When I was in eighth grade, I had a reading class in school each day. My teacher often assigned the entire class the same book to read, and we read during each class period. Then we’d discuss it.
One particular time, I think we were reading a children’s novel, like My Brother Sam is Dead (which I reread and reviewed a few months ago). Not surprisingly, I finished before everyone else. I went to the teacher at her desk at the back of the room and told her I was finished and I needed something else to read. She looked at me a moment, then she turned to a bookshelf and fumbled for a book. When she turned back to me, she handed me Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.
I remember reading it, and I remember a few of the impressions I had. But the impressions I had at 13 were quite different from the impressions I get now that I’m in my late 20s. This time reading Jane Eyre, the straightforward-yet-beautiful prose was a wonderful treat: I enjoyed every single page.
A Different Book at a Different Age
When I first read it at 13 years old, I was first annoyed by the interspersed French.
“This is supposed to be an English novel! How annoying,” I’d think to myself. “What am I missing?” I wondered at each foreign paragraph. I determined to learn French some day.
But then the core of the problem came to light: “Mr. Rochester is OLD!”
I recoiled when Jane expressed an interest in him. “Yuck!” I thought. “This is NOT a romance.” Mr. Rochester, in his late 30s, was an old man to me.
This time, reading Jane Eyre in my late 20’s, I was stunned, and not by Mr. Rochester’s age. From the first chapter, Charlotte Bronte’s language has held me spell bound: she creates scenes and characters that come to life in the stories and dialog. And yet, her matter-of-fact prose doesn’t call attention to itself.
I still haven’t learned French, but if I read slowly I can tell what the conversation is about. And Mr. Rochester. Sigh. He’s not so bad. In fact, he’s quite romantic. What was I thinking? He’s just right for Jane, and she for him.
I’m also struck by the religious and the feminist aspects. The introduction of my edition (Penguin Classics) emphasized Charlotte Bronte’s interest and attempt to emphasize the religious development of Jane. I noticed it on this read, and it was interesting to see the religious development throughout: for example, when a young girl, she lists only Old Testament books as her favorites – completely omitting the New Testament. By the end, she’s quoting the New Testament to St. John Rivers. Jane also learned that as a woman who had once been in love and loved, she did not have to settle for a marriage of convenience and/or loveless union. She was powerful as a woman because she knew what love was. And I love the ending: how perfect!
The Penguin Classics edition that I read has a detailed introduction and notes and these made it a fun read for me. I liked to read the trivial facts of many phrases (for example, “irids” is a plural for “iris,” and Charlotte Bronte and her sisters are essentially the only ones who wrote it), and the background and connections between various sections of the book were explained for me. I enjoyed the connections and found they enhanced my reading experience. That said, the notes for the first chapters do sometimes reveal “spoilers” for subsequent chapters, so only reference the notes if you are familiar with the story.
In the end, Jane Eyre has become one of my favorite novels, and one I intend to reread more than once.
The Importance of Rereading
I know we all have lots of books on our TBR shelves, but rereading Jane Eyre – and experiencing a completely new book – reminds me that books are meant to be reread.
Have you ever been surprised when you reread a book you disliked (or misunderstood) the first time you read it?
What books will you reread many times in your life?
At what age should a girl first read Jane Eyre? Thirteen was too young, but I think there was some point I missed during which I would have loved it. I guess maybe 16-18? How old were you when you first read Jane Eyre? Was it the right age?
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If you have reviewed Jane Eyre on your site, leave a link in the comments and I’ll add it here. There were so many when I did a search, I’m sure I’ve missed dozens!