Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte is a classic from 1847 that many will be familiar with from having read the book in high school. Those that have never had the time or inclination to read this classic may find the Jane Eyre audiobook, released as a part of the Brilliance Audio Classic Collection, easier to digest.
The story is a classic for a reason – it is a story of romance and growing up, with Gothic elements that give it a touch of suspense. The character of the main heroine, Jane, is so well-drawn out by Bronte that most listeners will relate to her at some level. There is some melodrama and some predictable plotlines, but overall Jane Eyre is a wonderful audiobook to add to your classic collection.
Jane Eyre is of course the protagonist and she is by far one of the most intricately drawn characters in classic fiction. Jane is passionate and opinionated, loyal and very responsive to kindness, quiet on the surface but proud and even stubborn underneath, and with a strong moral integrity. Listeners will follow her early orphaned years in Gateshead with her insensitive and even cruel Aunt Reed with strong sympathy. Then follows her time in Brocklehurst’s boarding school for girls, where the headmaster’s treatment of her is not any better.
So Jane grows up starved for affection, but also having had a few people who were kind to her, such as her friend Helen Burns, and the teacher Miss Temple, as well as the servant Bessie in her aunt Reed’s house. By the time she is eighteen and has turned teacher herself, Jane has developed an imagination that she uses in her drawings, and takes up a job as a governess. That’s when she meets the other central characters in the book.
Edward Rochester is the other primary character in Jane Eyre. He is the father of the girl Jane is a governess to at her first appointment. Rochester’s character is that of a brooding, capricious wealthy man with a dark past. He is kind to Jane, and a peculiar friendship and love develops between them that is threatened by some of the other events in the audiobook. During her time on the Rochester estate Thornfield, Jane also meets Miss Fairfax, a poor elderly relative of Rochester who lives as a caretaker and dependent on the estate, the young girl Adele who Jane tutors and the apparently sinister servant named Grace Poole. There are also other minor characters with major roles in the plot, like the beautiful and wealthy Miss Blanche Ingram and the mysterious stranger Mr. Mason.
In the third important part of her life, Jane meets St. John Rivers and his sisters Diana and Mary. Rivers and his sisters play an important role in Jane’s life at a time when she is filled with despair and runs away from Thornfield because of a grotesque turn of events. All of the characters in the story are wonderfully and clearly drawn, and all the major characters are complex and memorable, whether or not you like them.
Plot & Themes
The story is told essentially in three phases of Jane’s life. In the first, she grows up an orphan, mistreated by her only living yet distant relative and the headmaster of the boarding school she is sent to. She grows up and applies for the position of governess, and falls in love with her master. Their relationship is threatened by a turn of events of Gothic proportions, and Jane is forced to flee because of her strongly individualistic nature. She finds refuge with the Rivers’ family, where the brother offers her a new life. Will Jane choose this life of intellectualism and philanthropy or will she follow her own passionate nature? That is the question listeners will find themselves asking in the second half.
Jane Eyre is essentially a story about personality versus society, about gender relations, about individual passions versus social mores, and about love versus autonomy. Jane is a passionate woman who doesn’t care for class or status, but Rochester is a man expected to marry into his own class. There is not really much conflict in this area as Rochester has similar ideas, but the listener will get a clear idea of how society worked in Charlotte Bronte’s time through the characters of Miss Blanche Ingram and her sisters, who are wealthy and beautiful but vicious. Bronte manages to establish that even the poor can have a soul, and the educated and wealthy may lack them.
Later in the narration, Jane has to choose between a life of living out her passions and desires, and a life of serving others. It is a difficult choice for Jane, magnetized as she is by St. John Rivers’ intellect and charisma, but she realizes he is also a cold man. Will Jane choose fire over ice? That is the question Charlotte Bronte answers for us in the final fifteen minutes or so of the audiobook.
In her relations with the men in her life, including Mr Brocklehurst, Jane also struggles with the established gender relations of her society. Jane’s struggle all her life has been to fight oppression and rise to her full potential as an individual. To do that, she must rise against Mr Brocklehurst’s patriarchal oppression, against the role that St. John Rivers is trying to assign her, and only return to Rochester when she can do so as his equal. There is some misogyny in varying levels in all three men, and Jane must overcome that. These are themes that are relevant even today, in some form or another, which is why Jane Eyre continues to be much loved and enjoyed by all genders.
Susan Ericksen’s narration suits the demands of the modern listeners of Jane Eyre perfectly. The pacing of the narration is perfect. In fact, Ericksen picks up just the right pace almost from the start, to make the long passages of description pass vividly before our eyes as she reads, without letting her words hang too heavy that we get distracted by them. She also uses appropriately different voices for each different character, and most listeners will find nothing lacking in the narration of this audiobook.
When classics like Jane Eyre are converted into audiobook format, those that have grown up loving the book will look forward to enjoying it in a different way. There is also a worry that the narrator will change our experience of listening to a much-loved story. This particular narration of Jane Eyre is completely worth sitting through the 17 hours and 21 minutes that it runs for. The story moves fast, the characters take on real personality and while the Gothic plotline can seem dated and trite, the heart of the story will move most listeners in some way.