I found it hadn't improved much as a novel in the intervening 40 years; the sifty, devious, manipulative Mr. Rochester was never someone who appealed, and neither, for that matter, was stoical, unsmiling little plain Jane, and the melodramatic plot didn't even try to be believable. But none of that really mattered because, as I read, it slowly began to dawn on me what the book was all about. In some senses, the book isn't really a novel at all; it is, rather, an extended thought experiment on the nature of marriage. The book moves along its convoluted course driven not by plot and not by character but rather by the need to set up a precise scenario within which certain philosophical/ moral/ theological questions could be explored.
Think of Mr. Rochester's predicament: he is tricked into wedlock by his scheming father and finds himself in a marriage which is not actually a marriage in any sense at all except that of custom and law. His homicidal wife is portrayed without any single redeeming feature: debauched, crazed, bloated; she is in fact barely human. Then he meets and falls in love with Jane. The relationship with Jane is not based on any of the baser things which often draw people together: money, convenience, position, mutual attractiveness; it is rather a relationship of the deepest and purest love. It is a union of soul friendship between partners of absolute equality. Rochester has enough money for them to do as they wish. Neither of them has any family to hurt or offend. There is an idyllic house in the South of France where they can dwell together in privacy and peace. So! Should they catch the Dover ferry and live in sin happily ever after? Or act according to the letter of the law and expire separately in lonely misery?
Of course, this being one of the original pieces of chicklit, in the end they have their cake and eat it too as the crazy wife is conveniently killed off and Mr. Rochester stops running around in Gypsy frocks and becomes a hero and Jane inherits a convenient stack of money, but not before the intelligent Miss Bronte has done what she set out to do.
This is the heart of the book: after the scenario has been set up in all its improbable and intricate detail, she explores the nature of marriage and morality and love by way of a long and equally improbable and intricate dialogue between Jane and Rochester.
I had picked up this book, partially as a little escape from some of the business which presses in on me on every hand, and in the forefront of that business is the issue of human relationships with which the church is currently, slowly disemboweling itself. I read this odd old book, and to my surprise found myself being addressed on these very issues by an extraordinarily perceptive and intelligent woman whose world view was utterly, profoundly Christian. I was blindsided by God. Gifted with depth of analysis and a strangely contemporary applicability where I least expected it.Thank you Charlotte. Thank you God.
Of course most of this was missing from the film. The surface details of Charlotte Bronte's thought experiment were instead dressed up in mid nineteenth century costumes and shot in available light on the wild English moorland and turned into an engaging drama. And it's well worth the price of the ticket, even if you don't want to bother yourself with all that other stuff as well.