Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (1847)

 Yeah, so I reread this for a class I'm going to be teaching. I like it; it's kind of a cozy read. I hope that doesn't sound condescending. Anyway, I have a few miscellaneous thoughts.

I was sort of surprised how little I remembered about this from the first time I read it, but, well, that was fifteen years ago. I'll tell you this: the thing I remembered most clearly was the character of St. John Rivers, because GOOD LORD, man. That shit'll stick in your mind. It's very difficult for me to tell to what extent his portrayal is meant to be a veiled criticism of this austere religious zealotry. It's easy to read the novel anachronistically and thereby misjudge it. And he does get the last word in the novel, so I do feel like he's meant to be more admirable or not. But GOOD LORD: right, so if you haven't read the book recently or at all, he's the one who wants to marry Jane even though they're not at all in love so she can accompany him to India to do missionary work, and he manipulates her feelings super-hard, and gets all judgmental about her reservations about this extremely swell idea, and he just comes across as a sinister svengali in a way that it seems Brontë couldn't have been completely insensible to. Crazy stuff.

Here's my Hot Take on the novel: the romance between Jane and Rochester? Overrated. Aside from them declaring their love for one another in ever-more assiduous terms, what is there to it? I don't get any particular sense of why they should be so attracted to one another, and they actually don't get that much screentime (pagetime?) together. I will say that the Madwoman in the Attic business is questionable in many ways. I mean, this woman is black, or at least part-black, which is the same thing in the eyes of everyone. And she's being taken away from her homeland and locked up by this guy? Yeesh. I think it was good and necessary that someone should write The Wide Sargasso Sea in response. But even overlooking the colonialist element, you have to ask: is this even legal? Can you just lock up your wife and keep her a secret from the world and it's A-okay? What if any Victorian law would apply to this? And how about if she's not "mad?" Can you do it then? And if the answer is no, well, what's to stop you from unilaterally declaring her such? This whole situation seems to me to be on extremely shaky ground.

One more thing: the conflict here where they want to get married but oh no, he's secretly already married so they can't even though he really isn't in any practical sense is very similar to the one in Anne's Tenant of Wildfell Hall, where the titular tenant has run away to escape her philandering, abusive husband, and the narrator wants to marry her, but nope, even though she loves him and she never plans to see her husband again, sanctity of marriage and all, so can't do it. It is extremely obvious that neither of these novels could be set in 2021; here and now, this would seem ludicrous. Well, but they aren't [citation needed]. They're set in a premodern society, and anything that would undermine the stability of an institution like marriage would be considered unacceptable.

BUT. At the same time, you want these books to have happy endings. I don't think, "well, this violates our norms, so the love interests can't be together, too bad so sad" would have been considered any more satisfying a conclusion then than it would be now. And what this means, somewhat perversely it seems to me, is that the only answer is authorial murder--gotta kill off the people getting in the way. I mean CRIKEY, if you weren't so deferential to the idea of marriage, you could have gotten together with Jane WITHOUT getting maimed in a fire, and maybe Bertha could've gotten the help she needed.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Evelyn pontificated to the effect that...

I too felt that the romance between Jane and Mr Rochester was overrated. But given that they are the novel's Official Couple, I feel as though St John *has* to be deliberately portrayed as having kind of a horrible overbearing personality. Probably we see him as being even worse than Charlotte Brontë saw him, but I can't imagine she meant for the readers to think "But why didn't Jane just stay with St John?".
I assumed, when reading the book, that the alternative to the attic was *literally* Bedlam, so Mr Rochester is being about as caring as he can be with a murderous deranged maniac given the state of medicine in the nineteenth century. It was disturbingly easy to get a woman legally declared insane in Victorian England - I read somewhere that you just had to get the husband, the asylum doctor (who got paid per patient), and ONE other doctor to sign off on the papers - so presumably if Mrs Rochester were perfectly sane and her husband just wanted to lock her up then we could have some Yellow Wallpaper scenarios.
Strangely enough, both Bram Stoker and Louisa May Alcott ripped this off for their own stories. Abraham van Helsing's wife is incurably insane, but as he is a Catholic he cannot divorce her. Ms Alcott wrote a suspiciously similar narrative, with the genders reversed, in one of her early lowest-common-denominator cheap-thrills blood-and-chills stories.

5:49 PM  
Blogger GeoX, who is here to stay, like it or not. pontificated to the effect that...

Good point re insane asylums that somehow hadn't even occurred to me. This raises issues that you can't really expect a Victorian novel to get into (well, maybe you can--there must have been at least some reformers at the time agitating for reforming the system).

Re St. John, no, I don't think anyone would have preferred that Jane marry him. The only question to me is to what extent we're meant to find him admirable. It's easy for me to picture readers at the time going yeah yeah, he's great and all out of a sense of obligation but not really feeling it on any deeper level. That may well just be me thinking anachronistically, though. As one does.

11:50 PM  
Anonymous Evelyn pontificated to the effect that...

I looked through some of Ms Charlotte's letters (or at least the printed versions) and found no strong evidence as to how much she liked or disliked Sinji. Apparently he does bear a suspicious resemblance to Henry Nussey, who proposed to Ms Charlotte and got rejected (and who also proposed to and was rejected by LEWIS CARROLL'S AUNT), and who was the brother of Ms Charlotte's totally-platonic-gal-pal-definitely-no-romance-there-ha-ha-that's-ridiculous Ellen Nussey (she was more obviously the inspiration for Helen Burns), but I don't know if Ms Charlotte felt about the character the same way she felt about him. Certainly she was very religious, so she had to have had *some* respect for Sinji's piety.
But given that when he's dying Jane basically says "Well, I'm not sad he's dying. He's going to God, right? He can't complain.", I can't help but feel like Ms Charlotte wasn't a fan of the character. That may be me also thinking anachronistically, though.

12:32 PM  
Blogger GeoX, who is here to stay, like it or not. pontificated to the effect that...

Whoa, I'm learning more than anticipated from this blog post! Interesting stuff that will hopefully make for an interesting class discussion.

12:01 AM  

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