Although it is widely considered a cornerstone of classic feminist literature, Jane Eyre has long been branded as a Victorian love story. I’ve never been a great fan of Victorian novels and I’m an even lesser fan of love stories, so for all these years I’ve pushed Jane to the back of the mental bookshelf and focused instead on contemporary novels. I wasn’t intrigued enough to pick it up until I’d heard more about Jane Eyre’s Gothic nature—specifically, the fact that there was a madwoman hidden in a secret room of the Rochester mansion. Apparently I skipped that day in English class. Or I was busy daydreaming. Either way, I wasn’t paying attention.
After reading the novel in the span of a few days, I discovered that it was far more than a lunatic-in-the-attic story. It was also far more than a love story. So much so that when I finished the book, I was perplexed as to why the novel has been called a “love story” for so long. The title of the novel isn’t Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester. The novel is called Jane Eyre because it’s story about Jane Eyre—an orphan who forges her own path in life, despite living in an era in which women are forced into lives as teachers, governesses, maids or wives (of which Jane is three for four). It’s a story about a woman who molds societal expectations into her own; who has a voice that is solely hers; who laments that the thoughts, feelings and emotions of women should be considered byproducts of greater shortcomings or lesser-reflections of her male peers. It’s about a woman who has no great wealth and no great looks, but manages to make her own way using fierce determination and unwavering principles. She builds a life out of nothing more than once—and her ability to do so has nothing to do with Mr. Rochester or her love affair with him.
Calling Jane Eyre a love story is an oversimplification. It fits neatly into a box where too many other female protagonists live, demanding their own stories. Jane falls in love with Mr. Rochester, yes, and obviously it plays an integral role in the overall novel, but the relationship between Jane and Mr. Rochester isn’t where our focus should lie—it’s how Jane reacts and interacts with him and her world that’s important. The story is about Jane. It’s not about Jane-in-love or Jane-as-wife or Jane-as-belonging-to-Mr.-Rochester. It’s about a woman who has a voice of her own. Unfortunately for many readers, that voice was lost in her love affair. What a shame.