Jane is plain. Jane is fiery. Jane is passionate. She is outspoken. She will not be controlled. Jane is powerful and articulate but most of all, Jane is angry.
Brontë’s character, Jane Eyre, was criticized as unchristian, vulgar, and unfeminine.
Jane rails against her position in life—an orphaned, moneyless woman in Victorian England—feeling her lack of options unjust and unfair. Jane thinks thoughts women in the 1840s were not supposed to think. Thoughts like: I am equal. I wish to be treated as equal.
Most of us know this novel was originally published under the pen name Currer Bell, but early readers of the novel did not know until years later when Charlotte Brontë revealed the reason for making the choice to use a male pen name in an introduction to a reprint of Wuthering Heights, (her late sister Emily’s novel). Until then her public did not know her or her sisters’ identities.
“Averse to personal publicity,” Charlotte Brontë writes, “we veiled our own names under those of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell; the ambiguous choice being dictated by a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine, while we did not like to declare ourselves women, because — without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called ‘feminine’ — we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice . . .”(quoted in Harmon from the Norton edition of Wuthering Heights, 4).
By the time she wrote this introduction in 1850, both her sisters, Emily and Ann, were dead. For a while many believed that Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell were the same person. No. These were three separate women, sisters, each writing in their own unique and powerful style. When their books were first published, their reading public did not know who they were. The sisters chose to disguise their identities not because it was the norm at the time but because they knew, if they published under their true female names, they would be “liable to be looked on with prejudice.” Two of them died with that secret, and also never knew that their writing would be deemed ”unfeminine.”
It was Charlotte’s Brontë who created Jane Eyre, a character who had a voice, had a self, had an identity and dare to speak it. She wrote a book so good that the editor who would go on to publish it, as well as his partner, read it in one sitting. They literally could not put the book down. Charlotte outlived her sisters and went on to write two more novels.
Writers create characters, put them in circumstances with tension and allow them to move through these experiences at the tip of their pen for a while until they begin to speak on their own. The writer can edit these voices, tailor them and trim them. The writer can silence them if they wish to. Charlotte Brontë did not silence Jane Eyre. Charlotte Brontë let Jane have her voice.
“Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain and little,” Jane declares, “I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! –I have as much soul as you,–and full as much heart!”
For us to begin to understand the radicalness of this character’s voice at the time this book was written is not easy and yet, still today, Jane’s rage and sense of insult move and inspire.
In their groundbreaking work on women writers in the Victorian Era, The Madwoman in the Attic, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Guber, inform us that Brontë withstood much criticism for her outspoken character:
“’Jane Eyre is throughout the personification of unregenerate and undisciplined spirit,’ wrote one critic. Jane Eyre is ‘preeminently an anti-Christian composition,’ wrote another”(MA 337).
Gilbert and Guber note:
“. . . what horrified the Victorians was Jane’s anger. And perhaps they, rather than more recent critics were correct in their response to the book. For while the mythologizing of repressed rage may parallel the mythologizing of repressed sexuality, it is far more dangerous to the order of society”(MA 338).
Women’s repressed anger is far more dangerous than women’s repressed sexuality? Duly noted. Women, do you know there is great power in that rich vein of rage you endeavor to hide?
Another critic, writing a hundred years later, wrote,
“Well, obviously Jane Eyre is a feminist tract, an argument for the social betterment of governesses and equal rights for women”(MA 338).
Let’s face it. Jane is pissed and she really feels it. She burns with it. She is full of passionate rage and outrage that we, the reader, get to feel as well. How fabulously liberating it was for me the first time I read it and continues to be every time I read this novel.
Jane has a mouth!! Whoo Hoo! She doesn’t only burn with rage at her lot in life, at the lot of women but she speaks it, aloud, to others. She gives voice to it, effectively. How wonderful. My chest heaved with her as I read this novel but not in the way other gothic novels made my chest heave. In this novel my chest heaved with righteousness and the demand for justice and respect. I felt vindicated in my own rage and anger, my own feelings of mistreatment and the unfairness at my lot as a woman in a profoundly sexist society—indeed for all women—as I read Jane’s expression of hers.
A woman wrote these words and put them in a female character’s mouth and let her utter them with pride, intelligence and articulateness. It both soothed my soul and made it soar. It encouraged me to allow my female characters their voices in the novels I would come to write.
Jane is angry. Jane doesn’t want to wait. She wants to be free and independent. She wants to be equal. And she wants to be liberated: Now. Not in the future. And in the course of the book, every act she takes is toward that outcome.
It is clear that it is not going to be accomplished by her “giving up her anger” and making nice, or accepting things the way they are. NO. That is not how Jane finally gets what she wants. She gets what she wants by staying absolutely true to herself, her feelings, her passions and her body. She does not betray herself, Jane, no, not once.
Jane does not settle for the only outcome available to her. No. Jane gets what she wants. And she shows the reader how to do that as well.
The madwoman in the attic in this story, the dashing Mr.Rochester’s first wife, Bertha Mason, locked up, alone, raging and crazy, displays to Jane the fate in store for her if she “settles,” compromises her integrity, or stops outwardly expressing her rage. Some interpret this madwoman character as Jane’s alter ego but I believe it is Charlotte Brontë’s warning to all women of what they will become if they deny or reject the best parts of themselves.
Charlotte Brontë gives the reader a roadmap in this book. She gave me a roadmap. I am still following it: Don’t settle. Don’t stop. Don’t let down until you have what you want. Walk away if you are treated with disrespect, demand more when you are given too little and never, never compromise your integrity for anyone or anything, no matter how difficult it is to leave a person or place that you love.
Jane addresses the reader:
“It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth. Women are supposed to be very calm generally; but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer, and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.”
Jane is sensible, smart, self-motivated, self-identified and self-reliant. And so was Charlotte Brontë.
As Adrienne Rich writes in Jane Eyre: The Temptations of a Motherless Woman, Jane Eyre is “a person determined to live, and to choose her life with dignity, integrity and pride”(Rich 93).
And so she does and I thank Charlotte Brontë for that.
Charlotte Brontë is a #NastyWomanWriter.
©Theresa C. Dintino 2017
Charlotte Brontë. Jane Eyre. Airmont Books,1963.
Sandra M. Gilbert & Susan Guber, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination, (Yale University Press: New Haven, 1979).
Claire Harmon. Chalotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart. Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.
Adrienne Rich, “The Temptations of a Motherless Woman,” On Lies, Secrets and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978 (W.W. Norton & Co., N.Y. 1979).