Jane Eyre is not so much like Austen as I had thought, though perhaps in certain superficialities. Jane fits the Emma-Elizabeth mode well enough in her wit and her strength of character, but unlike those other heroines she is all earnestness; because she writes in first person we are not permitted to admire her from a distance, and we are precluded from those wonderful Austenian ironies that Charlotte Bronte seems to have disdained.
Jane is an orphan, loathed by her adoptive aunt and shuffled off to a long and spartan childhood at a boarding school before eventually becoming the governess to a young French girl named Adele. Adele is the ward of Edward Fairfax Rochester, who is Jane Eyre's finest achievement. Chesterton calls him "primevally and supernaturally caddish," and so he is, continuously prodding Jane with deadpan jokes, half-truths, and pranks that signify a cerebral form of flirtation. Naturally, the connection between the two seems destined to triumph over their difference in station. Jane, for her part, is never so engaging or appealing as when she is in conversation with Mr. Rochester:
He chuckled; he rubbed his hands: "Oh, it is too rich to see and hear her!" he exclaimed. "Is she original? Is she piquant? I would not exchange this one little English girl for the grand Turk's whole seraglio; gazelle-eyes, houri forms and all!"
The eastern allusion bit me again: "I'll not stand you an inch in the stead of a seraglio," I said; "so don't consider me an equivalent for one; if you have a fancy for anything in that line, away with you, sir, to the bazars of Stamboul without delay; and lay out in extensive slave-purchases some of that spare cash you seem at a loss to spend satisfactorily here."
"And what will you do, Janet, while I am bargaining for so many tons of flesh and such an assortment of black eyes?"
"I'll be preparing myself to go out as a missionary to preach liberty to them that are enslaved--your harem inmates among the rest. I'll get admitted there, and I'll stir up mutiny; and you, three-tailed bashaw as you are, sir, shall in a trice find yourself fettered amongst our hands: nor will I, for one, consent to cut your bonds till you have signed a charter, the most liberal that despot ever yet conferred."
Mr. Rochester compels because Bronte has ceded to him the power of irony; he is an ironist and when she is with him, Jane, who otherwise seems nearly incapable of it, is an ironist as well. His flaws are numerous and deep: He tortures Jane by repeatedly intimating that he is to marry a local heiress--even disguising himself as a traveling gypsy fortune-teller to suggest it!--but there is no doubting that when Jane is with him she is her fullest self. The book's middle section, before the two are driven apart suddenly, contains some of the best romantic dialogue ever written:
"Because," he said, "I sometimes have a queer feeling with regard to you--especially when you are near me, as now: it is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs rightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame. And if that boisterous channel, and two hundred miles or so of land come broad between us, I am afraid that cord of communion will be snapt; and then I've a nervous notion I should take to bleeding inwardly."
But Mr. Rochester has a terrible secret--I won't reveal it here, but I will say it forms the basis of Jean Rhys' postcolonial novel Wide Sargasso Sea--and when it is revealed the marriage is quickly derailed. Jane escapes, nearly dying from destitution before finding respite in the home of St. John Rivers, an impossibly virtuous but unfeeling parson. This portion, and the portions before Jane meets Mr. Rochester, are appealing in their way but pale in comparison to Mr. Rochester's presence.
One peculiar thing I have noticed about the book: It has a surfeit of Johns. Jane's stepbrother is a John; her uncle and father both Johns; there is a servant named John; there is St. John Rivers; "Jane" itself is a female variant of "John." Jane Eyre is an explicitly Christian book, and I believe that the recurrence of the name John suggests that Bronte intended it as a meditation of proper servanthood. The saint in "St. John" is St. John the Baptist, whose obedience to God necessitated a life of severe self-sacrifice and who, as the Precursor, became a model for Christ and the fulfillment of God's covenant. St. John Rivers tries icily to goad Jane into marrying him and following him in his missionary work to India, but it is not in St. John's power to define the terms of Jane's faithfulness. In a way, Jane Eyre is the story of the formation of those terms; Jane rankles under the capriciousness of authority in her childhood home and at boarding school because her masters are not so good at being masters as God is, nor, for that matter, are Mr. Rochester and St. John, the novel's principal male characters. Jane has an enormous capacity for love and a servant's heart, but until the very end Bronte refuses to provide a master who is worthy of Jane's unparalleled goodness.
In that way Jane is very un-Austenian, though Mr. Rochester seems very much like he could have been transported in directly from something like Northanger Abbey. I liked Jane Eyre immensely, but I think it's worth noting that Bronte--who thought that Austen lacked a certain moral seriousness--is at her best when she is closest to Austen, and not embracing the tiresome tropes of Gothic literature.