Published in 1847, Jane Eyre was a popular success. Although many women writers were read by the Victorian public, true literary respectability required a masculine name; hence Brontë used the pseudonym “Currer Bell.” The popularity of this intelligent novel should force one to reconsider the often belittled and maligned tastes of the largely female reading public of the period. One can imagine that the novel appealed to women then, and today, because it reflects the frustratingly limiting condition of women in the nineteenth century. Although the novel’s end suggests a happy, typically Victorian domestic solution to Jane’s problems—the reconciliation of Jane and Rochester—this conclusion does not assuage the more pervasive difficulties that Jane encounters in defining her identity as a woman within nineteenth century constraints. Modern readers appreciate Jane’s strength and independence and her admirable struggle to live with integrity within a culture stifling for women.
For example, Jane’s job as a governess exemplifies only one confusing female role in the 1800’s. Women had very few alternatives for survival. If not supported by a father or a husband, an educated, middle-class woman likely was forced to become a governess, a position of lifelong servitude and repression of personal desires. As a woman who possesses the education, tastes, and behaviors of upper-class decorum so that she can teach them to her charges, the governess was frustrated to be treated as simply another household servant. Much of Jane’s confusion about her identity at Thornfield stems from her contradictory role as governess.
Marriage, however, was no saving grace. Jane expresses the very modern fear, practically unheard of in the nineteenth century, of losing her identity in marriage. She resists compromising her identity and denigrating herself in conforming to Rochester’s idea of a wife. In her wedding dress, she does not recognize herself before the mirror, nor can she write “Mrs. Rochester” on her luggage. As St. John’s wife, she fears she would be “always restrained, and always checked—forced to keep the fire of my nature continually low.” When Rochester is maimed and socially ruined, essentially bringing his physical strength and social position equal to that of Jane, the threat of domination no longer exists. Jane announces her decision in the powerful, self-asserting words of the final chapter: “Reader, I married him.”
Bronte's England: The Social Context
Jane Eyre is set in the north of England sometime in the first half of the nineteenth century. During this period, British society was undergoing slow but significant change. Perhaps most apparent was the transition from a rural to an industrial economy. The Industrial Revolution had begun in Britain in the late 1700s, and by the time of Jane Eyre, it was running full steam. Although Charlotte Bronte wrote about some of the effects of the Industrial Revolution in her 1849 novel Shirley, she touches on three areas of social concern in Jane Eyre: education, women's employment, and marriage.
Victorian attitudes toward education differed considerably from those prevalent in modern America. For one thing, the level of one's schooling was determined by social class and also by gender. At all levels of society and in virtually all levels of the education system, boys and girls were taught separately. The children of poor or working-class families were taught in local schools, such as the one in which Jane Eyre is a schoolmistress. Such children would rarely progress beyond learning basic skills; most learning was by rote. Most of these children would have left school by their early teen years to work on farms or in factories; boys would often leave to join the army or navy. Upper- and upper-middle-class families, on the other hand, sought to enroll their sons in exclusive private schools (known paradoxically as public schools). In truth,...
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