Plain Jane

As Charlotte Brontë’s bicentenary is celebrated, remembers her most famous heroine

Image: BBC Films

Image: BBC Films

Like many book-lovers I am sure, I find that I can look back on my life and recognise certain books which helped to shape the person I am now, and certain characters who remained with me long after reading the final page. Among these, it would be impossible not to include Jane Eyre. What stood out to me at 12 years old, when I first encountered the character Jane, was a certain quality which I shared, but which I had never seen in any great literary figure before.

She was strong, good, witty, intelligent and brave, and yet she was repeatedly overlooked by the majority of the other characters in Charlotte Brontë’s novel. Why? She was an introvert.

From the reader’s perspective, we bear witness to Jane’s innermost thoughts and are carried by the depth of her passions. But these are emotions which she rarely shows to those around her and as a result, she is a constant victim of prejudice and is brushed aside by all but a select few.

I loved, and still love, that Brontë chose to put a character like Jane at the centre of her novel. All of our emotions, as readers, are pinned onto her – an introvert whose personality we love and get to know so closely. When I first read Jane Eyre, I was not only introverted, but painfully shy in addition, and very much accustomed to the general presumption made by those who didn’t know me well, that I simply lacked personality.

I still recall a well-intended but somewhat backhanded compliment I received after playing an impassioned role in a middle school drama performance. A classmate informed me, with no sense of irony whatsoever, that for someone so quiet I had a lot of feelings. By this point in time, I was fairly used to  being met with surprise whenever I displayed vaguely strong emotions or voiced an opinion. More than anything else, the comment merely amused me.

Still, reading Jane Eyre for the first time, I remember the sense of joy and reassurance in discovering that there was a place in literature – and a significant one at that – for people like me. I remember the thrill of hearing Jane defend her impoverished backgound and protest her rich and beautiful personality. She asserts her equality with Mr Rochester, not through her meagre social standing, but in heart and absolute spirit: “Do you think I am an automaton? – a machine without feelings? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! – I have as much soul as you – and full as much heart!”

In Jane, I also found hope, as although the majority overlook her, she does meet those who are willing to get to know her, are interested in, and ultimately love her for who she is: Helen Burns, the Rivers sisters, and of course Mr Rochester, who in Jane’s words was, “the first to recognise me, and to love what he saw”. These are meaningful and fruitful relationships, and all the more so because of the nature of her personality.

She inspired me because although she is quiet, she is by no means a pushover. She is daring in her integrity, standing up for herself and for her moral values in the face of opposition and adversity. And she is a gentle reminder to the world that even the small and downtrodden can have personalities and passions of depth and fire.

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