Reader, you knew this was coming.
What can a humble soul like mine do with the opportunity to tell you to read any book of my choosing, other than put forth my very favorite, my ride-or-die, my dearest, most beloved rant-starter––
I say this with all the conviction I can muster: you simply must get your hands on a copy of Jane Eyre.
When I did, in high school, it wrenched me out of my teenage stupor and showed me what magic looked like. I clung to my Vintage paperback edition, the one with the silhouette on the cover, desperate to discover if this guarded but deeply passionate girl would find the belonging she so craved. I wept when it escaped her and wept harder when it found her again.
I can’t say for certain whether the magic will strike you the same way, but I’ve collected five of what I think are the book’s best qualities for your perusal, and it is my delicate hope that you’ll find at least one of them will leave an impression on you in the pages of my favorite book.
1. Charlotte Brontë Writes Some Banger Prose
It’s often said that Jane Eyre is ahead of its time (it was published in 1847) for the agency it gives its female lead, but I’m of the opinion that its most modern sensibilities lie elsewhere: in its writing style.
Where I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d always find the classics I read to be dense and distant, the immediacy of Jane Eyre, the intuitive flow of its paragraphs, and the deeply personal way we get to connect with Jane as a narrator struck up a match against my mostly YA, mostly fantasy sensibilities, and brought me to a place where I could finally find myself in the books of the past.
This is why I’m always naming it as a great first-time classic, despite its length. Its digressions are artful, and not overwhelming. Its descriptions are rich, but pared down just enough to keep a deliberate, never-faltering pace.
I’m still amazed by how quickly the hypnotism of the first page sets in: two paragraphs and I’ve sunk into the book entirely. I’d never had a classic come to me so naturally before, and the best part? Every other classic has come to me more naturally since.
2. Jane Eyre Is The Gothic Standard
If you like dark, lonely manors with dubious histories, possible(?) ghosts, and fires with no discernible cause (or is there?), Jane Eyre is the best of the best. Brontë is an expert at using her setting to the fullest: from Lowood, the dreary boarding school where Jane spends her childhood, to Thornfield Hall, the mysterious estate where she finds work as a governess, every detail is gorgeously rendered.
The vivid atmosphere of Jane Eyre is precisely what I mean when I say books set in our world use worldbuilding, too. Brontë perfectly externalizes Jane’s inner turmoil with her brilliant use of weather and landscape, the very world built to give us her complexity made manifest.
I should mention, though, her handling of the maybe-paranormal is also excellent. She lets us sit with the discomfort of not knowing what is or isn’t, strictly, real, and the natures of some of her phantoms even go undefined permanently, yielding some wickedly fun arguments about just how much of the supernatural Brontë’s world allows.
3. The Romance!! Ugh THEM!
No discussion of Jane Eyre would be complete without touching on its complicated––and controversial––main couple. To those who find a power dynamic in a romantic subplot to be iffy, the Jane/Rochester thing most certainly will not be your cup of tea, but your honor I love them!!1!!!
For the uninitiated, Edward Rochester is the surly, secretive guardian of Adèle, the child Jane comes to Thornfield to teach, and over the course of her stay there, Jane develops a truly devastating crush on him that had me putting down the book to dry heave into the abyss over, because the Yearning was just too much.
Jane and Rochester are the slow burn of all slow burns, the blueprint of every stalwart-heroine-meets-absolute-Byronic-disaster pairing (Reylos, Jurdan shippers, and/or Darklinas, listen the fuck up), and they have absolutely wrecked my shit.
If any of this sounds good to you, you should’ve picked up Jane Eyre yesterday. I expect a full report on my desk next week.
4. …But There’s Also A Standout Supporting Cast
Despite my, uh, strong words about our romantic leads, neither actually wears the crown of my favorite character. That honor, dear reader, goes to St. John Rivers, an ethically conflicted priest who has a substantial role in the last third of the book. I find him so compelling because he illuminates what I consider to be the book’s central question (though this has been a point of contention for almost two hundred years’ worth of readers, mind you): in the face of our happiness as individuals, how much stock should we put into structures of conventional morality?
St. John (hence the profession) is used really elegantly in Brontë’s exploration of what it means, and what it costs, to devote yourself in totality to a doctrine. He’s a great foil to the fraught relationship with religion Jane’s childhood gave her, and a deliciously complicated subplot all his own, besides.
Beyond him, his sisters Diana and Mary, Helen Burns, Mrs. Fairfax, Blanche Ingram, and Adèle are always a pleasure to revisit, and I glean more from them every time.
5. It Doesn’t Tidily Fit Into One Interpretation, And That’s Great, Actually
If you’re familiar with the book, you might notice one very conspicuous absence in all my gushing about it: I’ve made no mention at all of Bertha, a supporting character whose very spoilery role in the story has been the subject of much debate. If you happen to share my interpretation and don’t allow for any contradictions, she more or less gets erased in your reading of the book, and there’s really no accounting for her in a way that shines a favorable light on some of the other characters.
Is she the shadow to Jane’s conflicted soul? What about her feelings, then? Is she the narrative’s condemnation of [redacted]? Why, then, does that person get to [spoiler]?
If you let it, Brontë’s apparent neglect on Bertha’s part can grow to encompass, and then, effectively, ruin your reading experience, but if you take your cues from her handling of the maybe-paranormal, maybe-not elements, there’s room for plenty of contradictions in the world this book builds. Bertha, in fact, is the one who makes room for them: this is the right thing to do, but yet this is the consequence.
I don’t think I fully appreciated this until Brontë’s last novel, Villette, found its way into my hands this summer, with intentional contradictions abounding. Looking back at Jane Eyre, it became my favorite all the more, even considering the fair fight Villette gave it.
It’s just too splendid of a book to ever have true competition in my eyes, and, in the end, I love it far too well to foist anything else into your hands.
Enjoy, reader. You have quite the treat ahead of you.
Join the conversation! Have you read Jane Eyre? What did you think? And, if there is one book you think everyone must read, what is it? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. 💕