Jane Eyre: Revolutionary Romance

One of my favourite moments parts of writing The Lady of the Bog was writing Florence and Rosemary bonding over Jane Eyre, and  how other characters--in particular, Florence’s father the vicar—react to the book. Jane Eyre has been on so many classic book lists and recommended reading lists and school curriculum for so long, that it’s really weird to think that when it first came out, it was considered radical and shocking.

I no longer have my notes from my second year Victorian Literature paper at Uni (to no-one’s surprise I’m sure, I was an English major), so I don’t have the really juicy criticisms. Wikipedia only has this one example: 

In 1848, Elizabeth Rigby reviewing Jane Eyre in The Quarterly Review, found it "pre-eminently an anti-Christian composition," declaring: "We do not hesitate to say that the tone of mind and thought which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine abroad, and fostered Chartism and rebellion at home, is the same which has also written Jane Eyre."

Oh, no—not chartism!

So what was so radical about Jane Eyre?

From my (admittedly dusty) memory, what shocked people was that Charlotte Brontë didn’t hold back when it came to Jane’s emotions. The sheer passion of Jane’s need to be needed, the starkness of her loneliness and pain, the intensity of her feelings, it not only invested the reader in Jane and Jane’s happiness, but it called attention to the plight of women in Jane’s situation. 1840s England had a major problems with excess women—basically middle-class women trained into helplessness and dependence on first their family, and later a husband. Problem: lots of middle-class men went off to war and died. You know have a large chunk of women who cannot legally inherit or own property without a male relative, conduct a business or work without sacrificing their class, and are not educated enough to do that work or work that would allow them to keep their class status.

This was a crisis the Victorians had manufactured themselves with their emphasis on the purity of the house and the woman’s role as the angel of the hearth. In Elizabethan times, for example, women doing business was not common, but it happened. By the Victorian period, it was very rare indeed.

So now you’ve got all these women who cannot marry, because there are not enough men, and have no choice but to be financial burdens on their relatives. What do you do about this?

If you’re a Victorian man, you pontificate in parliament about the excess women problem (note: not the shortage of men problem—it was the women problem), you draw cartoons in Punch making fun of spinsters, and you blame the single women for their failure to attract a man—because it’s not society that’s broken, it’s clearly the woman’s fault for thinking too much and blighting her looks, or having opinions (fatal to attraction).

Can you see why I had so much fun writing The Lady of the Bog?

Jane Eyre put forward the radical notion that a woman might have an opinion about this—in fact, that a woman had just as much right to decide her fate as a man, and drew attention to just how awful that fate of an unwanted spinster was in Victorian England. While Jane’s story ends happily (so long as you are not Bertha, at least—that is a very different essay), it could have ended very differently, as evidenced by the uncertainty and trials that Jane goes through during the course of the novel.

It also, by the sheer force that Charlotte gives Jane’s emotions, makes explicit the fact that women could feel passionate about stuff—including men. The fact that Jane was so into Rochester was really shocking to Victorian audiences—probably the main reason for getting it branded ‘anti-Christian’ above. Jane Eyre was the WAP of its day.

Charlotte Brontë was not the only Victorian woman to write about the plight of single women in Victorian England. Elizabeth Gaskell explores the topic in Cranford, another one of my Victorian faves. Hers is a much gentler take, depicting a town that is mostly inhabited by genteel single ladies whose main occupation is finding enough gossip to fill the day. It’s a nostalgic take on a way of life fast disappearing—until the bank in which all Matty’s money in fails, revealing just how ill equipped these genteel women are to deal with changes in fortune and reality.

Cranford approaches its subject so subtly that you might not realise what exactly the author was getting at. Jane knows exactly what she wants and is not afraid to ask for it. Jane Eyre has spawned so many imitators within the romance genre, that’s it’s really hard to see it now for the revolutionary work that it was. Having Florence and Rosemary discover it for the first time made the literary geek in me very, very happy.