First of all, I'd like to say that it was pretty good.
If you don't think that sounds like a ringing endorsement, then you're one of the lucky people who didn't know me in 1998, when I first read the book and loathed it with the kind of unmitigated loathing only fourteen-year-olds can manage. Fourteen years later, my feeling are much more, well, mitigated.
Jane Eyre had been assigned to me as summer reading in advance of Honors English (look at me, showing off) in the fall -- effectively, it was my first high school homework assignment, and the beginning of a coursework pattern I would follow for eleven years of schooling to come: read and respond.
At the time, I was living in Mason -- a northwest suburb of Cincinnati, sprouting rapidly up around Paramount's Kings Island and a Proctor and Gamble R&D campus. My friends and I spent the summer getting rides to KI from someone's mother or walking to the new municipal swimming pool. Some other things happened: I tried out for the high school soccer team (not even close) and received my first kiss. I attempted, half-heartedly, to learn how to play bass guitar. At some point, I gave in to my sister's insistence that my fall wardrobe include more than sweatpants in three colors.
And I tried to read Jane Eyre. I didn't finish it, although I had the whole summer to do so. The day before high school started, I skipped the entire St. John section (a character I might more readily have related to at the time) to get to the fire my more studious friends had warned me was coming. I buzzed through the lovers' reunion in ten or fifteen minutes and wrote something I've thankfully forgotten, for which I received a deeply offensive A-.
What parts of the book I actually read I despised. I hated its wordy moralizing, its ponderous pacing. It took me three attempts to get through the page-long description of the signpost at Whitcross; I literally fell asleep the first time. But, perhaps most of all, I hated that it was a thoroughgoing Girly Book that did nothing to help me understand girls.
If there is any argument for removing Jane Eyre from high school reading lists, it is this: we should not, as a culture, introduce adolescent boys to the possibility that their female peers could find attractive Mr. Rochester -- old, ugly, bitterly sarcastic, prone to dressing up as an old woman, already married to an insane woman -- at the exact moment when said boys are in fevers trying to understand what their female peers find attractive. If it must stay, hold it until Junior or Senior year, to give them time to go on a few dates.
But the timing fits, I understand now. Jane spends a great many words theorizing the vexation of Mr. Rochester in order to maintain his affection, and then spends a great many words vexing him and maintaining his affection. Had I been reading carefully enough back then, this behavior would have infuriated me. But this time around, when the burned and blinded amputee Rochester asks his suddenly returned love, "Am I hideous, Jane?" I nearly wept at the kindness of her reply: "Very, sir: you always were, you know."
Much, of course, has happened to me in the intervening years. I've read Ethan Frome, for example, which offers a rather different take on domestic love after crippling injury. I've received second and even third kisses (there I go, boasting again). I've changed from someone a few years younger than Jane, looking at her for some vision of my future, to someone a decade older, wondering if being eighteen was really like that. And I've changed from someone who read a Girly Book hoping it would explain succinctly half the species, to someone who read a book.
And just as my developing tastes revealed a number of foibles in this book, they allowed me to look past those foibles at the books finer moments, which are exquisite. Although she must overly praise an insensitive hypocritical braggart (seriously, St. John is just a douche) and repeatedly disparage the poor ("I shook my head: I could not see how poor people had the means of being kind") to reach the end of the book, by the time she does, Jane has become a self-contained and -verified woman. "If you won't let me live with you," she says to vex poor Rochester, "I can build a house of my own close up to your door, and you may come and sit in my parlor when you want company of an evening."
But it is funny, and vexing, because it is true. Jane has contrived a way to control her own life (albeit with the help of some deus ex machina), which makes her choice to return to Rochester more honest -- more hers -- than it could have been the first time around when, like Ferdinand with Miranda, he was the only marriageable man she'd ever met. With the vast power imbalance removed, her love could be purer and her will more meaningful. What she wanted was Rochester: if he would not have her, she would build her house next door. She would exert her power over the world around her to get as much of the life she wanted as was possible to get.
Whether or not Rochester is worth wanting is simply a silly question. Their sparkling dialogue (which continues, unlike Elizabeth and Darcy's, past the certainty of marriage) defies any attempt of ours to break the match -- and, anyway, such an attempt would presume too much. The lady has made her decision. And although I knew already at the time of my first reading that stories revealed the universal through the singular, I had (and probably still have) much to learn about which things were properly universal, and which things singular.