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Sunday, April 29, 2007

Please, tell me more.

This reviewer has a most interesting opinion of Jane Eyre: part genius, part 'drivel.' Indeed?

Rereading Jane Eyre confirms memory's hunch that the first half is wonderful and the second half is drivel.

That said, it deserves a prize for both its opening sentence and its last. "There was no possibility of taking a walk that day" should be studied by anyone who wants to write a novel. It is a sentence that is quiet, modest, matter-of-fact, but that draws you in immediately. By the end of the second sentence, we have met Jane's odious aunt Mrs Reed, and the wretchedness of Jane's orphan childhood and her lovelessness among the Reed cousins begins to unfold.

advertisementProbably as many people believe that the novel ends "Reader, I married him" as there are who think Sherlock Holmes was always saying: "Elementary, my dear Watson." In fact, the closing words of the book are, "Amen; even so, come, Lord Jesus!" You can't get further over the top than that, and I love to think of a modern novelist trying to make a hit by imitating the Jane Eyre formula and copying this device.

That sounds like a challenge- don't tempt me!

As with so many Victorian novels, the best bits of the book are not in fact concerned with the man-woman relationship but rather with childhood. I was surprised, on this reading, to discover that Jane's horrible experience of tantrums with the Reeds, her being locked in the Red Room, and her being sent to Lowood, the hateful evangelical school, are so short. They are the bits that had stayed most vividly in my mind.

When interviewed by Mr Brocklehurst for her place at the school, Jane is asked, " 'And what is hell? Can you tell me that?' 'A pit full of fire.' 'And should you like to fall into that pit, and to be burning there for ever?' 'No, sir.' 'What must you do to avoid it?' I deliberated a moment; my answer, when it came, was objectionable: 'I must keep in good health, and not die.' "

Nothing in the book - not the midnight prowlings of Mrs Rochester nor the drama of Jane's interrupted wedding - quite exceeds the brilliance of this exchange. But, though the second half of the story is so unsatisfactory and in parts so boring, it is not unrelated to Jane's talk with Mr Brocklehurst. Jane Eyre is not merely a justly popular novel. It is also one of the great documents of 19th-century Protestantism.

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