Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847, 493 pages, Bantam-introduction by Joyce Carol Oates)
I wished I would have read Jane Eyre many years ago. To me it is a great master work of the English novel and a supreme work of art that can take its place next to the cultural treasures of the 19th century. The characters of Jane and Mr. Edward Rochester echo in 100s of contemporary novels featuring tortured brooding heroes and women obsessively in love with them. A daily cruise through the 350 or so book blogs I follow will reveal that dozens of books with that very theme are published every month. The prose of Jane Eyre is gorgeous and there are many symbolic and metaphorical mine shafts one could use to go deep into the book.
It is interesting how one book recently read can bleed into your reading of the books that come next in your reading life. Not to long ago I read and was awestruck by the beauty and power of Jean Rhys Wide Sargasso Sea.
Wide Sargasso Sea is a kind of a prequel to Jane Eyre. It purports to tell the story of Bertha A. Mason, the first wife of Mr Rochester and Mr Rochester's treatment of her. Wide Sargasso Sea is a work of very subtle intelligences and perceptions but it can be seen as suggesting that Mr Rochester was a tyrant who looked down on his wife as an uneducated Jamaica born woman with but the most brutish backgrounds and natures whom he was driven to marry by her relatives and his desire for her based only on her looks. Some people, including Traxy in her comment on my review, said that Rhys had got the character of Mr Rochester wrong. My response at the time to this was that this issue did not matter and that Wide Sargasso Sea should be judged artistically without that external matter being a factor. I still agree with that but Jane Eyre has immense standing as a document of morality and is revered for its psychological depth so much that I want in a second post to look some at this issue. Here I want to see what we can see or say about the treatment of colonial peoples and people of non-English backgrounds in Jane Eyre.
Here is a somewhat telling exchange between Mr Rochester and Jane:
Utter it, Jane, ..it was a wish for half my estate (Mr Rochester)
(Jane Replies) " Now King Ahasuerus! What do I want with half your estate? Do you think I ama Jew usurer, seeking good investment in land?
These were words said in anger by Jane. Throughout the work Mr Rochester (cannot seem to call him Edward or Rochester) is described as "dark" and unattractive. In the emotions unleashed by her anger, with perhaps some of her guard stripped away by these emotions, Jane chooses to call him after a Persian King, a much more dark skinned person than even Mr Rochester. Perhaps she is unintentionally revealing her feelings on his skin color. The use of the word "Jew" here takes some reflection. It would be naive to see this usage as anything but a portrayal of contempt for non-English or or non- light skinned Europeans. Ahasuerus was also an enemy of the faithful, sinister in his darkness.
A few years ago, prompted by a wonderful book Bury Me Standing-The Gypsies and Their Journey by Isabel Fonseca I was motivated to read all most all of the books in English on Gypsy history and culture (the politically correct term in the 21th century is "Roma" or "Romani".) The exact origins of the Gypsies are a bit obscure but it is certain they left India as parts of migratory groups in the 10th century and first entered Europe in the 14th century. They were by and large despised in England in the 19th century. Chapter 18 of Jane Eyre reflects this attitude toward the Gypsies. Mr Rochester is having a smart party for some society people. One of his servants advises him a troublesome old woman has come to the door. A magistrate was at the party and saw she was a Gypsy (I reject intentionally the use of the politically correct term) and told the servant to tell the woman she must leave at once or she will be put in the stocks as in violation of laws restricting the movement of Gypsies. Colonel Dent it is no accident, of course, that a military officer makes this statement says to bring her.
Ladies, you talked of going to Hay Common to visit the gypsy camp; one of the old Mother Bunches is in the servants hall at the moment and insists upon being brought in before 'the quality' to tell them their fortunes. ..what is she like asks Misses Eston....a shockingly old creature miss, almost as black as a crock. Why she is a real sorceress! .,...(later) I have seen a gypsy vagabond...my whim is gratified and now I think..will do well to put the hag in the stocks.
"Mother Bunches" is an allusion to a stock character in 16th century English Dramas who was a bar and brothel keeper of the lowest rank. The gypsy woman is denigrated by her skin color. The people at the gathering have no idea of the ancient history of the Gypsies and as they are very other from themselves they feel it is perfectly acceptable to mock and persecute them.
There are several denigrating references to colonial English people from Jamaica who are called "creoles". The suggestion is that they have some how lost their character as Englishmen through living in the tropics.
The character of St John Rivers also tells us something about attitudes toward colonialism. He saw as his mission in life to go to India and take up "the white man's burden" of educating and Christianizing the natives. At the very close of the novel Jane refers to him as "laboring for his race", clearing the path for others to come after him to convert the natives. ( I will always have great respect for Edmund Burke for trying to tell the English that the Indians were heir to an older and deeper culture than theirs). His work is seen as the actions of a sainted one. Also toward the close of the work Jane exhibits some anti-French sentiment in her selections of schools for Mr Rochester's young female ward.
Through out the book Jane takes the attitude that dark skin some how is a perhaps sinister matter (note the contrasts of the skin tones of Mr Rochester and Mr Rivers, the brooding troubled Mr Rochester is dark with dark hair and eyes. In contrast Mr Rivers is quite light in tone.)
None of this is to say that this work betrays racist attitudes or is very English biased. Charlotte Bronte probably intentionally put these sentiments in the mind of a very good person, Jane, to show how they creep into our minds without knowing us knowing it. I think this is part of the great depth of artistic power of Bronte to use these attitudes so knowingly. We could from this go into a consideration as to whether or not the colonial attitudes of Mr Rochester were part of what pushed Bertha Mason into the insanity for which she did have an inherited propensity. A casual surface reading of Wide Sargasso Sea might see Mr Rochester as simply a brutal near slave master. We know that is wrong and we know Jean Rhys knows it also. I think a consideration of the question as to whether or not Jean Rhys got Mr Rochester right can lead us pretty far into the social, racial and gender issues in both works. Given the exalted place this work has in world literary culture, the question does matter. I will try to talk about it very soon in another post.
The relevance of this book to the issues of the Women Unbound Challenge are immediate. Both of the central female persons in novel center their lives on a man. No women in this novel have an identity without a man. Jane Eyre is also a novel about class structures but I will leave that go.