Sometimes I wonder if I was what is now called a “reluctant reader” as a child. I remember my father reading to my sister and me from Golden Books, the thin volumes one could purchase at drugstores and the like, and enjoying the stories. But once in school, reading was often as much chore as pleasure. I didn’t devour books the way my mother and sister did (and she still does–reading a book a week). I read them for class assignments.
Some exceptions stand out in memory like goldfinches among sparrows. The prosaic Trixie Belden stories hooked me as a preteen. And the poetic Great Gatsby made me swoon a few years later.
Somewhere in that time I discovered the great love of my reading life — Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. I read and reread that book many times.
Today I think of Jane Eyre as the classic romance novel. Don’t cringe, purists. Bronte’s novel follows the romance novel story arc to a tee. Just because it’s artfully written and the story is magnificently told doesn’t mean it can’t be classified as romance.
Romance novels follow this formula:
- girl meets boy (or vice versa)
- it’s obvious they’re meant to be together
- circumstances intrude;
- they ultimately confess their love
- they plan to be together
- the Black Moment occurs — something happens capable of rending them asunder for all time
- they reunite after the crisis passes
- the HEA — happily-ever-after–tops things off.
If you look at each of these elements in the context of Jane Eyre, you see just how skillfully Bronte told her story.
Girl meets boy — was there ever a better first meeting scene than when Jane encounters Rochester on the road to Thornfield?
And the Black Moment — Bronte tears the reader’s heart out, placing this moment at the very pinnacle of what should be the lovers’ happiest time — their wedding day. Now that I’m an author myself, I have to smile and shake my head in awe at that stroke of genius. Charlotte, you sly fox, how clever you are, how well you knew your readers!
Today’s readers, however, would have little patience with a romance where the first third of the book is backstory. Yet Jane Eyre begins with page after page after page of young Jane’s early life and growth to adulthood. As a reader, I enjoyed that portion of the story, feeling with Jane the injustices that befell her, grieving with her when her dear friend died, admiring her feisty contrarian spirit, and rooting for her as she struggled to survive and ultimately break away.
In fact, when I read the book the very first time, I had no idea where it was going, thinking perhaps it might just be a poor-girl-makes-good, rags to riches tale. I had no idea of the great love story that was about to commence.
To this day, though, I recall the scene that really enraptured me, that had me aching for Jane and her love of Rochester.
It occurs when Rochester demands that Jane attend his house party with Adele, and there she overhears the cruel ridicule uttered by Blanche and her mother about governesses. After Jane leaves the gathering, Rochester catches up with her, asking her how she is doing after noticing her downcast mood.
“. . . What is the matter?”
“Nothing at all, sir.”
“Did you take any cold that night you half drowned me?”
“Not the least.”
“Return to he drawing-room: you are deserting too early.”
“I am tired, sir.”
He looked at me for a minute.
“And a little depressed,” he said. “What about? Tell me.”
“Nothing–nothing, sir. I am not depressed.”
“But I affirm that you are: so much depressed that a few more words would bring tears to your eyes. . . If I had time, and was not in mortal dread of some prating prig of a servant passing, I would know what all this means. Well, tonight I excuse you. . .Now go, and send Sophie for Adele. Good-night, my — ” He stopped, bit his lip, and abruptly left me.
In that spare scene of dialogue — with speaker “tags” missing, feeling like a page from a play — Bronte communicates Jane’s yearning and Rochester’s desire to comfort her. He notices the unshed tears in her eyes. He wants to use an endearment when wishing her farewell but stops himself. At that moment, you know he loves her, and it’s just a matter of time before our sweet Jane realizes it herself.
Bronte allows the reader to discover Rochester’s love before Jane does. In on this happy secret, we eagerly turn pages anticipating the moment when our dear friend Jane will understand that her love is not unrequited. And, after allowing us to rejoice with her, letting us in on wedding preparations, even while throwing in a few ominous signs that obstacles still await (but surely nothing they can’t overcome, we think in our naivete!), Bronte dashes us all — Jane, Rochester, readers — against the rocks of heartbreak.
Charlotte, you sly, sly fox.
These emotional benchmarks–the sympathy for young Jane’s plight, the yearning for her love to be returned, the heartache of betrayal, the joy of reunion — are the moments that lingered with me over the years and had me returning to reread this perfectly told tale. Those moments were what ignited in me a desire to write a story that I hoped would capture those high points. In a way, writing my book, Sloane Hall, was a selfish endeavor as I strove to recreate the emotional roller-coaster ride of Bronte’s original tale.
Tell me what you loved most about Jane Eyre. . .I’d like to know. I originally ran this post on my old blog, and it generated a lively discussion of favorite scenes.
For more about my novel, Sloane Hall, see this post.