Reassessing Jane Eyre…

Now, yes, I do know that this isn’t in my area of historical expertise.  Not by a long chalk. 

It’s just that at the moment, I’ve been thinking about Christian symbolism in novels, and the sad fact that in post-Christian, politically-correct Britain, it is most unlikely that a student of literature will have been taught enough about Christianity to be able to even guess at the Christian symbolism of a novel like Jane Eyre, nor indeed to guess at the shock and impact it would have had upon the profoundly Christian society in which Charlotte Bronte was writing.

And I find it tragic that because of general ignorance, a novel which challenged and shocked the very core of Victorian society’s concepts of marriage and morality, should be relegated to ‘just another romance’ for costume-drama hungry television viewers. 

For this is to minimise the outstanding contribution and achievement of the author in what was a fairly misogynistic era. 

However, it’s all there, in black and white.  Because Bronte sets out for the audience two upside-down versions of expected wisdom. 

Yes, we all know that Edward Rochester is a bad man.  He attempts to marry Miss Eyre when he already has a wife–albeit a mad one–locked in the attic.  So, he’s a wannabe bigamist.  And when Jane Eyre discovers the identity of the madwoman in the attic and says she must leave, Rochester begs her to live with him in the south of France.  

Yet here’s the corker–even though the reader knows this is wrong, and the Victorian reader would have known it to be an unpardonable sin which would lead to disgrace and damnation–still, because Rochester loves her with such passion, the reader is urging Jane to forget her ideas of sin, and to go with him.  And this makes the reader culpable.  Which may not shock us much today–but 150 years ago?  Holy wow. 

(Note also, that despite his alleged badness of character, despite the fact that he was entrapped by her and his and her family, Rochester has not despitefully used her, but he has always looked after this madwoman with the greatest care for her safety and well-being.  See Luke 6: 27-28.) 

However, Jane Eyre does flee, thus enabling Bronte to set up another potential marital situation.  This time with Jane’s Eyre’s cousin, St. John Rivers. 

I am convinced that Bronte was being bitterly ironic in naming this character St. John, because despite his status as a clergyman, as a reformer pioneering education, and his determination to be a missionary, there is one part of the Scriptures which St. John Rivers obviously never encountered–the first epistle of St. John (after whom he was named).  Specifically I John 4:  “God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.” 

Because St. John Rivers is cold as ice and this he regards as a virtue. 

And when he is urging Jane Eyre to marry him without even the least spark of affection for her, it becomes impossible to regard this as anything other than legalised prostitution. 

Jane is offered the opportunity to marry him, to have him use her body and to bear his children, all without any vestige of affection.  But at least it will be legally and morally proper, and blessed by the church.  How can she say no?

And again, the reader is made culpable–we see that this clergyman who mouths the finest of Christian sentiments is a hypocrite, the most selfish of beings and that he should be shunned. 

Pretty strong stuff from a clergyman’s daughter.

Throughout the novel, Bronte presents the reader with parallels, the seemingly good and religious as opposed to the inwardly good.  There is the difference of care given to the two orphans:  Jane Eyre, herself, at the hands of her aunt, Mrs. Reed, and Mr. Brocklehurst (also a clergyman), and Adele, Mr. Rochester’s ward, for whom Jane Eyre acts as governess, for example. 

It may very well be that Charlotte Bronte could not publish under her own name because of the Victorian publishing world’s misogyny.  Or it may also be that it was one way that this clergyman’s daughter could publish a novel which overturned all received wisdom and moral guidance and threw out the moral question which shocked the age, “Which is better?” 

Because the answer to that question was never in doubt.

And now, back to your regularly scheduled programme:  Dinner with Mrs. Radcliffe…Ha ha ha.


5 comments on “Reassessing Jane Eyre…

  1. Margaret says:

    Very insightful! It increases my appreciation of Jane Eyre, a novel I’ve always loved. As a clergyman’s daughter myself, I’d have to say it doesn’t surprise me that Charlotte Bronte would write subversively about the Church. There’s nothing quite like knowing something intimately from the inside to make one aware of any corrosion that might be eating away at its heart.

  2. cavalrytales says:

    I was probably too young to appreciate the nuances when I read Jane Eyre.
    Or…maybe I just miss things. For example, on Ebay I just found a book – “Napoleon – Script for the 1927 Silent Classic”.

  3. cavalrytales says:

    See? I lowered the tone again. Sorry.

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