This year is the bicentennial of Charlotte Brontë's birth. She died in March 1855, at the age of nearly 39, which makes this month something of an anniversary too. Her best known work, Jane Eyre, has the capacity of a fairytale to transcend time, with its Cinderella story of an unwanted child who becomes a poor, plain governess but ends up beating the odds by snaring the Byronic hero Mr Rochester.
High points in the novel's rich afterlife include the 1943 Hollywood version with Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles, and, in more recent times, Michael Berkeley's opera, Fanny Britt's graphic novel Jane, the Fox and Me and the artist Paula Rego's haunting images. Yet despite its mesmerising staying power, posterity has not quite known what to do with Jane Eyre. In modern times it has been marketed as a feel-good children's book, claimed as a high-minded feminist bible, and commercially exploited as a clichéd bodice-ripper (I recently bought a racy, lacy bra called "Brontë" in its honour). Yet what did it mean to readers when it first came out?
Jane Eyre has become so cosily a part of our cultural landscape that it is hard to imagine ourselves back into the mindset of the Victorians who first encountered it when it appeared out of the blue in 1847, published under the male-sounding pseudonym "Currer Bell". It became an instant bestseller, but quickly developed a reputation as a "naughty book", as GH Lewes put it. No one could doubt what Lewes called its "strange power of subjective representation", given the intense authenticity of its first-person voice. But as soon as critics concluded that the mysterious Currer Bell must be a woman, the book was attacked as "coarse" and immoral.
The most notoriously vituperative notice, published in the conservative Quarterly Review, accused Currer Bell of "moral Jacobinism" – of trying to start a revolution. It went on to insinuate that, if indeed female, she must have "for some sufficient reason … forfeited the society of her own sex", ie that she must be a fallen woman whose loose sexual behaviour had made her a pariah in decent circles. Few insults could have been more excoriating at the time. Charlotte Brontë – in reality, the spinster daughter of a provincial parson and a lifelong Tory – was nonplussed at being simultaneously tarred with the brush of political liberalism and personal libertinism.
It is easy today to dismiss Jane Eyre's Victorian critics as purblind prudes. The fact that the Quarterly's anonymous critic was herself a woman, Elizabeth Rigby, outraged 20th-century feminists, who saw it as an unsisterly affront from a hidebound conservative. Yet it is worth asking whether the intensity of the contemporary response was a more honest reaction to Jane Eyre's insistent abrasiveness than the modern tendency to remove its sting by blandly categorising it as a classic.
The battle lines of gender politics, and their relationship to politics tout court, were much more nuanced and ambiguous in the late 1840s than one might assume. At first glance, Elizabeth Rigby – who later married the head of the National Gallery – seems a Victorian woman after Charlotte Brontë's own heart. Carving out a successful journalistic career on her own merits, she stormed a bastion of male privilege when she was appointed lead critic of the revered Quarterly. As such she embodied in real life the ideals expressed by the fictional Jane who tells Mr Rochester that women are secretly as ambitious as men to exercise their faculties.
Why, then, did Elizabeth Rigby so hate Jane Eyre? An easy answer would be that she had to conform to the Quarterly's old-school stance to keep her job. But her review fails to support that. In fact, if one reads it in depth it is clear that she does not attack Brontë's novel from a conservative position. Her accusations of Jacobinism are a cover for her own progressive political platform.
How, Rigby wonders, can Currer Bell make a hero out of Rochester? He is a rich, privileged, middle-aged, married man who gets a kick out of grooming the disempowered teenage governess he has employed to teach his illegitimate daughter. First he hooks her by telling her intimate details of his previous sex life. Then he goes on to try to get her into bed under false pretences by fixing a mock wedding. According to Rigby, most women of spirit would recoil from such a blatant exploitation of power for sexual ends. But Jane, clearly a self-deluded masochist, delights in addressing him as her "master". As for the "governess problem", Rigby is scathing. As we now know, the real Charlotte Brontë was in reality paid a mere £16 per annum when she worked as a governess in a private family, which, in today's equivalent, would be considered stingy pocket money for an au pair. Rigby fully understands that such underpaid employment was almost the only work option for impoverished but educated women at the time. Yet she blasts Jane Eyre, since it suggests that the only solution to the governess's dilemma is to marry the master. Instead, Rigby laments the fact that governesses are prevented by their gender from forming a trades union. Higher wages, she argues, would be the true solution to their plight.
Despite the "Jacobin" label, Rigby does not see Jane Eyre as a forward-looking book but as a throwback to less egalitarian times. Her views, usually regarded as misguided by modern critics, in fact enable us to understand how Jane Eyre's success in mesmerising generations of readers derive from its unspoken contradictions, which arguably give it its electric energy and have allowed it to be interpreted in so many contradictory ways.
Jane's assertiveness is indeed feminist, relocating the Byronic ego in the figure of the poor, plain governess. But her erotic masochism reflects the Fifty Shades of Grey view of gender relations promoted by the sub-Byronic commercial literature of the 1820s and 1830s which the young Charlotte had imbibed, along with the amoral, libertine, and frankly misogynistic Tory anarchism of Blackwood's Magazine and Fraser's Magazine, her favourite reading in her youth.
As a provincial, Charlotte Brontë was behind the times and outside the loop of literary London. She had no idea quite how tawdry and naïve her female Byronism would seem in 1847 to the new, progressive Victorian establishment, who had moved their focus from Romantic individualism to social amelioration. And yet, for all her doubts, even Rigby acknowledged that Jane Eyre was a work of genius. Jane Eyre is too full of paradox to be read as a moral manual, but it has survived because, artistically, it has rarely been bettered.
Lucasta Miller's book is The Brontë Myth' . Her essay on why Brontë books were deemed "coarse" will appear in the Blackwell Companion to the Brontës
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