The new genre New Adult is just as controversial as the topics it deals with—some readers think NA is just YA with sex, others think it's merely a marketing term, and the authors emerging from this equally emerging genre are dealing with some controversial themes.
But is New Adult really new? I'd argue not. In fact, I'd say, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre carries all the hallmarks of being in the New Adult genre. A Wikipedia article on New Adult says,
“New Adult fiction tends to focus on issues such as leaving home, developing sexuality, and negotiating education and career choices.”
Many books deal with those kinds of issues, of course (Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint; J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye; Jack Kerouac's On the Road, to name just three). But would those books be called New Adult? Likely not, at least as much because the protagonists are all male.
The titular Jane Eyre is as difficult and irascible as her male counterparts. But where they are choosing to question and argue and discuss how they want to be, Jane's choices are foisted on her because of her gender, her economic status, and her appearance.
Like many New Adult protagonists, Jane has a traumatic event in her past—being shut in the Red Room following an altercation with her cousin. She's constantly being slighted, insulted, emotionally and physically abused, and is finally sent to a place—Lowood—where the abuse continues. During the course of that awful time there, the only person (besides the maid Bessie) who cares for Jane dies as a result of the longterm neglect found at Lowood. Her early traumatic experiences mean that Jane sees herself as “poor, obscure, plain and little,” and can't fathom the possibility of having someone like Mr. Rochester—her employer—find her worthy of love.
Jane Eyre is told in first person, and we only ever see the events through Jane's eyes. That narrative is very strong in New Adult, and the popularity of the genre has lead to authors writing the events told in one book through the male protagonist's point-of-view in another (how awesome would it be for someone to write Jane Eyre from Rochester's viewpoint!). Jane has a fierce moral compass which leads her to making difficult choices and rejecting choices that might have swayed a less strict character (St. John Rivers, anyone?).
And the love of Jane's life is not a traditional romance hero. Edward Rochester is a difficult, stubborn, arrogant man. He doesn't want to be intrigued by Jane as much as she doesn't want to be intrigued by him. He doesn't even have the benefit of being good-looking. Jane describes him during their first meeting:
I traced the general points of middle height and considerable breadth of chest. He had a dark face, with stern features and a heavy brow; his eyes and gathered eyebrows looked ireful and thwarted just now; he was past youth, but had not reached middle-age; perhaps he might be thirty-five. I felt no fear of him, and but little shyness. Had he been a handsome, heroic-looking young gentleman, I should not have dared to stand thus questioning him against his will, and offering my services unasked. I had hardly ever seen a handsome youth; never in my life spoken to one. I had a theoretical reverence and homage for beauty, elegance, gallantry, fascination; but had I met those qualities incarnate in masculine shape, I should have known instinctively that they neither had nor could have sympathy with anything in me, and should have shunned them as one would fire, lightning, or anything else that is bright but antipathetic.
Reading the last section of that makes it obvious that Jane is a prickly heroine—she assumes that someone who had “beauty, elegance, gallantry” would find nothing to like in her. When Jane officially meets Rochester, she further describes him:
I knew my traveller with his broad and jetty eyebrows; his square forehead, made squarer by the horizontal sweep of his black hair. I recognised his decisive nose, more remarkable for character than beauty; his full nostrils, denoting, I thought, choler; his grim mouth, chin, and jaw—yes, all three were very grim, and no mistake. His shape, now divested of cloak, I perceived harmonised in squareness with his physiognomy: I suppose it was a good figure in the athletic sense of the term—broad chested and thin flanked, though neither tall nor graceful.
“More remarkable for character than beauty.” Which describes Jane herself.
Edward Rochester has his own damaged past, lured into some very bad decisions by superficial appearances. It seems that he might get fooled again with Blanche Ingram, whose treatment of Jane and Jane's charge, Adele, reveal her true unpleasant nature. But of course he chooses Jane, despite it being the wrong choice for him, given his circumstances. But not before acting like a jerk to Jane, making her believe he is going to marry the lovely Blanche and Jane will find a position in Ireland. Jane's outburst is fierce, fiery, passionate, and angry:
“I tell you I must go!” I retorted, roused to something like passion. “Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you? Do you think I am an automaton?—a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!—I have as much soul as you,—and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh;—it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal,—as we are!
Having revealed her true character, how can Rochester resist her? It helps him along, in fact, that she is “poor, obscure, plain, and little” because at last he can trust his feelings when it comes to a woman.
And then more trauma happens, as it does in New Adult books (because happiness is neither guaranteed nor easy), and our damaged protagonists are separated for a long time in the course of the book as Jane feels her way through her potential life choices.
It is only when she is at last content with herself that she can accept Rochester's love (and that his wife has conveniently perished in a fire). It is interesting to consider that although Rochester's internal issues have been more resolved, he is now externally even more damaged—because he was doing the right thing by trying to save his mad wife's life. The focus in the book is not on Jane and Rochester's love story, but on Jane's navigation of her life after education, dealing with her “grown-up” issues of “ leaving home, developing sexuality, and negotiating education and career choices.”
So, is Jane Eyre the original New Adult book? Or are these themes and issues just very common in literature with a strong romantic element?
Megan Frampton is the Community Manager for the HeroesandHeartbreakers site. She lives in Brooklyn, NY, with her husband and son and has read Jane Eyre at least 100 times.