It’s astonishing to think or imagine that, of the two most intense, passionate heroines of 19th century literature, both are written by offspring of the same family. But this, as most readers of literature know,
is indeed the case, given we have Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, and her sister Emily’s Wuthering Heights (1847).
Immediately you’re drawn into a first person narrative (and it stays entirely first person throughout the entire novel), which, from its beginning, is compelling and becomes evermore powerful, emotionally complex and engaging. Many things have been written about Jane Eyre as a character: to me there is no doubt that reading her story from her own perspective means that you easily identify and empathise with this highly intelligent, independently minded personality. Such identification includes specific psychological, intellectual and emotional experiences from her own female point of view (such a view nowadays should rightly be described as feminist, but I mean the term to be worlds away from its popular
mischaracterisation and just plain wrong definition as it’s used by the mainstream in today’s society, whereby it has sickeningly and sadly become synonymous with ‘man-hating’ and/or being a destructive and inflexible force in society. Actual real-life feminists know, of course, this is sheer nonsense; an urban myth that is relentlessly perpetuated by a right-wing, conservative, sexist media, including a number of female journalists, academics and authors and which is accepted on such terms by what appears to be a majority of young people — not all, I hasten to add (I’ve met a number of great young feminists who are politically active and challenge the anti-feminist, sexist status quo). Unfortunately, such widespread misunderstanding is further compounded by there appearing to be little or no basic education in schools about the history of women’s rights, their works both creative and academic, besides their hard-fought, hard-won political battles.
So what is a feminist viewpoint of Jane Eyre? Don’t worry — I’m not going to get all Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak on your brain and induce a violent headache by talking to you about “the margins at which disciplinary discourses break down and enter the world of political agency” (quoted from The Spivak Reader, 1996). Nope, rather I think it’s actually straightforward and reasonable to characterise it as the following (which may sound suspiciously contemporary and akin to popular self-help literature written for women and men!): Be true to your own sense of integrity; manage your circumstances as best you can — but don’t give in to compromise that undermines your own authentic sense of self lest you are reduced to a shadow of yourself; speak up however and when you can, if possible, about circumstances and events that really matter to you; assert your independence of heart and mind; maintain your self-respect against the odds and the social/political/societal status quo and adhere to your own high standards, not ‘theirs’. And how could I forget this one? Never let the bastards grind you down (or at least not long enough for you to stay down). Having said that, Charlotte unfortunately seemed oblivious to the implications of what little effort and depth she put into portraying the character of Bertha Mason, the white Creole heiress who is the ‘madwoman in the attic’. The brilliant novelist and short story writer, Jean Rhys, with her own Creole background, felt Mason’s character reflected Brontë’s English imperialist, racialist attitude towards Britain’s colonies and its indigenous populations; hence Bertha is not a woman as such in her own right: she is disembodied; never having a voice of her own (apart from the occasions when she cries out like an animal) and is effectively silenced once forever to Mr Rochester.
I won’t go into further detail here about Rhys’ position on this matter, because I address it on this website with my review of Jean Rhy’s novelistic response to Jane Eyre, with her own award-winning novella, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), which gives a voice and full identity for the first time to the original Mrs Rochester, from childhood to her death. That work also contributed to what became known as ‘post-colonial’ fiction (a term that you will see from the link embedded within it that has itself come under critical scrutiny for a number of reasons, including its Eurocentric approach) and, interestingly,
Maryse Condé, the celebrated, distinguished Guadeloupean feminist writer, wrote Windward Heights (1998), a novelistic response/reinterpretation of Wuthering Heights (it is excellent, with an evocative atmosphere, characters and richly poetic, rhythmical prose. It also challenges bias on race, gender and traditional relationships, while having her own distinct voice and perspective; in fact, for all these reasons, I was reminded of Zora Neale Hurston‘s fiction).
To put Jane Eyre into a social and literary context, the 19th century in the West, while being an age of great industry and innovation, was essentially a deeply moralistic society, pious, conformist and judgemental on the surface and corrupt and compromised and hypocritical from within its own outspoken values. The norm for women was that they had no independence, no rights, nor an identity or life of their own; society (read: men who dominated in power both at work and home) prescribed and enforced women (whether upper, middle or working class) to rigidly defined manners, conduct and employment (as governess, wife, spinster, worker, house maid, cook, cleaner, etc.). Jane, being poor and without parents, is forced into a tyrannical charity boarding school, the Lowood Institution — more a prison than a school; in fact, you could say that the headmaster, Mr Brocklehurst, in his demeanor and treatment of the children, as compared with the spoiling of his own brood, encapsulates all the horrors and hypocrisies of the 19th century. If he is representative of all that is bad about the 19th century, by stark contrast, Isambard Kingdom Brunel (see the picture on the left, here) is the very epitome of what is right in that period (read: Empire); brilliant, a visionary, a pragmatist, a man of action and achievement always wanting to scale greater heights.
Even before Jane’s arrival at Lowood, Brocklehurst makes it clear what he thinks of her, calling her a child of the Devil (a charming man, eh?) and in no uncertain terms she must accept and obey all of his rules and regulations, while half-starving from the meagre portions and poor-quality of the food. Yet while she conforms on the outside, she remains resilient and always inwardly defiant; in fact, even before she is abandoned to the school by her loathsome aunt, when Jane is barely 10 years old, Jane’s intensity, integrity, independence of mind and action are already well-established; especially her passionate, deeply intelligent articulation of her perspective in conversation with her aunt; with her departing words to her comprising only devastating criticism that will haunt her aunt for years afterwards. Keep in mind that Brontë published this during a time when it was absolutely unheard of for children to be seen and heard, never mind for them to challenge, criticise and protest to adults, but protest she does. For these reasons in particular, and the way such behaviour and her honesty and integrity grows, as does her confidence, throughout the novel, Jane Eyre is a marvellously unprecedented, radical departure as a portrait of a heroine compared with novels published before 1847.
That last point may be seen as contentious or perceived as doing a disservice to the many superb women writers who came before Charlotte Brontë, when taking into account the marvellous female heroines of Jane Austen in the early 1800s — the most well-known, course, being Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice (1813); besides those of other wonderful novelists who bridged the 18th and 19th centuries in their lives, including in the work of Fanny Burney, Ann Radcliffe and Charlotte Lennox, and indeed those who published before them. All of these writers in various ways, both through their fiction and non-fiction, challenged male preconceptions of women’s roles and their prescribed social/intellectual identities. You could say, in fact, that they were challenging what is now called ‘evolutionary psychology’, which increasingly strikes me as being an excuse for anti-feminists to insist that women who speak up and work are distorting the ‘natural order’ of the sexes. What gargantuan bollocks.
(BTW, an outstandingly well-researched and -written book on neglected pre-19th century women novelists was published by Dale Spender in 1986, entitled Mothers of the Novel: 100 Good Women Writers before Jane Austen; sadly, it’s out of print, but you can click on the image of the book, on your right here, and the link will automatically take you to a search of the title on the excellent Bookfinder website. It’s likely you’ll be able to buy it for pennies, and it remains a fantastic work in the field of literature studies.)
But I think within the 19th century, Jane Eyre is the novel most noteworthy for expanding the possibilities and potential of what women’s characters could do and be, how they could behave and talk, what they could become, in novels by both men and women (William Makepeace Thackeray, for one, was decidedly impressed and influenced by the novel). I also think you can see some of the psychological qualities inherent in Charlotte Bronte’s writing in later Dickens and George Eliot. Both Charlotte and Jane, together, as it were, became a benchmark to contrast and challenge traditional attitudes and thinking about women’s lives; in particular for two key reasons: that women do indeed have their own interior lives and consciousness and, of equal importance, that women had legitimate viewpoints and intelligence to express on equal terms with men. While it may be overstating the case, I believe Jane Eyre’s character was one of the many social contributing factors for women increasingly to recognise opportunities for and empowerment of themselves; to express themselves using their own voices with their own thoughts; to be passionate and determined to challenge their straightjacketed lives that in turn evolved into the suffragette movement.
The only other novel that springs to mind in the 19th century that is as passionate and as vivid as Jane Eyre, is Emily Bronte’s novel, Wuthering Heights, and her character, Catherine Earnshaw (and anyone who’s read that will know the passion reflected through the characters and descriptions of nature are far more vivid and intensely alive than that of Charlotte’s/Jane’s own viewpoint; certainly Emily’s/Catherine’s intensity of expressed feelings about nature and Heathcliff are far more radical and deeper when compared with Charlotte’s/Jane’s. As one critic put it, Emily Brontë “captured the zeitgeist of romanticism despite her physical and cultural isolation”. Nevertheless, Jane Eyre’s sense of her own integrity and character remains intact, despite her circumstances and the many challenges she has to suffer and overcome; whereas Catherine, according to Emily’s narrative, is never given such a choice, or options of such freedom; the fatalistic qualities that drive Wuthering Heights are both one of its huge strengths and its claustrophobic weaknesses as a novel (but it’s still brilliant).
Jane Eyre is an astonishing novel and, besides her sibling’s unique work, it remains one of the most vivid, dramatic, compelling and emotionally rich fictions published in the 19th century. I suspect if you’ve read this far, you’ll already know my answer to the question-posing title of this article: Jane Eyre – Wonderful, radical heroine or just an uppity loudmouth feminist? She is, of course, a wonderful, feminist radical heroine; there’s nothing whatsoever that is uppity or loudmouth about her and she is only perceived that way by those who themselves are obnoxious and badgering. I suspect the evolutionary psychologists would present a different answer, but then I’m bloody well jolly delighted to say I’ve never believed in the ‘natural order’ of things; to paraphrase de Beauvoir, we are made, not born, into our gendered lives, and what we make of them is, ultimately, up to us. Who better for us modern readers, than Jane Eyre as the representative motivational standard-bearer of this truth, who ultimately achieves true happiness in her life by learning, always thinking and, when she can, challenging the status quo on a journey defined not by any sense of achieving an ultimate goal, but by finding meaning and understanding in response to the journey itself by being true to herself. Jane Eyre the novel, and Jane Eyre the character, are remarkable achievements, irrespective of genre, sex of author or century and, as with all classics, remains in print and continues to be lovingly read and widely loved.
Note on a Great Edition
First, if you don’t mind, let me highlight an important point about the choice of what particular edition of Jane Eyre (1847) to buy/loan. Obviously there are a number of perfectly respectable cheaper paperback versions available, instead of the one I’m recommending to you — the Penguin Classics paperback edition of 2006 (not earlier; see the image on your left, which you can use to buy the book) — such as this one from the wonderful Wordsworth Classics publisher and which is less than half the price of the Penguin version, even after discount. Sorry!
However, the very good reason I’ve selected this one is because of the excellent and unmatched introduction and other editorial material, commissioned by Penguin Classics for its 2006 edition, written by Stevie Davies, the well-respected novelist and academic. Not only does she write with grace and style, but also she delivers much insight, wisdom and appreciation about the novel, its themes, symbolism, psychological perspectives, as well as on Charlotte Brontë and her historical, social and literary contexts; in addition to which, as you’d expect from an authoritative edition, Davies provides excellent notes, further reading, appendices and more besides. Okay, so moving on …