I came to Jane Eyre late - she was not the love of a teenage mind, passionate and agile and voracious, as Anna Karenina had been. I read her after college, after, even, law school, as part of a classics project born of the feeling that my brain was losing its edge, becoming complacent and unchallenged.
That classics project was good for me - it revitalized a part of myself that I had let grow slack. And, it introduced me to Jane.
There is so much in this book that it could, and has, occupy graduate lit students for generations. Charlotte Bronte is a marvel, and how it is that the sheltered, unmarried daughter of a clergyman created Jane Eyre is wondrous and strange.
Jane is a truly independent young woman, shaped by nature to challenge authority. She is not particularly beautiful, although I suspect that under the right conditions she would have appeared remarkably pretty. But she is a cast-off of Victorian society: orphaned, penniless, small, and plain. And yet she has the audacity to challenge the societal expression of her worthlessness. She is a person to her very core, in a society that treats her as much less than a person. She makes her own living at a time when women were dependent. She leaves a wealthy man, who could've made her comfortable, preferring - quite literally - death to the dishonor of not living up to her own (not society's) expectations of her moral conduct.
It's not just that Jane speaks for women everywhere who are oppressed by the Victorian patriarchal society. She speaks for everyone who is not affluent, who is not male and who lacks any inherent worth aside from the service that they can provide to those who are affluent and who are favored by birth to be the oppressors and not the oppressed.
We live, still, in a world of castes and stratums and Jane Eyre forcibly reminds us not to underestimate those whom we dismiss.
Jane does what is right, always. She stands up for herself, always. No wonder critics were appalled by her, she scared the crap out of them. If Jane Eyre was society's future, and she was, then society itself would be subject to overthrow - and it was. The romance, the choice between St. John & Rochester, that's interesting and all. But the point of this book is that Jane's primary romance is with herself. She knows she is capable and worthy of choosing what is right for her.
Charlotte Bronte - scary (woman) author, indeed.