Endeavoring to portray a realistic view of life that reflected the modernity of the age, the Victorian novel criticized aspects of society such as child labor and abuse, the nature and role of women, the Industrial Revolution and its resulting hardships and social developments. With industrialization, new opportunities and challenges arose for women, and some became writers, teachers, and social reformers, who fought for femal workers and challenged the femme covert laws in which women had to relinquish their property to their husbands as well as other rights.
Many writers, and women writers such as Charlotte Bronte gave a voice to the emerging independent spirit of women and a distaste for the smothering Victorian life. In the latter period of the Victorian Age, literature often examined the burden of imperialism with its rebellions, massacres, and wars such as the Indian Mutiny in 1857 and the Jamaica Rebellion in 1865. In Jane Eyre, several elements of Victorian Literature are evinced:
- REFLECTION UPON THE SOCIAL ILLS OF THE AGE
Poor conditions for orphans
Abused by her aunt after she is orphaned, Jane is sent by Mrs. Reed to Lowood where the children are ill-dressed and underfed. Mr. Brocklehurst, a religious hypocrite and the proprietor of Lowood Institution, is cruel and sadistic. In a subtle suggestion about the girls' destiny, Bronte has Helen reading Samuel Johnson's Rasselas, a text examining the philosophical question of a person's inability to change one's existence.
The nature and role of women
Bronte's novel examines what the Victorians termed "The Woman Question"; this "question" involves how women are regarded as members of society, and Bronte explores this perspective as Jane examines herself as a girl, in her position as a governess trapped in a role that makes her little more than a servant--the role she will play if she marries Mr. Rochester and later her role if she marries St. John Rivers. Ultimately, as the heroine of this Victorian novel, Jane depends upon her own intelligence and determination and principles to achieve self-fulfillment. However, other characters such as Miss Miller, an "underteacher" at Lowood, does not approve of Brocklehurst's methods, but is powerless.
The Rivers sisters, too, are governesses and are portrayed in a positive light.
- REFLECTION UPON THE MORAL ISSUES OF THE AGE
The character of the sanctimonious hypocrite, Mr. Brocklehurst, is based upon William Cams Wilson, an evangelical clergyman who founded a girls' school that provided only the poorest of conditions.
Jane's cousin, St. John Rivers desires Jane to marry him so that she can help with his missionary work.
Because there were so few occupations open to women and because women so outnumbered men in Victorian England (so many men were soldiers, or had been killed as soldiers), many women turned to prostitution as a means of self-support. Bronte's Jane Eyre, however, refuses to be the mistress of Mr. Rochester, citing a higher moral law as her justification as she tells Rochester,
"Laws and principles are not for the time when there is no temptation; they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise against their rigor. . .
The immorality of Imperialism
While not mentioned overtly, Bronte does allude to the Jamaica Rebellion of 1865 with regard to the characters of Bertha Mason and her brother and Rochester's arranged marriage to her in Jamaica.