A while ago, there was a thing circulating among the classic literature fan groups on Twitter (and, yes, there are classic literature fan groups on Twitter) about figuring out the kind of person you are based on which classic literature you loved when you were a kid/teen, with the choices being Little Women, Pride and Prejudice, and Jane Eyre/Wuthering Heights, and if you chose the Brontes, you were supposedly someone who gets into unhealthy relationships and maybe is a bit goth.
I read Little Women as a child and didn’t like it much. The only character I liked was Jo, and I hated her outcome, and the rest of it I thought was a bit too sweet/cute. Plus, I’ve never had much interest in the US Civil War era. I didn’t read Pride and Prejudice until I was a junior in college, so I didn’t have an impression of it as a kid/teen. But I did read Jane Eyre for the first time in fifth grade, and I absolutely loved it. I may still like it a bit more than Pride and Prejudice, but they’re two very different moods, so I’d never enjoy one while I was in the mood for the other.
But I’ve never been all that “goth,” and I don’t have a thing for bad boys and unhealthy relationships. However, I’ve never read Jane Eyre as a romance. To me, the romance has always been secondary (in the book itself, though the film and TV adaptations focus on it). The book is really about a woman’s self-determination, going from being a pawn of fate to taking control of her fate. As a child, she’s subject to her aunt’s whims, she’s taken away to a school where she doesn’t even get to establish herself as herself, since she’s labeled based on what her aunt says, then she ends up working with someone who wants to control her life. Every step of the way, she remains true to herself. She refuses to lie to her aunt, even though she knows telling the truth will get her in trouble. She holds fast to her own identity in the terrible school and learns to stick to her faith and avoid things like revenge and hatred. When she learns Rochester has been lying to her about the mad wife in the attic, she refuses to live a lie with him and takes off on her own, but then when St. John Rivers wants her to live a different kind of lie, marrying him but living as brother and sister to be missionaries, she also refuses that, insisting on sticking to what she knows is right for herself. She builds a life for herself, doing something she believes in and knows is important. I’ve always found her story to be very inspiring. It’s not about her finding some fairytale prince to take her away from her troubles. She’s worked that out for herself before she gets the inheritance, and she has that inheritance before she goes back to Rochester, so she’s able to do so on her own terms and with a much more even power dynamic.
As for the relationship, I don’t think it’s the “she reformed the bad boy with her love” kind of unhealthy thing that people keep categorizing it as. Really, she reforms him with her contempt. When she finds out who and what he really is, she leaves him without a word. She doesn’t return to him until he’s had a big downfall and changed. Her contempt seems to have had a lot to do with him taking a good look at himself and realizing where he went wrong. I don’t see that as being too unhealthy. The unhealthy thing would have been sticking with him in the hope that he’d change, but if he changes on his own while she’s gone, then he might be worth taking a second look at. Still, I’ve never idealized that relationship. I’ve just admired her strength in being willing to walk away from him.
I last re-read Jane Eyre just before I started work on the book that became Rebel Mechanics. I originally had an idea of making it something sort of gothic-like, with the governess ending up in the spooky house full of secrets and lies. But Lord Henry refused to be a mysterious, brooding Rochester type, so I dropped that angle entirely. There were still secrets and lies, but the tone ended up being very different.
As for Wuthering Heights, I read that in my early 20s and again a few years ago, and I don’t see it as all that romantic. I don’t think it’s meant to be romantic. Heathcliff is clearly the villain of that book, not a romantic hero. In the 19th century Romantic movement sense, I think it’s more about nature vs. civilization, and Heathcliff and Cathy might have been okay if they’d been left alone to follow their natures, but they were destroyed by society trying to “civilize” them and put them into social constraints based on class. I’m not a huge fan of that story, but I do think it gets a bad rap from the misinterpretation as being a romance.