“An independent will”

Charlotte Brontë by her brother Branwell, restored detail

Charlotte Brontë: Jane Eyre
Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Michael Mason
Penguin Classics 1996 (1847)

Charlotte Brontë’s breakout novel, first published in three volumes, is now such a well-known classic, its story often summarised, discussed, filmed, retold, that any attempt I now make to précis it is, frankly, redundant. So I shan’t even attempt to do that; what I will do is draw out themes and ideas that have struck me on a first reading, and sincerely hope that I won’t be doing the author an injustice by in any way misrepresenting her.

I shall here pass over any deep psychological analysis of the author’s possible wish-fulfilment in outlining Jane’s supposed ‘autobiography’ (a subtitle proposed by the publishers, not by her), a narrative that borrows freely from people and places that she knew, and from many of her own personal experiences: that’s for specialists to wax lyrically on.

What I shall instead concentrate on in this review is not Jane as a feminist icon — because that’s also beyond my competency — but as an individual with agency, one who asserts her individuality even as she struggles with the love of her life:

I am no bird; and no net ensnares me! I am a free human being with an independent will…

Let me list some of the ways she has agency.

  • At Lowood School, where she is a pupil, she refuses the stern evangelical Mr Brocklehurst’s offer of a teaching post in favour of a position of governess which she has independently applied for.
  • She continually defies convention: in childhood standing up to a bullying male cousin; entering Rochester’s bedroom to save him and remaining alone with him; walking alone on the Moor with St John; sitting on Rochester’s knee before they are married.
  • She in effect refuses to become Rochester’s mistress for reasons of propriety (though she doesn’t seem to regard becoming a mistress as adulterous, merely a prelude to loss of agency as a kept woman, with likely loss of his respect). In leaving Thornfield she takes nothing that will bind her materially to the house.
  • She refuses an offer of marriage to her cousin St John Rivers because there will be no love involved; though it is he, not her, who sees Jane going with him to India as curate in a sisterly role as improper.
  • After nearly succumbing to St John’s appeals to her religious feelings (but after the mysterious appeal she hears through the aether, which proves the final turning point of the narrative) she dismisses her cousin, telling us, “It was my time to assume ascendancy. My powers were in play, and in force.” St John is unable resist her energy and meekly obeys her: she has mastered him.
  • The strongest instance of her agency comes in the most famous phrase from the novel,”Reader, I married him.” Though Rochester had just proposed for the second time, it is Jane who is the active one here, a role she had struggled all her twenty years to assert for herself and one she finally deserves.

Like her fated friend Helen Burns at the Lowood Orphan Asylum Jane “cannot bear to be subjected to systematic arrangements”, particularly ones designed to be cruel or degrading proposed on the apparent whims of others.

Jane Eyre is in many ways, therefore, an empowering novel, its protagonist easy for the sensitive reader to identify with. It’s not a perfect novel — can any work of fiction ever be? — but despite Jane not being an entirely reliable narrator (to me, at least) she remains someone whose fierce independence is not only admirable but inspiring.

As too are her sentiments with regard to emotion, an essential if one is to retain one’s humanity. Her cousin St John, a cold, hard man … cold as an iceberg, declares, “Reason, and not Feeling, is my guide.” Jane’s response is that “With me, it is fully as much a matter of feeling as of conscience: I must indulge my feelings …”

There is so much else that deserves more intense scrutiny, which makes Jane Eyre the great novel that it is — matters such as the repartee between Jane and her ‘Master’, the seasons as a reflection of the action, the relationship between Jane’s various cousins and Charlotte’s own siblings, the possible Belgian model for Edward Rochester, and the author’s employment of religion, literature and fairytale as commentary on the narrative — but these will have to wait for another time. But I will leave you with Jane’s righteous comment on her treatment when she came begging at the door of strangers near Morton:

“Some of the best people that ever lived have been as destitute as I am; and if you are a Christian, you ought not to consider poverty a crime.”

Nearly two centuries later it is a sad reflection on politics and society that there are still ‘haves’ (some of them claiming to be Christian) who believe that ‘have-nots’ are undeserving, despite their being poor and it not due to any fault of their own.


There will follow further posts on aspects of this novel that interested me, and will perhaps do the same for you

13 thoughts on ““An independent will”

  1. Interesting post! You make me realise that it’s clearly far too long since I last read this, back to the days when I simply read for the story. I must admit I’ve never really seen Jane as a feminist icon, on the simplistic basis that basically her story ends by her catching her man – the ultimate aim. But you’ve convicned me, and my greater age – I mean, wisdom – means I now recognise more that her options were severely restricted, so she did pretty well considering…

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    1. I do hope you get to reread and write about this, I would love to see what your thoughts about it now were. What’s interesting is that Jane is, by the end of the novel, an independent woman, her uncle’s legacy, £5000 after she’d shared out £1500 with her cousins, now worth over £592,250.00 in today’s money. So she was now the catch for the injured Rochester, rather than the other way round. Reader, she married him for love, not money and status! 🙂

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  2. Alyson Woodhouse

    Jane is certainly a character with agency and control of her own life, although I must admit I have always felt somewhat conflicted by her ending. There seems to be an underlying implication that she and Rochester can only reach true equality with certain conditions, IE Jane becoming financially independent, and Rochester being physically mamed. Having said this, Jane did indeed make the final decision, so has managed to maintain the control she has always had of her life. It is a really tricky one which I can never quite make up my mind exactly how I feel about, but perhaps that is one of the reasons why this is such a great novel.

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    1. Thanks for this input, Alyson–certainly, as you say, those conditions you mention (Jane’s financial independence, Rochester’s physical dependence) are the devil in the detail: this is not equality of the sexes as we see it now. But given attitudes 170-plus years ago Charlotte’s ending is definitely unexpected and was no doubt startling in 1847.

      There is of course the fairytale aspect that one must acknowledge, one that I intend touching on in a future post in a little more detail. And the edition I used, with notes by the late Michael Mason, brought home to me how much the text is infused with Biblical references, both Old and New Testaments; though, like Rochester himself, I am irreligious by inclination, his blindness and loss of limb—though brought about by a charitable impulse—nevertheless have a touch of divine retribution for his shortcomings and failings, as well as his deliberate lack of transparency. But now I’m already rushing ahead of myself!

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  3. Pingback: “An independent will” — Calmgrove – Earth Balm Creative

  4. Oh this is really interesting! One of my favourite novels, Alice’s Masque by Lindsey Clarke, has as it’s central theme the idea of a woman having sovereignty. It is really similar to the theme of agency you have described here in Jane Eyre I think it’s the theme which made Clarke’s book so special for me. It metaphorically served as a gatekeeper as I moved from one part of my life to another. Now I must read Jane Eyre! Thanks again for a really thought provoking review.

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    1. I had a copy of Lindsay Clarke’s The Chymical Wedding which regretfully disappeared before I finished it, Jo, but this one sounds not only in a similar vein but even more inviting! Thanks for the recommendation. It’s magical how books can not only be significant at a given stage if one’s life but also influential for a while longer: I’m sure that must be the case with Jane Eyre for many readers.

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      1. Having really loved “Alice’s Masque”, I tried the Chymical Wedding, but I found it very slow to start and it didn’t grab me the way the other book did. In the end I wandered off to other pastures without finishing it.

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  5. I think the idea of addding ‘autobiography’ to the title, was a way of giving readers the impression they were reading about ‘real people’ – it’s one of the features of a realist novel which was in its infancy.

    One of the most interesting scenes in JE for me is where she is walking on the battlements and expressing a strong reaction against the idea that women should be limited to knitting and cooking when really they “need exercise for their faculties”. A foreshadowing of Virginia Woolf?

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    1. That subtitle is an odd thing, isn’t it: the fact that Charlotte drew heavily from her own life experiences adds an extra dimension to its significance, but if — as is reported — the publishers chose to add it in complete ignorance of Currer Bell’s real identity then they clearly recognised a certain authenticity in the narrative. Perhaps the fact that this is said to be the first novel which described the narrator’s own childhood may have prompted that subtitle.

      That scene on the battlements was one I’d made a note of, as a possible buttress to my argument about agency. Am I right in thinking Woolf was not particularly enamoured by CB? I may be wrong, of course. In fact the battlements scene reminded me of an episode early on in The Turn of the Screw and I wonder if Henry James was familiar with JE?

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  6. Enjoyed your post- Jane’s ‘independent will’ is certainly something that stands out in the book-right from the stage where she refuses to accept unjust treatment by her aunt, standing up to her when social propriety may have required simply accepting her harsh words in silence, and this quality makes her stand out as a character–especially when one thinks of how young she is throughout which makes is so much more difficult for one to hold their own.

    Interesting observation re her reliability or rather ‘unrealiability’ as a narrator, that wasn’t something I thought about–but I think in my case it is probably to do with the fact that Lucy Snowe in Villette is entirely so, so on thinking of her one begins to think of Jane as much more trustworthy as a narrator, and then entirely so.

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