’s pitiful death rattle as it was smothered by yards and yards of wedding dress material. In the end, adventure loving Jane is content to spend the rest of her life caring for her husband and child in the perfect domestic felicity that this book’s supporters are quick to point out is “a different kind of adventure.” I have nothing against these people. If they want to spend their old age changing their spouse’s diapers in a swamp justly forsaken by the rest of humanity while over-writing their memoirs, that’s their prerogative. As for my copy of Jane Eyre? Reader, I buried it.