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Last Updated July 6, 2023.

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.

For example, Jane’s job as a governess exemplifies only one confusing female role in the 1800s. 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 a 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.”

Historical Context

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Last Updated July 6, 2023.

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, however, conditions in these schools were often as harsh as those in schools for orphans and the poor such as Lowood Institution in Jane Eyre.

But a public school education would serve as an entree into good society; the graduates of public schools staffed the higher ranks of government and the professions. Virtually all young men who went on to university (i.e., college) first attended public schools. Women were excluded from universities until the 1870s. The first women did not graduate from an English university until 1874 when four women received degrees from Cambridge University.

Young children in upper-class and upper-middle-class families—both boys and girls—would often receive their earliest education from governesses. Governesses were women who were hired to serve as live-in tutors; they provided their charges with ongoing lessons in a variety of subjects until the child was old enough to be sent away to school. For the most part, these women were daughters of the middle classes and the professional classes who had attained a certain level of education. Although the profession of governess was not financially rewarding, it was respectable.

Working conditions for governesses varied, depending upon the particular family for which a governess might work. Some parents treated their hired governess with respect, as a professional, while others considered governesses little more than servants who were expected to keep in their place.

In the traditional curriculum of the time, girls and young women did not study such "serious" subjects as mathematics, science, or classics. However, they were taught grammar, history, geography, and French. Art, music, and sewing or embroidery were also considered appropriate subjects, and young women were all expected to have a knowledge of the Bible and basic Christian teachings. These subjects were taught both by governesses and at school. Jane Eyre may not be a typical governess, but clearly, she has an excellent command of most of these subjects. By the middle of the nineteenth century, some twenty-five thousand women in England worked as governesses.

Jane Eyre depicts several views of marriage. The marriage of Rochester and Bertha owes more to the Gothic imagination than to reality, while the marriage of Rochester and Jane may also have been more the exception than the norm. Perhaps the most historically accurate view of marriage in early Victorian England is suggested by those marriages in the novel that might, but do not, take place. The anticipated marriage of Rochester and Blanche Ingram, for example, would seem an appropriate one to many Victorians because the two partners come from the same social class. A marriage such as the potential one between Jane and St. John Rivers would also not have been unusual. A husband such as Rivers would secure a "helpmeet" to share his burdens, while the woman in such a marriage would be given an opportunity to establish her own home and family and to do good work.

Social Sensitivity

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Jane Eyre explores the predicaments of those bound by law, conventions, and social status to lives not of their own choosing. Like Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre resents being controlled by inferiors but uses this resentment to generate energy necessary for her survival and rise to independence. The power of religion to enlighten or to corrupt finds expression in Jane's reliance on heartfelt prayer and in the diametrically opposed vocations of Brocklehurst and St. John Rivers. In each case the social value of religion is depicted as part of the individual's motives.

Perhaps the most socially sensitive issue in this novel is its implicit argument for women's rights. In parallel to Charlotte Bronte's own life, Jane struggles for minimal recognition even though her artistic, social, and professional skills exceed those of most of her antagonists.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 1840s: Like other creative and intellectual pursuits, novel writing is considered a male preserve. Women such as the Bronte sisters George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), and in France George Sand (Amandine-Aurore Lucille Dupin), write under male pseudonyms in order to have their work taken seriously.

    Today: Many of the leading novelists in Britain are women, and they are regarded as the equals of their male counterparts. Major British women novelists include A. S. (Antonia) Byatt, P. D. (Phyllis) James, Iris Murdoch, and Muriel Spark.

  • 1840s: Many well-to-do families employed women as governesses to educate their children at home and to supervise children's activities. By 1851, some twenty-five thousand women worked as governesses in Britain. Although being a governess was regarded as respectable, opportunites for governesses to move into other positions were limited.

    Today: Some young women take temporary jobs abroad as "au pairs," supervising a family's children in return for room, board, and wages. Although these jobs are low-paying, they allow young women to travel and gain life experience before going into another profession or continuing their education.

  • 1840s: A typical English governess or school teacher might make from fifteen to thirty pounds per year.

    Today: The standard salary for teachers in England rose to 420 pounds per week in 1995.

  • 1840s: Preschooling is virtually nonexistent.

    Today: Nearly two-thirds of three and four year olds in Britain attend nursery school.

  • 1847: College admission is limited to young men, most of whom come from the upper class.

    Today: Almost one out of every three teenagers goes on to college. Higher education is free for all students in Britain, therefore, young people do not have to work their way through college.

  • 1840s: Haworth was a small, isolated hilltop town. Textile mills provided the local industry.

    Today: Haworth thrives on tourism, with more than two hundred and fifty thousand tourists visiting Haworth every year. Many tourists go to the Bronte Parsonage, which houses a museum displaying original manuscripts and drawings by Charlotte Bronte and her siblings. The museum also includes other interesting items, such as Charlotte's wedding dress and her tiny gloves.

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Style, Form, and Literary Elements


Connections and Further Reading