What does it mean for something to be "racy" in Jane Eyre ?

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The word “racy” appears twice in Charlotte Brontë’s novel. It has a slightly different meaning at each usage.

In chapter 9, Jane Eyre uses the word in a passage providing her impressions of some of her fellow students at Lowood. In a paragraph describing Mary Ann Wilson, with whom she had become friends, she refers to the girl as “shrewd, observant …, witty and original. ...” Mary Ann is a bit older and more worldly than Jane; she indulges the younger girl by trying to answer any question she might pose, not censoring her but aiming to inform her. Their time together provides “much entertainment, if not much improvement. ...”

In the next paragraph, Jane returns to her discussion of Helen Burns, whom she contrasts sharply to Mary Ann. It is not that she had forgotten Helen, she insists, much less grown tired of her. Jane views Helen—who was quite ill—as existing on a higher level, and says that to converse with her was to gain “a taste of far higher things” than she could get from Mary Ann. It is in this context that “racy” is used: [Mary Ann]

could only tell me amusing stories, and reciprocate any racy and pungent gossip I chose to indulge in. ...

The association with gossip and the addition of the adjective pungent suggest that the meaning of racy then was very similar to its contemporary meaning, having to do with disreputable matters, especially having sexual connotations.

The other appearance of the term pertains to an earlier meaning, which is seldom used today.

In chapter 4, when Jane confronts Mrs. Reed about her feelings of misery, she savors a sense of victory—although it will soon fade—when Mrs. Reed says she will send her to school. She compares this feeling to the sensation of drinking wine, which tasted “racy” at first but then turned as bitter and corrosive as poison. Racy was a term commonly used for flavor, especially in relation to the characteristic taste of wine or fruit.

Something of vengeance I had tasted for the first time; as aromatic wine it seemed, on swallowing, warm and racy: its after-flavour, metallic and corroding, gave me a sensation as if I had been poisoned.

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