I’m not one to reread books that often. Especially classic literature, which becomes part of this weird mental checklist that I try to get through to feel “cultured.” Maybe I’m a bad English major in this regard, but when I’ve read a book for class, I have to really truly love it to then read it again for fun.
The best exception I can think of is Jane Eyre. I read Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre for the first time two summers ago. Though it came so late in my college career, I have read it three times now.
I had this really cool class while abroad in England where we would read a text and then see a play version. One of the most-recommended plays was a production of Jane Eyre that was directed by Sally Cookson and devised by the cast. We were assigned to read this over the summer. I, admittedly, was in a weird and stressful place in my life. I was about to go to England (which I’d been dreaming of doing for years), and though this was obviously exciting, I have never been out of the country before and there was a lot of stress leading up to the experience.
So when I read Jane Eyre in the midst of this craziness, I was pretty hard on it. I loved the writing, but I felt like the dynamic of the romance wasn’t something I was as into. You see, I was so convinced Rochester was a serial killer, and I was really bothered by the wife he had in his attic, and I considered him more an unchangeable figure rather than a person. And then there was Jane. I was so into Jane. She was strong, she was intelligent, and then she returned to Rochester and I felt like she was making a million mistakes. I can be stubborn about dumb things like that, and I tinted my overall viewing of the novel with my initial dislike of the ending.
Then we saw the production in London.
I felt like everything fell down around me and was built back up into a story that I was so madly deeply in love with. I was so about the relationship and their dynamic with one another, and there was something about having their story brought to life in front of me that affected my entire reading.
There is a scene from that production that gives me goose bumps even as I write about it. When Jane says she will leave, Rochester compares her to “a wild frantic bird” that is destroying itself. That’s when Jane declares, “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will, which I now exert to leave you.”
This is a quote that is put on stickers and tattooed onto peoples bodies, but usually, people focus on the first part of the quote, when Jane is declaring her humanity. However, this actress screamed the “which I now exert to leave you.” I’d never felt more alive in my life. It was that first moment that I really understood the character, I think, because it is in her ability to leave Rochester that Jane really gets her autonomy. She was not the delicate creature I first read her to be.
Cut to a few weeks later. I’m reading Jane Eyre for a romance class, and I fell so hard this second time. Having seen her defiance played out on stage, I noticed subtle moments that I’d missed before, moments were Jane bit back atRochester. My romance professor said it best: because Rochester doesn’t act like a gentleman, Jane is freed from the restraints of being a lady. And in that freedom, Jane becomes her own woman.
In leaving Rochester, Jane proves that she can live on her own and then chooses to return to Rochester. There is nothing wrong with the traditional femininity of mother and wife that Jane chooses in the end, and I felt ashamed (still do, honestly) for having judged these elements of the book initially.
I reread Jane Eyre as I was writing my Honors proposal to draw inspiration, and I was just smiling ear to ear the whole time. That’s the power of a good adaptation. It helped me to look past myself and my own biases to get to the root of the story. And that story develops and changes each time I read it, but I’ll always hear that productions Rochester and see that productions Jane when she declares, “which I exert to leave you.”