It's hard to imagine a better gothic romance than "Jane Eyre" -- gloomy vast houses, mysterious secrets, and a brooding haunted man with a dark past.

In fact, Charlotte Bronte's classic novel has pretty much everything going for it -- beautiful settings, a passionate romance tempered by iron-clad morals, and a heroine whose poverty and lack of beauty only let her brains and courage shine brighter. And it's all wrapped in the misty, haunting atmosphere of a true gothic story -- madwoman in the attic and all.

Jane Eyre was an orphan, abused and neglected first by relatives, then by a boarding school run by a tyrannical, hypocritical minister. But Jane refuses to let anyone shove her down -- even when her saintly best friend dies from the wretched conditions.

But many years later, Jane moves on by applying to Thornfield Hall for a governess position, and gets the job. She soon becomes the teacher and friend to the sprightly French girl Adele, but is struck by the dark, almost haunted feeling of her new home.

Then she runs into a rather surly horseman -- who turns out to be her employer, Mr. Rochester, a cynical, embittered man who spends little time at Thornfield. They are slowly drawn together into a powerful love, despite their different social stations -- and Rochester's apparent attentions to a shallow, snotty aristocrat who wants his wealth and status.

But strange things are happening at Thornfield -- stabbings, fires, and mysterious laughter. Jane and Rochester finally confess their feelings to each other, but their wedding is interrupted when Rochester's dark past comes to light. Jane flees into the arms of long-lost family members, and is offered a new life -- but her love for Rochester is not so easily forgotten...


 

"Jane Eyre" is one of those books that transcends the labels of genre. Charlotte Bronte spun a haunting gothic romance around her semi-autobiographical heroine and Byronic anti-hero, filling it with brilliant writing and solid plot. It has everything all the other gothic romances of the time had... but Bronte gave it depth and intensity without resorting to melodrama.

Bronte wrote in the usual stately prose of the time, but it has a sensual, lush quality, even in the dank early chapters at Lowood. At Thornfield, the book acquires an overhanging atmosphere of foreboding, until the clouds clear near the end. And she wove some tough questions into Jane's perspective -- that of a woman's independence and strength in a man's world, of extreme religion, and of the clash between morals and passion.

And Bronte also avoided any tinges of drippy sentimentality (Mrs. Reed dies still spewing venom) while injecting some hauntingly nightmarish moments ("She sucked the blood: she said she'd drain my heart"). She even manages to include some funny stuff, such as Rochester disguising himself as an old gypsy woman.

The story does slow down after the abortive wedding, when Jane flees Thornfield and briefly considers marrying a repressed clergyman who wants to go die preaching in India. It's rather boring to hear the self-consciously saintly St. John prattling about himself, instead of Rochester's barbed wit. But when Jane departs again, the plot speeds up into a nice, mellow little finale.

Bronte did a brilliant job of bringing her heroine to life -- as a defiant little girl who is condemned for being "passionate," as an independent young lady, and as a woman torn between love and principle. Jane's strong personality and wits overwhelm the basic fact that she's not unusually pretty. And Rochester is a brilliantly sexy Byronic anti-hero with a prickly, mercurial wit.

Of Charlotte Bronte's few novels, "Jane Eyre" is undoubtedly the most brilliant -- passionate, dark and hauntingly eerie