On first looking into Charlotte Brontë

A reflection on Jane Eyre

During Easter Week I read “Jane Eyre” for the first time. At the time I had not realised that during that week, on 31st March, we commemorated the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the death of Charlotte Brontë.

This novel is, I suppose, read first by people at school; certainly they are younger than I am. But it seems to me a very problematic text. It was always seen to be so. Many agreed with the notice in the “Nottingham Mercury”: “…. of a … thrilling, edifying, and purifying power. Without the slightest approach to cant it is eminently religious – without any strained attempts at sentimentality it is truly pathetic.”

The religious press was divided. Of the two recently founded Roman Catholic journals, the “Tablet” was enthusiastic: “The reading of such a book as this is a healthful exercise, and we sincerely hope may prove as attractive as it must be profitable.” The Rambler sided with the critics.

“The Church of England Quarterly” broke its rule of not reviewing novels (April 1848) because of its enthralling quality and “extraordinary freshness and originality”, but found its heroine a “merely moral person” without real signs of Christianity, “who might have been a Mohammadan or Hindoo.”

The rather High Church papers “The Guardian” and especially the “Christian Remembrancer” spotted the real problem. “...a book more unfeminine it would be hard to find in the annals of female authorship”, remarked the latter. Never was there a better hater... “’unjust, unjust’ is the burden of every reflection upon the things and powers that be... all Christian profession is bigotry and all Christian practice hypocrisy. To say that “Jane Eyre” is positively immoral or anti-Christian would do its author an injustice. Still it was a questionable aspect.”

But it was the “Quarterly Review” that struck deepest... “no one would think that she owed anything to God above or man below... prominently an anti-Christian composition. There is throughout it a meeting against the comforts of the rich and against the privations of the poor which as far as each individual is concerned is a murmuring against God’s appointment... for which we find no authority, either in God’s words or God’s providence”.

The contemporary reaction raises, whatever we think of the language employed, pertinent questions about the nature of art, literature and religion. Charlotte’s own literary women friends, Mrs Gaskell (the Unitarian novelist who became Charlotte’s biographer) and the philosopher, educationalist and atheist Harriet Martineau liked what they knew of her (Charlotte was always careful of what she showed to whom). But they found her novels questionable, dealing as they did with the individual passions rather than social questions. It is this rampant individuality that continues to nag. How should a novel construct the world it creates, personal or social, classic or romantic, typical or ideal, how things are, or how things ought to be? Equally, is Christian belief a matter of individual experience or corporate history, enthusiasm or critical enquiry, personal or social morality, freedom of expression or discipline?

The difficulty with Jane’s uncompromising individualism is that it too often comes over as a self-regarding, wilful defiance to obtain her own emotional satisfaction. Although scripture is freely quoted and attitude to genuine religious sentiment seldom appears apart from the saintly Helen Burns (based on Charlotte’s older, dead sister Maria) with her sentimentally expressed belief in universal salvation. The depiction of a disciplined Christian life descends into a caricature where all is system, whether Jane’s cousin Eliza who becomes a Roman Catholic nun (Charlotte was a convinced anti-Catholic) or her re-discovered cousin the evangelical clergyman St John Rivers. Whether she is fleeing from illicit relations with Rochester or shrinking from marriage to Rivers, Jane’s moral scruples appear to be motivated by fear of the power of her own feelings rather than anything positive.

Of course, the story rattles along with its death beds, mad wife, wilderness wanderings, remarkable co-incidences, supernatural voices and so on. Its influence on other works from “Rebecca” and the “Wide Sargasso Sea” to “I Walked With a Zombie” continues. The reason is not hard to see – it has affinities to themes that go deep into our cultural history; “Cinderella”, “Beauty and the Beast”. As Jane Eyre was published in 1847 it is a post-romantic Byronic beast, who has to be blinded, disfigured and converted before he is fit to marry Jane. In this state she is quite prepared to sit in his lap and light his cigar. Perhaps the way to read Jane Eyre is as a kind of fairy-tale – there are persistent references to fairies and allusions to the Arabian Nights and, as we know, Charlotte and Branwell Brontë honed their literary skills with stories of the imaginary kingdom of Angria.

The constraints of space prevent more than the merest sketch of my response to this notable work which, whatever its limitations is a piece of imaginative fiction. What I hope I have conveyed, however imperfectly, is that there is more to the reading of novels than the enjoyment of an engaging story artfully told. May not the same be said of the reading of the Bible?

Clarence Rickards

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Last revised 30th April 2005