Jane Eyre (1847), one of Charlotte Brontë’s most famous novels, is a Victorian fictional autobiography that depicts the life of an independent young woman called Jane Eyre. At the time scores of critics were convinced that Jane Eyre’s ambitions were improper for a young woman.1 Moreover, it was regarded as a violent book about a passionate woman. On the other hand, bildungsromans2 about women were not widespread and it was a real success in the early nineteenth century. But how can we explain it? Whether people were only curious or not, Brontë found a good compromise between her own outlook on women and that of most other people. Owing to the limited credibility accorded to an authoress at that time, Brontë wrote under the pseudonym “Currer Bell” to have more freedom.
In my essay I will try to demonstrate that although frequent critical in it, Brontë adhered to the morality of her time.3 I will first describe the context of Jane Eyre and especially the status of women during the Victorian age to explain why the novel was considered unusual. Secondly I will point out some feminist elements in the book then I will try to outline Brontë’s opinion about feminism and her real intentions in writing Jane Eyre.
The first aspect to point out is the context. In the eighteenth century two crucial events established some fundamental rights: the American (1776) and then the French Revolution (1789). The innovative human rights which followed from them influenced theories about women’s education.4 Nevertheless, despite this new philosophy and the sporadical debates about the treatment of women, almost all women were still trapped by their inferior status.5 At the end of the eighteenth century Sir William Blackstone, an English lawyer and professor who wrote the work Commentaries on the Laws of England, defined the rights of the married woman, or lack of them, in a passage that was cited throughout the century that followed6: “the very being or legal existence of a woman is suspended, or at least it is incorporated or consolidated into that of the husband, under whose wing, protection, and cover she performs everything, and she is therefore called in our law a feme covert7.”
By law and without doubt in practice, women had few rights. In the nineteenth century, a husband had absolute power over his wife; he was responsible for all her acts as if she were a minor. For instance, she could not own property, her husband had the benefit of her inheritance and he could even take it away from her.8
It is also relevant to note that in the nineteenth century artists began to paint feminine angels9 ; it was called the Victorian cult of the “angel in the house10.” This demonstrates perfectly a wish to idealize femininity.11 The ideal woman, the lady, was often seen as a delicate person who must act like a frail creature to appear feminine; hence the widespread “art of fainting.”12 In the light of this background, one may conclude that women expected to be passive whereas men were supposed to be active. Moreover, a girl should be gentle; the question arises as to the nature of her contact with men. Theoretically she should have been taught all the subjects men studied and which they might like to talk about. However, in practice, an educated girl13 was tutored strictly in “propriety14 ”, she was taught the basics in modern languages, music, sewing and drawing. More serious subjects, such as classics, were considered unsuitable for women.15
In Jane Eyre Brontë provides us with a range of portraits of Victorian women. Nevertheless, the first thing that needs to be said is that Jane is an atypical female character. She is a virtuous girl but she does not reflect at all the perfect image of the well-balanced woman since she is proud, makes her own way and proclaims she is equal to everybody else. Brontë illustrates some mid-century ideas in her book, for instance: the position of the governess, education and different aspects of the marriage debate (divorce, the rights of the wife).16 According to Harriet Björk: “All the Brontës’ adaptations are bound up with their criticism of worldly values and their works reflect the contemporary debate on the role of woman from an emancipatory standpoint.”17
Let us start by considering the facts: the question of emotional emancipation is addressed in Jane Eyre.18 Noble feelings move her and she suffers from being passionate, notably during her impossible love with Mr Rochester, when she suffers injustices during her childhood and also throughout the whole of her life, at the moments she feels pride in achievement. Even thought Jane is not a beautiful character, her strong nature and gritty determination make her fascinating and from one page to the next we find that she epitomizes a Victorian woman who dares. It is noticeable that she speaks with authenticity and says clearly what is in her mind. Even when she is young, she expresses herself intensely and uses serious emblematic references: “Wicked and cruel boy! […] You are like a murderer — you are like a slave- driver — you are like the Roman emperors!”19 She talks with passion but without thinking impulsively; it cannot be denied that the impetuous young Jane is often out of control.
‘What would my uncle Reed say to you, if he were alive?’ was my scarcely voluntary demand. I say scarcely voluntary, for it seemed as if my tongue pronounced words without my will consenting to their utterance: something spoke out of me over which I had no control.20
Furthermore she begs to differ; she is manifestly a girl who rebels. One should note here that calling the interest of some passages of the holy Bible into question was quite starling in the nineteenth century. Contrary to other children of her age, she has her own personality and is not controlled by adults.
‘Do you read your Bible?’ ‘Sometimes.’
‘With pleasure? Are you fond of it?’
‘I like Revelations, and the Book of Daniel […] and Jonah.’ ‘And the Psalms? I hope you like them?’
‘No? Oh, shocking! I have a little boy, younger than you, who knows six Psalms by heart: and when you ask him which he would rather have, a gingerbread-nut to eat, or a verse of a Psalm to learn, he says: “Oh! The verse of a Psalm! angels sing Psalms,” says he; “I wish to be a little angel here below.” He the gets two nuts in recompense for his infant piety.’
‘Psalms are not interesting,’ I remarked.21
The girl is compelled to contend with oppression and seems to be the voice of conscience or of integrity. Doubtless little Jane is clever and truthful. However these dignified qualities were rarely associated with girls or women of “good birth.”
1 Sandra M. Gilbert & Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the NineteenthCentury Literary Imagination (Yale: University Press, 1979), p. 338.
2 A Bildungsroman is a novel in which the main character evolves from childhood to adulthood until a certain maturity.
3 Robert B. Martin, Charlotte Brontë's Novels: The Accents of Persuasion (New York: Norton, 1966), p. 93-94.
4 Sandra M. Gilbert & Susan Gubar, The Norton Anthology. Literature by Women: The tradition in English (New York: Norton & Company, 2nd ed., 1996), p. 299.
5 Gilbert & Gubar, p. 288.
6 Gilbert & Gubar, p. 292.
7 Feme covert means “covered woman”, it was the legal status for married women. An adult unmarried woman was considered a feme sole (which means “lonely woman”).
8 Gilbert & Gubar, p. 292.
9 Gilbert & Gubar, p. 289.
10 The “angel of the house” is a concept of desirable femininity from Coventry Patmore's nineteenth century poem.
11 François Bédarida, Que sais-je ? L’ère victorienne (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1974), p. 36.
12 Gilbert & Gubar, p. 289.
13 An educated girl belonged to the middle- or the upper-class.
14 Propriety is the quality of being socially or morally acceptable.
15 Gilbert & Gubar, p. 292.
16 Harriet Björk, The Language of Truth: Charlotte Brontë, the Woman Question and the Novel (Lund: Gleerup, 1974), p. 137.
17 Björk, p. 87.
18 Björk, p.87.
19 Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (London: Penguin Classics, 2006), Chap. I, p. 13.
20 Brontë, Jane Eyre, Chap. IV, p. 34.
21 Brontë, Jane Eyre, Chap. IV, p. 40.