Reflections on social development and values in Victorian England as depicted in Jane Eyre
How did Religion and Gender shape a society?
Intermediate Diploma Thesis 2019 29 Pages
2 The Victorian Era
2.1 Period overview
3 Victorian Literature
3.1 Victorian readership
3.2 The Victorian novel
4 Jane Eyre
5.1 Gender in the Victorian Era
5.1.1 Legal situation
5.2 Progressive Jane
5.2.1 Jane as a governess
5.3 Feminist Jane
5.3.2 Marriage to Mr Rochester: Independence
5.3.3 Lowood School: Oppression against women
5.3.4 Red room scene: Submission and stillness
6.1 Influence of Christianity
6.2 The Brontës’ faith
6.3 Mr. Brocklehurst
6.4 Helen Burns
6.5 Mr Rochester
6.6 St. John Rivers
6.7 Masculine and feminine images of God
Jane Eyre, one of the most significant novels of the Victorian Era, provides reflections on the period and its society. This paper examines the changes and developments of Victorian England. It further deals with the literary situation and places Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre in its historical context. After a short summary, there follows an examination of the issues Jane Eyre revolts against. Her criticism against the then accepted gender roles and her liberal idea of womanhood indicate a strong female emancipation. Through an interpretation of certain passages, Jane’s demand for equality of gender becomes evident. Jane Eyre also reflects on Victorian morality and people’s idea of religion. The most important Christian conventions are presented illustrated by characters matching those different interpretations of Christianity. The then often valid severity in faith is against Jane’s idea of a good and loving God.
Jane Eyre – one woman reflecting on society.
Charlotte Brontë’s celebrated novel is truly one of a kind. It portrays a young woman who speaks up against the injustice and mistreatment of many aspects given during the Victorian Era. This is not surprising, as the duration of Queen Victoria’s reign was a time of change and innovation. The Victorian period witnessed a great boost in its economy as well as alterations of its social structure: The Industrial Revolution stimulated globalisation as well as modern science. Then, the emergence of pre-feminism, with criticism focusing on reforming the then accepted gender roles. Christianity was also re-thought and liberalised. The list could, of course, go on for pages. The primary aim of this paper will be, however, to examine some of the changes and developments which are directly portrayed in Jane Eyre.
- Which conditions were given during Queen Victoria’s reign?
- What influenced the Victorians’ morality? Which values emerged/were preserved?
- What characterises Victorian literature?
- Does Jane Eyre correspond with the changes during the Victorian Era?
- Does Jane Eyre approve of the then valid social situation?
- What is the nature of her revolt?
In order to have these questions answered, this paper will be split into three major parts. Firstly, a historical context will be established. Then, using the method of literary interpretation of Jane Eyre, the paper will be split into two major topics:
Gender and Religion.
These two aspects seem most relevant in Jane Eyre and are also amongst the most important conditions that shaped Victorian society. At this point an analysis of some of the novel’s characters will be necessary. After the literary examination it will become evident what it was like living in Victorian England and why this period underwent so many revolts and reforms.
2 The Victorian Era
2.1 Period overview
Scarcely any other era in British history, brought as many social, economic and politic changes as the Victorian Era. It has long been a tradition to categorise British history in certain time durations, eras, named after their current heads of state. Thus, Princess Alexandrina Victoria of Kent (later; Queen) became the eponym of her time when she ascended to the throne in 1837. The full duration of her reign lasted until her death in 1901, marking the end to the Victorian Period. The Victorian society was witness of many innovations, setting the 19th century in great contrast with its predecessor, the Regency Era.1
It is important to mention some of the reforms and acts implemented by the 19th century government, to establish context for the further discussion of Victorian society. The first Great Reform Act of 1832 (of which there were three during Queen Victoria’s Age), for instance, widened the franchise to a considerably greater part of the population. By the late Victorian years, however, still only around 12 per cent of the population were legally allowed to vote. Women altogether were excluded from the extension of the right to vote until the year 1918, due the success of the suffragette movement. In fact, women’s liberty was strictly limited throughout the century, making them almost completely dependent on their male superiors (fathers, brothers, husbands). This custom goes under the name of “coverture” and was effectively annulled by the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882. Furthermore, the Victorians (foremost those that were poverty-stricken) were made to suffer under the Poor Law Act of 1834, which condemned them to be placed in workhouses and similar institutions, which were known for their catastrophic conditions famously displayed and criticised by Charles Dickens’s novels. One progressive achievement of the Victorian Period was passed by William Wilberforce’s anti-slavery administration that brought about the abolition of slavery, liberating thousands of colonial slaves, in the year 1833.2
The Empire’s economy saw a huge shift from an agricultural oriented policy to, as Sean Purchase puts it, “an urban and industrial society, based on an increasing culture of individualism and capitalism”.3 Britain was advancing and consciously heading for a new modern age. Manufacturers, industrialists, and entrepreneurs were encouraged by the new capitalist spirit, seeking profit and thus gradually gaining on power, influence, and foremost status. The middle-class, consisting mostly of such tradesmen’s families, emerged. Technological progress, such as the construction of the railway, operated by a steam engine, led towards an Industrial Revolution that spread across all Great Britain. Scientific discoveries were made and supported, with Prince Albert himself exhibiting British scientific and technological achievements in the Great Exhibition in 1851, which held over 6 million visitors. The new interest in sciences resulted in a reorganisation of Victorian morals. A suitable example of this is Charles Darwin’s Evolution Theory, which made the Victorian people question long-standing doctrines of the church.4
Thus, it can be said that the Victorian Age was a time of great prosperity, showing itself in the vast population growth that rose up to 30 million by Queen Victoria’s death in 1901. The then well-known historian Walter Besant summarised his progressive generation thus:
To us, who find it difficult to stand outside and consider events in their true proportion, the period seems like a grand triumphal march. […] The changes are nothing short of a transformation. And no one regrets the change. During this long period there has arisen in the national mind such a spirit of enterprise, endeavour and achievement as has n parallel in our history except in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Now, as then, people have been restless: this restlessness has shown itself in colonisation, in emigration, in research, in discovery, in invention – in changes of every kind.5
The economic upheaval affected the Victorians’ idea of values directly. The welfare of a large portion of Britain’s inhabitants, as well as the Education Act of 1870 making school compulsory, thus that creating better-educated Victorians (from which the “polished” middle-class mostly benefited), steered people’s conscience towards ethical questions. Social evils, moral queries, and gender roles were reconsidered. Many written critiques in form of literature, speeches, arts etc. followed.6 Michael Paterson fittingly described this development by commenting:
Within the sixty-four years between 1837 and 1901 spanned by Victoria’s reign […] the British developed into a gentler, more generous, more civilized people than their uncouth Georgian grandfathers had been (by the fifties animal-baiting had been banned; […] transportation and public hangings ceased; and flogging was abolished […] The Victorians hated the moral laxity of the Georgians as much as they found their manners and ideas passé. The sheer scale of Victorian buildings, ships, bridges or railway networks made everything that had gone before seem small and parochial by comparison.7
3 Victorian literature
3.1 Victorian readership
Relating to the chapter above, we have seen that Victorian society has undergone a certain “refinement”, primarily in its education. An example of this is the establishment of the well-esteemed middle-class, who sought to manifest their status by keeping up with the current intellect. Consequently, an increase in the interest in arts followed with the novel being most prominent amongst these. This new thirst for literature was acknowledged and met by provision of countless papers, magazines, and novels. The increase in the sheer amount of published works through the discovery of new printing techniques, lowering the overall cost of books, was also a reason why reading gained on popularity. As the century continued, reading was for the first time not primarily exercised for intellectual reasons of learning and self-improvement, but as a leisure activity. Small “pocket- editions” of great literary works could be carried around everywhere. The railway added to the demand of books, with long train journeys being a convenient opportunity to read. Train stations were now housing bookstalls, where people could purchase prose, poetry, and papers of their choice. Special book editions like the “Railway Library” were introduced chiefly for train passengers. Furthermore, libraries were being erected everywhere, the 1841-built London Library (initiated by Thomas Carlyle) being an example of this. With more readers there came along more writers. The 19th century saw the emergence of, authors celebrated until today such as Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Anthony Trollope, George Eliot, and of course the Brontë sisters.8
3.2 The Victorian novel
Compared to the Romantic Period during which the literally genre of poetry gained on significance, the Victorian Society set more store by prose, more specifically; the novel. There are several reasons to explain the novels’ vogue amongst the Victorians, but they all share a certain component: The Victorian Novel reflected the ever-present social and economic changes society had to undergo. The sheer complexity of sociological and economic transitions of the Victorian Age, made it impossible for anything but prose to reflect on these changes, by it being a longer form of literature enabling an author to provide a more detailed picture of their time. Moreover, novels mirrored the very issue of social existence during the 19th century. Authors of that time often expressed to have the urge to outpoint social evils, bring an industrial, fast moving society back to its morals. The catastrophic working-class conditions were written about, others specialised e.g. on pre-feminist and feminist writing, proposing the so- called Woman Question. This question consisted of a widespread debate about the place of women in society. Moreover, Victorian novels distinctly show evidence of how capitalism had made the middle class the most influential class of the Age. This middle-class was primarily responsible for publishing, and reading literature, hence that these topics reflected the middle-class’s perspective on society. It is altogether impossible to characterise the “typical” Victorian novel, as the Victorian Era lasted over 60 years, there can however be remarked that many of these works follow the literary genre of realism.9 Charlotte Brontë herself, phrased a desire to portray realism in the first chapter of her 1849 published novel Shirley by writing:
If you think, from this prelude, that anything like a romance is preparing for you, reader, you never were more mistaken. Do you anticipate sentiment, and poetry, and reverie? Do you expect passion, and stimulus, and melodrama? Calm your expectations; reduce them to a lowly standard. Something real, cool, and solid, lies before you; something unromantic as Monday morning, when all who have work wake with the consciousness that they must rise and betake themselves thereto. It is not positively aﬃrmed that you shall not have a taste of the exciting, perhaps towards the middle and close of the meal, but it is resolved that the ﬁrst dish set upon the table shall be one that a Catholic––ay, even an Anglo-Catholic––might eat on Good Friday in Passion Week: it shall be cold lentiles and vinegar without oil; it shall be unleavened bread with bitter herbs and no roast lamb.10
It is however remarkable, that her preceding novel Jane Eyre, which is the subject of this paper, is full of romantic elements and melodrama. How is this controversy to be explained? Critic Margaret Anne Doody breaks this issue down by arguing that critical practice and literary history of the 19th century, focused too much on realism while many writers adhered to a broader tradition of romance, fantasy etc.11
This seems to be the case with Charlotte Brontë. Although she was definitely influenced by realism she did not confine herself to that style only, often combining both realistic and romantic elements. Her novel Jane Eyre is obviously a romantic novel that does not fail to outpoint the Victorian “reality”, its centre theme being social inequality in status, gender and religion.
4 Jane Eyre
After its publication in 1847, Jane Eyre instantly received positive reviews. Due to an oppression of female artists, Charlotte published her novel under the pseudonym Currer Bell, in order to hide her sex. Thus, her work could be read with sufficient seriousness. After she publicly admitted to being the author of Jane Eyre, however, the responses became much more severe. Seeking professional opinion, Charlotte wrote to poet laureate Robert Southey, asking him what he thought about Jane Eyre.12 His answering letter contained harsh criticism:
Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be, the more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure will she have for it, even as an accomplishment and a recreation.13
This close-mindedness and suppression of the female gender is exactly what Charlotte criticises and revolts against in her novel Jane Eyre. Her constant request is equality of gender. Jane’s relationship with her master Mr Rochester, her passionate nature, and the fact that she freely expresses her thoughts was altogether contradictory to the idea of womanhood in Victorian England.14
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë’s first novel, approaches the social situation of early Victorian England by portraying a young governess and her struggle for autonomy. The work can be assigned to the category of ‘bildungsroman’. Oxford Dictionary defines a bildungsroman by it being “a novel dealing with one person’s formative years or spiritual education”.15
1 cf. Erzgräber, Bernhard/Fabian, Kurt et al. (1991): Die Englische Literatur, Epochen, Formen. Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, p. 153.
2 cf. Purchase, Sean (2006): Key Concepts in Victorian Literature. New York: Palgrave
Macmillian, (Palgrave Key Concepts: Literature), pp. 3.
3 Ibid., p. 3.
4 cf. Ibid., p. 122.
5 Besant, Walter (1897): Jubilee Portrait of our Queen. In: Illustrated London News. Diamond Jubilee number. p. 1.
6 cf. Paterson, Michael (2008): Life in Victorian Britain. A Social History of Queen Victoria’s Reign. London: Robinson pp. 14.
7 Ibid., p. 15.
8 Paterson, Life in Victorian Britain, pp. 279.
9 Purchase, Key Concepts in Victorian Literature, pp. 145.
10 Brontë, Charlotte (2007): Shirley. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 44.
11 quoted from (cf.): Roberts, Adam (2003): Victorian Culture and Society. London: Arnold, (The Essential Glossary series), p. 184.
12 Cf. Bertolino, Paola (2001/2002): Female emancipation in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. Seminar paper. University of Leipzig, p. 10.
13 Quoted from: Ibid. p.10
14 Cf. Ibid., p.10
15 Oxford Dictionary (2019): Bildungsroman. URL: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/bildungsroman (accessed February 17th 2019)