Jane Eyre is undeniably a paradigm of nineteenth century literary art and can be said to straddle many categories of novel, if one’s one feels it appropriate to label such a singular work. The concept of Gothic insists on many great novels of this period and while Jane Eyre has as much right as any to be included in the “Gothic” canon, it is in the profound evolution of elemental gothic archetypes that its brilliant originality makes a indelible mark on all of literature thereafter.
To really engage with Jane Eyre – that is to say, to get close to Charlotte Bronte’s own world – I think one needs to appreciate that Jane herself is one of the most faerie characters in all literature. The novel presents itself as biography, its subject ostensibly the life and maturation of Jane Eyre, girl to woman but human all the while. Yet Jane is not as others are; and it is the faerie within – crudely put, her essential soul – that differentiates; and inevitably alienates. This otherness is the key to Charlotte Brontë’s heroine, transcending incidents of plot but always the defining force in Jane’s thought, action and effect on those with whom she comes into contact.
Look at it this way: Charlotte and Emily are precocious girls playing imagination games at the foot of the garden and, so far from the madding crowd, peopling these game-worlds with all sorts of supernatural entities among the flowers and hedgerows. Fairies were naturally an insistent catalyst for Brontë creativity and perhaps we can sympathise with a corollary of the sister’s invention: Charlotte’s premise at the heart of Jane Eyre that might first be framed back in childhood by the question “what if, instead of hiding at the bottom of the garden, one of our lonely fairies escaped and somehow came into the big house?”.
This has many layers, of course, including a reaction against extant conventions and a mischievous subversion of contemporary wisdom, i.e. Jane Eyre turns on its head the popular conformity to writing one’s plot as a variation on “how does the downtrodden saint escape into the big socialite world?”. Charlotte dissolves traditional gothic, too, but in ways no less sympathetic to supernatural spiritualism. She declines to submit her heroine to mere ‘happily ever after’ subservience to some idealised husband, eschewing the manacles of oath and post-marriage expectation.
The Bronte sisters, like all artists combining skill and genius, create, destroy and redefine convention in their wake. My subjective impression is Wuthering Heights marks out more traditional territory albeit with virtuoso boldness. It is a landscape, architecture and environment sensually dominating, demanding a part in the unfolding drama. This could be termed dark gothic. Jane Eyre, on the other hand, plays out behind the veil. It is more imaginatively sensual than tactile, defying darkness and refusing the glare, expressing a determination almost other-worldly; enough to infatuate and then restore love to the dominant archetype – Rochester, master of the house and its enclosed dark gothic cameo.Jane’s independence is real and almost supernaturally absolute. She is wholly self-contained having been born and nurtured to solitary introspection, peopled instead by imagination naturally drawing her to inhabit the unseen, twilight gothic of secret places, frightening or impenetrable to stolid common-folk.
Jane Eyre is perfectly at home in the faerie half-worlds; hence the novel throughout exists as unseen gothic or twilight gothic. Walk-on parts get played by looming architecture, macabre individuals burst now and then from the solid darkness of popular gothic paradigm, but the unseen and the faerie remain pervasive and unfettered by the constraints of brute form.
Final observation: Jane finding her place in the world by the end of the novel is only achieved by not marrying the hero, choosing each new day to affirm love over secure autonomy. It is only then, one might say, Jane Eyre the faerie comes in from the secret places permanently at last.