The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)

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IN CONTEXT

FOCUS

Victorian feminism

AFTER

1847 Emily Brontë publishes Wuthering Heights, exploring feminist issues of gender, domesticity, and women’s status in Victorian society.

1853 Charlotte Brontë’s Villette is published. It is considered a more mature reworking of her earlier themes of women’s self-determination, identity, and independence.

1860 George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss contrasts themes of female intellectual growth with notions of family duty.

1892 Charlotte Perkins Gilman publishes her short story “The Yellow Wallpaper”, an early example of US feminist literature that shows women’s mental health in relation to patriarchal oppression.

When Jane Eyre was first published in 1847, it was credited to Currer Bell, a pseudonym used by Charlotte Brontë to conceal her gender (the work of women writers was often considered by critics to be second-rate). The book was also subtitled An Autobiography, signalling that it had borrowed from the 19th-century German Bildungsroman genre (the “novel of formation”). In these coming-of-age stories, readers typically followed protagonists through their lives from childhood to adulthood as they overcame obstacles to reach maturity. Significantly, the development of selfhood and identity was often explored through male characters because at that time women were not generally thought to possess the same depth. What makes Jane Eyre radical for its time is that it assumes that women have a complex interior the equal of men’s, rather than merely being superficial exteriors defined by their beauty alone.

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Haddon Hall, a picturesque medieval manor house in Derbyshire, England, has been used as the fictional setting of Thornfield Hall for two film adaptations of Jane Eyre.

CHARLOTTE BRONTË

Born on 21 April 1816 in Yorkshire, England, Charlotte Brontë was the third daughter of the Reverend Patrick Brontë and his wife Maria Branwell. In 1824, she and her elder sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, were sent to a boarding school, where poor conditions resulted in a typhoid outbreak. Charlotte blamed this for the early death of Maria and Elizabeth and used her experiences at the school as the basis for Lowood in Jane Eyre.

Charlotte worked as a governess and teacher. Her first novel, The Professor, was rejected and only published posthumously. The immediate success of Jane Eyre in 1847 was soon followed by tragedy, when first her brother Patrick and then her two remaining sisters, Emily and Anne, died. Of the six Brontë children, Charlotte was the lone survivor. She married Reverend A B Nicholls in 1854, and died during childbirth in March the following year.

Other key works

1849 Shirley

1853 Villette

1857 The Professor

Character development

Brontë’s plain, passionate, and intelligent heroine enlists her readers to follow her emotional development and her relationships, and through these to sympathize and empathize with the plight of women of her class and the inequalities in the lives of young girls and women. Unlike many contemporary male authors who presented female characters as general figures of aesthetic beauty or morality, there is no distanced contemplation of Jane as a “type” in the novel.

The book tells the story of Jane Eyre, from her childhood as an orphan in the care of her aunt and her education at a charity boarding school, Lowood Institution, to her employment as a governess at a country house, Thornfield Hall. Brontë presents Jane as a complex, three-dimensional human being, and her readers are emotionally invested in her, from her childhood abuse to the later injustices of her lack of freedom and independence. These are expressed in numerous memorable passages that link Jane’s wish for liberty and her restlessness with the language of revolt and rebellion.

At Thornfield Hall, Jane meets (and falls in love with) the owner, the mysterious Mr Rochester. She becomes embroiled in his complex affairs – in particular, with his insane first wife, Bertha Mason, who is imprisoned in the attic of the house. Unable to marry Rochester, Jane leaves Thornfield. At first she is penniless, but fate restores her fortunes, and draws her back to Rochester.

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Some feminists view Bertha Mason – the deranged, imprisoned wife of Edward Rochester, Jane Eyre’s employer – as a metaphorical reflection of Jane and her own status in society. Bertha Mason is Jane’s antagonist, but can be considered her psychological Gothic double, a feminist version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde.

Domestic slavery

Jane Eyre’s compelling story is far more than an English Bildungsroman. Brontë infused the work with the anti-slavery and revolutionary rhetoric that she and her sisters had read in many 19th-century political tracts. In Jane Eyre, this political language is not used in reference to humanity in general, but with specific regard to middle-class women in Victorian society and the domestic constraints placed upon their lives. In one of the most passionate passages of the novel, Jane tells her readers that women “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.” This plea for equality among the sexes runs throughout the novel as Jane Eyre progressively builds a case for women’s need for liberty, independence, and action.

These feminist aspects of the novel did not go unnoticed by Brontë’s contemporaries. While many early reviews praised the novel, some criticized its radical content and “unfeminine“ view of womanhood. Jane Eyre, however, quickly became one of the most influential literary heroines of her time. After the publication of the novel a new type of female protagonist was apparent in Victorian literature – a plain, rebellious, and intelligent one. She offered a counterpart to the passive, sweet, pretty, and domestic heroines who were usually championed by male authors such as Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray.

Female spaces

Jane Eyre opened the door for other female writers of the period to explore the limitations of women’s lives and their desire for equality. It was a theme that was apparent in many of the great Victorian stories. George Eliot’s Middlemarch, for example, criticizes patriarchy and its moral weaknesses, and brings the frustration of women’s ambitions into focus. The reality of domestic responsibility dictating women’s lives, which Brontë introduced into the Victorian novel through her own evocative use of domestic spaces in Jane Eyre, continued to haunt women writers throughout the 19th century.

Many feminist readings of Jane Eyre focus on key spaces such as specific rooms, windows, and the infamous attic at Thornfield Hall in which Jane’s love interest, Edward Rochester, locks up his first “mad” wife. The domestic sphere is intimately linked with the female body and the female self, and for this reason, much women’s fiction of the time is riddled with details of domesticity. Feminist critics have argued that these are the natural fictional manifestations of women reacting to the strict boundaries and gender ideologies of the time.

Madness and savagery

Jane is a woman who wants more than the predefined life of a Victorian woman, and reacts against her domestic confines as a prison from which she must escape. At a turbulent moment in their relationship, Rochester calls Jane a “resolute wild free thing”, noting that “Whatever I do with its cage, I cannot get at it – the savage beautiful creature!”. His description of Jane as a “savage” creature in a cage could also be a description of his first wife, Bertha, who is literally caged in the attic of his home. Bertha’s madness is a manifestation of the limitations that were placed on women’s lives and it mirrors Jane’s sense of imprisonment throughout her life. Bertha is the most extreme and literal depiction of what happens to 19th-century women when they marry and lose their identity; she is not just a metaphor or mirror for Jane’s constraint and rage but also represents the “madness” of being restricted in life.

Later authors produced more explicitly feminist interpretations of Bertha’s predicament. When the US writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman published her feminist short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” in 1892, she developed Brontë’s representation of Bertha’s insanity by calling into question the medical and cultural oppression of women within a patriarchal society. In her widely acclaimed 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea, Dominica-born British author Jean Rhys would go on to tell Bertha’s story from another perspective: Bertha (originally named Antoinette), a Creole woman in colonial Jamaica, marries an Englishman and is taken by him to England, where she is trapped in an oppressive patriarchal society, losing her identity and becoming mad.

"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."


Jane Eyre

Not mad but trapped

From a feminist perspective, Jane’s double is not “mad” but is forbidden her freedom – like all other women. In this context, Jane’s passionate comment to Rochester that “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will” becomes a poignant reminder of the social nets that trapped women in the 19th century, inducing a psychological madness within them. When Brontë wrote Jane Eyre she, perhaps unwittingly, created not one but two feminist icons: Jane herself, and the “Madwoman in the Attic”.

The Madwoman in the Attic

The most famous feminist interpretation of Jane Eyre is The Madwoman in the Attic by US scholars Sandra M Gilbert and Susan Gubar. Published in 1979, this influential book borrows its title from Jane Eyre and examines Brontë’s novel alongside the works of other female writers of the era, including Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Emily Brontë, George Eliot, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti, and Emily Dickinson. A major theme in their analysis is that of the concept of “madness” in relation to the emotional, psychological, and physical confinement of women in the 19th century.

The authors argue that 19th-century women were represented by male writers as either angels or monsters; women writers expressed their anxieties about these stereotypes by depicting their own female characters as either submissive or entirely mad.

See also: Wuthering Heights • Middlemarch • The Magic Mountain • Wide Sargasso Sea