Don’t get me wrong. I really like this novel. I think it is one of the first truly psychoanalytic novels in terms of being an extended examination of consciousness and motives, in exploring identity through relationships, in modelling displaced parenting and in describing the recovery of a damaged young girl. In that sense, it is a masterpiece.
However, the journey that Jane goes on and the sense of convalescence and recovery for a damaged mind is essentially at the heart of contemporary Chick Lit. Take a heroine, give her a really hard set of experiences (mistakes or misfortunes in life and love) and then track how her inner strength first helps her to get to know herself, then guarantees her survival and, finally, her prosperity (married to Mr Right Guy).
Perhaps this is why the notion that this is a socially reforming text doesn’t quite hold up. You get the impression that Charlotte Bronte knows quite a bit about education, where the voice is authentic, but not a lot about life. There are glimpses or pastiches of social deprivation but not much more than that.
It also raises issues for people who want to give it a feminist reading. We don’t quite know why the mad woman in the attic got confined there but madness was frequently a diagnosis to cover a multiplicity of situations and sins. Throughout the book, there are social situations where women unquestioningly defer to men but it also seems important that Rochester has to be damaged by the fire to the extent that it brings him down to the level of plain Jane.
There’s nothing wrong with Chick Lit and I don’t see why it, or Harry Potter for that matter, shouldn’t structurally relate to a text like Jane Eyre but I do wonder sometimes whether people are asking the book to support too many of their own hobby horses rather than accepting that it is an engaging story with some genuine contemporary insights.