Engl 431: The Brontës & Their Afterlives Professor Linda Peterson



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IV. Jane Eyre: Using fiction to model a path to social reform

In contrast to Anne, who professes modest aims of contributing a "humble quota" to social reform, Charlotte Brontë expresses high ambitions for Jane Eyre's social impact.23 In the preface to the second edition of Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë emphasizes that her novel aims to expose society's corruption. Responding to the book's critics in the preface to the second edition, she writes, "[The world] may hate him who dares to…rase the gilding, and show base metal under it—to penetrate the sepulcher, and reveal the charnel relics: but hate as it will, it is indebted to him" (4). This declaration references an epistle from the Book of Matthew. Comparing the importance of her oeuvre to the writings of one of the Evangelists, Charlotte confidently describes her novel as a righteousness work. Jane's sense of her novel's contribution far exceeds Anne's hope that Agnes Grey will provide "an unfortunate governess" with "the slightest benefit" (93). According to this preface, Charlotte aims to profoundly disturb society by exposing its corruption.

Respecting the governess question, however, Charlotte's strident preface seems somewhat incongruent with the novel that follows. Jane's experiences as a governess are exceptionally positive. Unlike Agnes, tormented by the constant work of taking care of the three Bloomfield children, Jane has only one pupil, Adèle, who is "obedient and teachable" (108). Because Adèle is an orphan, Jane does not have to contend with any overbearing parents or relatives like the Bloomfield's Mr. Robson: "no injudicious interference from any quarter ever thwarted my plans for [Adèle's] improvement" (108). Jane receives a high salary, forty pounds per year. Most unusually, her employer falls in love with her, and they marry. Rather than exposing the abuses that governesses suffer, Charlotte seems to describe the ideal governessing position.

If social commentary is important to Charlotte's writing, how does the role of governess, depicted so unusually, advance this purpose of the novel? Jane's atypical experience allows Charlotte to explore how governesses are stereotyped and how governesses defend their rights and dignity in the face of their employers' negative perceptions. Through Jane's behaviors, Charlotte communicates that reform in the treatment of governesses will not be spearheaded by the wealthier classes. Rather, it will only occur if governesses cease to behave as their employers' inferiors. Charlotte's brand of social commentary does not simply discuss injustice; instead, it models the action that those who are wronged should take if they seek improvements.

Charlotte's personal letters reveal her unfavorable opinion of the institution of governessing. For less than a year, Charlotte worked as a governess for the Whites, a merchant family, with two young children in her care.24 Her salary was meager, only twenty pounds per year, four of which went to laundry.25 She was miserable, largely due to her sense of dependence and humiliation: "I find it so difficult to ask either servants or mistress for anything…It is less pain to me to endure the greatest inconvenience than to request its removal."26 Like Anne, Charlotte experienced firsthand the lack of dignity in the work of a governess.

For the most part, Jane maintains her dignity as a governess, but in a short series of scenes during Rochester's house party, she experiences the humiliation of being in the "anomalous half-way place" described by Peart. Rochester is often absent, and even when he is in residence, she does not necessarily see him for several days at a time. Thus, she is infrequently placed in the position of a social subordinate. When Rochester invites his friends to Thornfield for a house party, however, she repeatedly is thrust in the company of social betters who disdain her simply for her occupation. The first evening that she sits with the house party, Jane's presence inspires them to discuss the faults of governesses. As Jane listens, Lady Ingram remarks on how she "'suffered a martyrdom'" from the "'incompetency and caprice'" of her children's past governesses (177). Blanche Ingram reminisces about the tricks that she and her brother would play on their governesses. Her comment to her brother demonstrates her lack of shame about her past behavior: "'Theodore, do you remember those merry days?'" (177). Jane leaves the room as soon as she deems it appropriate. As Rochester remarks, she is "'so much depressed that a few more words would bring tears to [her] eyes'" (181). After weeks of pleasant life at Thornfield, Jane experiences a governess's humiliation by witnessing the Ingrams' conversation.

The house party scene implicitly critiques Anne's mode of social commentary. Blanche Ingram's ability to pleasantly reminisce about past governesses demonstrates that the upper and middle classes have a firm understanding of how they treat them. They just do not care what governesses suffer, something that is demonstrated by their quick loss of interest in the topic. Soon after raising the subject, Blanche asks for the topic of conversation to be changed, exclaiming, "'Spare us the enumeration!'" when her mother starts talking (178). The wealthy understand that governesses suffer from their treatment, but they do not have enough empathy to change their ways. Agnes Grey assumes that a faithful account of wrongdoing will inspire reform; if injustice is revealed, it will be resolved. In this scene, Charlotte implies that injustice is known and is simply ignored. Charlotte's picture of the wealthy is even more condemnatory than Anne's. Charlotte depicts an upper class that is fully conscious of their wrongdoings but unwilling to change, thus more deplorable.

Charlotte may be directly responding to Agnes Grey in the house party scene. The Ingrams' treatment of their governesses is reminiscent of the Bloomfield children's behavior in Agnes Grey. There are three Ingram siblings, two sisters and one brother, just as Agnes takes care of two Bloomfield girls and one boy. The name "Ingram" is very similar to "Ingham," the actual family on which Anne's Bloomfield family is based. Charlotte perhaps imagines the public's response to Agnes Grey to be much like the house party's conversation, first characterized by amusement and quickly followed by boredom. "'I suppose, now…we shall have an abstract of the memoirs of all governesses extant,'" exclaims Blanche Ingram when she wants to talk about something new (178). Agnes Grey is a memoir of a governess, and such a topic does not appeal to those like Blanche. Blanche's nonplussed response to anecdotes from the lives of governesses may echo Charlotte's attitude toward her sister's writing. In the preface to a paperback edition of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey published after Emily's and Anne's deaths, Charlotte writes that Anne "wanted the power, the fire, the originality of her sister [Emily]."27 Charlotte, it seems, felt her youngest sister's writings were not innovative, and had no shame about letting the public know her opinion. While she explicitly critiques the conventionality of Anne's writings in this preface, she may covertly do so through Blanche Ingram's voice. Like Blanche and Theodore Ingram are adult versions of the Bloomfield children, perhaps Charlotte viewed her own commentary on governesses as a more mature, sophisticated version of her youngest sister's work.

In Jane Eyre, Charlotte consciously draws attention to the public conception of a miserable governess, further conveying the futility of exposé. Despite her limited experience in the world, Jane knows that governesses are not treated well. Jane expects to receive condescension. When she meets Mrs. Fairfax, Jane expresses surprise at the housekeeper's hospitality: "'I anticipated only coldness and stiffness: this is not like what I have heard of the treatment of governesses'" (96). Jane expects to receive condescension. This expectation is reiterated when she examines the meager offering of books in the schoolroom: "I suppose he had considered that these were all the governess would require for her private perusal" (103). As an inferior, a governess would not undertake heavy reading. By emphasizing Jane's expectation of demeaning treatment, Charlotte shows that such treatment is the status quo. Through such statements, Charlotte quietly conveys that content like that in Agnes Grey does not contribute anything original about governesses to the public discourse. In addition, these statements depict Jane's experiences as exceptional in contrast. They are Charlotte's indicators that in Jane Eyre, she means to provide new insight into the governessing experience by depicting something innovative.

Appropriately, Jane receives humiliating treatment when she behaves most like a typical, subservient governess. When the house party disparages governesses in her presence, she sits quietly at a window seat, removed from the party. (Blanche's comment, "'there she is still behind the window-curtain,'" demonstrates that she is physically hidden from the group (176)). Jane's physical separation from the party suggests her subservience. Jane's detachedness at the window seat is reminiscent of Agnes Grey walking behind the Murray siblings, something Agnes describes as acknowledging her "own inferiority" (162). Jane tries to be invisible, and she is treated as such. Consequently, Jane hears degrading comments about her profession. When the house party plays charades, Jane once again sits apart at the window seat; as Lady Ingram comments, "'she looks too stupid for any game of the sort'" (182). The remark is not unjustified. Jane has never spoken in this lady's presence, so she has not proved herself to be anything but stupid. When Jane is not her outspoken self, Charlotte showcases the responsibility that governesses share in how they are treated.

In Jane Eyre, however, Charlotte offers an alternative to the stereotypical governess. By not behaving in a self-deprecating way, Jane is not treated as a lowly subordinate by her employer. Jane's assured manner influences Rochester's behavior toward her, as demonstrated in an early interaction. Based on her occupation and appearance, he assumes that she will play the expected subordinate role in their communications: "'You have the air of a little nonnette; quaint, quiet, grave and simple'" (131). In such a statement, he projects a stock character onto Jane, based on the little he knows of her. He tries using her to entertain himself: "'Do you think me handsome?'" (130). Rochester asks this question expecting Jane will respond to intimidation as a subordinate. This is the adult version of the Ingram children's tricks: both are displays of superiority, intended to goad. Jane does not respond with flattery, however, curtly replying, "'No, sir.'" At the end of the conversation, in which Jane persistently refuses to act like an inferior, Rochester remarks, "'Not three in three thousand raw school-girl governesses would have answered me as you have just done'" (134). This statementRochester's response explicitly points to the stereotype of the submissive governess and Jane's divergence from it. If she had behaved as a governess is expected to behave, she would have been treated as such. To be respected, governesses cannot act like inferiors, and thus acquiesce lending themselves to their humiliation.

Charlotte further models the ideal behavior of governesses in Jane's attitude toward money. Jane rejects the assumption that Rochester can treat her as an inferior simply because he pays her. In fact, she tells Rochester that she will not obey him because he gives her a salary, but "on the ground that you did forget [the salary], and that you care whether or not a dependent is comfortable in his dependency" (134). In this statement, Jane offers a suggestion for how governesses can maintain their dignity, even while acting as employees. They should obey orders because they are treated well, not simply because they are financially dependent on their jobs. Unlike Agnes, who shies away from mentioning money, Jane refutes the belief that earning money makes someone inferior; indeed, she treats her wage as a source of pride. Rochester offers her fifty pounds when she leaves for Gateshead, but she refuses to take more than the fifteen she has earned. According to Lady Eastlake's calculations, fifty pounds is more than most governesses could expect to earn in a year, so the amount she refuses would be very significant to Jane. But Jane does not simply want money; she wants to earn her money. Charlotte expands on this sentiment when Rochester describes his intention to adorn Jane in jewels after their engagement. She exclaims in reply, "'No, no, sir!...I am your plain, Quakerish, governess'" (259). As a governess, she is not beholden to anyone. She earns what she receives, and asserts this independence with pride.

Ultimately, the novel overwhelmingly rewards Jane's assuredness in her role as a governess through Jane and Rochester's marriage. In the garden at Thornfield, Rochester proposes to Jane: "'My bride is here…because my equal is here, and my likeness. Jane, will you marry me?'" (254). Rochester's romantic interest in Jane results from his perception of her as his equal. Repeatedly, Jane's outspokenness despite her socially subordinate position works to cultivate this impression in him. Jane's reward for outspokenness is an exaggeration of what a governess can realistically expect, but the exceptionality of her experience conveys that governesses, by being assertive, can raise their aspirations. In contrast to Jane, Agnes perseveres through the trials of governessing, never overstepping the bounds of social propriety. She is rewarded through a respectable marriage to Mr. Weston. Jane Eyre incorporates a similar narrative. Miss Temple, Jane's virtuous and kind instructor at Lowood, is also rewarded through a respectable marriage to a clergyman, Mr. Nasmyth. Agnes and Miss Temple both succeed in securing the most ideal future life that the likes of a young governess or schoolteacher realistically can hope for. Jane, asserting her own worth, secures a wealthier and more charismatic husband than Mr. Weston or the barely-mentioned Mr. Nasmyth. Jane's sense of self-worth is rewarded in a husband more worthy of her remarkable traits than a nondescript clergyman.

In Jane Eyre, Charlotte engages in social discourse, but not by simply illustrating injustice. Through Jane, she demonstrates how a governess should behave as an equal if she expects to be treated as one. Charlotte's is an active form of critique. Writing with a social purpose requires modeling change, not illustrating the status quo. For Charlotte, creating exceptional circumstances for Jane Eyre is a more productive form of participating in social discourse than rehashing typical circumstances that have not prompted any resolution of injustice. Charlotte encourages self-empowerment. Jane, as a governess, demonstrates that governesses should conduct themselves in a way more fitting to the literal meaning of the word "governess": female governors. Governesses should act as governors of their own fates.






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