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January 13, 2011

round Charlotte Bronte's thumb

(Written at 30,000 feet over the Rockies, en route to San Francisco, after finishing Jane Eyre)

If Jane Eyre really were what it purports to be--the "autobiography" of someone of that name, as "edited" by Currer Bell--I think we would read it as follows. We would take it as the testimony of an individual who claims she has been helped by several good people but thwarted and controlled by quite a few bad ones. From her time as an orphan under Mrs. Reed, to her captivity at Lowood School, to her two near-marriages, Jane always feels she is being "mastered" (a frequent and significant word in the book) by others for their purposes, whether those are mercenary or pious. She submits until she revolts--for, as she observes:

This is not quite true, because Jane also has a talent for skillful but well-motivated manipulation, especially in dealing with Rochester. Still, this passage captures the general pattern of the novel: submission followed by revolt or flight. What Jane ultimately attains is control, so that she can say, "Reader, I married him." (Not: "Reader, he married me," or even, "We were married.")

If Jane Eyre's testimony were true and complete, it would condemn half a dozen characters for their poor treatment of her: Mrs. Reed, Georgiana and Eliza Reed, Mr. Brocklehurst, Naomi Brocklehurst, Miss Scratcherd, Blanche Ingram, St John Rivers, and the still-sighted Rochester are some of the book's many villains. But we would recall that all this testimony was coming from Jane, whose acknowledged faults are few and minor and deeply regretted. So I think we would resist the narration and seek other perspectives. Maybe Mrs. Reed had trials with little Jane that should excuse some of her perceived coldness.

In fact, Jane Eyre is not an autobiography. Mrs. Reed has no reality or perspective except what we can glean from the book. The dominant perspective--the choices that channel our emotional and moral responses--are all and only Charlotte Bronte's.

By condemning Mrs. Reed, Mr. Brocklehurst, and St John Rivers, Bronte did not wrong those individuals, for they never lived. But Bronte also had real-life targets: uncharitable bourgeois women, hypocritical Calvinists, and men of great soul who enroll others for their noble purposes. Her fictional examples support a distinctive worldview, which surely includes the following elements: a passionate but unorthodox theism; fondness for domesticity and heterosexual romantic love; English patriotism with a dose of Francophobia and possibly racism; a very loosely Kantian insight that one should "enjoy [one's] own faculties as well as ... cultivate those of other people" (seen as twin duties); a feminism that resists patronizing and narrowing attitudes towards girls and women; and a measure of social egalitarianism, as captured by passages like this: "I must not forget that these coarsely clad little peasants [all girls] are of flesh and blood as good as the scions of gentlest genealogy; and that the germs of native excellence, refinement, intelligence, kind feeling, are as likely to exist in their hearts as in those of the best-born."

Because the book is contrived to support a particular worldview, it has always elicited furious responses from holders of conflicting views. Victorian critics who defended Calvinism or social inequality denounced its alleged vulgarity. The Christian Remembrancer (June 1848) couldn't believe that Mrs. Reed would die unrepetant; such a caustic depiction of a propertied Anglican lady showed "want of feeling." Later, modernists disdained the novel for its theism and bourgeois domesticity. Although enduringly popular, Jane Eyre has been critically acclaimed only since the 1960s, when the feminist and generally liberating aspects of the book's worldview were recognized (and its religious conclusion overlooked).

For myself, I find the worldview appealing enough, the story compelling, and Jane a likable character. What I resist is the contrivance of all the events and characters to reinforce one perspective. It doesn't seem to me a polyphonic novel or one that explores tensions and conflicts among worthy values. Lady Frederick Cavenedish thought "the authoress turns oneself and one's opinions round her thumb." My very favorite novels are ones that let you loose.

[I take the quotes from The Christian Remembrancer and Cavendish from the Penguin edition's introduction by Michael Mason--who is no relation, I assume, to Bertha.]

January 13, 2011 8:52 PM | category: fine arts | Comments



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