Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Thursday, August 1, 2019

"Jane Eyre" Charlotte Bronte. - Colonialism, Racism and Jane Eyre

Colonialism and Jane Eyre

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, 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 am 
            a 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 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.

Mel u


Astrid (Mrs.B) said...

Great review! This is one of my favourite novels of all-time. I still haven't read Wide Sargasso Sea but managed to find a second hand copy recently. I'm so excited to read it now.

Emily H. said...

Thank you for this enlightening perspective. "None of this is to say that this work betrays racist attitudes or is very English biased." But isn't this sort of the point you're making...and in light of your evidence, I think maybe this wasn't an intentional portrayal on Charlotte's part, but maybe a reflection of her own racist attitudes expressed through Jane. I don't know...I'd have to go back and reread through different lenses. I have always had a problem with the christianizing the savages story, because it devaluates and dehumanizes the natives...maybe this is why I've always disliked the character, St. John arrogant.

Not to mention the anti-semitic comment...terrible, terrible. Can I still call this one of my favorite books in light of this? I don't know....I don't know :-(

Suko said...

I did read Jane Eyre, many years ago, but haven't read Wide Saragossa Sea (yet). The comparisons you make between the two novels are fascinating--I almost feel as if I'm taking a brief course in comparative literature when I read your thoughtful review.

Mel u said...

Mrs B-thanks and will look forward to your comments on Wide Sargasso Sea

Suko-thanks as always

Emily-thank you for visiting my blog and reading my post-in my post I am trying-maybe streching-to give Charlotte Bronte the benifit of the doubt-the attitudes of Jane toward Jews and POC were the common place ones of England at the time-I also found the characrter of Mr Rivers not all that well realized and was not happy with the closing remarks praising his work in India, attempting to convert the residents of India to a religion acceptable and understandable by the English. -The antisemtic remark of Jane-we it does convey Jane is antisemetic, anti Gypsey (a forgottten people of color) and purely Christian centered in her religion-in defense of Ms Bronte and of my claim that she Jane may not be speaking words acceptable to Bronte, take a look at my post on Prize Stock by Kenzaburo Oe to see how the black WWII POW is described by the Japanese characters-we could even look at Shaekespeare's treatment of Jews in the same light-I am giving Charlotte Bronte the respect she deserves (or at least trying to)-but you maybe right after all-I hope some others will comment on this issue-thanks again for visiting my blog and I commend to you and all Wide Sargasso Sea

Akilah said...

Jane Eyre was quite scandalous in its time because it spoke to the deep fears of the genteel class regarding governesses.

Also, I know it may not seem like it, but Jane was pretty badass for her time. She creates agency when she has none, she speaks up for herself, and, of course, in the end, she gets the man after he is emasculated. Heh.

I haven't met anyone who reads Jane Eyre the same after reading Wide Sargasso Sea.

Jenners said...

This was fascinating ... I read Jane Eyre for the first time last year and now I'm interested in the Wide Sargasso Sea.

Heidenkind said...

I haven't read Wide Saragossa Sea, but I would have to say that from your summary, I agree with Traxy that Mr. Rochester is out of character. I think he did resent Bertha, but for obvious reasons--because both his family and hers tricked him into matrimony for economic reasons! If you read Jane Eyre, he really did try to make it work with Bertha. Also, if he looked down at people who were of a different class and education, why didn't he look down at Jane, who was basically a nobody?

However, I do like the idea of a story being told from Bertha's perspective.

Mel u said...

Jenners-I hope you will share with us your thoughts on Wide Sargasso Sea

heidenkind-you make some great points-Bertha was a creole-a lower class person than Jane-Creole were in many cases the descendents of trasported servanta or convicts often thought to have mixed blood or to have "gone native" and thus of a lower class than Jane-also I think Rochester does look down on Jane-they do not reach a status where they can marry each other until he is blinded and partially crippled-he needs her as a servant whatever else may go on in his mind-I see him as condescending to her throughout-he does not seem to want a wife of his on social class-there is a lot going on here-

Traxy said...

heidenkind: Yup, that's exactly my point. He's not a tyrant, he was a young and naive at the time and was tricked into marrying a woman he never got to be alone in the same room with before he was already married to her, and that both his father and brother had betrayed him in their greed. They'd sold him off in order to secure the Mason family fortune, and to a mad woman as well. If she hadn't been insane, perhaps they could've made it work somehow. Frosty relationships didn't seem uncommon in those days, after all, but as she's mentally ill, that's not an option. He's the dutiful husband and keeps her safe, even though he could've just had her locked up in an asylum. He cared (perhaps a bit too much) about Bertha, and at the time of marriage, he was infatuated with her and thought he was really in love with her, so the way he came across in WSS just felt incredibly wrong, as it showed none of that. :/

mel u: Interesting perspective of review! Good job! Thanks for the mention as well. :) Having just finished "The Professor", I'd probably say Charlotte was "a bit" of a xenophobe, and wow, did she have a grudge against Catholics!

Unknown said...

I adored Jane Eyre and read it when I was fairly young (14) Since then I have read it many times, although haven't re-read it in quite a few years. Thanks for your in-depth review, it was very interesting :)

Erotic Horizon said...

Mel another great summary....

Thank you for the great discussion...


Laura's Reviews said...

Wow - what a great review! I love your in depth look at racism in both Jane Eyre and The Wide Sargasso Sea. I read The Wide Sargasso Sea for the first time this year and it was eye opening to say the least.

Mel u said...

Laura's Reviews-thank you very much for your kind remarks-