Brontë, Charlotte: Title Commentary

views updated


Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre


[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]


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.



My dear Sir,—It is about a year and a half since you wrote to me; but it seems a longer period, because since then it has been my lot to pass some black milestones in the journey of life. Since then there have been intervals when I have ceased to care about literature and critics and fame; when I have lost sight of whatever was prominent in my thoughts at the first publication of Jane Eyre; but now I want these things to come back vividly, if possible: consequently, it was a pleasure to receive your note. I wish you did not think me a woman. I wish all reviewers believed 'Currer Bell' to be a man; they would be more just to him. You will, I know, keep measuring me by some standard of what you deem becoming to my sex; where I am not what you consider graceful, you will condemn me. All mouths will be open against that first chapter; and that first chapter is true as the Bible, nor is it exceptionable. Come what will, I cannot, when I write, think always of myself and of what is elegant and charming in femininity; it is not on those terms, or with such ideas, I ever took pen in hand: and if it is only on such terms my writing will be tolerated, I shall pass away from the public and trouble it no more. Out of obscurity I came, to obscurity I can easily return. Standing afar off, I now watch to see what will become of Shirley. My expectations are very low, and my anticipations somewhat sad and bitter; still, I earnestly conjure you to say honestly what you think; flattery would be worse than vain; there is no consolation in flattery. As for condemnation I cannot, on reflection, see why I should much fear it; there is no one but myself to suffer therefrom, and both happiness and suffering in this life soon pass away.

Brontë, Charlotte. Letter to G. H. Lewes of November 1, 1849. Reprinted in Gaskell's The Life of Charlotte Brontë, pp. 283. London: Dent, 1857.

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.

About this article

Brontë, Charlotte: Title Commentary

Updated About content Print Article