illustrated portrait of English author Charlotte Brontë

Charlotte Brontë

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Margaret Lawrence (Essay Date 1936)

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SOURCE: Lawrence, Margaret. "The Brontë Sisters, Who Wrestled With Romance." In The School of Femininity: A Book For and About Women As They Are Interpreted Through Feminine Writers of Yesterday and Today, pp. 60-88. New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1936.

In the following excerpt, Lawrence asserts that Brontë's novels are documents of feminist history, reflecting the unsatisfied passion of women with limited options and without mutual and egalitarian love relationships.

When Charlotte read Wuthering Heights she was staggered again. She knew that her own Professor was a silly tame story beside it. She sat down to begin another story; and some of the fire of Wuthering Heights transferred itself to the writing of Jane Eyre.

And Jane Eyre was the book of the year in England. Charlotte Brontë had let loose all the pent-up hatreds of her nature. She was no longer afraid. There had been hatred in her sister's book. But Charlotte's was a very concrete hatred and very personal. She went after the school that had killed her two older sisters. She made horrible images of the teachers and of the system. She took for her heroine a small plain-looking orphan girl who was designed by nature to be the butt of sadistic people. She wrote herself into little defenseless, tortured Jane Eyre. The hatred that forced the book out of her made its writing astoundingly vivid. It knocked its readers cold. The style was as tortured as the heroine. Charlotte liked being literary, and she never missed a chance to be literary; except when she was so angry she forgot. It was when she was raging angry that the book blazed with power; when she cooled off and got literary it was lame and pretentious; but fortunately for her ambitions the...

(This entire section contains 5016 words.)

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anger far outweighed the literature in it; so it went over. She was unquestionably influenced by Emily's Heathcliffe when she came to draw the hero, Mr. Rochester. Only, as she no doubt thought herself, she improved on him by giving her man a very Continental experience. He had had a group of mistresses, and liked nothing better than to brag about them; but when he was due, by reason of approaching middle age, to be touched by tender love, it was gentle, plain Jane to whom he turned. Not for him were the lovely ladies of title that were brought into the story. But he amused himself while he was trying to make up his mind what to do by philandering a bit; just enough to make Jane jealous. Jealousy made her lose her head. She came out flatly with her love of him. It was Charlotte's famous innovation. No woman had ever done such a thing in literature—certainly not in ladylike literature. It was a great triumph for Mr. Rochester. It gave him courage to plan his final sin. For all this time the bad man had been hiding in his attic a maniac wife, guarded by a gin-consuming nurse. Jane had sensed the mystery in the house. But that had added to her love. Mr. Rochester arranges a start into bigamy; but he is stopped at the altar. The facts have come out. Jane is horrified; but not nearly so horrified as when her darling makes her a proposition. Then she flees the country, as all good women fled in those days from sin. And she flees with only what she has on, and has many melodramatic accidents. But they are nothing compared to what happened to Rochester. His insane wife sets the house on fire, and jumps from the roof to her death. Rochester is paid by fate for his ways by having a burning brand hit him in the eyes; he is blinded for life. And little Jane comes radiantly back and marries him. Charlotte Brontë hugged herself; she had made a plain little woman come into her own; she had been most sophisticated and had not quailed before mistresses and sins and cases for the asylum. In fact she had treated them all with gusto. All London talked about the book. People got all mixed up about the identities of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. She thought it was necessary to go to London and straighten things out. But she was afraid to go by herself. So she took Anne. Emily was angry about the whole business. She was still angrier when Charlotte returned and explained that she had told the publisher they were three sisters. It was all a trap, Emily said. Publicity was vulgar. Besides being a nuisance. She must have had a moment of prevision. Publicity was certainly going to be both vulgar and a nuisance for the Brontë future. Not to mention what it was going to do to Brontë historians. That settled it for Emily. She would never write another novel.

But Charlotte had got going. This at last was living. The little plans for the school now seemed to be childish and forlorn. Here was literary fame. Emily looked at her and went off by herself to walk on the moors. But Anne was more impressed. She wanted to get in on the fame.

Emily puzzled Charlotte. There was no understanding the girl. What was she? She decided that she would put Emily into a book. That certainly was the way to deal with what bothered you. Anne was thinking too. But not about Emily. She took Emily for granted. She had been impressed by the sins in Charlotte's book. Sin paid. Not that Branwell ever made his pay. She decided to put Branwell into a book. She patted her conscience by saying to herself that maybe it would keep others from falling into a like sin. The father was coming out in Anne. She wanted to preach. So she wrote The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

One day when Emily came in from the moors followed by her dog, Keeper, Anne told her what she was doing. Emily looked at her. She said quietly that she was surprised. It was bad taste to use one's relatives for copy; it was cruelty to use the weakness of another for professional material. It was also lazy. What was the imagination for? Anne was hurt. She had not meant any harm. Charlotte blazed at Emily. She should let Anne alone. It was time that some woman had the courage to write about what drink did to men and to the women tied to them. Emily looked at her with disconcerting directness. To make copy out of poor Branwell was wrong. They would pay for it. She must have had another moment of prevision. Branwell might very profitably have been left alone. But Anne was firm. It was her duty. And Charlotte had encouraged her. Which was to be considered. For of the family Charlotte was the successful author. Surely she should know what would sell. What could Emily say to that? She could not summon enough prevision to know that Wuthering Heights would be read and reread when Charlotte's books were only remembered as the books that somehow had got placed on the school's supplementary-reading list because of some vague historical significance.

So the writing went on in that unhappy house. And so did the germ. Branwell began to sink. Emily nursed him. His father grieved over his only son. Charlotte hardened herself. She knew that they had to stand it. But he had brought it on himself. Anne thought to herself that it would not all be in vain. People would know what drink did to men.

On the day of Branwell's funeral in September, Emily collapsed. She never went out again on the moors. But she would not stay in bed. She went about her usual household work. She talked less than ever. Charlotte was frantic. She said she was going to send for a London doctor. Emily said she would not see him if he did come. What would the use be? One morning in December she went to the cage where she kept a wild hawk she had tamed. Charlotte watched her and was frightened. Emily opened the door of the hawk's cage and told him to go free. He hesitated. She lifted him out and poised him on her hand, and sent him with a push out into the air. Emily was Irish; she was dying with a symbolic gesture. Charlotte was terrified. Emily turned; she put her hand to her throat; she struggled with her breath. She knew it had come, and she fought. She hated the publicity of death. Reserve was no armor against it. She struggled; she would not die. It was a horrible thing that would leave her helpless and open. She kept on her feet; she held on to the door until the germ had taken her last breath. It was a shocking pagan death.

It hurried the progress of the germ in little Anne. She sickened immediately. Charlotte called the doctor, only to learn that nothing could save Anne. She was already too far gone. Charlotte, however, tried to save her. She took her to Scarborough by the sea; but it was in vain. Anne died in May, and was buried in Scarborough. Charlotte returned to her father. She read Emily's last poems, among them that magnificent last psalm.

No coward soul is mine,No trembler in the world's storm-troubled sphere;I see heaven's glory shine,And faith shines equal, arming me from afar.
O God within my breast,Almighty, ever-present Deity!Life—that in me has rest,As, undying Life—have power in thee!
Vain are the thousand creedsThat move men's hearts; unutterably vain;Worthless as withered weeds,Or idlest froth amid the boundless main.
To waken doubt in oneHolding so fast by Thine infinity;So surely anchored onThe steadfast rock of immortality.
With wide-embracing loveThy spirit animates eternal years,Pervades and broods above,Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears.
Though earth and man were gone,And suns and universe ceased to be,And Thou were left alone,Every existence would exist in Thee.
There is not room for death,Nor atom that his might could render void;Thou—Thou art Being and Breath,And what Thou art may never be destroyed.

Charlotte walked backward and forward in her lonely house. She thought of Keeper, the dog, sitting in his sorrow on Emily's grave. She thought about the wild hawk. What was Emily?

Charlotte tried to make Emily live in Shirley. But Charlotte could only portray what she loved or what she hated. Emily was beyond both love and hate. She had been spiritually elusive, and humanly a most puzzling person. The pagan fierce death; the religious faith of the last song. Which was Emily? Animals and birds had known her instinctively, and were drawn as by a magnet. Keeper never recovered from her death. His dog heart was broken. Charlotte tried very hard with Shirley. It was an interesting characterization she managed; but it was not Emily.

The book rolls up in the end into feminist propaganda. Charlotte saw her sister as one of the new women. She sets her as she would have liked to have seen Emily, with wealth and friends. She did not realize that wealth would have meant nothing more to Emily than poverty. She creates conversations between Shirley and her intimate woman friend, Caroline Helstone, such as she imagined Emily would have conducted, had she ever cared to get into conversation. The conversations read like very learned essays on the freedom of women. Emily would have thought they were funny. Charlotte really had nothing to put into Shirley. The subject was beyond her emotional grip. Emily's temperamental aloofness had always tortured her sister. Her occasional sweetness had never been given to Charlotte. It had gone out to the weakness of Branwell and the pathos of Anne. Charlotte had utterly no comprehension of the mysticism of Emily; she had had no idea that the strangeness of her eyes had come out of a frustration which was a greater frustration than any of the frustrations in that house. Emily Brontë was a tragedy. She handled her tragedy well. She achieved calm. But she could only maintain it when she was alone on the moors. When she went into the world it was broken. So she took care not to go into the world. Emily had pushed herself so far down into the depths of her nature that she only existed in a dream. She needed a Teacher. She got quite far by herself, but she had missed the wisdom that would have made her able to preserve her poise in the world. That could only have come to her from a teacher whose training was far beyond any of the training of western religions. Emily would have understood the East. She could have sat at the feet of Lao-tse.

But all this was out of Charlotte's understanding. All she knew was that she missed the presence of Emily. It bothered her that she had not loved her enough. She took to lying about it. She assured everybody that Emily and she had been devoted to each other. In private she paced up and down with remorse. She had spent years of her life loving a man who had refused even to write to her. She had closed herself up in that love. And Emily had been dying all the time. Perhaps in great need of love. Charlotte hated the Hegers because they had taken her emotion for so long.

So she went for them in Villette. Emily had never liked them.

Sitting alone with an old father in that dismal house Charlotte got the Hegers out of her system. This time there was very little disguise. She herself lived in the small plain-looking shy English governess, Lucy Snow. The Heger ménage came to life in Madame Beck's school for young ladies. She dealt meticulously with Madame Beck's jealousies. Technically the story flags badly in places. Charlotte obviously got frightened at times and tried to cover herself up. She has to divide her love into two men, and little Lucy has to veer from one to the other without much reason for doing so. It makes it rather unconvincing. But the genuine emotion of the writer does get into scenes. With heart-breaking poignancy little Lucy struggled with her hopeless passion. That is very real. And the actual Monsieur Heger is very real and so is the pussyfooting Madame Beck. It is easy to understand why Charlotte should have been attracted to the man. He is fiery and uncertain with all the temperamental virility that the Brontë girls liked in men. It was easy to understand why she hated Madame. It was not only that she possessed Monsieur. She also possessed the bland and irritating self-containment which Charlotte always had lacked. She had the silent superiority that Emily had had, and in addition a completely worldly estimate of the motivation of other people.

The portrait of Madame Beck was so bitter that it floored Mrs. Gaskell when she came to do the biography. She went over to Brussels to look the woman up. Madame Heger felt it was her duty in the interest of history to show her Charlotte's letters. Mrs. Gaskell interpreted it as her duty to the feminine cause to ignore the letters. It would never do. She thought hers would remain the one absolute authoritative biography. She could be as wary as Madame Heger. She put so much outside controversial matter into her biography that it took all the attention. The school to which the Brontës had gone took action; Branwell's mistress sued her; Mr. Brontë considered having the book banned; she had made him out to be a very eccentric person indeed, and hinted that the girls had all contracted the germ because they were starved in their childhood. Mrs. Gaskell was more astute than Victorian ladies were usually given credit for being. She really did outwit Madame Heger by making so much fuss about other matters that Brussels was left alone by the critics. If Charlotte had been wise she would have taken Mrs. Gaskell completely into her confidence; for then Mrs. Gaskell could have made even a neater job of it. Although it is just possible that she would never have undertaken to write the story of a woman who had loved a man in those circumstances. It was not nice. Brussels must have given her quite a jolt. For she had thought Charlotte was a nice woman. She had become acquainted with her two years before her death. Charlotte had visited her, and she had visited Hawarth. The tragedy of the family had caught her imagination. She knew it would make a gorgeous biography. Besides in her mind Charlotte was a literary pioneer and part of the feminist movement. She made a great heroine of her.

Charlotte Brontë did not exactly enjoy her fame.

It was compensation for the erotic wound. There is an historical rumor that the fame brought Monsieur Heger finally to her; that they met secretly in London. The Hegers admitted that Monsieur took a trip to London, and Charlotte during the years of her literary popularity was there several times every year. She was fêted. She met everybody of literary importance. But she was never able to be at ease among people. The cramped childhood told on her, and no amount of admiration could ever give her absolute self-confidence. She knew she was a small, badly-formed, plain-looking woman. Fame never alleviates that in a woman. She knew that she did not take with folk; she felt them looking at her interestedly, but still with appraisal. The least unfriendly criticism of her work brought her instantly back to her sensitive youth, and crushed her spirit. She never gained Emily's poise.

She got to need admiration; and her need of it led her to get married. Her father's curate, Mr. Nicholls, had admired her for a long time. He was a gentle Irishman, and had the racial taste for sad people. Charlotte Brontë was a tragic figure to him in spite of all her fame. Charlotte had never liked curates. They were mild men. She had made them ridiculous in the Shirley story, and Mr. Nicholls had recognized himself. But that had not stopped him admiring her. He liked her literary nerve, as much as he loved her personal lack of it. She accepted Mr. Nicholls.

Her father made just enough trouble about it to give it the attraction of a cause to her. Mr. Brontë had enjoyed Charlotte's fame. It had given him confidence again in the plan of existence. It justified his life. An operation had been performed upon his eyes, and he was able again to take the pulpit and to read all his daughter's books, and also to cherish her press notices. He thought that Nicholls was decidedly forgetting his place to aspire to the hand of Miss Brontë. In his opinion Charlotte could have any man she wanted. So why fall back upon a curate? Her health was much better. He no longer had to worry when she got her feet wet or sat in a draft. The family germ seemed to have been conquered by the fame.

Charlotte had decided to marry. She did not explain to her father how ill at ease she still felt with the great men she met, or that they only saw her as a queer little woman with an emotional talent for writing. After she was married she assured everybody that she was very happy.

She seems to have been happy. Mr. Nicholls was devoted and gentle. He was not the great fierce man of her temperamental yearning. But maybe she knew by then that such men were hard upon women, and demanded a lot of study. She would have had no time for the study; her career was too important. She would have had no energy either. She was too old, and in addition she was tubercular. So she was well off with her gentle curate, and probably she knew it. Maybe the historical rumor explains why she knew it. She was no longer yearning for Monsieur Heger.

She had only a few months of happiness. The germ crept up quietly all the time, and when she was pregnant in her thirty-ninth year it suddenly started to speed. The doctor who was called said it was hopeless. She died thinking she could not die she was so happy.

It was a mercy that she did die. If she had lived to hold a baby to her breast she would have been frightened about the hatreds she had put into publication. There was no taking them back.

She would have understood the need Madame Heger had felt to protect her family by whatever method would work. She would have understood the maternal emotion Emily had packed into her kindness to Branwell. She might even have felt some glimmering of the twisted psychology which leads people to be cruel to children. She would have known that literary cruelty and literary revenge did not correct it. She would have been ashamed of her books, and being Irish, she might have done something drastic.

It was better that she did not. For her three good books, Jane Eyre, Shirley and Villette, for all their awkward technique and their high-driven emotionalism, were valuable records. They were documents in the feminist movement. Mrs. Gaskell was right in her belief. Charlotte Brontë was a type. There were many middle-class women like her, unable to find the man who would have satisfied them, and with no real outlet for their energies.

She drove it home that women had feeling and passionality. She glorified feeling in women. Her characters were all subsidiary to that one main idea. She hated the romantic nonsense that men wrote about women. She also hated the picture Miss Austen drew of them. It was too matter-of-fact.

What she was really saying, though it is not clear that she knew it consciously, was that women needed a wider intellectual arena in order to find a more satisfying erotic life. They had to have a chance to explore. Love was far more important to them than to men; and yet they were hemmed in by the assumption men had that women were ordained by nature simply to respond to them.

She had been disillusioned personally, but that did not alter the truth of her work. Emily and Charlotte Brontë knew something more than Miss Austen knew, though they lacked her technical mastery. And at the same time Miss Austen knew something more than they knew—which was that after all the exploring, and all the illusion, it was best to take simply what was to be had, and never mind the longing for something else.

It was all an unending confusing circle.

It would have needed the wise fine mind of George Eliot to have explained the circle. Not that Charlotte Brontë would ever have listened to George Eliot. She would not have approved of her. George Eliot had done what Miss Brontë had not managed to do—to live openly with the man she loved, even though he did happen technically to be married to another woman. Her own bitterness had made Charlotte a puritan. It was the puritan in her that caused her to make such a to-do about passion. It was her puritanism that had led her to make a feminist cause out of little Jane Eyre telling Rochester she loved him. Miss Austen would have read that incident with distaste and some amusement. It was a gaucherie, and it was unnecessary. Mary Wollstonecraft would have cheered. It was her idea of equality. And why not? Miss Austen would have shrugged her beautifully molded shoulders. And Mary would have reminded her perhaps that if she had had the nerve to do it she might have got for herself the dark sardonic man she had obviously wanted. A shadow would have flitted over Miss Austen's bright eyes. And Emily Brontë would look at her strangely. She would be thinking it was all fate. Whether one was a fighting puritan like Charlotte, or a polite skeptic like Miss Austen, or an emotional rebel like Mary Wollstonecraft, it all came to the same thing in the end. There was between men and women a bond that was peculiar to individuals, and a fixation of emotional need. Sometimes you looked through life and did not find it. Sometimes you found it and could not have it. Sometimes when you did have it you also had great sorrow. What did it matter? If only you recognized it and were true to it. Maybe that was all that counted. She would look towards George Eliot coming with pity in her deep-set philosopher's eyes.

George Eliot was the only one among them who knew love in its fulness. Having known it, she could set it to one side in her writing. It was only a part of the need of the experiencing spirit; life was a hard long way. It was not a business of getting this, or holding onto that; nor was it a matter of saying one's say. To understand; and not to judge. But she would never be able to convince Charlotte Brontë of that. Not to judge? What was the intellect for if not to judge? Women had intellects and the right to use them in judgment. What sense was there in suffering for its own sake? "Plenty," Emily would at last answer her. "It is the law of the spirit finding its way to God. Maybe in anguish like yours over Monsieur Heger, or in remorse like Branwell's over himself. It may be in disappointment like Mary's because of Gilbert Imlay, or in temperamental restlessness like Miss Austen's; or in terrible loneliness like mine. It is a law, and the wise submit to it." George Eliot would agree, and add in her husky low voice, "We cannot do anything else but submit, though there are various ways of submitting." It would be just here that Miss Austen would laugh lightly. "Variety." That is what had always taken her fancy; the variety of ways in which women would arrive at the same destiny. She would cock her arched eyebrow at George Eliot and say to her, "Now you be careful not to get too inward in your stories. It is a very tricky concern—the soul—especially the soul in women."

Charlotte Brontë (Essay Date C. 1830-40)

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SOURCE: Brontë, Charlotte. “Caroline Vernon.” In Legends of Angria, edited by Fannie Ratchford, pp. 221-301. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1973.In the following excerpt, written sometime between 1830 and 1840, Brontë depicts a plain and unsophisticated young girl coming of age as her guardian prepares her for the dissolution of fashionable society.

Tomorrow came. The young lover of rebels and regicides awoke as happy as could be. Her father, whom she had so long dreamed about, was at last come. One of her dearest wishes had been realized, and why not others in the course of time?

While Elise Touquet dressed her hair, she sat pondering over a reverie of romance, something so delicious, yet so undefined. I will not say it was love, yet neither will I affirm that love was entirely excluded therefrom. Something there was of a hero, yet a nameless and formless, a mystic being, a dread shadow that crowded upon Miss Vernon’s soul, haunted her day and night when she had nothing else useful to occupy her head or her hands. I almost think she gave him the name of Ferdinand Alonzo Fitz Adolphus, but I don’t know. The fact was, he frequently changed, his designation being sometimes no more than simple Charles Seymour or Edward Clifford, and at other times soaring to the titles Harold Aurelius Rinaldo, Duke of Montmorency di Caldacella, a very fine name, no doubt, though whether he was to have golden or raven hair or straight or aquiline proboscis, she had not quite decided. However, he was to delve before him in the way of fighting to conquer the world and build himself a city like Babylon, only it was to be a place called the Alhambra, where Mr. Harold Aurelius was to live, taking upon himself the title of Caliph and she, Miss Vernon, the professor of republican principles, was to be his chief lady and to be called the Sultana Zara Esmeralda, with at least a hundred slaves to do her bidding. As for the garden of roses and the halls of marble, and the diamonds and the pearls and the rubies, it would be vanity to attempt a description of such heavenly sights. The reader must task his imagination and try if he can to conceive them.

In the course of that day, Miss Vernon got something better to think of than the crudities of her own overstretched fancy. That day was an era in her life. She was no longer to be a child, she was to be acknowledged a woman. Farewell to captivity where she had been reared like a bird. Her father was come to release her, and she was to be almost mistress there. She was to have servants and wealth; and whatever delighted her eye she was to ask for and receive. She was to enter life, to see society, to live all the winter in a great city, Verdopolis, to be dressed as gaily as the gayest ladies, to have jewels of her own, to vie even with those demi-goddesses, the ladies Castlereagh and Thornton.

It was too much; she could hardly realize it. It may be supposed from her enthusiastic character that she received this intelligence with transport, that as Northangerland unfolded these coming glories to her view she expressed her delight and astonishment and gratitude in terms of ecstasy, but the fact is she sat by the table with her head in her hand listening to it all with a very grave face. Pleased she was, of course, but she made no stir. It was rather too important a matter to clasp her hands about. She took it soberly. When the Earl told her she must get all in readiness to get off early tomorrow, she said, “Tomorrow, Papa?” and looked up with an excited glance.

“Yes, early in the morning.”

“Does Mamma know?”

“I shall tell her.”

“I hope she will not take it to heart,” said Caroline. “Let us take her with us for about a week or so, Papa. It will be so dreary to leave her behind.”

“She’s not under my control,” replied Percy.

“Well,” continued Miss Vernon, “if she were not so excessively perverse and bad to manage as she is, I’m sure she might get leave to go, but she makes the Duke of Zamorna think she’s out of her wits by her frantic way of going on, and he says she’s not fit to let loose on society. Actually, Papa, one day when the Duke was dining with us, she started up without speaking a word, in the middle of the dinner, and flew at him with a knife. He could hardly get the knife from her, and afterward he was obliged to tell Cooper to hold her hands. And another time she brought him a glass of wine, and he had just tasted it and threw the rest at the back of the fire. He looked full at her, and Mamma began to cry and scream as if somebody was killing her. She’s always contriving to get laudanum and prussic acid and such trash. She says she’ll murder either him or herself and I’m afraid if she’s left quite alone she’ll really do some harm.”

“She’ll not hurt herself,” replied the Earl, “and, as to Zamorna, I think he’s able to mind his own affairs.”

“Well,” said Miss Vernon, “I must go and tell Elise to pack up,” and she jumped up and danced away as if care lay lightly upon her. . . .

Miss Caroline is to leave Hawkscliffe tomorrow. She is drinking in all its beauties tonight. So you suppose, reader, but you’re mistaken. If you observe her eyes, she’s not gazing, she’s watching. She’s not contemplating the moon, she’s following the motions of that person who for the last half hour has been leisurely pacing up and down that gravel walk at the bottom of the garden.

It’s her guardian, and she is considering whether she shall go and join him for the last time, that is, for the last time at Hawkscliffe. She’s by no means contemplating anything like [the] solemnity of an eternal separation.

This guardian of hers has a blue frock coat on, with white inexpressibles, and a stiff black stock, consequently he considerably resembles that angelic existence called a military man. You’ll suppose Miss Vernon considers him handsome, because other people do. All the ladies in the world, you know, hold the Duke of Zamorna to be matchless, irresistible, but Miss Vernon doesn’t think him handsome, in fact the question of his charms has never yet been mooted in her mind. The idea as to whether he is a god of perfection or a demon of defects has not crossed her intellect once. Neither has she once compared him with other men. He is himself, a kind of abstract, isolated being, quite distinct from aught beside under the sun. . . .

It seems, however, that Miss Vernon has at length conquered her timidity, for lo! as the twilight deepens, the garden and all is dim and obscure. She, with her hat on, comes stealing quietly out of the house and through the shrubs, the closed blossoms, and dewy grass, trips like a fairy to meet him. She thought she would surprise him, so she took a circuit and came behind. She touched his hand before he was aware. Cast iron, however, can’t be startled, so no more was he.

“Where did you come from?” asked the guardian, gazing down from his supreme altitude upon his ward, who passed her arm through his and hung upon him according to her custom when they walked together.

“I saw you walking by yourself, and so I thought I’d come and keep you company,” she replied.

“Perhaps I don’t want you,” said the Duke.

“Yes, you do. You’re smiling, and you’ve put your book away as if you meant to talk to me instead of reading.”

“Well, are you ready to set off tomorrow?” he asked.

“Yes, all packed.”

“And the head and heart are in as complete a state of preparation as the trunk, I presume,” continued his Grace.

“My heart is sore,” said Caroline, “I’m sorry to go, especially this evening. I was not half so sorry in the middle of the day, while I was busy. But now—”

“You’re tired and therefore low spirited. Well, you’ll wake fresh in the morning and see the matter in a different light. You must mind how you behave, Caroline, when you get out into the world. I shall ask after you sometimes.”

“Ask after me! You’ll see me. I shall come to Victoria Square almost constantly when you’re in Verdopolis.”

“You will not be in Verdopolis longer than a few days.”

“Where shall I be then?”

“You will be in Paris or Fidena or Breslau.”

Caroline was silent.

“You will enter a new sphere,” continued her guardian, “and a new circle of society, which will mostly consist of French people. Don’t copy the manners of the ladies you see at Paris or Fountain-bleau. They are most of them not quite what they should be. They have very poor, obtrusive manners, and will often be talking to you about love and endeavouring to make you their confidante. You should not listen to their notions on the subject, as they are all very vicious and immodest. As to men, those you see will be almost universally gross and polluted. Avoid them.”

Caroline spoke not.

“In a year or two, your father will begin to talk of marrying you,” continued her guardian, “and I suppose you think it will be the finest thing in the world to be married. It is not impossible that your father may propose a Frenchman for your husband. If he does, decline the honour of such a connection.”

Still Miss Vernon was mute.

“Remember always,” continued his Grace, “that there is one nation under heaven filthier even than the French, that is the Italian. The women of Italy should be excluded from your presence and the men should be spurned with disgust even from your thoughts.”

Silence still. Caroline wondered why his Grace talked in that way. He had never been so stern and didactic before. His allusions to matrimony, etc., confounded her. It was not that the idea was altogether foreign to the young lady’s mind. She had most probably studied the subject now and then in those glowing day dreams before hinted at; nor I should not undertake to say how far her speculations concerning it had extended, for she was a daring theorist. But as yet, these thoughts had all been secret and untold. Her guardian was the last person to whom she would have revealed their existence. And now it was with a sense of shame that she heard his grave counsel on the subject. What he said, too, about the French ladies and the Italian men and women made her feel very queer. She could not for the world have answered him, and yet she wished to hear more. She was soon satisfied.

“It is not at all improbable,” pursued his Grace, after a brief pause, during which he and Caroline had slowly paced the long terrace walk at the bottom of the garden which skirted the stately aisle of trees; “it is not at all improbable that you may meet occasionally in society a lady of the name of Lelande and another of the name St. James, and it is most likely that these ladies will show you much attention—flatter you, ask you to sing or play, invite you to their houses, introduce you to their particular circles, and offer to accompany you to public places. You must decline it all.”

“Why?” asked Miss Vernon.

“Because,” replied the Duke, “Madam Lelande and Lady St. James are very easy about their characters. Their ideas on the subject of morality are very loose. They would get you into their boudoirs, as the ladies of Paris call the little rooms where they sit in a morning and read gross novels and talk over their secrets with their intimate friends. You will hear of many love intrigues and of a great deal of amorous manoeuvring. You would get accustomed to imprudent conversation and perhaps, become involved in foolish adventures which would disgrace you.”

Zamorna still had all the talk to himself, for Miss Vernon seemed to be too busily engaged in contemplating the white pebbles on which the moon was shining, that lay here and there on the path at her feet, to take much share in the conversation. At last she said in a rather low voice, “I never intended to make friends with any French women. I always thought that when I was a woman I would visit strictly with nice people, as Lady Thornton and Mrs. Warner and the lady who lives about two miles from here, Miss Laury. They are all very well known, are they not?”

Before the Duke answered this question, he took out a red silk handkerchief and blew his nose. He then said, “Mrs. Warner’s a remarkably decent woman. Lady Thornton is somewhat too gay and flashy: in other respects, I know no harm in her.”

“And what is Miss Laury like?”

“She’s rather tall and pale.”

“But I mean what is her character? Ought I to visit with her?”

“You will be saved the trouble of deciding on that point, as she will never come in your way. She always resides in the country.”

“I thought she was very fashionable,” continued Miss Vernon, “for I remember when I was in Adrianopolis, I often saw pictures in the shops of her, and I thought her very nice looking.”

The Duke was silent in his turn.

“I wonder why she lives alone,” pursued Caroline, “and I wonder she has no relations. Is she rich?”

“Not very.”

“Do you know her?”


“Does Papa?”


“Do you like her?”


“Why don’t you like her always?”

“I don’t always think about her.”

“Do you ever go to see her?”

“Now and then.”

“Does she ever give parties?”


“I believe she’s rather mysterious and romantic,” continued Miss Vernon.

“She’s a romantic look in her eyes. I should not wonder if she had adventures.”

“I dare say she has,” remarked her guardian.

“I should like to have some adventures,” added the young lady. “I don’t want a dull, droning life.”

“You may be gratified,” replied the Duke. “Be in no hurry. You are young enough yet. Life is only just opening.”

“But I should like something very strange and uncommon. Something that I don’t at all expect.”

Zamorna whistled.

“I should like to be tried, to see what I had in me,” continued his ward. “O, if I were only better looking! Adventures never happen to plain people.”

“No, not often.”

“I am so sorry that I am not as pretty as your wife, the Duchess. If she had been like me she would never have been married to you.”

“Indeed! How do you know that?”

“Because I am sure you would not have asked her. But she’s so nice and fair—and I’m dark, like a mulatto, Mamma says.”

“Dark, yet comely,” muttered the Duke involuntarily, for he had looked down at his ward as she looked up at him, and the moonlight disclosed a clear forehead pencilled with soft, dark curls, dark and touching eyes, and a round youthful cheek, smooth in texture and a fine tint as that of some portrait hung in an Italian palace where you see the raven eyelashes and southern eyes relieving the complexion of pure colourless olive and the rosy lips smiling brighter and warmer for the absence of bloom elsewhere.

Zamorna did not tell Miss Vernon what he thought, at least not in words, but when she would have ceased to look up at him and returned to the contemplation of the scattered pebbles, he retained her face in that raised attitude by a touch of his finger under her little oval chin.

His Grace of Angria is an artist. It is probable that the sweet face, touched with soft Luna’s light, struck him as a fine artistical study. No doubt it is terrible to be fixed by a tall powerful man who knits his brows and whose dark hair and whiskers and moustaches combine to shadow the eyes of a hawk and the features of a Roman statue. When such a man puts on an expression you can’t understand, stops suddenly as you are walking with him alone in a dim garden, removes your hand from his arm, places his hands on your shoulders, you are justified in getting nervous and uneasy.

“I suppose I have been talking nonsense,” said Miss Vernon, colouring and half frightened.

“In what way?”

“I’ve said something about my sister Mary that I shouldn’t have said.”


“I can’t tell you, but you don’t like her to be spoken of, perhaps. I remember now you said once that she and I ought to have nothing to do with each other, and you would never take me to see her.”

“Little simpleton!” remarked Zamorna.

“No,” said Caroline, deprecating the scornful name with a look, and a smile showed her transient alarm was departing, “no, don’t call me so.”

“Pretty little simpleton! Will that do?” said her guardian.

“No. I’m not pretty.”

Zamorna made no reply, whereat, to confess the truth, Miss Vernon was slightly disappointed, for of late she had begun to entertain some latent embryo idea that his Grace did not think her quite ugly. What grounds she had for thinking so, it would not be easy to say. It was an instinctive feeling, and one that gave her little vain female heart too much pleasure not to be encouraged, fostered as a secret prize. Will the reader be exceedingly shocked if I venture to conjecture that all the foregoing lamentations about her plainness were uttered with some half-defined interest of drawing forth a little word or two of cheering praise?

Oh human nature! Human nature! Oh experience! In what an obscure dim unconscious dream Miss [Vernon] was enveloped. How little did she know herself. However, time is advancing and the hours, those “wild-eyed charioteers,” as Shelley calls them, are driving on. She will gather knowledge by degrees. She is one of the gleaners of grapes in that vineyard where all women-kind have been plucking fruit since the world began—in the vineyard of experience. At present, though, she rather seems to be a kind of Ruth in a corn field, nor does there want a Boaz to complete the picture, who also is well disposed to scatter handfulls for the damsel’s special benefit. In other words she has a mentor who, not satisfied with instilling into her mind the precepts of wisdom by words, will, if not prevented by others, do his best to enforce his verbal admonitions by practical illustrations that will dissipate the mists on her vision at once and show her, and show her in light both gross and burning, the mysteries of humanity now hidden, its passions and sins and sufferings, all its passage of strange error, all its after-scenes of agonized atonement.

A skillful Preceptor is that same one, accustomed to tuition. Caroline has grown up under his care a fine and accomplished girl, unspoilt by flattery, unused to compliments, unhackneyed, untrite fashionable conventionalities, fresh, naïve and romantic, really romantic, throwing her heart and soul into her dreams, longing only for the opportunity to do what she feels she could do, and to die for somebody she loves, that is, not actually to become a subject for the undertaker, but to give up heart, soul, and sensations to one loved hero, to lose independent existence in the perfect adoption of her lover’s being. This is all very fine, isn’t it, reader, almost as good as the notion of Mr. Rinaldo Aurelius. Caroline has yet to discover that she is as clay in the hands of the potter, that the process of moulding is even now advancing and ere long, she will be turned in the wood a perfect, polished vessel of Grace.


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As the author of vivid, intensely written novels, Brontë broke the traditional nineteenth-century fictional stereotype of a woman as submissive, dependent, beautiful, and ignorant. Her first novel, Jane Eyre (1847), was immediately recognized for its originality and power, though it was some time before its author was universally accepted to be a woman, rather than Currer Bell, the masculine pseudonym she consistently employed. Since then, Brontë has been considered by critics as one of the foremost authors of the nineteenth century, an important precursor to feminist novelists, and the creator of intelligent, independent heroines who asserted their rights as women long before those rights were recognized by society.


Brontë was born April 21, 1816 in Thornton, Yorkshire. The eldest surviving daughter in a family of six, she assisted her aunt and her father in raising the three younger children, including her brother Branwell and sisters Emily and Anne. Her mother, Maria Branwell of Cornwall, died from cancer in 1821, at the age of thirty-eight. Two older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, died of consumption in 1825. Her father, Patrick Brontë, was a strict Yorkshire clergymen who forbade his offspring from socializing with other children in the village of Haworth, where he had been appointed perpetual curate. Instead, he promoted self-education and encouraged his children to read the Bible and the works of William Shakespeare, William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, and Sir Walter Scott, as well as newspapers and monthly magazines. Brontë attended a school near Mirfield, Roe Head, for a year before returning home to tutor her younger siblings. She and Branwell began writing their own stories and poems together, set in the imaginary world of Angria; a volume of Brontë's juvenilia in this vein was published posthumously as Legends of Angria (1933). In 1835, Brontë returned to Roe Head as a teacher, while first Emily and then Anne attended the school, though she continued working with Branwell on their Angrian stories. After Anne completed school, Brontë also returned to Haworth, taking occasional positions as a governess. Her interest in writing continued, and she corresponded with established authors of the day, seeking their advice. The poet laureate Robert Southey told her that "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 she will have for it." Meanwhile, the family developed a plan to open a school run by Charlotte, Emily, and Anne; Charlotte and Emily traveled to Brussels to further their education, but the school never came to fruition. While in Brussels, Charlotte did develop a relationship with her married instructor, Constantin Heger; Heger was supportive of her writing, but their closeness eventually angered his wife, who put a stop to the friendship. Some critics believe Heger to be a model for the character of Rochester in Jane Eyre. Back in Haworth, Brontë became alienated from her former writing partner Branwell, as his alcoholism and immoral conduct became increasingly disturbing to her. She drew closer to her sisters following the discovery of Emily's secret manuscript of poems. Anne, too, expressed an interest in writing, and the three collectively published their poems as Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell (1846), using male pseudonyms to make publication easier. The book sold two copies. Undeterred, Brontë wrote her first novel, The Professor (1857), but could not find a publisher. Her second novel, Jane Eyre, was more successful: the work was accepted for publication immediately and was praised by such diverse readers as Queen Victoria and George Eliot. The popularity of Jane Eyre brought Brontë into the society of authors such as William Makepeace Thackeray, Elizabeth Gaskell, Matthew Arnold, and Harriet Martineau. She began work on the ambitious novel Shirley (1849), a love story set in the context of an early Yorkshire labor movement, but the loss of her siblings intervened. Branwell died in September 1848, then Emily became ill and died in December of the same year. Brontë had just begun writing again when Anne also became ill, dying in May 1849. Biographers speculate that the completion of Shirley provided a form of therapeutic release for Brontë. The loss of her siblings, however, represented a loss of her writing partners as well. The sisters had exchanged manuscripts and offered authorial advice to each other; writing in solitude presented a challenge. In 1852, she returned to her first effort, The Professor, and attempted to expand it, accepting the guidance of her father in styling the work for publication. She took the general plot of The Professor, greatly expanded its themes and characterizations, altered the ending (which Mr. Brontë had found too unhappy), and adapted elements of the popular Gothic style. The resulting work was Villette (1853), the final novel Brontë published in her lifetime. In 1854, Brontë married Arthur Bell Nicholls; she died the following year from complications related to pregnancy.


Brontë's novels constitute her major literary output: Jane Eyre, Shirley, Villette, and the posthumously published The Professor. The Professor, both her first and last work, is unique among her novels in being written from the point of view of a male narrator. It tells the story of William Crimsworth, who leaves his post as a clerk at his brother's mill in England to start a new life in Brussels, teaching English at a girls school. There he falls in love with a pupil-teacher and does battle with the Catholic headmistress, eventually returning with his Belgian bride to England. The novel's main themes are its strong anti-Catholicism and the exploration of male sexuality as it relates to social status. With her next novel, Jane Eyre, Brontë examined the position of women in society. Jane Eyre is by far the most popularly and critically successful of Brontë's novels. Her heroine, Jane, was a departure from earlier nineteenth-century female characters: where most heroines were beautiful, ignorant, and dependent, Jane is plain, intelligent, and independent. Jane is an orphaned child who is treated cruelly by her relations. Her education enables her to become a governess for the illegitimate daughter of Fairfax Rochester. The position of governess was one of the few options available to unmarried women not supported by their own families, though one that Brontë well knew was precarious and potentially demeaning. Jane refuses to be demeaned, however, and as she seeks an appropriate marriage partner, she insists on an equal and mutually satisfying relationship, defying both the literary and social conventions of the time. The marriage of Jane and Rochester placed Brontë on the vanguard of women's issues. More directly than Jane Eyre, Shirley presents a powerful indictment of the position of women in nineteenth-century England. Shirley Keeldar is an independent woman, a land owner and mill owner, whose love for the poor tutor Louis cannot be realized because of the great difference in their social status. Still, she rejects the advances of Robert Moore, a greedy mill owner who is focused solely on profits. Robert was intended for Shirley's friend Caroline Helstone but prefers Shirley's wealth to Caroline's poverty. Bereft of her own marriage opportunities, and lacking any prospects for employment, Caroline is forced to live with an aloof and indifferent uncle and in her despair begins to sink into ill health. Brontë parallels the plight of women whose survival depends on the generosity of men to that of workers dependent on the mill owners. Villette similarly depicts a young woman whose fortunes are securely tied either to the men in her life or to the whims of her benefactors. Like Jane Eyre and The Professor, Villette is told from the first-person perspective of a young person separated from family. Lucy Snow lives with her godparents in England, where she falls in love with Graham Bretton, their son. She then enters domestic service with Miss Marchmont, whose promise to include Lucy in her will goes unfulfilled. She travels to the French village of Villette, where she develops a friendship with the local physician, Dr. John, that eventually develops into an obsession depicted by Brontë in the high Gothic mode. Critics have seen in Lucy's behavior one of the first nervous breakdowns in literature to be rendered in realistic psychological detail. Lucy then discloses to her readers a bizarre secret: Dr. John is Graham Bretton, an unusual twist in narration that reflects Lucy's irrationality. Dr. John falls in love with another woman, and Lucy forms an attachment with the brilliant professor Paul Emanuel. At the novel's end, however, Lucy implies that Paul has died in a shipwreck, again leaving Lucy alone and friendless.


Initial response to Brontë's novels invariably noted that they were intensely personal and written in an uncommonly natural style. Whether those attributes were interpreted favorably or unfavorably depended on the reviewer. Though none of her later novels were as popular as her first, they received similar assessments by contemporary readers: Brontë developed a reputation for forceful writing and powerful imagery but also for stilted characterization and a didactic tone. From those first reviews forward, critics have also contended that Brontë wrote too much from her own narrow, even eccentric experience. The relationship between her life and her works has consistently been a theme in Brontë criticism. The 1970s saw strongly feminist studies of Brontë's novels as scholars looked at Jane Eyre and also studied other works, especially Villette, as explorations of women's difficult position in Victorian society—sometimes interpreting Brontë's work as a feminist critique, and in other instances as an example of the obstacles to full self-expression Brontë faced as a woman writer. An important part of the early feminist studies of Brontë's writing came in Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's landmark work The Madwoman in the Attic, published in 1979. In this study, Gilbert and Gubar contend that Brontë's novels came to stand for the self-repression, unsatisfied desire, and anxiety of authorship experienced by women writers in the nineteenth century. Gilbert and Gubar's reading of Brontë's work has provided a foundation for much of the later criticism on her novels. Another groundbreaking study of Jane Eyre and the Brontë oeuvre came with the rise of postcolonial criticism. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (see Further Reading) was the first critic to contribute to what became a series of several studies considering the relationship between the oppressed women of Jane Eyre and the subjugated European colonies. Scholars have since differed on Brontë's own positions on slavery and colonialism, but the themes of Orientalism and imperialism have become closely intertwined with the study of issues of gender and sexuality.

Terry Eagleton (Essay Date Autumn 1972)

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SOURCE: Eagleton, Terry. “Class, Power and Charlotte Brontë.” Critical Quarterly 14, no. 3 (autumn 1972): 225-35.In the following essay, Eagleton discusses the habit of moderation in Brontë’s novels: subversiveness matched by strict adherence to tradition, rebellion appearing simultaneously with submission, furious passion paired with firm reason.

Helen Burns, the saintly schoolgirl of Jane Eyre, has an interestingly ambivalent attitude to the execution of Charles the First. Discussing the matter with Jane, she thinks “what a pity it was that, with his integrity and conscientiousness, he could see no farther than the prerogatives of the crown. If he had but been able to look to a distance, and see how what they call the spirit of the age was tending! Still, I like Charles—I respect him—I pity him, poor murdered king! Yes, his enemies were the worst: they shed blood they had no right to shed. How dared they kill him!”

Helen’s curious vacillation between a coolly long-headed appreciation of essential reformist change and a spirited Romantic conservatism reflects a recurrent ambiguity in the novels of Charlotte Brontë. It’s an ambiguity which shows up to some extent in Helen’s own oppressed life at Lowood school: she herself, as a murdered innocent, is partly the martyred Charles, but unlike Charles she is also able to “look to a distance” (although in her case towards heaven rather than future history), and counsel the indignant Jane in the virtues of patience and long-suffering. That patience implies both a “rational” submission to the repressive conventions of Lowood (which she, unlike Jane, does not challenge), and a resigned endurance of life as a burden from which, in the end, will come release.

The problem which the novel faces here is how Helen’s kind of self-abnegation is to be distinguished from the patently canting version of it offered by the sadistic Evangelical Brockle-hurst, who justifies the eating of burnt porridge by an appeal to the torments of the early Christian martyrs. Submission is good, but only up to a point, and it’s that point which Charlotte Brontë’s novels explore. Jane’s answer to Brocklehurst’s enquiry as to how she will avoid hell—“I must keep in good health, and not die”—mixes childish naivety, cheek and seriousness: “I had no intention of dying with him,” she tells Rochester later. And indeed she doesn’t: it is mad Bertha who dies, leaving the way clear for Jane (who has just refused St. John Rivers’s offer of premature death in India) to unite with her almost martyred master. Helen Burns is a necessary symbol, but her career is not to be literally followed. When she smiles at the publicly chastised Jane in the Lowood classroom, “It was as if a martyr, a hero, had passed a slave or victim, and imparted strength in the transit.” The conjunction of “martyr” and “hero” here is significant: martyrdom is seen as both saintly self-abnegation and heroic self-affirmation, a realization of the self through its surrender, as the name “Burns” can signify both suffering and passion. But Helen, who fails to keep in good health and dies, symbolises in the end only one aspect of this desirable synthesis, that of passive renunciation. Like Jane, she triumphs in the end over tyrannical convention, but unlike Jane that triumph is achieved through her own death, not through someone else’s.

Where Charlotte Brontë differs most from Emily is precisely in this impulse to negotiate passionate self-fulfilment on terms which preserve the social and moral conventions intact, and so preserve intact the submissive, enduring, everday self which adheres to them. Her protagonists are an extraordinarily contradictory amalgam of smouldering rebelliousness and prim conventionalism, gushing Romantic fantasy and canny hard-headedness, quivering sensitivity and blunt rationality. It is, in fact, a contradiction closely related to their roles as governesses or private tutors. The governess is a servant, trapped within a rigid social function which demands industriousness, subservience and self-sacrifice; but she is also an “upper” servant, and so (unlike, supposedly, other servants)furnished with an imaginative awareness and cultivated sensibility which are precisely her stock-in-trade as a teacher. She lives at that ambiguous point in the social structure at which two worlds—an interior one of emotional hungering, and an external one of harshly mechanical necessity—meet and collide. At least, they do collide if they aren’t wedged deliberately apart, locked into their separate spheres to forestall the disaster of mutual invasion. “I seemed to hold two lives,” says Lucy Snowe in Villette, “the life of thought, and that of reality; and, provided the former was nourished with a sufficiency of the strange necromantic joys of fancy, the privileges of the latter might remain limited to daily bread, hourly work, and a roof of shelter.” It is, indeed, with notable reluctance that Lucy is brought to confess the existence of an inner life at all: at the beginning of the novel she tells us, in a suspiciously overemphatic piece of assertion, that “I, Lucy Snowe, plead guiltless of that curse, an overheated and discursive imagination”—and tells us this, moreover, in the context of an awed reference to ghostly haunting. Her response to the “ghost” who flits through Madame Beck’s garden is almost comical in its clumsy lurching from romance to realism:

Her shadow it was that tremblers had feared, through long generations after her poor frame was dust; her black robe and white veil that, for timid eyes, moonlight and shade had mocked, as they fluctuated in the night-wind through the garden-thicket. Independently of romantic rubbish, however, that old garden had its charms . . .

It is a splitting of the self common in Charlotte’s novels: Caroline Helstone in Shirley feels herself “a dreaming fool,” unfitted for “ordinary intercourse with the ordinary world”; and William Crimsworth of The Professor, slaving away as an under-paid clerk, finds little chance to prove that he is not “a block, or a piece of furniture, but an acting, thinking, sentient man.”

To allow passionate imagination premature rein is to be exposed, vulnerable and ultimately self-defeating: it is to be locked in the red room, enticed into bigamous marriage, ensnared like Caroline Helstone in a hopelessly self-consuming love. Passion springs from the very core of the self and yet is hostile, alien, invasive; the world of internal fantasy must therefore be locked away, as the mad Mrs. Rochester stays locked up on an upper floor of Thornfield, slipping out to infiltrate the “real” world only in a few unaware moments of terrible destructiveness. The inner world must yield of necessity to the practical virtues of caution, tact and observation espoused by William Crimsworth—the wary, vigilant virtues by which the self’s lonely integrity can be defended in a spying, predatory society, a society on the watch for the weak spot which will surrender you into its hands. The Romantic self must be persistently re-called to its deliberately narrowed and withered definition of rationality. “Order! No snivel!—no sentiment!—no regret! I will endure only sense and resolution,” whispers Jane Eyre to herself, fixing her errant thoughts on the hard fact that her relationship with Rochester is of a purely cash-nexus kind.

In the end, of course, it isn’t. With the ambiguous exception of Villette, the strategy of the novels is to allow the turbulent inner life satisfying realization without that self-betraying prematureness which would disrupt the self’s principled continuity—a continuity defined by its adherence to a system of social and moral convention. The tactic most commonly employed here is the conversion of submissive conventionalism itself from a mode of self-preservation to a mode of conscious or unconscious self-advancement. Mrs. Reed’s remark to Jane in the red room—“It is only on condition of perfect submission and stillness that I shall liberate you”—is triumphantly validated by the novel: it is Jane’s stoical Quakerish stillness which captivates Rochester. Her refusal to act prematurely for her own ends both satisfies restrictive convention and leads ultimately to a fulfilling transcendence of it. Rochester would not of course find Jane attractive if she were merely dull, but neither would he love her if, like Blanche Ingram, she were consciously after his money. Jane must therefore reveal enough repressed, Blanche-like “spirit” beneath her puritan exterior to stimulate and cajole him, without any suggestion that she is, in Lucy Snowe’s revealing words about herself, “bent on success.” Jane manages this difficult situation adroitly during their courtship, blending flashes of flirtatious self-assertion with her habitual meek passivity; she sees shrewdly that “a lamb-like submission and turtledove sensibility” would end by boring him. She must demonstrate her quietly self-sufficient independence of Rochester as a way of keeping him tied to her, and so, paradoxically, of staying tied to and safely dependent on him. That this involves a good deal of dexterous calculation—calculation which, if pressed too far, would seriously undermine Jane’s credibility as a character—should be obvious enough: it isn’t, perhaps, wholly insignificant that Rochester’s comment to Jane in the original manuscript—“coin one of your wild, shy, provoking smiles”—is misprinted in the first edition as “wild, sly, provoking smiles.” If Rochester recognises Jane intuitively as a soul-mate, so after all does St. John Rivers, who tells her that his ambition is unlimited, his desire to rise higher insatiable, and his favoured virtues “endurance, perseverance, industry, talent.” Rivers must of course be rejected as reason rather than feeling is his guide, and Jane’s career can only culminate successfully when “feeling” can be “rationally” released; feeling without judgement, she muses, is “a washy draught indeed,” but judgement without feeling is “too bitter and husky a morsel for human deglutition.” Even so, there is more than a superficial relationship between Rivers, a rationalist with feverishly repressed impulses, and Jane’s own behaviour: in her case, too, “Reason sits firm and holds the reins, and she will not let the feelings burst away and hurry her to wild chasms.” Not prematurely, anyway, and certainly not to early death in India.

Rivers’s bourgeois values (“endurance, perseverance, industry, talent”), if sinisterly unfeeling in Jane’s eyes, are certainly shared by William Crimsworth, whose motto, suitably, is “Hope smiles on effort.” Yet Crimsworth is not a middle-class philistine but a feminine, sensitive soul, too delicately genteel to endure the deadeningly oppressive clerical work to which his manufacturing brother Edward sets him. Crimsworth is despised by his brother and jocularly scorned by the radical, sardonic Whig capitalist Hunsden; yet his progress throughout the novel represents an interesting inversion of his original victimised condition. Crimsworth’s mother was an aristocrat and his father a manufacturer; but whereas the philistine Edward has inherited, temperamentally, only from his father, Crimsworth has conveniently inherited qualities from both parents, and the combination proves unbeatable. He is superior in imaginative sensibility to both Edward and Hunsden (who hates poetry), and it is this quality which, as with Jane Eyre and Lucy Snowe, brings him at first to suffer isolated torment at the hands of a crassly dominative society. But it is also the quality which, combined with a quietly industrious knack of amassing a little capital through years of “bustle, action, unslacked endeavour,” allows him to prosper as a private teacher in Europe and return to England as a gentleman of leisure. Crimsworth is able to make classic bourgeois progress—not, however, on the crudely materialist terms of his brother, but on terms which utilise rather than negate his “genteel” accomplishments. He reproduces the fusion of aristocratic quality and driving bourgeois effort effected in his parents’ marriage, and does so in more propitious conditions: his mother had been disowned by her family for marrying beneath her.

To consolidate this progress requires of Crimsworth both a potentially rebellious independence and a prudently conservative wariness, as is evident enough if he is contrasted with Edward on the one hand and Hunsden on the other. From Edward’s conservative standpoint, his brother is a congenital misfit who defiantly throws up a safe job in the name of freedom; from the viewpoint of Hunsden, the Whig reformer and dashing Byronic sceptic, Crimsworth is a pallid, meekly cautious conservative. In fact Crimsworth, like Jane, is both spirited and conventional; and like Jane also, although in a considerably more conscious and ruthless way, he learns to turn his protective self-possession to devastating advantage in his relentless power-struggles with Mdlle. Reuter and her unruly girl-pupils. He gains faintly sadistic pleasure from the effects of his own self-defensive impenetrability, enjoying the way Mdlle. Reuter is stung by his coolness, quietly tearing up a pupil’s essay before her eyes. Crimsworth the victim becomes Crimsworth the dominator:1 like Jane, he turns his martyrdom to fruitful profit in this world rather than the next.

Part of what we see happening in these novels, in fact, is a marriage of identifiably bourgeois values with the values of the gentry or aristocracy—a marriage which reflects a real tendency of the “spirit of the age.” The Brontës were born at a time when a centuries-old system of clothmaking in the West Riding was coming to an end with the advent of water-power and then steam; they grew up in a context of rapid industrialisation and the growth of a wealthy manufacturing middle-class. It was this phenomenon, as Phyllis Bentley has pointed out, which created the demand for governesses who would give the children of wealthy manufacturers an education equivalent to that of the gentry; and in this sense the sisters were involved in the process of social transition. (As the daughters of an Irish peasant farmer’s son who had married into socially superior Cornish stock, they also knew something of social transition in a more direct way). But if the West Riding was undergoing rapid industrialisation, it was also a traditional stronghold of the landed gentry, and among the gentry were men who had gone into manufacturing. Characters like Hunsden, or Yorke in Shirley, therefore assume a particular symbolic importance within the novels. They are presented as Carlylean “natural aristocrats”: cultivated gentlemen sprung from a long Yorkshire lineage who combine a settled paternalist tradition of “blood” and stubborn native pride with a rebellious, independent spirit of anti-aristocratic radicalism. Hunsden, although a “tradesman,” is secretly proud of his ancient lineage and is bidding to repair through trade “the partially decayed fortunes of his house”; he is a hard-headed anti-sentimentalist, but has a library well-stocked with European literature and philosophy. Yorke prides himself on being down-to-earth and speaks a broad Yorkshire dialect when he wants to, but he can also choose to speak very pure English and takes a quiet interest in the fine arts. Both men unite a spirit of wilful, free-wheeling bourgeois independence with the culture and status of the traditional gentry. In this sense they have a peculiar attraction for the cast-off, down-trodden character lower in the social scale, who finds in them at once a “higher” expression of his or her own fiercely repressed defiance, and the embodiment of a respected social tradition to admire or aim at.

Yet the relationship isn’t without its conflicts and ambiguities. Crimsworth, who is both bourgeois and “blood” aristocrat, finds Hunsden (bourgeois and “natural” aristocrat) both attractive and repelling: he is attractive in his energy, initiative and independence, but unpleasant and rather dangerous in his sardonic, free-thinking Whig reformism. These characteristics of Huns-den offend those aspects of Crimsworth which are externalised in his dutiful Anglo-Swiss wife Frances: her meek piety and Romantic-conservative patriotism provide an essential foil to Hunsden’s racy iconoclasm. The bourgeois values of Crimsworth ally themselves in one direction with the bourgeois radicalism of Hunsden, in opposition to the oppressive and venal society which has forced him into exile; but at the same time Crimsworth clearly can’t afford to endorse Hunsden’s radicalism to the point where he would risk undermining the very social order into which he has so painfully climbed. Insofar as Hunsden’s bourgeois hard-headedness allies him with the hated Edward, Frances is needed as a representative of alternative, Romantic-conservative values, including a respect for “blood” aristocracy; but the two positions are saved from pure mutual antagonism by the fact that Hunsden’s personal energy and impeccable pedigree render him impressive in Romantic-conservative eyes. For the progressive bourgeois manufacturer, the traditional social order is merely obstructive and superannuated; for the traditional aristocrat turned prosperous non-manufacturing bourgeois, that order still has its value. The final relationship between Crimsworth and Hunsden, then, is one of antagonistic friendship: on their return to England, Crimsworth and Frances settle, significantly, next to Hunsden’s estate, but Frances and Huns-den continue to argue over politics.

Shirley is perhaps the best novel to demonstrate this theme, since the historical incidents it deals with do in fact closely concern the relations between Tory squirearchy and Whig manufacturers in the West Riding in the early years of the nineteenth century. The central dramatic action of the novel—the Luddite attack on Robert Moore’s mill—re-creates the assault in 1812 on William Cartwright’s mill at Rawfolds in the Spen Valley; and Cartwright’s ruthless repulsion of the Luddites signalled, in Edward Thompson’s words, “a profound emotional reconciliation between the large mill owners and the authorities”2 at a time when squire and mill-owner were bitterly hostile to one another over the war and the Orders in Council. That the novel’s main thrust is to recreate and celebrate that class-consolidation, achieved as it was by the catalyst of working-class militancy, is obvious enough in the figure of Shirley herself. Shirley is a landowner, but half her income comes from owning a mill; and even though her attitudes to the mill are significantly Romantic (she is “tickled with an agreeable complacency” when she thinks of it), she is adamant that trade is to be respected, and determined to defend her property “like a tigress.” “If once the poor gather and rise in the form of the mob,” she tells Caroline Helstone, “I shall turn against them as an aristocrat.” The novel registers a few feeble liberal protests against this position: Caroline ventures to point out the injustice of including all working people under the term “mob,” and elsewhere Shirley (with no sense of inconsistency, and conveniently enough for herself in the circumstances) can denounce all crying up of one class against another. But her “spirited” attitude is in general endorsed, not least because it has behind it the weight of her ancient Yorkshire lineage, with its traditions of paternalist care for the poor. Indeed, because she is a conservative paternalist, Shirley’s position can accommodate a fair amount of reformism: she objects to the Church’s insolence to the poor and servility to the rich, and believes it to be “in the utmost need of reformation.” In this sense Shirley differs from Robert Moore, whose neglect of philanthropy as a manufacturer is implicitly connected with his ill-luck in not having been born a Yorkshireman; but although Moore is critically measured against the robust traditions of Yorkshire paternalism, it is, significantly, Shirley herself who finally comes to the defence of his callousness. He is, she points out, a man who entered the district poor and friendless, with nothing but his own energies to back him; and it’s unfair to upbraid him for not having been able to “popularize his naturally grave, quiet manners, all at once.” (Moore’s original, Cartwright, who defended his property with soldiers, spiked barricades and a tub of vitriol, and is reputed to have refused injured Luddites water or a doctor unless they turned informer, seems less easily excusable on the grounds of shyness.) It is, in other words, the representative of the gentry who comes to the moral rescue of the bourgeois manufacturer; and Moore is in any case defended by the novel by a use of the “split self” image which suggests that a sensitive dreamer lurks behind his “hard dog” social exterior.

As a hybrid of progressive capitalist and traditional landowner, then, Shirley provides an important defence of trade; but her charismatic presence in the novel is also needed to defend Romantic conservatism against bourgeois ideology. She is, for instance, notably hard on the radical manufacturer Yorke, whose doctrinaire Whiggism she sees as unfitting him for true reform; and the novel itself underscores this judgement by its emphasis on Yorke’s lack of “veneration.” Shirley, in other words, stands to Yorke as Frances Crimsworth stands to Hunsden: both radicals are admired for their verve and fighting Yorkshire blood (qualities on which Shirley in particular places tediously chauvinistic emphasis), but their lack of reverence counts heavily against them. It is left to Mrs. Pryor, Caroline’s improbably long-lost mother, to deliver the most explicit statement of that reverence, when she tells Caroline that “Implicit submission to authorities, scrupulous deference to our betters (under which term I, of course, include the higher classes of society) are, in my opinion, indispensable to the wellbeing of every community.”

Commerce, in the novel’s view, represents a genuine threat to such hierarchial harmony: the mercantile classes, Charlotte Brontë remarks, deny chivalrous feeling, disinterestedness and pride of honour in their narrowly unpatriotic scramble for gain. They deny, in fact, the aristocratic, Romantic-conservative virtues: and part of the point of the novel is to validate those neglected virtues without adopting too obviously the bigoted “Church-and-King” posture of Helstone, Caroline’s military-parson guardian. This is simple enough, given the novel’s structure, since between the formalist Hel-stone on the one hand and the free-thinking Yorke on the other stands Shirley, paradigm of the desired union between Romanticism and reform, gentry and capitalist, order and progress. By the end of the novel, indeed, the union is literal as well as symbolic: Moore, having recovered his fortunes by the repeal of the Orders in Council, and having been suitably humanised as an employer by Caroline’s influence, will add to the income of Shirley (who has married his brother), double the value of her mill-property and build cottages which Shirley will then let to his own workmen. The bond between squire and mill-owner is indissolubly sealed.

The effective equality established between Shirley and Robert Moore at the end of the novel is, in fact, only one of the terms on which Charlotte Brontë handles relationships: the others are dominance and submission. The novels dramatise a society in which almost all human relationships are power-struggles, and because “equality” therefore comes to be defined as equality of power, it is an inevitably complex affair. Crimsworth and Hunsden also end up as effectively equal, but within a formal inequality: Hunsden’s house, for instance, is a good deal larger than the Professor’s. Even Jane Eyre, when stung to righteous anger, is able to claim a fundamentally human equality with Rochester: “Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless?” There are, in fact, reasons other than simple humanitarian ones why Jane and Rochester are not as socially divided as may at first appear. Rochester, the younger son of an avaricious landed gentleman, was denied his share in the estate and had to marry instead into colonial wealth; Jane’s colonial uncle dies and leaves her a sizeable legacy, enough for independence. The colonial trade which signified a decline in status for Rochester signifies an advance in status for Jane, so that although they are of course socially and economically unequal, their fortunes spring from the same root. Jane does not, of course, finally claim equality with Rochester: in the end she serves “both for his prop and guide,” which is a rather more complex relationship. It suggests subservience, and so perpetuates their previous relationship; but the subservience is also, of course, a kind of leadership. Rochester’s blindness inverts the power-relationship between them: it is now he who is the dependent. Whether she likes it or not (and there is no evidence at all that she does), Jane finally comes to have power over Rochester. Her ultimate relation to him is a complex blend of independence (she comes to him on her own terms, financially self-sufficient), deference, and control.

This complex blend is a recurrent feature of relationships in the novels. Charlotte’s characters want independence, but they also desire to dominate, and their desire to dominate is matched only by their impulse to submit to a superior will. The primary form which this ambiguity assumes is a sexual one: the need to venerate and revere, but also to exercise power, expresses itself both in a curious rhythm of sexual attraction and antagonism, and in a series of reversals of sexual roles. The maimed and blinded Rochester, for example, is in an odd way even more “masculine” than he was before (he is “brown,” shaggy, “metamorphosed into a lion”), but because he is weak he is also “feminine,” and Jane, who adopts a traditionally feminine role towards him (“It is time some one undertook to re-humanize you”) is also forced into the masculine role of protectiveness. She finds him both attractive and ugly, as he finds her both plain and fascinating. Blanche Ingram is a “beauty,” but she also appears as dominatingly masculine beside Jane’s subdued femininity; her masculinity leads her to desire a husband who will be a foil to her and not a rival, but it also prompts her to despise effeminate men and admire strong ones. The same applies to Shirley Keeldar, who is decisively independent and believes in sexual equality, but who is also a “masculine” woman holding “a man’s position” as landowner. (“Shirley” was the name her parents intended to give to a son.) Physically she is a superior version of Caroline Helstone, whom she resembles; and she thus becomes for Caroline an ideal self-projection to be revered, in a latently sexual relationship. Despite her claims to sexual equality, however, Shirley would be “thrilled” to meet a man she could venerate: she dominates Caroline spiritually but desires to be dominated herself. William Crimsworth, himself a sort of male Jane Eyre, is dominated by the dashing Hunsden, to whom he plays a “feminine” role, but in turn dominates Frances, whose lamb-like devotion to him he smugly savours. Frances continues to call him “Monsieur” after their marriage, and Crimsworth takes a sadistic delight in reproving her; but he is also glad that she (like Jane) isn’t all “monotonous meekness,” and is thrilled to discover in her flashes of latent defiance which make him “her subject, if not her slave.” The relationship recalls that of Lucy Snowe and the fiery Paul Emanuel: Paul enjoys abusing Lucy and tells her that she needs “checking, regulating and keeping down,” but he abuses her mainly in order to delight in her anger.

This simultaneity of attraction and antagonism, reverence and dominance, has a relation to the novels’ ambiguous feelings about power in its wider senses. It parallels and embodies the conflicting desires of the oppressed outcast for independence, for passive submission to a secure social order, and for avenging self-assertion over that order. Revenge doesn’t, in fact, seem too strong a word for what happens at the end of Jane Eyre. Jane’s repressed indignation at a dominative society, prudently swallowed back throughout the book, is finally released—not by Jane herself, but by the novelist; and the victim is the symbol of that social order, Rochester. Rochester is the novel’s sacrificial offering to the social conventions, to Jane’s unconscious antagonism and, indeed, to her own puritan guilt; by satisfying all three simultaneously, it allows her to adopt a properly submissive place in society while experiencing a fulfilling love and a taste of power. The outcast bourgeoise achieves more than a humble place at the fireside: she also achieves independence vis-à-vis the upper class, and the right to engage in the process of “taming” it. The worldly Rochester has already been tamed by fire: it is now for Jane to “re-humanize” him.

To put the issue that way is to touch implicitly on the elements of Evangelicalism in Jane Eyre, and it is worth adding a final brief comment on this other major image of power in the novels. Insofar as Evangelicalism sets out to crush the Romantic spirit, it is a tangible symbol of social oppression and must be resisted. Jane Eyre rebels against Brocklehurst’s cruel cant and St. John Rivers’s deathly Calvinism; she also scorns Eliza Reed’s decision to enter a Roman Catholic convent, viewing this as a falsely ascetic withdrawal from the world. But she is at the same time “Quakerish” herself, grimly disapproving of worldly libertinism; and in this sense she is torn between a respect for and instinctive dislike of stringent religious discipline, between pious submission and Romantic rebellion. Charlotte Brontë’s attitudes to Evangelical discipline are, in short, thoroughly ambiguous, as is obvious enough if the detestable Brocklehurst is placed in the balance against the treatment of spoilt children in The Professor and Villette, where Evangelical attitudes to childhood strongly emerge. The theme of pampered, perverse children crops up in almost all of the Brontës’ novels, and the Evangelical responses involved with it are clearly, in part, class-responses—exasperated reactions to the indolent offspring of the rich as in Lucy Snowe’s Nelly Dean-like attitude to Polly Home or Ginevra Fanshawe, or Anne Brontë’s talk of the need to crush vicious tendencies in the bud in the Bloom-field family scenes of Agnes Grey. Lucy Snowe thinks that Madame Beck’s rigid disciplinary system “was by no means bad”; despite the fact that Madame Beck is wholly devoid of feeling, her ruthless efficiency makes her in Lucy’s eyes “a very great and very capable woman.” It is an Evangelical impulse to avoid the “cowardly indolence” of shrinking from life and sally out instead to put one’s soul to the test which motivates Lucy’s journey to Villette; it is a similar impulse which brings Caroline Helstone to reject as false, Romish superstition the idea that virtue lies in self-abnegation, and decide instead to become a governess. What Hunsden sees as attractive “spirit” in Crimsworth’s son Victor, Crimsworth himself interprets as “the leaven of the offending Adam,” and considers that it should be, if not whipped out of him, at least soundly disciplined.

Evangelical discipline, then, is hateful in its sour oppressiveness, but useful in curbing the over-assertive, libertine self; it is to be rejected insofar as, like Rivers’s Calvinism, it turns one away from the world, but welcomed as a spur to worldly effort and achievement. The safest solution is a middle way between Dissent and High Church, as in Agnes Grey, where the vain, sophisticated Ritualist Hatfield is heavily condemned and the “simple evangelical truth” of the low-church curate Weston deeply admired. The double-edged attitude of Shirley to the Church (“God save it . . . God also reform it!”) is symptomatic of the compromising middle-ground which Charlotte Brontë’s novels attempt to occupy: a middle-ground between reverence and rebellion, land and trade, gentry and bougeoisie, the patiently deferential and the actively affirmative self.


1. It is of some interest in this context, perhaps, that both Charlotte and Emily had been first pupils, and then pupil-governesses, at the Pensionnat Heger in Brussels; like Crimsworth, they knew the power-relationship from both sides.

2. The Making of the English Working Class, Harmondsworth, 1970, p. 613.

Charlotte Brontë (Essay Date 1850)

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SOURCE: Brontë, Charlotte. "Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell." In Works of the Sisters Brontë, Vol. 5, edited by Mary A. Ward, pp. 43-51. New York: Bigelow, Brown, & Co., 1900.

In the following excerpt, originally published in 1850, Brontë gives some of the history of the sisters' decision to publish and to use pseudonyms; she also writes about her sisters' work and their unusual personalities.

About five years ago, my two sisters and myself, after a somewhat prolonged period of separation, found ourselves reunited, and at home. Resident in a remote district, where education had made little progress, and where, consequently, there was no inducement to seek social intercourse beyond our own domestic circle, we were wholly dependent on ourselves and each other, on books and study, for the enjoyments and occupations of life. The highest stimulus, as well as the liveliest pleasure we had known from childhood upwards, lay in attempts at literary composition; formerly we used to show each other what we wrote, but of late years this habit of communication and consultation had been discontinued; hence it ensued, that we were mutually ignorant of the progress we might respectively have made.

One day, in the autumn of 1845, I accidentally lighted on a MS. volume of verse in my sister Emily's handwriting. Of course, I was not surprised, knowing that she could and did write verse: I looked it over, and something more than surprise seized me—a deep conviction that these were not common effusions, nor at all like the poetry women generally write. I thought them condensed and terse, vigorous and genuine. To my ear they had also a peculiar music—wild, melancholy, and elevating.

My sister Emily was not a person of demonstrative character, nor one on the recesses of whose mind and feelings even those nearest and dearest to her could, with impunity, intrude unlicensed; it took hours to reconcile her to the discovery I had made, and days to persuade her that such poems merited publication. I knew, however, that a mind like hers could not be without some latent spark of honourable ambition, and refused to be discouraged in my attempts to fan that spark to flame.

Meantime, my younger sister quietly produced some of her own compositions, intimating that, since Emily's had given me pleasure, I might like to look at hers. I could not but be a partial judge, yet I thought that these verses, too, had a sweet, sincere pathos of their own.

We had very early cherished the dream of one day becoming authors. This dream, never relinquished even when distance divided and absorbing tasks occupied us, now suddenly acquired strength and consistency: it took the character of a resolve. We agreed to arrange a small selection of our poems, and, if possible, to get them printed. Averse to personal publicity, we veiled our own names under those of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell; the ambiguous choice being dictated by a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine, while we did not like to declare ourselves women, because—without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called 'feminine'—we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice; we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality, and for their reward, a flattery, which is not true praise.

The bringing out of our little book was hard work. As was to be expected, neither we nor our poems were at all wanted; but for this we had been prepared at the outset; though inexperienced ourselves, we had read the experience of others. The great puzzle lay in the difficulty of getting answers of any kind from the publishers to whom we applied. Being greatly harassed by this obstacle, I ventured to apply to the Messrs. Chambers, of Edinburgh, for a word of advice; they may have forgotten the circumstance, but I have not, for from them I received a brief and business-like, but civil and sensible reply, on which we acted, and at last made a way.

The book was printed: it is scarcely known, and all of it that merits to be known are the poems of Ellis Bell. The fixed conviction I held, and hold, of the worth of these poems has not indeed received the confirmation of much favourable criticism; but I must retain it notwithstanding.…

What more shall I say about them? I cannot and need not say much more. In externals, they were two unobtrusive women; a perfectly secluded life gave them retiring manners and habits. In Emily's nature the extremes of vigour and simplicity seemed to meet. Under an unsophisticated culture, inartificial tastes, and an unpretending outside, lay a secret power and fire that might have informed the brain and kindled the veins of a hero; but she had no worldly wisdom; her powers were unadapted to the practical business of life; she would fail to defend her most manifest rights, to consult her most legitimate advantage. An interpreter ought always to have stood between her and the world. Her will was not very flexible, and it generally opposed her interest. Her temper was magnanimous, but warm and sudden; her spirit altogether unbending.

Anne's character was milder and more subdued; she wanted the power, the fire, the originality of her sister, but was well endowed with quiet virtues of her own. Long-suffering, self-denying, reflective, and intelligent, a constitutional reserve and taciturnity placed and kept her in the shade, and covered her mind, and especially her feelings, with a sort of nun-like veil, which was rarely lifted. Neither Emily nor Anne was learned; they had no thought of filling their pitchers at the well-spring of other minds; they always wrote from the impulse of nature, the dictates of intuition, and from such stores of observation as their limited experience had enabled them to amass. I may sum up all by saying, that for strangers they were nothing, for superficial observers less than nothing; but for those who had known them all their lives in the intimacy of close relationship, they were genuinely good and truly great.

This notice has been written because I felt it a sacred duty to wipe the dust off their gravestones, and leave their dear names free from soil.

Principal Works

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Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell [as Currer Bell] (poetry) 1846

Jane Eyre: An Autobiography [as Currer Bell] (novel) 1847

Shirley: A Tale [as Currer Bell] (novel) 1849

Villette [as Currer Bell] (novel) 1853

The Professor: A Tale [as Currer Bell] (novel) 1857

Life and Works of the Sisters Brontë. 7 vols. (novels and poetry) 1899-1903

The Twelve Adventurers and Other Stories (short stories) 1925

The Shakespeare Head Brontë. 19 vols. (novels, poetry, and letters) 1931-38

Legends of Angria: Compiled from the Early Writings of Charlotte Brontë. (juvenilia) 1933

Five Novelettes: Passing Events, Julia, Mina Laury, Henry Hastings, Caroline Vernon (novellas) 1971

Title Commentary

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SOURCE: Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. “A Dialogue of Self and Soul: Plain Jane’s Progress.” In The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, pp. 336-71. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979.

In the following excerpt, Gilbert and Gubar propose Bertha Mason, Rochester’s secret first wife, as a double for the darker side of Jane Eyre. The authors interpret Bertha’s moments of lashing out as representative of Jane’s suppressed rage as well as Brontë’s own anger.

That Rochester’s character and life pose in themselves such substantial impediments to his marriage with Jane does not mean, however, that Jane herself generates none. For one thing, “akin” as she is to Rochester, she suspects him of harboring all the secrets we know he does harbor, and raises defenses against them, manipulating her “master” so as to keep him “in reasonable check.” In a larger way, moreover, all the charades and masquerades—the secret messages—of patriarchy have had their effect upon her. Though she loves Rochester the man, Jane has doubts about Rochester the husband even before she learns about Bertha. In her world, she senses, even the equality of love between true minds leads to the inequalities and minor despotisms of marriage. “For a little while,” she says cynically to Rochester, “you will perhaps be as you are now, [but] . . . I suppose your love will effervesce in six months, or less. I have observed in books written by men, that period assigned as the farthest to which a husband’s ardor extends” (chap. 24). He, of course, vigorously repudiates this prediction, but his argument—“Jane: you please me, and you master me [because] you seem to submit”—implies a kind of Lawrentian sexual tension and only makes things worse. For when he asks “Why do you smile [at this], Jane? What does that inexplicable . . . turn of countenance mean?” her peculiar, ironic smile, reminiscent of Bertha’s mirthless laugh, signals an “involuntary” and subtly hostile thought “of Hercules and Samson with their charmers.” And that hostility becomes overt at the silk warehouse, where Jane notes that “the more he bought me, the more my cheek burned with a sense of annoyance and degradation. . . . I thought his smile was such as a sultan might, in a blissful and fond moment, bestow on a slave his gold and gems had enriched” (chap. 24).

Jane’s whole life-pilgrimage has, of course, prepared her to be angry in this way at Rochester’s, and society’s, concept of marriage. Rochester’s loving tyranny recalls John Reed’s unloving despotism, and the erratic nature of Rochester’s favors (“in my secret soul I knew that his great kindness to me was balanced by unjust severity to many others” [chap. 15]) recalls Brocklehurst’s hypocrisy. But even the dreamlike paintings that Jane produced early in her stay at Thornfield—art works which brought her as close to her “master” as

Helen Graham (in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall) was to hers—functioned ambiguously, like Helen’s, to predict strains in this relationship even while they seemed to be conventional Romantic fantasies. The first represented a drowned female corpse; the second a sort of avenging mother goddess rising (like Bertha Mason Rochester or Frankenstein’s monster) in “electric travail” (chap. 13); and the third a terrible paternal specter carefully designed to recall Milton’s sinister image of Death. Indeed, this last, says Jane, quoting Paradise Lost, delineates “the shape which shape had none,” the patriarchal shadow implicit even in the Father-hating gloom of hell.

Given such shadowings and foreshadowings, then, it is no wonder that as Jane’s anger and fear about her marriage intensify, she begins to be symbolically drawn back into her own past, and specifically to reexperience the dangerous sense of doubleness that had begun in the red-room. The first sign that this is happening is the powerfully depicted, recurrent dream of a child she begins to have as she drifts into a romance with her master. She tells us that she was awakened “from companionship with this baby-phantom” on the night Bertha attacked Richard Mason, and the next day she is literally called back into the past, back to Gateshead to see the dying Mrs. Reed, who reminds her again of what she once was and potentially still is: “Are you Jane Eyre? . . . I declare she talked to me once like something mad, or like a fiend” (chap. 21). Even more significantly, the phantom-child reappears in two dramatic dreams Jane has on the night before her wedding eve, during which she experiences “a strange regretful consciousness of some barrier dividing” her from Rochester. In the first, “burdened” with the small wailing creature, she is “following the windings of an unknown road” in cold rainy weather, straining to catch up with her future husband but unable to reach him. In the second, she is walking among the ruins of Thornfield, still carrying “the unknown little child” and still following Rochester; as he disappears around “an angle in the road,” she tells him, “I bent forward to take a last look; the wall crumbled; I was shaken; the child rolled from my knee, I lost my balance, fell, and woke” (chap. 25).

What are we to make of these strange dreams, or—as Jane would call them—these “presentiments”? To begin with, it seems clear that the wailing child who appears in all of them corresponds to “the poor orphan child” of Bessie’s song at Gateshead, and therefore to the child Jane herself, the wailing Cinderella whose pilgrimage began in anger and despair. That child’s complaint—“My feet they are sore, and my limbs they are weary; / Long is the way, and the mountains are wild”—is still Jane’s, or at least the complaint of that part of her which resists a marriage of inequality. And though consciously Jane wishes to be rid of the heavy problem her orphan self presents, “I might not lay it down anywhere, however tired were my arms, however much its weight impeded my progress.” In other words, until she reaches the goal of her pilgrimage—maturity, independence, true equality with Rochester (and therefore in a sense with the rest of the world)—she is doomed to carry her orphaned alter ego everywhere. The burden of the past cannot be sloughed off so easily—not, for instance, by glamorous lovemaking, silk dresses, jewelry, a new name. Jane’s “strange regretful consciousness of a barrier” dividing her from Rochester is, thus, a keen though disguised intuition of a problem she herself will pose.

Almost more interesting than the nature of the child image, however, is the predictive aspect of the last of the child dreams, the one about the ruin of Thornfield. As Jane correctly foresees, Thornfield will within a year become “a dreary ruin, the retreat of bats and owls.” Have her own subtle and not-so-subtle hostilities to its master any connection with the catastrophe that is to befall the house? Is her clairvoyant dream in some sense a vision of wish fulfilment? And why, specifically, is she freed from the burden of the wailing child at the moment she falls from Thorn-field’s ruined wall?

The answer to all these questions is closely related to events which follow upon the child dream. For the apparition of a child in these crucial weeks preceding her marriage is only one symptom of a dissolution of personality Jane seems to be experiencing at this time, a fragmentation of the self comparable to her “syncope” in the red-room. Another symptom appears early in the chapter that begins, anxiously, “there was no putting off the day that advanced—the bridal day” (chap. 25). It is her witty but nervous speculation about the nature of “one Jane Rochester, a person whom as yet I knew not,” though “in yonder closet . . . garments said to be hers had already displaced [mine]: for not to me appertained that . . . strange wraith-like apparel” (chap. 25 [ital. ours]). Again, a third symptom appears on the morning of her wedding: she turns toward the mirror and sees “a robed and veiled figure, so unlike my usual self that it seemed almost the image of a stranger” (chap. 26), reminding us of the moment in the red-room when all had “seemed colder and darker in that visionary hollow” of the looking glass “than in reality.” In view of this frightening series of separations within the self—Jane Eyre splitting off from Jane Rochester, the child Jane splitting off from the adult Jane, and the image of Jane weirdly separating from the body of Jane—it is not surprising that another and most mysterious specter, a sort of “vampyre,” should appear in the middle of the night to rend and trample the wedding veil of that unknown person, Jane Rochester.

Literally, of course, the nighttime specter is none other than Bertha Mason Rochester. But on a figurative and psychological level it seems suspiciously clear that the specter of Bertha is still another—indeed the most threatening—avatar of Jane. What Bertha now does, for instance, is what Jane wants to do. Disliking the “vapoury veil” of Jane Rochester, Jane Eyre secretly wants to tear the garments up. Bertha does it for her. Fearing the inexorable “bridal day,” Jane would like to put it off. Bertha does that for her too. Resenting the new mastery of Rochester, whom she sees as “dread but adored,” (ital. ours), she wishes to be his equal in size and strength, so that she can battle him in the contest of their marriage. Bertha, “a big woman, in stature almost equalling her husband,” has the necessary “virile force” (chap. 26). Bertha, in other words, is Jane’s truest and darkest double: she is the angry aspect of the orphan child, the ferocious secret self Jane has been trying to repress ever since her days at Gateshead. For, as Claire Rosenfeld points out, “the novelist who consciously or unconsciously exploits psychological Doubles” frequently juxtaposes “two characters, the one representing the socially acceptable or conventional personality, the other externalizing the free, uninhibited, often criminal self.”1

It is only fitting, then, that the existence of this criminal self imprisoned in Thornfield’s attic is the ultimate legal impediment to Jane’s and Rochester’s marriage, and that its existence is, paradoxically, an impediment raised by Jane as well as by Rochester. For it now begins to appear, if it did not earlier, that Bertha has functioned as Jane’s dark double throughout the governess’s stay at Thornfield. Specifically, every one of Bertha’s appearances—or, more accurately, her manifestations—has been associated with an experience (or repression) of anger on Jane’s part. Jane’s feelings of “hunger, rebellion, and rage” on the battlements, for instance, were accompanied by Bertha’s “low, slow ha! ha!” and “eccentric murmurs.” Jane’s apparently secure response to Rochester’s apparently egalitarian sexual confidences was followed by Bertha’s attempt to incinerate the master in his bed. Jane’s unexpressed resentment at Rochester’s manipulative gypsy-masquerade found expression in Bertha’s terrible shriek and her even more terrible attack on Richard Mason. Jane’s anxieties about her marriage, and in particular her fears of her own alien “robed and veiled” bridal image, were objectified by the image of Bertha in a “white and straight” dress, “whether gown, sheet, or shroud I cannot tell.” Jane’s profound desire to destroy Thornfield, the symbol of Rochester’s mastery and of her own servitude, will be acted out by Bertha, who burns down the house and destroys herself in the process as if she were an agent of Jane’s desire as well as her own. And finally, Jane’s disguised hostility to Rochester, summarized in her terrifying prediction to herself that “you shall, yourself, pluck out your right eye; yourself cut off your right hand” (chap. 27) comes strangely true through the intervention of Bertha, whose melodramatic death causes Rochester to lose both eye and hand.

These parallels between Jane and Bertha may at first seem somewhat strained. Jane, after all, is poor, plain, little, pale, neat, and quiet, while Bertha is rich, large, florid, sensual, and extravagant; indeed, she was once even beautiful, somewhat, Rochester notes, “in the style of Blanche Ingram.”Is she not, then, as many critics have suggested, a monitory image rather than a double for Jane? As Richard Chase puts it, “May not Bertha, Jane seems to ask herself, be a living example of what happens to the woman who [tries] to be the fleshly vessel of the [masculine] élan?”2 “Just as [Jane’s] instinct for self-preservation saves her from earlier temptations,” Adrienne Rich remarks, “so it must save her from becoming this woman by curbing her imagination at the limits of what is bearable for a powerless woman in the England of the 1840s.”3 Even Rochester himself provides a similar critical appraisal of the relationship between the two. “That is my wife,” he says, pointing to mad Bertha,

And this is what I wished to have . . . this young girl who stands so grave and quiet at the mouth of hell, looking collectedly at the gambols of a demon. I wanted her just as a change after that fierce ragout. . . . Compare these clear eyes with the red balls yonder—this face with that mask— this form with that bulk. . . . [chap. 26]

And of course, in one sense, the relationship between Jane and Bertha is a monitory one: while acting out Jane’s secret fantasies, Bertha does (to say the least) provide the governess with an example of how not to act, teaching her a lesson more salutary than any Miss Temple ever taught.

Nevertheless, it is disturbingly clear from recurrent images in the novel that Bertha not only acts for Jane, she also acts like Jane. The imprisoned Bertha, running “backwards and forwards” on all fours in the attic, for instance, recalls not only Jane the governess, whose only relief from mental pain was to pace “backwards and forwards” in the third story, but also that “bad animal” who was ten-year-old Jane, imprisoned in the red-room, howling and mad. Bertha’s “goblin appearance”— “half dream, half reality,” says Rochester—recalls the lover’s epithets for Jane: “malicious elf,” “sprite,” “changeling,” as well as his playful accusation that she had magically downed his horse at their first meeting. Rochester’s description of Bertha as a “monster” (“a fearful voyage I had with such a monster in the vessel” [chap. 27]) ironically echoes Jane’s own fear of being a monster (“Am I a monster? . . . is it impossible that Mr. Rochester should have a sincere affection for me?” [chap. 24]). Bertha’s fiendish madness recalls Mrs. Reed’s remark about Jane (“she talked to me once like something mad or like a fiend”) as well as Jane’s own estimate of her mental state (“I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad—as I am now [chap. 27]”). And most dramatic of all, Bertha’s incendiary tendencies recall Jane’s early flaming rages, at Lowood and at Gateshead, as well as that “ridge of lighted heath” which she herself saw as emblematic of her mind in its rebellion against society. It is only fitting, therefore, that, as if to balance the child Jane’s terrifying vision of herself as an alien figure in the “visionary hollow” of the red-room looking glass, the adult Jane first clearly perceives her terrible double when Bertha puts on the wedding veil intended for the second Mrs. Rochester, and turns to the mirror. At that moment, Jane sees “the reflection of the visage and features quite distinctly in the dark oblong glass,” sees them as if they were her own (chap. 25).

For despite all the habits of harmony she gained in her years at Lowood, we must finally recognize, with Jane herself, that on her arrival at Thornfield she only “appeared a disciplined and subdued character” [ital. ours]. Crowned with thorns, finding that she is, in Emily Dickinson’s words, “The Wife—without the Sign,”4 she represses her rage behind a subdued facade, but her soul’s impulse to dance “like a Bomb, abroad,” to quote Dickinson again,5 has not been exorcised and will not be exorcised until the literal and symbolic death of Bertha frees her from the furies that torment her and makes possible a marriage of equality—makes possible, that is, wholeness within herself. At that point, significantly, when the Bertha in Jane falls from the ruined wall of Thornfield and is destroyed, the orphan child too, as her dream predicts, will roll from her knee—the burden of her past will be lifted—and she will wake. In the meantime, as Rochester says, “never was anything at once so frail and so indomitable . . . consider the resolute wild free thing looking out of [Jane’s] eye. . . . Whatever I do with its cage, I cannot get at it—the savage, beautiful creature” (chap. 27).

* * *

That the pilgrimage of this “savage, beautiful creature” must now necessarily lead her away from Thornfield is signalled, like many other events in the novel, by the rising of the moon, which accompanies a reminiscent dream of the red-room. Unjustly imprisoned now, as she was then, in one of the traps a patriarchal society provides for outcast Cinderellas, Jane realizes that this time she must escape through deliberation rather than through madness. The maternal moon, admonishing her (“My daughter, flee temptation!”) appears to be “a white human form . . . inclining a glorious brow,” a strengthening image, as Adrienne Rich suggests, of the Great Mother.6 Yet—“profoundly, imperiously, archetypal”7—this figure has its ambiguities, just as Jane’s own personality does, for the last night on which Jane watched such a moon rise was the night Bertha attacked Richard Mason, and the juxtaposition of the two events on that occasion was almost shockingly suggestive:

[The moon’s] glorious gaze roused me. Awaking in the dead of night, I opened my eyes on her disk. . . . It was beautiful, but too solemn: I half rose, and stretched my arm to draw the curtain. Good God! What a cry! [chap. 20]

Now, as Jane herself recognizes, the moon has elicited from her an act as violent and self-assertive as Bertha’s on that night. “What was I?” she thinks, as she steals away from Thornfield. “I had injured—wounded—left my master. I was hateful in my own eyes” (chap. 28). Yet, though her escape may seem as morally ambiguous as the moon’s message, it is necessary for her own self-preservation. And soon, like Bertha, she is “crawling forwards on my hands and knees, and then again raised to my feet—as eager and determined as ever to reach the road.”

Her wanderings on that road are a symbolic summary of those wanderings of the poor orphan child which constitute her entire life’s pilgrimage. For, like Jane’s dreams, Bessie’s song was an uncannily accurate prediction of things to come. “Why did they send me so far and so lonely, / Up where the moors spread and grey rocks are piled?” Far and lonely indeed Jane wanders, starving, freezing, stumbling, abandoning her few possessions, her name, and even her self-respect in her search for a new home. For “men are hard-hearted, and kind angels only / Watch’d o’er the steps of a poor orphan child.” And like the starved wanderings of Hetty Sorel in Adam Bede, her terrible journey across the moors suggests the essential homelessness—the nameless, placeless, and contingent status—of women in a patriarchal society. Yet because Jane, unlike Hetty, has an inner strength which her pilgrimage seeks to develop, “kind angels” finally do bring her to what is in a sense her true home, the house significantly called Marsh End (or Moor House) which is to represent the end of her march toward selfhood. Here she encounters Diana, Mary, and St. John Rivers, the “good” relatives who will help free her from her angry memories of that wicked stepfamily the Reeds. And that the Rivers prove to be literally her relatives is not, in psychological terms, the strained coincidence some readers have suggested. For having left Rochester, having torn off the crown of thorns he offered and repudiated the unequal charade of marriage he proposed, Jane has now gained the strength to begin to discover her real place in the world. St. John helps her find a job in a school, and once again she reviews the choices she has had: “Is it better, I ask, to be a slave in a fool’s paradise at Marseilles . . . or to be a village schoolmistress, free and honest, in a breezy mountain nook in the healthy heart of England?” (chap. 31). Her unequivocal conclusion that “I was right when I adhered to principle and law” is one toward which the whole novel seems to have tended.

The qualifying word seems is, however, a necessary one. For though in one sense Jane’s discovery of her family at Marsh End does represent the end of her pilgrimage, her progress toward selfhood will not be complete until she learns that “principle and law” in the abstract do not always coincide with the deepest principles and laws of her own being. Her early sense that Miss Temple’s teachings had merely been superimposed on her native vitality had already begun to suggest this to her. But it is through her encounter with St. John Rivers that she assimilates this lesson most thoroughly. As a number of critics have noticed, all three members of the Rivers family have resonant, almost allegorical names. The names of Jane’s true “sisters,” Diana and Mary, notes Adrienne Rich, recall the Great Mother in her dual aspects of Diana the huntress and Mary the virgin mother;8 in this way, as well as through their independent, learned, benevolent personalities, they suggest the ideal of female strength for which Jane has been searching. St. John, on the other hand, has an almost blatantly patriarchal name, one which recalls both the masculine abstraction of the gospel according to St. John (“in the beginning was the Word”) and the disguised misogyny of St. John the Baptist, whose patristic and evangelical contempt for the flesh manifested itself most powerfully in a profound contempt for the female. Like Salome, whose rebellion against such misogyny Oscar Wilde was later also to associate with the rising moon of female power, Jane must symbolically, if not literally, behead the abstract principles of this man before she can finally achieve her true independence.

At first, however, it seems that St. John is offering Jane a viable alternative to the way of life proposed by Rochester. For where Rochester, like his dissolute namesake, ended up appearing to offer a life of pleasure, a path of roses (albeit with concealed thorns), and a marriage of passion, St. John seems to propose a life of principle, a path of thorns (with no concealed roses), and a marriage of spirituality. His self-abnegating rejection of the worldly beauty Rosamund Oliver—another character with a strikingly resonant name—is disconcerting to the passionate and Byronic part of Jane, but at least it shows that, unlike hypocritical Brocklehurst, he practices what he preaches. And what he preaches is the Carlylean sermon of self-actualization through work: “Work while it is called today, for the night cometh wherein no man can work.”9 If she follows him, Jane realizes, she will substitute a divine Master for the master she served at Thornfield, and replace love with labor—for “you are formed for labour, not for love,” St. John tells her. Yet when, long ago at Lowood, she asked for “a new servitude” was not some such solution half in her mind? When, pacing the battlements at Thornfield she insisted that “women [need] a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do” (chap. 12), did she not long for some such practical “exercise”? “Still will my Father with promise and blessing, / Take to his bosom the poor orphaned child,” Bessie’s song had predicted. Is not Marsh End, then, the promised end, and St. John’s way the way to His bosom?

Jane’s early repudiation of the spiritual harmonies offered by Helen Burns and Miss Temple is the first hint that, while St. John’s way will tempt her, she must resist it. That, like Rochester, he is “akin” to her is clear. But where Rochester represents the fire of her nature, her cousin represents the ice. And while for some women ice may “suffice,” for Jane, who has struggled all her life, like a sane version of Bertha, against the polar cold of a loveless world, it clearly will not. As she falls more deeply under St. John’s “freezing spell,” she realizes increasingly that to please him “I must disown half my nature.” And “as his wife,” she reflects, she would be “always restrained . . . forced to keep the fire of my nature continually low, . . . though the imprisoned flame consumed vital after vital” (chap. 34). In fact, as St. John’s wife and “the sole helpmate [he] can influence efficiently in life, and retain absolutely till death” (chap. 34), she will be entering into a union even more unequal than that proposed by Rochester, a marriage reflecting, once again, her absolute exclusion from the life of wholeness toward which her pilgrimage has been directed. For despite the integrity of principle that distinguishes him from Brocklehurst, despite his likeness to “the warrior Greatheart, who guards his pilgrim convoy from the onslaught of Apollyon” (chap. 38), St. John is finally, as Brocklehurst was, a pillar of patriarchy, “a cold cumbrous column” (chap. 34). But where Brocklehurst had removed Jane from the imprisonment of Gateshead only to immure her in a dank valley of starvation, and even Rochester had tried to make her the “slave of passion,” St. John wants to imprison the “resolute wild free thing” that is her soul in the ultimate cell, the “iron shroud” of principle (chap. 34).

* * *

Though in many ways St. John’s attempt to “imprison” Jane may seem the most irresistible of all, coming as it does at a time when she is congratulating herself on just that adherence to “principle and law” which he recommends, she escapes from his fetters more easily than she had escaped from either Brocklehurst or Rochester. Figuratively speaking, this is a measure of how far she has traveled in her pilgrimage toward maturity. Literally, however, her escape is facilitated by two events. First, having found what is, despite all its ambiguities, her true family, Jane has at last come into her inheritance. Jane Eyre is now the heir of that uncle in Madeira whose first intervention in her life had been, appropriately, to define the legal impediment to her marriage with Rochester, now literally as well as figuratively an independent woman, free to go her own way and follow her own will. But her freedom is also signaled by a second event: the death of Bertha.

Her first “presentiment” of that event comes, dramatically, as an answer to a prayer for guidance. St. John is pressing her to reach a decision about his proposal of marriage. Believing that “I had now put love out of the question, and thought only of duty,” she “entreats Heaven” to “Show me, show me the path.” As always at major moments in Jane’s life, the room is filled with moonlight, as if to remind her that powerful forces are still at work both without and within her. And now, because such forces are operating, she at last hears—she is receptive to—the bodiless cry of Rochester: “Jane! Jane! Jane!” Her response is an immediate act of self-assertion. “I broke from St. John. . . . It was my time to assume ascendancy. My powers were in play and in force” (chap. 35). But her sudden forcefulness, like her “presentiment” itself, is the climax of all that has gone before. Her new and apparently telepathic communion with Rochester, which many critics have seen as needlessly melodramatic, has been made possible by her new independence and Rochester’s new humility. The plot device of the cry is merely a sign that the relationship for which both lovers had always longed is now possible, a sign that Jane’s metaphoric speech of the first betrothal scene has been translated into reality: “my spirit . . . addresses your spirit, just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal—as we are!” (chap. 23). For to the marriage of Jane’s and Rochester’s true minds there is now, as Jane unconsciously guesses, no impediment.

* * *

Jane’s return to Thornfield, her discovery of Bertha’s death and of the ruin her dream had predicted, her reunion at Ferndean with the maimed and blinded Rochester, and their subsequent marriage form an essential epilogue to that pilgrimage toward selfhood which had in other ways concluded at Marsh End, with Jane’s realization that she could not marry St. John. At that moment, “the wondrous shock of feeling had come like the earthquake which shook the foundations of Paul and Silas’ prison; it had opened the doors of the soul’s cell, and loosed its bands—it had wakened it out of its sleep” (chap. 36). For at that moment she had been irrevocably freed from the burden of her past, freed both from the raging specter of Bertha (which had already fallen in fact from the ruined wall of Thornfield) and from the self-pitying specter of the orphan child (which had symbolically, as in her dream, rolled from her knee). And at that moment, again as in her dream, she had wakened to her own self, her own needs. Similarly, Rochester, “caged eagle” that he seems (chap. 37), has been freed from what was for him the burden of Thornfield, though at the same time he appears to have been fettered by the injuries he received in attempting to rescue Jane’s mad double from the flames devouring his house. That his “fetters” pose no impediment to a new marriage, that he and Jane are now, in reality, equals, is the thesis of the Ferndean section.

Many critics, starting with Richard Chase, have seen Rochester’s injuries as “a symbolic castration,” a punishment for his early profligacy and a sign that Charlotte Brontë (as well as Jane herself), fearing male sexual power, can only imagine marriage as a union with a diminished Samson. “The tempo and energy of the universe can be quelled, we see, by a patient, practical woman,” notes Chase ironically.10 And there is an element of truth in this idea. The angry Bertha in Jane had wanted to punish Rochester, to burn him in his bed, destroy his house, cut off his hand and pluck out his overmastering “full falcon eye.” Smiling enigmatically, she had thought of “Hercules and Samson, with their charmers.”

It had not been her goal, however, to quell “the tempo and energy of the universe,” but simply to strengthen herself, to make herself an equal of the world Rochester represents. And surely another important symbolic point is implied by the lovers’ reunion at Ferndean: when both were physically whole they could not, in a sense, see each other because of the social disguises—master/servant, prince/Cinderella—blinding them, but now that those disguises have been shed, now that they are equals, they can (though one is blind) see and speak even beyond the medium of the flesh. Apparently sightless, Rochester—in the tradition of blinded Gloucester—now sees more clearly than he did when as a “mole-eyed blockhead” he married Bertha Mason (chap. 27). Apparently mutilated, he is paradoxically stronger than he was when he ruled Thorn-field, for now, like Jane, he draws his powers from within himself, rather than from inequity, disguise, deception. Then, at Thornfield, he was “no better than the old lightning-struck chestnut tree in the orchard,” whose ruin foreshadowed the catastrophe of his relationship with Jane. Now, as Jane tells him, he is “green and vigorous. Plants will grow about your roots whether you ask them or not” (chap. 37). And now, being equals, he and Jane can afford to depend upon each other with no fear of one exploiting the other.

Nevertheless, despite the optimistic portrait of an egalitarian relationship that Brontë seems to be drawing here, there is “a quiet autumnal quality” about the scenes at Ferndean, as Robert Bernard Martin points out.11 The house itself, set deep in a dark forest, is old and decaying: Rochester had not even thought it suitable for the loathsome Bertha, and its valley-of-the-shadow quality makes it seem rather like a Lowood, a school of life where Rochester must learn those lessons Jane herself absorbed so early. As a dramatic setting, moreover, Ferndean is notably stripped and asocial, so that the physical isolation of the lovers suggests their spiritual isolation in a world where such egalitarian marriages as theirs are rare, if not impossible. True minds, Charlotte Brontë seems to be saying, must withdraw into a remote forest, a wilderness even, in order to circumvent the strictures of a hierarchal society.

Does Brontë’s rebellious feminism—that “irreligious” dissatisfaction with the social order noted by Miss Rigby and Jane Eyre ’s other Victorian critics—compromise itself in this withdrawal? Has Jane exorcised the rage of orphanhood only to retreat from the responsibilities her own principles implied? Tentative answers to these questions can be derived more easily from The Professor, Shirley, and Villette than from Jane Eyre, for the qualified and even (as in Villette ) indecisive endings of Brontë’s other novels suggest that she herself was unable clearly to envision viable solutions to the problem of patriarchal oppression. In all her books, writing (as we have seen) in a sort of trance, she was able to act out that passionate drive toward freedom which offended agents of the status quo, but in none was she able consciously to define the full meaning of achieved freedom—perhaps because no one of her contemporaries, not even a Wollstonecraft or a Mill, could adequately describe a society so drastically altered that the matured Jane and Rochester could really live in it.

What Brontë could not logically define, however, she could embody in tenuous but suggestive imagery and in her last, perhaps most significant redefinitions of Bunyan. Nature in the largest sense seems now to be on the side of Jane and Rochester. Ferndean, as its name implies, is without artifice—“no flowers, no garden-beds”—but it is green as Jane tells Rochester he will be, green and ferny and fertilized by soft rains. Here, isolated from society but flourishing in a natural order of their own making, Jane and Rochester will become physically “bone of [each other’s] bone, flesh of [each other’s] flesh” (chap. 38), and here the healing powers of nature will eventually restore the sight of one of Rochester’s eyes. Here, in other words, nature, unleashed from social restrictions, will do “no miracle—but her best” (chap. 35). For not the Celestial City but a natural paradise, the country of Beulah “upon the borders of heaven,” where “the contract between bride and bridegroom [is] renewed,” has all along been, we now realize, the goal of Jane’s pilgrimage.12

As for the Celestial City itself, Charlotte Brontë implies here (though she will later have second thoughts) that such a goal is the dream of those who accept inequities on earth, one of the many tools used by patriarchal society to keep, say, governesses in their “place.” Because she believes this so deeply, she quite consciously concludes Jane Eyre with an allusion to Pilgrim’s Progress and with a half-ironic apostrophe to that apostle of celestial transcendence, that shadow of “the warrior Greatheart,” St. John Rivers. “His,” she tells us, “is the exaction of the apostle, who speaks but for Christ when he says—‘Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me’” (chap. 38). For it was, finally, to repudiate such a crucifying denial of the self that Brontë’s “hunger, rebellion, and rage” led her to write Jane Eyre in the first place and to make it an “irreligious” redefinition, almost a parody, of John Bunyan’s vision.13 And the astounding progress toward equality of plain Jane Eyre, whom Miss Rigby correctly saw as “the personification of an unregenerate and undisciplined spirit,” answers by its outcome the bitter question Emily Dickinson was to ask fifteen years later: “‘My husband’—women say— / Stroking the Melody— / Is this—the way?’”14 No, Jane declares in her flight from Thornfield, that is not the way. This, she says—this marriage of true minds at Fern-dean—this is the way. Qualified and isolated as her way may be, it is at least an emblem of hope. Certainly Charlotte Brontë was never again to indulge in quite such an optimistic imagining.


1. Claire Rosenfeld, “The Shadow Within: The Conscious and Unconscious Use of the Double,” in Stories of the Double, ed. Albert J. Guerard (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1967), p. 314. Rosenfeld also notes that “When the passionate uninhibited self is a woman, she more often than not is dark.” Bertha, of course, is a Creole—swarthy, “livid,” etc.

2. Chase, “The Brontës, or Myth Domesticated,” p. 467.

3. Rich, “Jane Eyre: The Temptations of a Motherless Woman,” p. 72. The question of what was “bearable for a powerless woman in the England of the 1840s” inevitably brings to mind the real story of Isabella Thackeray, who went mad in 1840 and was often (though quite mistakenly) thought to be the original of Rochester’s mad wife. Parallels are coincidental, but it is interesting that Isabella was reared by a Bertha Mason-like mother of whom it was said that “wherever she went, ‘storms, whirlwinds, cataracts, tornadoes’ accompanied her,” and equally interesting that Isabel-la’s illness was signalled by mad inappropriate laughter and marked by violent suicide attempts, alternating with Jane Eyre-like docility. That at one point Thackeray tried to guard her by literally tying himself to her (“a riband round her waist, & to my waist, and this always woke me if she moved”) seems also to recall Rochester’s terrible bondage. For more about Isabella Thackeray, see Gordon N. Ray, Thackeray: The Uses of Adversity, 1811-1846 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1955), esp. pp. 182-85 (on Isabella’s mother) and chap. 10, “A Year of Pain and Hope,” pp. 250-77.

4. See Emily Dickinson, Poems, J. 1072, “Title divine—is mine! / The Wife—without the Sign!”

5. See Emily Dickinson, Poems, J. 512, “The Soul has Bandaged Moments.”

6. Rich, “Jane Eyre; The Temptations of a Motherless Woman,” p. 106.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Sartor Resartus, chap. 9, “The Everlasting Yea.”

10. Chase, “The Brontës, or Myth Domesticated,” p. 467.

11. Robert Bernard Martin, The Accents of Persuasion: Charlotte Brontë’s Novels (New York: Norton, 1966), p. 90.

12. The Pilgrim’s Progress (New York: Airmont Library, 1969), pp. 140-41.

13. It should be noted here that Charlotte Brontë’s use of The Pilgrim’s Progress in Villette is much more conventional. Lucy Snowe seems to feel that she will only find true bliss after death, when she hopes to enter the Celestial City.

14. See Emily Dickinson, Poems, J. 1072, “Title divine—is mine!”


SOURCE: Senf, Carol A. "Jane Eyre and the Evolution of A Feminist History.1" Victorians Institute Journal 13 (1985): 67-81.

In the following essay, Senf interprets Jane Eyre as an evolutionary history, both in Jane's developing feminist consciousness and in her effort to make an egalitarian marriage.

Traditional criticism generally regards the Brontës as separate from the mainstream of Victorian literature. For example, in The Great Tradition, F. R. Leavis calls Wuthering Heights a "kind of sport" which breaks completely "both with the Scott tradition that imposed on the novelist a romantic resolution of his themes" and with the tradition that began in the eighteenth century "that demanded a plane-mirror reflection of the surface of 'real' life."2 Taking a slightly different approach, Q. D. Leavis focuses on the mythic qualities of Charlotte's novels and says that Jane Eyre includes a "general confusion of dates, eras, fashions, and facts … even more irrational than anything Dickens allowed himself, suggesting the timeless world of the myth and the daydream."3

While recent feminist critics, such as Ellen Moers, Elaine Showalter, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar,4 have linked the Brontës to a different "great tradition" of women's literature, even they have failed to connect the Brontës with the prevailing nineteenth-century preoccupation with history, a preoccupation which links writers as otherwise different as Scott, Carlyle, Marx, Macaulay, Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, Eliot, and Gaskell. Nonetheless, the Brontë novels are the most persuasive evidence of the sisters' intense interest in history. For example, the first word of Wuthering Heights is the date "1801"; and the novel alternates between the history of that year and the distant history of the Earnshaws. Similarly, the beginning of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall places that novel within a clear historical perspective by asking the reader to "go back with me to the autumn of 1827."5 Charlotte's second published novel, Shirley, set in 1811-12, focuses on such historical matters as the British government's Orders in Council, the condition of women question, and the Luddite riots. As a result, it is, as Andrew and Judith Hook state in their introduction to the Penguin edition, as much a "condition of England" novel as "Disraeli's Sybil, Mrs. Gaskell's Mary Barton and North and South, Dickens's Hard Times, and Kingsley's Alton Locke. "6

However, instead of focusing on these three novels, which take place in a particular place during a particular historical period, this paper focuses on Jane Eyre and hopes to demonstrate that this novel, apparently the most personal and least historical of the Brontë novels, deserves to be called an historical novel, one which relates a feminist version of history—"herstory" as it were. In fact, Brontë's novel does exactly what the feminist historian, Gerda Lerner, says is necessary for the development of feminist history:

History must include an account of the female experience over time and should include the development of feminist consciousness as an essential aspect of women's past.…The central question it raises is: What would history be like if it were seen through the eyes of women and ordered by values they define?7

Jane Eyre is just such "an account of the female experience over time," and it is ordered by a very feminine set of values, which include greater freedom for women and mutuality instead of mastery—in short, a "softening" of patriarchal values. Moreover, it uses a particularly Victorian concept—historical evolution—to show how a writer of "herstory" develops from a reader of history. Furthermore, the novel compares Jane's individual evolution to humankind's evolution toward a more modern civilization by drawing analogies between Jane's behavior and the actions of people at different historical periods. These analogies are drawn as Jane moves gradually from primitive and occasionally violent reactions to a more rational and civilized response. Eventually, both Jane and the novel evolve to the point that they must transcend what she and her contemporaries knew of history, a history which revolves around the exploitation of the weak by the strong, to something more feminine and egalitarian.

Brontë's interest in history, which began in the Haworth parsonage, was reinforced by her formal education and by the general Victorian interest in history. Winifred Gérin, one of her biographers, explains that Mr. Brontë's library included Homer and Virgil, Milton's works, Johnson's Lives of the Poets, Goldsmith's History of Rome, Hume's History of England, and Scott's Life of Napoleon Bonaparte. She adds that the children could also "borrow books from the Heatons' library at Ponden House … which accounts for their precocious knowledge of French history and literature."8 Moreover, the children could also read Mr. Brontë's subscription volumes from the Keighley Mechanics' Institute Library and listen to their elders discuss current events from the Whig and Tory newspapers to which their father subscribed.9 This early interest in history was reinforced by Brontë's experience at Roe Head, where Miss Wooler "advocated 'Rollin for Ancient history', Mangnall's 'Questions' for History and Biography—followed by the inescapable Hume."10

Charlotte and her sisters may have learned about history in other ways as well, for the region around Haworth was being rapidly transformed during their lifetime there. Mrs. Gaskell explains that Keighley, a town four miles from Haworth, was being transformed from an old-fashioned village into a modern town "with villas, great worsted factories, rows of workmen's houses."11 In addition, if the surrounding area gave the Brontë children a glimpse into England's industrial future, it also helped to reinforce their link to the past. As Gaskell explains, the area around Roe Head was thoroughly steeped with a sense of the past. Remnants of "the old Plantagenet times" are "side by side with the manufacturing interests of the West Riding of to-day.…In no other part of England … are the centuries brought into such close, strange contact"12 as the area around Roe Head.

Mrs. Gaskell also explains that most of the inhabitants of the West Riding during the Brontës' lifetime had a strong historical sense. Because their manufacturing had been restricted by the Stuart monarchs, most Yorkshiremen had fought beside Cromwell, and their descendents, who "live on the same lands as their ancestors," remembered those days:

… perhaps there is no part of England where the traditional and fond recollections of the Commonwealth have lingered as long as in that inhabited by the woollen manufacturing population of the West Riding.13

Therefore, the Brontë children may have picked up their strong sense of history from the people around them as well as from the books they read.

In addition to these specific influences, there were also the general influences that they might have acquired from living during a period that was acutely conscious of history. For example, Roy Strong links the Victorian interest in history, the historical novel, and painting of historical subjects in Recreating the Past: British History and the Victorian Painter; and he explains that the eighteen-thirties, forties, and fifties were "the years of history as best-selling literature." Carlyle's French Revolution, which was published in 1837, and Macaulay's History of England (1849-61) "sold by the thousand, and the middle classes of Victorian England devoured history with the same kind of hunger as they had for the historical novel."14 The following excerpt from one of Charlotte Brontë's letters to William Smith Williams (October 25, 1850) reveals her interest in the thought of the day and points directly to her interest in history: "You say I keep no books; pardon me—I am ashamed of my own rapaciousness: I have kept 'Macaulay's History,' and Wordsworth's 'Prelude,' and Taylor's 'Philip Van Artevelde'."15

Familiar as she was with the thought of the period, Brontë may have also been familiar with the notions about evolution which were also part of the general consciousness of the age. As William Irvine explains in Apes, Angels, and Victorians, a belief in evolution was part of the romantic legacy:

Meanwhile, the romantic movement—with its wonder at nature, its nostalgic curiosity about origins, its fascination with change, its exultation in plenitude and diversity—had caused students in every field to think in terms of evolution. Kant and Laplace found it in the solar system, Lyell on the surface of the earth, Herder in history, Newman in church doctrine, Hegel in the Divine Mind, and Spencer in nearly everything.16

Perhaps as a result of this familiarity, there was little outcry in 1831 when Lyell published The Principles of Geology. In fact, Irvine states that ordinary readers responded to the work enthusiastically and cites Harriet Martineau's statement that people from the middle classes "'purchased five copies of an expensive work on geology for one of the most popular novels of the time.'"17 There is no evidence that Patrick Brontë was such a purchaser or that Charlotte herself ever read the work. However, the following exchange between Jane Eyre and Helen Burns suggests that the author was familiar with the general concept of historical evolution:

'I must resist those who punish me unjustly. It is as natural as that I should love those who show me affection, or submit to punishment when I feel it is deserved.'

'Heathens and savage tribes hold that doctrine; but Christians and civilized nations disown it.'

(p. 50)

Thus Jane is compared to primitive people and told that she can become more civilized. Explaining that Jane should read the New Testament and try to become a better person, Helen adds that she expects one day to evolve into a better life, one beyond history:

… the impalpable principle of life and thought, pure as when it left the Creator to inspire the creature: whence it came it will return; perhaps again to be communicated to some being higher than man—perhaps to pass through gradations of glory, from the pale human soul to brighten to the seraph! Surely it will never, on the contrary, be suffered to degenerate from man to fiend?

(p. 51)

Thus Charlotte Brontë here seems to combine the Victorian belief in historical evolution with an older Christian belief in achieving perfection in an afterlife.

Although Jane Eyre suggests that Charlotte Brontë accepted the Victorian belief in progress, it also reveals that she knew that women were not progressing at the same rate as men. This awareness was impressed on her whenever she tried to "evolve." For example, in 1837, when she wrote Southey for his advice on becoming a writer, she was told that this desire was wrong and unfeminine. Her reply is dutifully submissive:

Following my father's advice—who from my childhood has counselled me, just in the wise and friendly tone of your letter—I have endeavored … to observe all the duties a woman ought to fulfil.… I don't always succeed, for sometimes when I'm teaching or sewing, I would rather be reading or writing; but I try to deny myself; and my father's approbation amply rewarded me for the privation.18

Ten years later, however, she creates a heroine who refuses to stay in her place, a heroine whose own approbation is her reward, and a heroine whose autobiography incarnates what is seen today as a feminist approach to women's history.

Acting as her own historian, Jane draws analogies between her progress from dependent, oppressed child to independent woman with the historical evolution of greater dignity and freedom for the average man. Thus her quest for economic freedom and spiritual independence takes her on a metaphorical journey, which begins with the Roman Emperors, continues through the English Civil War, and finally progresses beyond the nineteenth century. For example, the adult historian looks back at her childhood—her origins—and links her oppression and her poverty when she explains that the Reed children sneer at her impoverished state; and she compares their treatment of her to the treatment of slaves in ancient Rome, a metaphor which she had discovered in her reading of history. Unlike John Reed, who could simply bask in his power over her, she had been studying him and learning about historical oppression by reading Goldsmith's The Roman History; and she adds that, reading of Nero and Caligula, she had drawn "parallels in silence" (p. 8) which she never intended to vocalize.

Like a good child, Jane silently endures John's oppression until he finally provokes her to rebel violently against him. The adult narrator reinforces the similarity between this violence and the behavior which her contemporaries (like Helen Burns) would have expected of the barbarian people who were enslaved in ancient Rome by referring to herself as a "rebel slave" and by drawing the reader's attention to her cousin's character: "I really saw in him a tyrant: a murderer. I felt a drop or two of blood from my head trickle down my neck, and was sensible of somewhat pungent suffering" (p. 9). Thus, Jane alludes to both her own past history at the Reeds and to history in general, a history which begins with oppression and silence. The silence is ruptured at this point, just as the silences of history are ruptured when oppressed people begin writing their own stories as a step toward controlling their own affairs.

The Gateshead episode focuses on a period in Jane's life that resembles the silences of prehistory and the beginnings of primitive rebellion. However, Jane Eyre uses the evolution of history as a metaphor of the evolution of Jane's consciousness. Jane's study of history, which begins with the victim's silent recognition of her oppression, continues when she is sent away to school at Lowood. No longer alone, she becomes a member of an entire group, implying that Jane's history is not individual history any longer but an historical treatment of her entire sex. The Lowood section is also a reminder of the complexity of historical oppression. While Jane and her fellow students are victims of both poverty and gender, Jane also suggests that women remain oppressed because their inferior (or at the time the novel takes place, virtually nonexistent) educations prevent them from understanding their condition.19 Certainly the study of history which Jane describes as part of her education is not likely to lead women to a greater understanding of themselves:

A chapter having been read through twice, the books were closed and the girls examined. The lesson had comprised part of the reign of Charles I., and there were sundry questions about tonnage and poundage, and ship-money, which most of them appeared unable to answer.

(p. 46)

Focusing on the rote memorization of discrete facts about matters totally beyond their experience, the history lesson is alien to most of the students. The result of this kind of education is not "access to knowledge and culture and to the power that goes with them" but something that Jane criticizes as "a narrow catalogue of accomplishments" which includes the "usual branches of a good English education, together with French, Drawing, and Music" (p. 76). It is this "education" which makes women dependent and guarantees that they will remain no more than ineffective governesses. On the roof at Thornfield, Jane reflects on her own situation—the result of her limited education—but she connects her life to the lives of all women:

Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth. Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags.

(p. 96)

The reference to piano playing and embroidering links the passage with Jane's comments about her narrow list of accomplishments and with the "women's work" that Southey had recommended for Charlotte Brontë herself.

While Jane links her personal history to the history of all women, her consciousness of history clearly sets her apart. Her references to The Roman History, to her history class at Lowood, and to women's education suggest an ability to learn lessons concealed from men and ordinarily lost even on women. In fact, her entire history records her developing awareness of the reasons for women's oppression. One of these reasons is the basic inequality in the sexes, an inequality which places all power in the hands of men. For example, the adult narrator reveals that Jane (and therefore other women as well) is often confronted by those who, because of both gender and class prejudice, believe that she should be submissive and subservient: the Reed family, Brocklehurst, St. John Rivers, and Rochester.20 Recording her first official meeting with Rochester, Jane seems to encounter an absolute tyrant who warns her, "'Excuse my tone of command; I am used to say "Do this," and it is done: I cannot alter my customary habits for one new inmate'" (p. 109). His tone of command may be justified while he is her employer, but Jane reveals that she finds both it and his paternalistic treatment of her degrading when he becomes her lover. Although she and Rochester declare their spiritual equality, Jane reveals that they remain unequal in terms of sexual roles and social class. Jane, the daughter of a poor clergyman, is a governess while Rochester is both her employer and a member of the landed gentry whose family has owned "almost all the land in this neighborhood, as far as you can see" (p. 91) for generations. Recognizing their inequality, Jane continues to refer to him as a tyrant and to resist his absolute authority over her. Her response to his tyranny, however, is very different from her earlier reaction to John Reed. Thus it reveals her personal evolution:

I'll be preparing myself to go out as a missionary to preach liberty to them that are enslaved—your harem inmates amongst the rest. I'll get admitted there, and I'll stir up mutiny; and you … shall in a trice find yourself fettered amongst our hands: nor will I … consent to cut your bonds till you have signed a charter, the most liberal that despot ever yet conferred.

(p. 237)

This passage is full of erotically charged language and subtle political allusions. For example, the reference to Rochester's harem reveals that Jane understands the power that men traditionally had over women. Furthermore, her reference to mutiny and to fetters reveals that she understands the traditional ways people acquire power over others, but her actions reveal that she also understands the extent to which economic power has replaced this brute physical power during the nineteenth century. Hoping to overcome Rochester's power over her, Jane writes to her uncle of her upcoming marriage. However, her real reason for soliciting her uncle's approval is much more pragmatic: "… if I had but a prospect of one day bringing Mr. Rochester an accession of fortune, I could better endure to be kept by him now" (p. 236). No longer a rebel slave or "a sort of infantine Guy Fawkes" (p. 21), Jane responds to Rochester calmly and rationally. In fact, recognizing the economic basis of women's oppression and their absolute dependence on men, she asks to continue as Adele's governess after their marriage. This request does not promise equality with Rochester. Nonetheless, her desire for employment seems to be an attempt to replace the master-slave relationship, to which she had alluded earlier, with a contract based on mutual responsibility.

Jane's reference to her charter is consistent with her desire for independence (or at least for a less oppressive form of dependence) and also with her development as a liberated Victorian woman. It is also a subtle historical allusion, either to Magna Carta or to the English Civil War or both.21 Early in the novel, Jane had been impressed by Helen Burns's ability to answer questions about Charles the First, the monarch whose failure to work with Parliament led to his death and to the English Civil War. Although Helen accuses Charles of failing to understand the direction of history, her pity lies with the "poor murdered king" whose "enemies were the worst" because "they shed blood they had no right to shed" (p. 49). Jane drops the discussion at this point, and it is only when she speaks of her charter that the reader realizes how much she had learned from this discussion and from the history lesson which prompted it. The lesson had focused on memorization of discrete facts, but the astute Jane had learned that the social, economic, and political forces that combined to destroy Charles are still important. For example, she appears to recognize the parallels between the Civil War and her own history. The Civil War was precipitated by a variety of forces: by a rising middle class which desired political power commensurate with its economic power and by a religious group which, believing in a convenant between men and God, desired a similar contract between men and their rulers. (The barons who forced King John to sign Magna Carta had demanded much the same thing.) Furthermore, it is clear that Jane's sympathies are, as usual, with the rebels. Like the Parliamentarians who gained political power during the Civil War and lost it again during the Restoration, Jane's money comes from trade. She is thus part of that trend which is individualistic and middle class. Moreover, she is a member of a group which is gaining power during the nineteenth century, not through violence, but through economic strength and through political strategy. In fact, Brontë stresses Jane's right to this power by having St. John learn of her true identity (and makes it possible for her to claim her inheritance) on November 5, a holiday which is both the traditional English Guy Fawkes Day and the anniversary of the landing of William and Mary in 1688, an event which concluded the English Civil War. These veiled historical presences suggest an historic evolution from bloody rebellion to bloodless victory and therefore imply how far Jane herself has evolved from the violent child who had retaliated against John Reed to the maturing woman.

Similarly, Jane's portrait of Rochester, which also uses the English Civil War as an historical metaphor, shows that the modern man is likely to use subtle economic methods to subjugate women rather than the crude physical dominance associated with John Reed. Rochester's background resembles the Royalists.22 With the exception of the colonial wealth which he acquired when he married Bertha Mason, his wealth comes from land; therefore, he represents a group which was losing its power base during the nineteenth century. Charlotte Brontë further emphasizes this connection by providing the reader with a partial genealogy of Rochester's family. Besides his father and elder brother, she mentions only one of his ancestors, a Damer de Rochester, who was killed at Marston Moor, a battle (July 2, 1644) which gave the Parliamentarians a decisive victory over the Royalists. Although Jane never mentions specifically whether this ancestor was Royalist or Parliamentarian, indications are that he was Royalist. In addition, Rochester's obedience to his father's orders and his later failure to abide by Jane's charter show his reverence for established authority rather than for the rights of the individual. Rochester is not a rebel, and his marriage to Jane is no act of defiance. However, when he and Jane meet again after her long absence, her inheritance has made her a member of the rising Victorian middle class and an independent woman. In fact, Jane responds to Rochester when they first meet: "I told you I am independent, sir, as well as rich: I am my own mistress" (p. 383). Her legacy of five thousand pounds has made her an independent woman who can afford to build a cottage near his door, a woman who is free to meet him on equal economic terms.

Separated initially by class and by historical consciousness, Jane can marry Rochester only after her circumstances have changed dramatically. Thus far, the novel appears to mirror the kind of historical progression which Charlotte Brontë had actually witnessed, for the marriages of members of the gentry to members of the rising middle classes were fairly common, and the rising political and economic power of the middle classes was one of the most important developments in nineteenth-century England. However, Brontë also manages to transcend the history of her own time. By focusing on the spirituality of the supernatural voice and on the married life of Jane and Rochester, she suggests how her story can evolve out of history. Unlike the masterly voice which St. John hears at the end of the novel, a voice which Jane earlier admits that she cannot obey ("But I was no apostle,—I could not behold the herald,—I could not receive his call" [p. 354]), this voice reflects feminine values: it is a request rather than a command. It is also the voice of a fellow human being—"a known, loved, well-remembered voice—that of Edward Fairfax Rochester" (p. 369), which liberates her. "It was my time to assume ascendancy. My powers were in play and in force" (p. 370). And she reinforces this sense of liberation by comparing it to an episode from ancient history: "The wondrous shock of feeling had come like the earthquake which shook the foundations of Paul and Silas's prison: it had opened the doors of the soul's cell and loosed its bands—it had wakened it out of its sleep, whence it sprang trembling, listening, aghast" (p. 371).

The change in Jane is only one aspect of the conclusion, however. The Rochester she finds at the end of her journey is greatly changed from the proud tyrant he had once been; and his physical changes are, as Elaine Showalter suggests, "symbolic immersions … in feminine experience."23 As a result, he is willing to accept Jane's help and an equal partnership in marriage as he confesses to her: "You know I was proud of my strength; but what is it now, when I must give it over to foreign guidance, as a child does its weakness" (p. 393). This sense of mutual support contrasts to the final view of St. John Rivers whose echo of Revelations reinforces the patriarchal paradigm of mastery instead of mutuality: "My Master … has forewarned me … 'Surely I come quickly!'…Amen; even so come, Lord Jesus!'" (p. 398). Jane and Rochester manage to escape this mastery on both the physical and the spiritual levels.

The evolution from history to herstory, from exploitation of the weak by the strong to a kind of mutuality, works in Jane Eyre on more than one level. As we have seen, Jane Eyre includes many of the characteristics which Lerner says are essential to feminist history: "an account of the female experience over time" and the "development of feminist consciousness." Jane grows from victim to independent woman; she achieves mastery over herself without desiring mastery over others. In fact, she shares her wealth with her cousins just as she shares her spiritual strength with Rochester. Charlotte Brontë uses historical metaphors—slavery in ancient Rome, oppression under the Stuart monarchs, and power for the middle classes in the nineteenth century—to show how Jane's thinking evolves toward a more complete feminine consciousness and how history itself can evolve toward herstory. The emphasis on both historical progress and spiritual development thus combines the Victorian belief in historical evolution with the traditional Christian belief in achieving perfection in an afterlife.

On another level, the conclusion is not as optimistic. In fact, there are several problems that Jane ignores. For example, the basis for Jane's and Rochester's happiness—idyllic though it may appear—is the very social situation which Jane previously found so stifling. Their ability to live in seclusion, away from society's corrupting influence, is at least partially the result of their economic status; their happy domestic life is, however, financed with his rents and with the money which she had inherited from her uncle's colonial ventures. The change to mutuality instead of mastery in their personal lives is merely a glimpse into future feminist history, a history which Charlotte Brontë could but foreshadow and a history which remains to be written and experienced.24

Faced by the historical changes which they witness and experience, all three Brontë sisters attempted to come to terms with the history of their age and to evaluate the notion of progress in human terms. More optimistic about man's spiritual and economic progress than her sisters, Charlotte subscribed to the progressive notion of history so characteristically Victorian; and she underlines this belief by comparing Jane's individual growth to the historical development of Europe from savagery to civilization. Thus, her concern with history connects Jane Eyre to novels as otherwise dissimilar as Vanity Fair, A Tale of Two Cities, and Middlemarch. In addition, a careful look at her symbolic representation of historical events helps dispel the commonly accepted belief that she was a mythic writer who was somehow out of step with her times and connects her more closely to the prevailing intellectual trends of nineteenth-century England.


  1. All references to Jane Eyre are included in the text and are to the following edition: Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, ed. Richard J. Dunn (New York: W. W. Norton, 1971).
  2. F. R. Leavis, The Great Tradition (New York: New York University Press, 1973), p. 27.
  3. Q. D. Leavis, "Dating Jane Eyre," Times Literary Supplement, 27 May 1965, p. 436.
  4. Ellen Moers, Literary Women: The Great Writers (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1976); Elaine Showalter, A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing (Princeton, New Jersey; Princeton Univ. Press, 1977); Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1979).
  5. Anne Brontë, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, ed. G. D. Hargreaves (New York: Penguin Books, 1979), p. 35.
  6. Andrew and Judith Hook, Introd., Shirley by Charlotte Brontë (New York: Penguin Books, 1974), p. 9. More important, Gaskell's biography reveals that Charlotte strived in Shirley for historical accuracy: "… and she sent to Leeds for a file of the 'Mercuries' of 1812, '13, and '14; in order to understand the spirit of those eventful times. She was anxious to write of things she had known and seen" (p. 378). Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, ed. Alan Shelston (New York: Penguin Books, 1975).
  7. Gerda Lerner, "The Challenge of Women's History," The Majority Finds Its Past (New York, 1981). Cited by Elaine Showalter, "Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness," Critical Inquiry, 8 (Winter 1981), p. 198.
  8. Winifred Gérin, Charlotte Brontë: The Evolution of Genius (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1967), p. 24. Gérin also mentions the books that Mr. Brontë used to teach his daughters—the Bible, Mangnall's Historical Questions, Lindley Murray's Grammar, and Goldsmith's Geography (p. 22). Certainly the first two books would have reinforced the children's interest in history.
  9. Gaskell cites the Brontës' History of the Year 1829 on pp. 116-17, which mentions the periodicals they read. She also mentions their interest in current events:

    Long before Maria Brontë died at the age of eleven, her father used to say he could converse with her on any of the leading topics of the day with as much freedom and pleasure as with any grown-up person.

    (p. 95)

  10. Gérin, p. 65. One wonders exactly how big an impression such study made on Charlotte and why she named Zamorna's childwife, Marian Hume.
  11. Gaskell, p. 54.
  12. Gaskell, pp. 125-26.
  13. Gaskell, p. 63.
  14. Roy Strong, Recreating the Past: British History and the Victorian Painter (Over Wallop, Hampshire: Thames and Hudson, 1978), p. 32.
  15. Gaskell, p. 432.
  16. William Irvine, Apes, Angels, and Victorians: Darwin, Huxley, and Evolution (New York: Time Inc., 1963), pp. 105-106.
  17. Irvine, p. 106.
  18. Gérin, p. 111.
  19. Mary Jacobus explains that George Eliot is also concerned with women's education, when she states that the "all-important question of women's access to knowledge and culture and to the power that goes with them … is often explicitly thematized in terms of education" (p. 213). "The Question of Language: Men of Maxims and The Mill on the Floss," Critical Inquiry, 8 (Winter 1981).
  20. John Reed's social background is rather sketchy. All Jane mentions is that Mr. Reed was a magistrate and that Mrs. Reed sneers at John Eyre for being in trade. She is more precise about Rochester's background. Jane refers to Thornfield as "a gentleman's manor house" (p. 86) and provides him with an ancestor who fought in the English Civil War and a father who is unwilling to divide his property between his two sons. However, even Brocklehurst and St. John, who are not wealthy, have the power of patriarchy behind them.

    Karen Mann also refers to the power of the ruling classes:

    Both [John Reed and Richard Mason] seem to be the expression of a class gone sour: Reed is bloated by the indulgent materialism of the bourgeoise, while Mason is the weak and degenerate issue of the colonial system. In typical Brontean fashion, then, they show two possible results of the power and corruption of money and class consciousness.

    Karen B. Mann, "Bertha Mason and Jane Eyre: The True Mrs. Rochester," Ball State University Forum, XIX (Winter 1978), 32.

  21. It is more likely to refer to the Civil War, the period in English history which most appealed to the Victorians. Roy Strong explains the reason for this fascination:

    This concept of conflict between the old establishment and the new classes found its ideal expression in the Civil War. In the person of Charles I … was discovered the perfect symbol of the ancien régime at its best.…In Cromwell the Chartists and other reformers saw their historic sanction for the new self-made man; they presented him as the hero of the common people.… Out of this struggle had been born that most prized possession of British people, the Constitution, monarchic yet democratic, the envy of the rest of Europe.

    (p. 45)

    This fascination, as Strong explains, also resulted in a plethora of paintings about the Civil War: "More works of art were produced depicting scenes connected with Charles I, Oliver Cromwell, Henrietta Maria and the struggle of Cavalier versus Roundhead than for any other period of British history" (p. 137). Brontë, who was extremely interested in the visual arts, may have been familiar with some of these works.

  22. Lawrence Stone discusses the gentry prior to and during the Civil War and explains that members of the gentry were more likely to ally their fortunes with the king after 1645. He adds that the most important single factor was religion, however, and this is something to which Brontë provides no clue. The Causes of the English Revolution: 1529-1642 (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), p. 143.
  23. A Literature of Their Own, p. 152.
  24. Gilbert and Gubar summarize the modern reader's disappointment at the same time they explain why Brontë failed in this way:

    In all of her books,…she was able to act out that passionate drive toward freedom which offended agents of the status quo, but in none was she able consciously to define the full meaning of achieved freedom—perhaps because no one of her contemporaries, not even a Wollstonecraft or a Mill, could adequately describe a society so drastically altered that the matured Jane and Rochester could really live in it.

    (pp. 369-70)


SOURCE: Ward, Maryanne C. "The Gospel According to Jane Eyre: The Suttee and the Seraglio." Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association 35, no. 1 (2002): 14-24.

In the following essay, Ward takes a postcolonial and historicist approach to Jane Eyre, examining the direct and secondary references to slavery and English imperialism in Brontë's novel.

Much postcolonial scholarship examines the use of colonial language and cultural references by European authors. The cultural transfer is not always successful, too often revealing those authors' acceptance of, or insensitivity to, the destructive force of the colonial project. Over the last ten years, explanations of references to slavery and the emancipation in Jane Eyre have appeared in places like Notes and Queries and Postscript. In longer articles two critics, Susan L. Meyer and Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak, examined Jane Eyre in a postcolonial context concentrating on the novel's relation to the slave trade (mandated by the West Indian setting) and British imperialism (as St. John Rivers' mission suggests). Meyer concludes that "What begins as an implicit critique of British domination and an identification with the oppressed collapses into merely an appropriation of the metaphor of 'slavery'" (265). Spivak reads Jane Eyre as a novel which posits "the unquestioned ideology of imperialist axiomatics" (248). While each of these notes and articles focuses attention on some aspect of the novel, none explores or develops a consistent and persuasive pattern incorporating not only the specific but the secondary references to slavery and imperialism in the Lowood/Thornfield and the Marsh End sections of the text. Meyer's treatment of the rhetoric of slavery is the most thorough to date. However, while Meyer acknowledges that the novel was written more than ten years after the full emancipation of the slaves in the British colonies (1833), she analyzes the text as if it were generated early in the century at the presumed date of the story itself. A very different view of Charlotte Brontë's attitude toward slavery emerges when all the references to slavery are included and placed in a post-emancipation context. With a careful examination of historical background as well as authorial practice, the rhetoric of the novel emerges as more consistent and unified than previously assumed. Brontë uses the rhetoric of abolition and the effects of slavery in post-emancipation Britain as an underlying rhetorical structure for her novel.1 When read in the appropriate historical context, a consistent use of the abolition rhetoric thematically unites the West Indian (Lowood/Thornfield) and Eastern (Marsh End) elements of the novel into a cohesive and consistent "liberation" theology.

Slavery in the West Indies

Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847) was published the same year that the French freed the slaves in their colonies. The fact that the novel does not speak out for the abolition of slavery is thus quite understandable; the British and French battle for emancipation had already been won. The success of the emancipation movement did not mean, however, that the powerful rhetoric of that struggle disappeared. In her early years Brontë heard the burning political questions of the day, slavery being chief among them, discussed at home. This awareness was deepened through her school experience. Reading back through the Lowood section of the novel, we tend to fuse the fictional and the real and make the author's terrible experience at the Clergy Daughters' School at Cowan Bridge even more "Gothic" than it really was. Once her father realized the true conditions at the school, Charlotte Brontë was, in fact, brought home. Charlotte Brontë was not sent to the school because she was not loved at home. Patrick Brontë would not have intentionally sent his daughters to a school which practiced the kind of Calvinistic approach which he abhorred. While Winifred Gérin in her biography, Charlotte Brontë: The Evolution of Genius, rightly emphasizes the negative aspects of the experience, she acknowledges the laudable original goals for the school, which

had been conceived with vision and daring by its founder, and was enthusiastically supported by most of the progressive educationists of the day. The names of William Wilberforce, Hannah More, and the Rev. Charles Simeon headed the list of its subscribers, next to those of the local members of Parliament and the surrounding clergy, who welcomed the chance of a really comprehensive education for their daughters.


Charlotte Brontë was acquainted with William Wilberforce's work for emancipation early in her life and later demonstrated a real appreciation for the work of Harriet Beecher Stowe, another force in the emancipation movement. These influences are certainly present in her writing.

In a methodological preamble to her discussion of Jane Eyre, Spivak asserts that she does not want "to touch Brontë's life" and thus maintains the distinction between "book and author" and "individual and history," but in Brontë's case such a distinction obscures her actual method of composition, which was highly autobiographical (244). Meyer, on the other hand, links the historical and the individual when she notes that Brontë has the young Jane talk about her experiences both at Gateshead and Lowood "appropriating" the language of slavery. These references are neither accidental nor cynical. Brontë was by instinct and because of her education and rather limited experience a highly autobiographical writer. In certain scenes and episodes, such as those depicting Lowood, the author draws heavily upon her own life. The energy behind her texts was emotional rather than cerebral as opposed to the approach of George Eliot, who was a tireless researcher. Brontë's method of composition as well as her deeply felt opposition to slavery and her familiarity with one of the most effectual of all anti-slavery novels are evident in a letter she wrote to her publisher in late October of 1852:

I cannot write books handling the topics of the day; it is of no use trying. Nor can I write a book for its moral. Nor can I take up a philanthropic scheme, though I honour philanthropy; and voluntarily and sincerely veil my face before such almighty subject as that handled in Mrs. Beecher Stowe's work, Uncle Tom's Cabin. To manage these great matters rightly, they must be long and practically studied—their bearing known intimately, and their evils felt genuinely; they must not be taken up as a business matter, and a trading speculation. I doubt not, Mrs. Stowe had felt the iron of slavery enter her heart, from childhood upwards, long before she ever thought of writing books. The feeling throughout her work is sincere, and not got up.

(cited in Gaskell, 364-365)

In fact, Brontë probably learned those terms which Meyer sees as "appropriated" at the school which was the model for Lowood. If not at the time, then certainly later she must have recognized the irony of the name of a great leader for emancipation being linked with an educational experience she felt to be little better than penal servitude. The distance between the ideal and the practice at the school was extreme, and Brontë's use of the concept of slavery for the helplessness felt by a child has both pedagogical and psychological bases. Thus Brontë "appropriates" the slave references in the early section of the novel to create Jane's immature (and perhaps insensitive and overwrought) depiction of her experience, not to devaluate the work of the abolitionists or diminish sympathy for the plight of the slaves. In many ways Meyer's fascinating information about Brontë's unfinished novel Emma (1853), in which the author appears to have decided to explore racial prejudice by having her heroine be of mixed race, emphasizes that Brontë's concern went a great deal deeper than the mere "appropriation" of terms. The fact that Brontë broached the subject at all is telling; she wrote only of those things about which she cared deeply.

Brontë was very familiar with the individuals and institutions in her society which had fought for and won the battle for emancipation and the social and religious rhetoric of that fight. Knowing the movement and its rhetoric well, she naturally, but perhaps subconsciously, returned to it when creating a heroine who would challenge gender inequities and, to a limited extent, the class distinctions which Brontë felt so keenly. The heroine in Brontë's tale of a young woman's struggle for emancipation would be a self-described "plain, Quakerish governess" (225). This description associates Jane with the group which had been so steadfast in support of Wilberforce and emancipation.2 The references to Quakers are far more powerful and resonant than mere metaphors for Jane's plainness and simplicity of dress. Jane is guided by an inner voice not unlike the Quaker's Inward Light.

David Brion Davis's award-winning study, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution 1770-1832, details the activities of the Society of Friends in the emancipation movement in England and the United States. Davis notes that from the late eighteenth century the one issue on which the Society was completely united and on which it did not follow the individual Inward Light, even in the American South, was the abolition of slavery (202). There could be no deviation from the belief that slavery was wrong and that to support that institution in any way was not permitted by the Society. Our contemporary reading of Quaker pacifism into Jane's character probably differs from nineteenth-century reader response, particularly those with West Indian holdings, who viewed the Society of Friends as non-violent but persistent and threatening troublemakers.

While the lack of explicit cries for emancipation may be explained away by the historical content, Meyer sees racism in the text itself, although it is not unmitigated. She concludes that "The story of Bertha … does indict British colonialism in the West Indies and the 'stained' wealth that came from its oppressive rule" (255). Yet, Meyer sees the underlying assertion as basically racist because "the novel persistently displaces the blame for slavery onto the 'dark races' themselves, only alluding to slavery directly as a practice of dark-skinned people" (262). She bases her assertion on the racial background of Bertha Mason and a set of references to characters who are clearly white, although "swarthy," morally "stained," and therefore, by association, black. A coherent analysis of the attitude toward race in the text depends heavily on the actual racial background of Bertha Mason. Meyer describes Bertha's brother as the "yellow-skinned yet socially white Mr. Mason" (252); Meyer argues quite strongly for Bertha being either of mixed parents or at least strongly associated with the slaves by her "swarthy" complexion. At the very least she asserts a symbolic identification.

Brontë's biographer, Winifred Gérin, points out that in Charlotte's class at Cowan Bridge were two orphan girls from the West Indies. Apparently, their brother, who visited regularly, was "sallow looking" (unlike the sisters whose color was unremarkable) and therefore an exotic figure when he came to the school. Gérin speculates that this "direct prototype of Mr. Mason" was "doubtless suffering from the English cold" (333). A more likely explanation for his sallowness would be that after an ocean voyage into the northern Atlantic, the tan gained in the West Indies would have begun to fade leaving a sallow cast, as it does to the skin of those with slightly olive complexions such as the Masons. (The British experience with tanned skin was fairly limited to the army and navy, and the effects of the sun on fair British complexion usually resulted in a burn and not a tan.) There is no indication that Brontë suspected a mixed racial background in her classmates' brother despite his strange coloring, although the fragments of Emma indicate that Brontë would have befriended such a person without prejudice. Thus I infer the most likely explanation to be true, that Charlotte Brontë did not wish to present the Masons as of mixed racial heritage. The designation "Creole" after the mother's name indicated, as was customary, that she was born in the islands as opposed to her merchant husband, who was an emigré Englishman. Such a reading makes sense of the madness and excess in the mother's family without inviting the contradictory vision of the novel as being anti-slavery, and yet blaming the oppression on the oppressed.

Charlotte Brontë was certainly neither sensitive nor consistent, but rather very conventional in her use of adjectives of color, which could simultaneously have racial and/or moral overtones. Her color polarities come from two different sources: literary and religious. The first set are ambiguous in their moral judgments; the second, not open to debate. Out of the Gothic and the Byronic comes the contrast between the light hero and the dark anti-hero, the latter preferred by the Brontës. From conventional Christian theology and the Bible come references to the works of darkness and the children of light, references which are spiritual judgments. (A case could certainly be made here for institutionalized use of racist language in Christian theology. However, when the abolitionists called slavery a work of darkness, no one would suggest that they were referring to slaves, but rather to the devil and the evil of the institution.)

The dark, brooding Byronic figure of Brontëan juvenilia is Rochester's ancestor. He, like Emily Brontë's Healthcliff, is "colored" by his passion, sexuality, and flawed humanity, and is pitted against the colorless, cold morality of Rivers and Linton. Readers' emotional engagement and, to some extent, sympathy lie with the dark, brooding half-victim, half-villain. Yet, this ambiguous moral darkness of social and economic oppression does not rival the moral horror of slavery. Abolitionists, Anglican evangelicals, and Quakers alike not only stressed the harm done to the person enslaved, but also advertised the moral danger to the slaveholders themselves. When Rochester's secret is revealed and Jane cannot marry him, he asks her to live with him without the sanction of marriage. He pleads that he does not want to go back to his old practice of taking a mistress: "Hiring a mistress is the next worst thing to buying a slave: both are often by nature, and always by position, inferior: and to live familiarly with inferiors is degrading" (274). Jane understands that despite his protestations, she would be, in fact, his mistress and therefore have equal value to him as a slave. His plea reveals his underlying assumption of the existence of an inferiority based in nature, not enforced by social position. Brontë forces us to see that Rochester's belief in Jane's inferiority necessitates more than that she "give up your governessing slavery" (238). Early in the novel Rochester had set himself up as Jane's liberator from the constraints placed on her by her occupation and by her Lowood past which causes her to "fear in the presence of a man and a brother" (122). He puts himself in the position of benevolent benefactor/master and, later, lover. Ironically, as R. J. Dingley reveals in Notes and Queries, Rochester's own word choice damns him. The very phrase he uses was taken from the seal of the Slave Emancipation Society. On that widely known and copied medallion, originally modeled by Josiah Wedgwood, the kneeling figure pleads "Am I not a Man and a Brother?" (66). In all these instances, Rochester is both dark and "stained," but in no way could the blame for his attitudes and actions be passed to the oppressed.

Brontë not only puts the words of the inscription of the popular medallion in Rochester's mouth, but she also buries in his abhorrent formulation about his mistresses the argument of the abolitionists, particularly the Quakers, on the cost of owning another human being. To own a slave is not only to harm the captive, but also to degrade oneself. On the one hand, Rochester's characterization of Bertha as not only mad, but also "intemperate and unchaste" is an extravagant description, part of Rochester's self-justification as he seeks to win Jane's sympathy (270). Yet, there is also a link between the unstable and corrupt family Rochester describes and the belief on the part of the abolitionists that owning slaves helped to cheapen all aspects of human life. Davis's study helps to put this section of the novel in an historical context when he asserts that "the godless character of West Indian society made it easy to perceive slavery as a product of irreligion and infidelity, closely linked to the sins of intemperance, profanity, and shameless sexuality" (203). Abolitionists used the planters as examples of how slave ownership was joined to incontinent lives. Charlotte Brontë would have heard those cautionary tales from her school days. Brontë's description of the character of Bertha Mason and her Creole family should be read in light of contemporary beliefs about life on those islands, which according to Davis had more than a little basis in fact. Thus, Bertha's madness is not a result of racial, but of sexual inheritance, the result of being the heiress to a family corrupted by the nature of their livelihood. The swarthy Rochester is tainted by having married into a society where his income is derived from a slave-holding estate and by his acceptance of the institution of slavery. He has owned slaves as well as taken mistresses. He says he wants to avoid the practice of taking a mistress and, although now he is presumably supported by his family's money, he still wants not only to "own" Jane, but to chain her, clearly not the action of a liberator:

"and when I have fairly seized you, to have and to hold, I'll just—figuratively speaking—attach you to a chain like this" (touching his watchguard). "Yet, bonny wee thing, I'll wear you in my bosom, lest my jewel I should tyne."


Only when he has been blinded and maimed does Rochester hand over his watch chain to Jane, relinquishing his possession.

Missionaries, Colonialism and Women's Liberation

Susan Meyer is wisely wary about appropriations of the moral and physical horror of slavery to lesser, although certainly unjust, forms of oppression. I do not believe that the novel or Brontë herself is ambiguous on the question of slavery; she simply felt that the battle for emancipation had been won, at least on the British front, and that Mrs. Stowe was doing the work in America. The same cannot be said on the question of missionary work in the East and its link to the expansion of the British Empire. As the daughter of an Anglican minister and a conventional Christian, Brontë approved of the work of the missionaries. Because of the resentment of the planters in the West Indies to missionary work, many believed that the missionaries were very active in the cause of emancipation. Davis maintains that "English missionaries to the West Indies were interested in religious conversion, not revolution, although some of the planters were too blind or bigoted to see the difference" (203). On the other hand, the Quakers were politically active in trying to free the slaves in both the British colonies and the United States, but made few converts. Brontë does affirm the work of St. John Rivers which, as in the case of the work of the Anglican missionaries in the West Indies, is certainly open to question in this post-colonial era. Spivak is correct in her reading of the novel as very Eurocentric. (Given Brontë's lack of affection for Belgian Catholics as evinced in Villette, I don't doubt that she would have seen that country as in need of Anglican missionary activity as well.) There must not have been many, novelists or otherwise, who would have challenged the "rightness" of Rivers's work.

However, as closely aligned as they often are, Brontë and her character are not one and the same. Only under extreme pressure from Rivers does Jane agree to serve God in the mission field. The coldness and dominance of Rivers's character reveal the dark side of the missionary spirit. His is a mission of dominance, not of liberation, let alone love. In opposition to Rivers's mission, Jane articulates her own gospel of liberation. Jane sees herself both as one to be liberated and as a potential liberator. While St. John Rivers believes that a woman could not go out on her own as an Anglican missionary, the same did not apply to Quakers. Davis points out that Friends of either sex could undertake a traveling mission "and receive the assent of the appropriate meetings." In America one of the tasks of the traveling Friends was "gently rebuking the families they visited for retaining Negro slaves or for displaying worldly vanities" (226). Brontë has Jane doing exactly that to Rochester, rebuking him for his attitude and former practice from the proposal scene on. Revolution is much easier if you actually hate your oppressor; the bondage of care is much more insidious. His patriarchal assumptions are very familiar territory in feminist analyses of Jane Eyre. My concern is with the particular rhetoric of Jane's struggle and with Jane's deliberate limitation of her role as "missionary" to unemancipated women. Unlike the Anglican missionaries, whose work she rejects for herself, Jane seeks liberty and not salvation for the "slaves" whom she believes herself particularly suited to "convert."

The rhetorical and thematic bridge between the West Indian and the Eastern elements of the novel actually occurs after Jane has accepted Rochester's proposal. Despite the fact that she will not change her habits of dress and prefers to remain "Quakerish" (a sign of her role as free individual), Rochester tells her, in an easy bit of flattery, that he wouldn't exchange her for a harem. She is offended ("bit") by the "Eastern allusion" and tells him he might find better use for his money than buying silks and jewels for her:

"And what will you do, Janet, while I am bargaining for so many tons of flesh and such an assortment of black eyes?"

"I'll be preparing myself to go out as a missionary to preach liberty to them that are enslaved—your harem inmates amongst the rest. I'll get admitted there, and I'll stir up mutiny; and you, three-tailed bashaw as you are, sir, shall in a trice find yourself fettered amongst our hands: nor will I, for one, consent to cut your bonds till you have signed a charter, the most liberal that despot ever yet conferred."


Jane will liberate those sexual slaves held in physical bondage in a harem or, as in the case of England, in emotional bondage, linked by love to a man whom she gradually realizes still views her as property. Later in this same pre-marital conversation, she gets the second hint that Rochester has only given lip service to the gospel of natural equality as preached by Jane. He sings her a sentimental ballad ending with the assertion that his love has agreed "With me to live—to die." He is startled when Jane counters that "'I had as good a right to die when my time came as he had: but I should bide that time, and not be hurried away in a suttee'" (240). Thus, in preaching against the seraglio and the suttee (the required death of a widow on her husband's funeral pyre) Jane has limited her missionary activity to those institutions and customs which were based on the presumption of sexual inequality.

Much earlier in the proposal scene in the Thornfield garden, Jane had instinctively questioned Rochester on equality, to which he all too glibly agreed. The nature of Jane's rhetoric, although not her level of mistrust, indicated that she knew that Rochester viewed her, not only "by position" but "by nature," as inferior. Jane's liberation theology for women relies heavily on, and does not casually appropriate, the language of emancipation theology. Davis points out that during the struggle for abolition there were attempts at establishing a theological basis for slavery by "proving" the less than equally human status of the slaves. The abolitionists had to counter Biblically-based arguments that the slaves were doomed as either sons of Ham cursed by Noah to eternal slavery or a separate lesser creation (539-541). Jane asks Rochester if he thinks she is "soulless and heartless," two of the things that the slave-owners wanted to believe about their captives. Thus, slave-owners were unwilling to have their slaves baptized because this act would acknowledge that they had souls. When Jane proclaims that she has "as much soul as you—and full as much heart," she is proclaiming a kind of equality which Rochester has not challenged. Her vulnerability to him comes from her lack of money, family support and the information Rochester is withholding. She asserts her equality in the rhetorical terms of the abolitionists by asking that not merely her station but her body be disregarded, which in her case would disguise gender rather than race: "I am not talking with you now through medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even mortal flesh—it is my spirit which addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God's feet, equal,—as we are" (222). God's view of her status is not really the question, but the attitude of Rochester and men like him who are at ease with the seraglio and the suttee.

A minister's daughter, Charlotte Brontë produced a testament in the form of a fictional autobiography, and like the earliest attempt in this genre, Moll Flanders, the life is put before us as an exemplum. What are we to learn from this life? While Jane's life and teaching certainly are the basis for an engendered liberation theology, Jane's individual happiness, which Spivak sees as a triumph of individualism, does not point toward the beginning of a women's movement that would struggle against class and gender oppression. In fact, Jane's preaching is not what "converts" Rochester. He is "reformed" through the radical intervention of Bertha, perhaps guided by the Providence which spared him in the refining fire. Whatever Brontë would have us believe about Jane's strength, her missionary effort is unable to claim even a single convert. Jane's state at the end of the novel is not unlike that of the liberated slaves; she has achieved the acknowledgment of her equality, but is given a very narrow sphere within which to exercise her freedom. According to Davis, "Most of the Negroes freed by Quaker masters were quietly dissuaded from trying to join the Society of Friends. Liberation from slavery did not mean freedom to live as one chose, but rather freedom to become a diligent, sober, dependable worker who gratefully accepted his position in society" (254).

Although Charlotte Brontë does not explicitly challenge the missionary/imperialist assumptions of the British activity in the East, a closer examination of the character and to some extent of the work of St. John Rivers allows us a subversive reading. Only the most fanatic religious reader could have wanted Jane to marry and serve Rivers. Rivers achieves martyrdom at the hands of the Eastern climate, not at the hands of those who oppose his mission. If we recall the other interventions of nature in the novel, such as the oak tree split by lightning, Brontë asks nature to say what she could not: that Rivers has made the wrong choice and that he did not belong in the East. Thus, the anti-colonial thrust of the novel and the cry for gender equality signaled by emancipation rhetoric are subtexts, masked by the Gothic romance and heroic Christian missionary plots they subvert.

Are we to read the conclusion as an affirmation of individualism or despair? Jane and Rochester's isolation in the end may either be a new Eden or a sign of the failure of the preaching of this Quakerish governess. Analysis of the issues of emancipation and missionary work has helped to answer this question. Charlotte Brontë, supported by the rhetoric of emancipation, creates her ideal missionary and then, looking at the mission field, loses faith and relegates Jane to Ferndean, where, like Esther Summerson in the new Bleak House, she will be untouched by and unable to touch the society so much in need. We may be looking for affirmation on the social level which Brontë knew was impossible in her society. Perhaps she did not lack courage or imagination, but was merely unwilling to produce a romance ending for a very real problem.

George Levine, commenting on the conclusion of George Eliot's Daniel Deronda, sees Daniel's setting off "to create a community, outside the reaches of the society and of the novel whose language can no longer evoke one" as Eliot's "renouncing the possibility of satisfactory life within society" (46). As with the Jews in anti-semitic Britain or the freed slaves in the West Indies, acknowledging equality did not bring with it economic or social inclusion; it merely indicated the escape from legal restrictions. Brontë successfully uses the rhetoric of emancipation to describe Jane's personal struggle, but lacking a model for a truly integrated conclusion for her text and her heroine's life, she produced a conclusion which revealed how far her society had to go to realize and accept the social and economic implications of emancipation.


  1. While the emancipation struggle in the British colonies and Jane Eyre certainly did not generate a women's movement in Britain, Charlotte Brontë's use of emancipation rhetoric in the cause of gender equality is paradigmatic of the relationship between the rhetoric of the American emancipation movement and its appropriation for women's suffrage.
  2. There are three main references to Quakers. The first occurs early in the novel when Jane describes her black frock, "Quaker-like as it was" (86). Jane describes Grace Poole's warning to her to lock her door at night as being delivered "with the demureness of a Quakeress" (136); she intends the comment ironically, but the irony really is that Mrs. Poole is trying to protect Jane from danger. The third reference is Jane's description of herself as a "plain Quakerish governess" who does not need or want Rochester's jewels (227).

Works Cited

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York: W. W. Norton, 1971.

Davis, David Brion. The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution 1770-1823. New York: Cornell UP, 1975.

Dingley, R. J. "Rochester as Slave: An Allusion in Jane Eyre." Notes and Queries 31 (1984): 66.

Gaskell, Elizabeth. The Life of Charlotte Brontë. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1924.

Gérin, Winifred. Charlotte Brontë: The Evolution of Genius. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1967.

Gibson, Mary Ellis. "Seraglio or Suttee: Brontë's Jane Eyre," Postscript 4 (1987): 1-8.

Levin, George. The Realistic Imagination. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1981.

Meyer, Susan L. "Colonialism and the Figurative Strategy of Jane Eyre." Victorian Studies: A Journal of the Humanities, Art and Sciences 33 (Winter 1990): 247-268.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakrovorty. "Three Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism." Critical Inquiry 12 (Autumn 1985): 143-161.

Tasch, Peter A. "Jane Eyre's 'Three-tailed Bashaw,'" Notes and Queries 29 (1982): 232.

Further Reading

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Crump, Rebecca W. Charlotte and Emily Brontë: A Reference Guide. 3 vols. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982-1986, 194 p.

Provides an annotated compilation of secondary sources from 1846 to 1983.

Passel, Anne. Charlotte and Emily Brontë: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland Publishing, 1979, 359 p.

Organizes criticism by text.


Gaskell, Elizabeth. The Life of Charlotte Brontë. London: E. P. Dutton, 1908, 411 p.

Offers a biography by one of Brontë's contemporaries; includes large extracts from Brontë's correspondence.

Gérin, Winifred. Charlotte Brontë: The Evolution of Genius. London: Oxford University Press, 1967, 617 p.

Biography focusing on Charlotte Brontë's development as an author.

Gordon, Lyndall. Charlotte Brontë: A Passionate Life. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996, 418p.

Provides revisionist insights into Brontë's life.

Miller, Lucasta. The Brontë Myth. New York: Knopf, 2004, 351p.

Offers a biography that retraces myth surrounding the Brontë sisters, particularly Charlotte.


Adams, Maurianne. "Jane Eyre: Woman's Estate." In The Authority of Experience: Essays in Feminist Criticism, edited by Arlyn Diamond and Lee R. Edwards, pp. 137-59. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1977.

Reads Jane Eyre as a feminist novel despite Jane's initial discomfort with her feminist awareness.

Argyle, Gisela. "Gender and Generic Mixing in Charlotte Brontë's Shirley." Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 35, no. 4 (autumn 1995): 741-56.

Explores the use of the third-person narrator in Shirley as a departure from Brontë's usual style.

Baines, Barbara. "Villette: A Feminist Novel." Victorians Institute Journal (1976): 51-60.

Interprets Villette as the story of a young woman observing the identities available to her and gradually realizing her personal power.

Craik, W. A. The Brontë Novels. London: Methuen, 1968, 266 p.

Studies the novels by the Brontë sisters.

Eagleton, Terry. Myths of Power: A Marxist Study of the Brontës. London: Macmillan, 1975, 148 p.

Takes a Marxist literary approach to interpreting the Brontës' work.

Ewbank, Inga-Stina. "Charlotte Brontë: The Woman Writer As an Author Only." In Their Proper Sphere: A Study of the Brontë Sisters as Early Victorian Female Novelists, pp. 156-204. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966.

Analyzes Brontë's work in terms of the novelist's principle of artistic truth.

Federico, Annette R. "The Other Case: Gender and Narration in Charlotte Brontë's The Professor." Papers on Language and Literature 30, no. 4 (fall 1994): 323-45.

Discusses Brontë's use of a male narrator in The Professor.

Greene, Sally. "Apocalypse When? Shirley's Vision and the Politics of Reading." Studies in the Novel 26, no. 4 (winter 1994): 350-71.

Contends that earlier feminist criticism of Shirley has failed to consider its context, particularly in its religious themes; argues that anachronistic criticism is unable to recognize the challenges to the limitations placed on women that Brontë's work presents.

Levine, Caroline. "'Harmless Pleasure': Gender, Suspense, and Jane Eyre." Victorian Literature and Culture (2000): 275-86.

Connects Brontë's use of a pseudonym with narrative suspense as pleasurable methods of subversion.

Meyer, Susan. Imperialism at Home: Race and Victorian Women's Fiction. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996, 220 p.

Examines the treatment of race and colonialism in Jane Eyre.

Millett, Kate. "The Sexual Revolution, First Phase: 1830-1930." In Sexual Politics, pp. 61-156. New York: Doubleday and Company, 1970.

Includes Brontë's works in a discussion of subversive works by women; sees in Villette a revolutionary sensibility with respect to gender issues.

Moglen, Helene. Charlotte Brontë: The Self Conceived. New York: W. W. Norton, 1976, 256 p.

Explores Brontë's novels as an indication of the development of her personality.

Pell, Nancy. "Resistance, Rebellion, and Marriage: The Economics of 'Jane Eyre.'" Nineteenth-Century Fiction 31, no. 4 (March 1977): 397-420.

Interprets Jane Eyre as a critique of the social and economic strictures on Victorian women.

Plasa, Carl. "Charlotte Brontë's Foreign Bodies: Slavery and Sexuality in The Professor." Journal of Narrative Theory 30, no. 1 (winter 2000): 1-28.

Examines the representation of colonialism found in The Professor.

Poovey, Mary. "The Anathematized Race: The Governess and Jane Eyre." In Feminism and Psychoanalysis, edited by Richard Feldstein and Judith Roof, pp. 230-54. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989.

Considers the historical position of the governess and Brontë's treatment of it in her work.

Ratchford, Fannie E. The Brontës' Web of Childhood. New York: Columbia University Press, 1941, 293 p.

A pioneering study of the Brontës' childhood works.

Rich, Adrienne. "'Jane Eyre': The Temptations of a Motherless Woman." In On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966-1978, pp. 89-106. New York: W. W. Norton, 1979.

Assesses Jane Eyre as a novel that depicts alternatives for women.

Spacks, Patricia Meyer. "Power and Passivity." In The Female Imagination, pp. 45-96. New York: Avon, 1975.

Suggests that while Brontë's heroines must accept their dependency on men, they are able to retain at least some power in their relationships.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. "Three Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism." Critical Inquiry 12, no. 1 (autumn 1985): 243-61.

Relates Jane Eyre to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Jean Rhys's reimagining of Bertha Mason's story in Wide Sargasso Sea.

Taylor, Irene. "The Professor, Jane Eyre, Shirley." In Holy Ghosts: The Male Muses of Emily and Charlotte Brontë, pp. 159-99. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

Links Brontë's characters' struggles with gender roles with her own desires for gender equality in society and a deeper sense of balance between the male and female qualities within herself.

Tillotson, Kathleen. "Jane Eyre." In Novels of the Eighteen-Forties, pp. 257-313. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954.

Describes Jane Eyre as a novel of the inner life; discusses Brontë's development as a writer through the Angrian chronicles and The Professor to the more coherent and insightful Jane Eyre.

Woolf, Virginia. "Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights." In The Common Reader, pp. 219-27. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1925.

Emphasizes the poetry of Brontë's writing and the intensity of Jane Eyre.

Yaeger, Patricia. "Honey-Mad Women: Charlotte Brontë's Bilingual Heroines." Browning Institute Studies 14 (1986): 11-35.

Compares the treatment of bilingualism in Jane Eyre and Villette with Romantic poetry.

Zonana, Joyce. "The Sultan and the Slave: Feminist Orientalism and the Structures of Jane Eyre." Signs 18, no. 3 (spring 1993): 592-617.

Looks at Brontë's use of Orientalist themes and their relationship to feminist issues in Jane Eyre.


Additional coverage of Brontë's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 17; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 2; British Writers, Vol. 5; British Writers: The Classics, Vol. 2; British Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 1; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1832-1890; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 21, 159, 199; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Novelists; DISCovering Authors, 3.0; Exploring Novels; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 2; Literature Resource Center; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 3, 8, 33, 58, 105; Novels for Students, Vol. 4; Twayne's English Authors; World Literature and Its Times, Vol. 4; and World Literature Criticism.


Charlotte Brontë World Literature Analysis


Brontë, Charlotte (1816 - 1855)