Anne Stott teaches for the Open University and Birkbeck College. She is the author of Hannah More: the First Victorian, which in 2004 won the Rose Mary Crawshay Prize for literary biography. She is currently researching for a book on the domestic life of William Wilberforce. Below Anne discusses Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre.
Anne Stott on Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Do you think that 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... 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!
There had never been a voice like this, so confident, assertive and defiant. This was not how a woman was meant to speak to a man, still less how a governess on £30 a year was expected to address her employer. No wonder so many of the early readers were fascinated and appalled, caught up in the power of the story but often reluctant to give heartfelt approval to its heroine. Even Charlotte Brontë's staunchest defender, her first biographer, Elizabeth Gaskell, was forced to bend to Victorian propriety by admitting, 'I do not deny for myself the existence of coarseness here and there in her works, otherwise so entirely noble.' The most venomous of the reviewers, a woman, argued it was most likely that the mysterious 'Currer Bell' was a man, but added, 'if we ascribe the book to a woman at all, we have no alternative but to ascribe it to one who has, for some sufficient reason, long forfeited the society of her own sex'. While the modern reader is most likely to be struck, and perhaps a little repelled, by the religiosity of Jane Eyre, the reviewer saw the book as 'an anti-Christian composition... a murmuring against God's appointment', and described its heroine as 'the personification of an unregenerate and undisciplined spirit'. Criticisms like this stung Charlotte Brontë into a characteristically trenchant defence: 'Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns.' She was right, of course, but so in a sense was her reviewer. Jane Eyre is a more controversial character than her creator was ready to admit, disturbing to many contemporary readers because she insists on being true to her own nature and refuses to live her life by the terms laid down for her by others, even when these others are two figures of authority - a landed gentleman and a clergyman.
It is a trite statement, but it has to be said: Jane Eyre is one of the most gripping novels ever written. From the opening chapters the reader is caught up in one memorable scene after another. Who can forget the terrified child locked in the red room, the burnt porridge offered to a school full of malnourished girls, the interrupted wedding service, the bloated and purple features of the madwoman? It is an irresistible combination of myth and social realism. Though firmly rooted in its period and place - the north of England in the early decades of the 19th century - its archetypal power makes it timeless. It has shades of Cinderella and Bluebeard. It is a quest narrative, as Jane has to make journeys - nearly dying on one of them - in order to reach her goal. It has been interpreted as a feminist parable, with the 'madwoman in the attic' representing the repressions and distortions forced on women writers. It is a comedy in the classical sense, because after great suffering there is resolution and a happy ending. Is there a more satisfying sentence in an English novel than 'Reader, I married him'?
Its hero has been copied countless times, most memorably in Daphne du Maurier's Rececca. Of course, Rochester does not resemble the unglamorous men Charlotte Brontë actually knew - her father's curates and Constantin Heger, the married Brussels schoolmaster with whom she was in love. He is a reworking of Zamorna, the darkly passionate hero of the Angria stories she wrote with her brother, Branwell, and more indirectly of the enjoyably notorious Lord Byron. Like him, Rochester fled abroad and 'sought my idea of passion amongst English ladies, French countesses, Italian signoras, and German gräfinnen'. (Reader, perhaps I should get out more, but if a man said that to me, I would burst out laughing.) Judged by the light of cold reason, he is cruel, manipulative and deceitful. He torments Jane by pretending to pay court to another woman and he tries to trap her into an illegal marriage. His treatment of his mad wife is dreadful. It is surely a little careless to keep a madwoman with pyromaniac tendencies locked up in a house guarded only by a woman with a weakness for drink rather than in a humane asylum. (Yes, they did exist.) Bertha Mason's back-story cried out to be told, and it was done brilliantly in Jean Rhys's post-colonial Wide Sargasso Sea. But, like so many of Dickens's characters, Rochester should not be taken too literally. He belongs in the realm of (some!) female fantasies rather than the novel of social realism.
Jane, on the other hand, convinces completely, though it took the rise of feminism for the truth of her situation and character to be appreciated. One of the earliest scenes in the book has the nine-year-old child leaning over the banisters, shouting her defiance to the relatives who have treated her so badly: 'They are not fit to associate with me'. She refuses to accept the role of the grateful poor relation. Years later, after a successful period of teaching at Lowood school, she seeks new experiences: 'I remembered that the real world was wide, and that a vast field of hopes and fears, of sensations and excitements awaited those who had courage to go forth into its expanse, to seek real knowledge of life amidst its perils.' As her quest takes her to Thornfield Hall, she finds she does not dislike her work as governess to little Adèle, but she wants more. 'I could not help it; the restlessness was in my nature'. She adds, provocatively, 'Women are supposed to be very calm generally; but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties... they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer.' Unhappily, there are too many areas of the world where that message is still needed.
Jane Eyre is a feminist novel, but Charlotte Brontë was (short-sightedly perhaps) not especially interested in the political demands being made by contemporaries like Harriet Taylor Mill. Jane's feminism lies in her uncompromising assertion of her nature. Her independence revolts against Rochester's wish to showcase her as his possession by loading her with fine clothes and jewels: 'Jewels for Jane Eyre sounds unnatural and strange... If you have a fancy for anything in that line, away with you, sir, to the bazaars of Stamboul without delay'. When she learns that he already has a wife, she refuses to live with him, mainly because of her Christian moral code, but also because she cannot bear the thought of being a kept woman, living in luxurious indolence and dependent on his good will. She will not buy happiness at the price of self-respect.
The last section of the book deals with Jane's complex relationship with St. John Rivers, the 'white marble' clergyman with the regular Grecian features who is the antithesis of the swarthy Rochester. Rivers is a brilliant creation, representing the pitilessness and unconscious egotism of a man whose life is consumed with a great cause. It is often hard to stand up to such people because their devotion can make less dedicated human beings feel trivial and selfish. Like Rochester, he tries to read Jane's nature and gets her wrong, though in an opposite way: 'God and nature intended you for a missionary's wife... you are formed for labour, not for love.' The thought of her life as his wife appals Jane: 'at his side always, always restrained and always checked - forced to keep the fire of my nature continually low, to compel it to burn inwardly and never utter a cry... - this would be unendurable'.
It is at this crisis point that Jane hears Rochester's voice calling her from afar. In the moment of revelation, she turns away from Rivers, knowing that 'it was my time to assume ascendancy. My powers were in play and in force.' Yes, she needs independence and satisfying work, but she cannot live without love. She returns to Rochester and finds him blind, mutilated and despairing: symbolically castrated perhaps. Only she can restore him, and her method is banter rather than sentiment. 'Am I hideous, Jane?' 'Very, sir; you always were, you know.' This resolution is made possible by a series of rather obvious plot devices - an opportune inheritance, a ghostly voice and then a convenient fire that kills the madwoman. But to criticize their artificiality is to miss the point. The profound underlying realism is that in her love for Rochester, Jane can fulfil the deepest truths of her being. Chastened, but daring at last to hope for happiness, he says, 'Jane suits me: do I suit her?' She replies, 'to the finest fibre of my nature, sir'.