I once recommended Jane Eyre to a friend of mine, and when she finally read it she was extremely underwhelmed. She saw Jane as a doormat and could not understand why I love this book so much. Well, on the 150th anniversary of Charlotte's death, here are a few meagre thoughts...
I first read it when I was 13, home sick from school (and devotedly in love with Jack London) on a grey autumn day. I identified with her from page one, and the subsequent issues of personal identity, choice, self-worth, resisting others who would change you, and the views on marriage were all revelatory for me. Here was a girl who was not beautiful and not particularly talented, yet she had the strength of character to do what she thought was right in the face of myriad pressures (internal and external). She knew that going off to India to sacrifice herself for religious reasons was just as wrong as becoming a shadow of herself as Rochester's plaything (he was already going overboard and dressing her up like a doll just before things fell apart).
It's also important to remember (as I dutifully told my doubting friend) that when the book first came out, Jane was percieved as a monstrous violation of the ideals of "womanhood" in Victorian England. (The exact *opposite* impression she tends to create these days--more of a harpy than a doormat!) Lucasta Miller's The Brontë Myth is a fantastic analysis of how the sisters and their work has been percieved (and mythologized) over the years (e.g., Gaskell did more harm than good in trying to "rehabilitate" Charlotte).
Here is a wonderful conversation on the BBC's Radio 4 with Lucasta Miller and Joanna Trollope on Charlotte, her death, and the revolutionary nature of her work. (They say it all much better than I ever could!)
(first link via Maud)