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Jane Eyre – Wonderful, radical heroine or just uppity, loudmouth feminist?

Jane Eyre book cover image Penguin 2006 edition

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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,

Book cover of Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

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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

“Now where’s my feminist shopping list for the day? Ah, yes: (1) find a man (2) cover him in honey, butter and herbs  and (3) feed him to the pigs, the bastard, cos I HATE MEN. AAAAAGH.”

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.

Penguin student edition book cover for Wide Sargasso Sea

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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 Conde’s novel interpretation of Wuthering Heights. Click on the image to buy the book with free worldwide delivery

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 Hurstons fiction).

1857 photo of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the famous British civil engineer, in front of the launching chains of the ship he designed, The Great Western. As Mr Brunel reportedly said on the occasion, to one of his favourite Gilbert & Sullivan songs: “I am the very model of a modern Englishman, I’ve information technical, metal & engineerial.  I know the Queen of England Her Majesty the magisterial, to whom I often cite dazzling feats  original,  historically citing pyramids to Chinese walls imperial.” To which Robert Howlett, the photographer, replied eerily sincere and ill: “Erm, that’s nice, dear chap, you’re the  classic 19th century man with vision & a Master of all he does with will…Now can you bloody well hold still for the camera?”

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.

A superbly researched study of 100 women novelists before Jane Austen. Click on the image to do an instant search for secondhand copies of the title on the Bookfinder website

(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 …

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Filed under Charlotte Brontë, Emily Bronte, feminism, fiction, Jane Eyre, literary classics, Maryse Condé, Stevie Davies, Wide Sargasso Sea, Windward Heights, Wuthering Heights

Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea – an amazing re-interpretation of Jane Eyre

Jean Rhys wrote this as a novelistic, literary response to Charlotte Bronte‘s classic and brilliant 19th century novel, Jane Eyre. (If you haven’t read the latter, it is not necessary to do so first, to appreciate Rhys’ work; however, if you do read it first, and Wide Sargasso Sea afterwards, inevitably, I think, you will gain a richer, deeper appreciation of just how clever and powerful Rhys is in this novella and will see it as a sort of dialogue across the centuries between two brilliant novelists from two vastly different childhoods and life experiences.)

The reason Rhys felt compelled to write this sort of creative response to Jane Eyre, was because she wanted to re-position and put to the forefront of her readers’ attention the character of Mrs Rochester, the infamous ‘mad woman in the attic’ of Bronte’s original novel. Rhys felt that Bronte had treated Mrs Rochester poorly, not only because she remains in the background, like some scary Gilmanesque wallpaper, but also because of her portrayal there as somewhat two-dimensional – if you think this is unfair, just remind yourself of the depth and complexity Bronte gives her other secondary characters in Jane Eyre). Instead, we meet only disembodied madness, in lieu of any literary effort to convince the reader that she possesses a real identity (and is not simply being possessed!), of her comprising flesh and blood and having her own thoughts and feelings; she certainly has no voice of her own in the original and Bronte seems to think nothing of this (perhaps because of her being influenced by Gothic novelists, as so many 19th century writers were, and in such fiction, mad characters were usually ghoulish and unreal; absurdly so, even). But Rhys, whether rightly or wrongly, also attributed these problems of characterisation to Bronte’s own ideological viewpoint and socialisation (educational and social/societal upbringing): namely one where many of her own class, and others besides, in the 19th century society, were typically pro-colonialist/pro-imperialist and often racist, too (so Mrs Rochester’s Creole history is innately attributed to her madness).

Rhys challenged such perspectives by writing her own interpretation in fiction, a novella that in part is a ‘pre-history’ of the events in Jane Eyre (although, significantly, her last section corresponds to a major event in that novel, with the burning of Mr Rochester‘s house). Most importantly, Rhys focuses her attention on the female white Creole, Antoinette Cosway – in Jane Eyre we know her only, first, as the mysterious madwoman in the attic, until later, when we know her as Bertha Mason, the first Mrs Rochester. (By the way — if you’re interested in the subject of how women and madness – and mad women! — is represented in literature in the 19th century and beyond, by male and female writers, there are two truly outstanding, landmark literary feminist studies readily available: The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-century Literary ImaginationElaine Showalter’s The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980.  And for one focused on the sexual politics of literature, I still think the landmark feminist literary classic, Sexual Politics by Kate Millet, is the best.)

As a result of Antoinette/Bertha’s character being placed front and centre in Sargasso, Rhys creates a range of reader perspectives, understandings and emphases that contrast sharply with Jane Eyre — not least in that, with Rhys’ fiction, Antoinette at long last has been given her own voice and thoughts, as a result of which she gains her own identity and humanity for the first time, instead of being relegated to the status of symbol, and ‘only’ being imprisoned in a space of madness and silence, one that for which — in both fictions — Mr Rochester is responsible.  But Rhys is no optimist as a writer — see below for further comments on this matter – more a ‘negative realist’ to Bronte’s ‘positive realism’ and so Antoinette/Bertha’s outcome remains the same in both fictions. However, in Sargasso, we none the less have something else, too – something fundamentally richer and more rewarding in one important regard: when it comes to Antoinette/Bertha, unlike in Jane Eyre, we have gained an in-depth understanding of and insight to the character’s original circumstances and motivations that lead to her madness and death.

This is a powerful, haunting, hallucinatory and deeply poetic fiction (the style, in these terms, is reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s Beloved); it is a compelling and heartbreaking story of love unrequited, leading to madness. The story, split into three parts, has the first set in Jamaica, from the viewpoint of Antoinette as a child and in her youth, living on her plantation; the second section in Dominica, is about the marriage and is from both Mr Rochester’s imperialist viewpoint and patriarchal sensibility — he only marries her as an arrangement established by his father to gain Antoinette’s sizeable dowry and land – as well as from Antoinette’s perspective. Through both of them, we come to understand her troubling, unbearable circumstances: not least, that she knows that Rochester has had a sexual relationship with one of her female servants, while all the time supposedly being devoted to her.  Meanwhile, you experience Rochester’s own confusion and growing revulsion towards the local people and their way of living, his loathing of the heat and the tropical intensity of the Caribbean, so alien to his upper-class English background. The last – and most dramatic part — has the reader returning to ‘Antoinette’, now Bertha, who is not only left without anyone who cares and feels for her plight, but is imprisoned, literally — the original ‘mad woman in the attic’ — in Rochester’s house in England; a terrifying, distressing world she neither understands nor values, and in which there is no love for her, nor communication – and symbolically, too, in silence and her nightmarish visions; she is effectively made persona non grata as a result of her being locked away and out of sight, before she commits her last act of desperation.

Throughout the story, you experience the intense feelings and views of all those involved, and the stifling physical environment of Antoinette’s original home; you also feel the insecurity and uncertainty of the prescribed gender roles and psychological and material motivations of Antoinette and Mr Rochester, as well as the locals, including the servants.  There is no ultimate exit or freedom for the female; and for Mr Rochester there is only unremitting nature of the patriarchal power structure and his troubled self, such that it deprives him of any meaningful identity, beyond that of his family’s expectations and a prescribed role for his own masculinity and authority.  Sargasso is a powerful read, troubling and passionate, and a unique and profound creative take on issues of identity (especially including Colonial, slave, and the power dynamic between England and the Caribbean), sexuality and madness.

It is a fascinating, moving and clever re-interpretation of the story told in Jane Eyre. Frankly, it is remarkable and, also, it is genuinely unique in Rhys’ oeuvre – nothing else she wrote before compares with it in terms of its poetic, hallucinatory atmosphere; yet what is consistent ever-present in her writing, including within this novella, is the depth of Rhys’ psychological understanding of female isolation, anguish, subjugation and survival (in her oeuvre, her women characters, sadly, rarely have the opportunity to live and enjoy themselves; in this way, interestingly, she echoes Anita Brookner’s women, though the latter writer’s own seem always to have some ‘room of their own’, of financial independence, and often find some way eventually to live on their own terms, all be them compromised in some way from experience as a result of their dealings with men).

RECOMMENDATION FOR THOSE WHO HAVEN’T READ JANE EYRE, BUT INTEND TO

Even though there are cheaper, decent editions available, such as the one by Wordsworth publishers, I highly recommend instead that you buy/read the Penguin Classics 2006 edition, especially because of its outstanding, wonderful introductory essay — both insightful and wise — by Stevie Davies, the novelist and academic.  Please note that it must be at least 2006 copyrighted/publication date, otherwise you won’t find Davies’ essay in it, as there are several other Penguin editions before this one, with Davies as editor.

RECOMMENDATION FOR STUDENTS:

If this novella is on your reading list, then I recommend Penguin’s Student Edition, edited by Hilary Jenkins. This is a genuinely worthwhile and helpful edition for students. Jenkins has written quality editorial material from start to finish: she provides not only a clear introduction, highlighting the distinctive qualities and structure of the story, but also a brief chronology of the author’s life, very helpful notes on Creole language and phrasing, as well as historical points, exam- and essay-related questions you’d expect to have to answer as a student, as well as a separate section on the story’s geographical, cultural and historical setting/context. Importantly, Jenkins concludes with Critical Responses to the novella, as well as suggested further critical/academic reading. None the less, do please try to read Stevie Davies’ introduction in the Penguin Classics edition. Frankly, either edition would suit you as a student, and both editions’ introductions are worthwhile to all other readers interested in a more in-depth approach that explain clearly both Sargasso and Jane Eyre in terms of their respective literary histories, authors and themes.

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Filed under Beloved, Charlotte Brontë, feminism, fiction, Jane Eyre, literary classics, post-colonialism, Wide Sargasso Sea