As promised, I’m continuing my appreciation of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre with further discussions, based on aspects of the novel I’ve not noted mentioned elsewhere or viewed quite as aslant. This post aims to examine Jane Eyre’s relations.
I use the term ‘relations’ in a couple of principal senses here: first, in terms of humans (Jane’s relatives, and her relationships with suitors) and, secondly, concerning how Jane appears to structure her narrative, that is, how in terms of patterns she relates her ‘autobiography’.
I’m certain I’m not the first to observe Charlotte’s creation as very like herself in terms of physicality, temperament, interests and even occupation: Jane, like Charlotte, is small and very much ‘a plain Jane’, holds strong opinions, reads similar books and is a sometime governess. What is strikingly different is that Jane is an orphan and an only child, whereas not only did Charlotte’s father outlive her but she herself had three surviving siblings when Jane Eyre was published.
But the author does set up extended family relationships in this fiction to mirror her own, except that she substitutes cousins, the Reeds and the Rivers. (You might have noticed watery connections with these names, perhaps triggered by Eyre, a genuine local surname which Charlotte had spotted but which sounds suspiciously like Aire, the Yorkshire river with which the author was more than familiar.)
The poet in Charlotte seems to have echoed correspondences in her own family. Her brother Branwell, whose behaviour had become more and more erratic, is matched by ne’er-do-well John Reed and contrasts with the cold fish who is St John Eyre Rivers. Charlotte’s sister Emily may have lent her initial to Eliza Reed and her final letter to Mary Rivers, while Anne Brontë’s name is suspiciously embedded in both Georgiana Reed and Diana Rivers.
There is more: the fate of each individual cousin is broadly comparable. St John Eyre Rivers leaves for missionary work abroad, where he will die in due course, while John Reed departs for the bourne from which no traveller returns. Diana and Mary Rivers, both with a five thousand pound share of a legacy, marry well and happily; meanwhile haughty Georgiana Reed marries into society, while her sister Eliza chooses to be a Bride of Christ (she later becomes a Mother Superior).
Yet while the Brontës, like many siblings, may not always be of one mind, it’s fairly clear that the Reeds and the Rivers are on opposite sides of the moral fence. In fact the two sets of cousins bookend the novel, the Reeds selfish, disdainful, bullying, the Rivers charitable and welcoming.
Am I imagining all this, the apparent correspondences and the relationships? I think not: for while it was conventional to refer to in-laws as ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ Jane writes of her wishes for a sibling relationship with her Rivers cousins. (In Shirley, completed after the tragic deaths of all Charlotte’s siblings, the two female leads Caroline and Shirley declare that they have a sisterly relationship.) Of course, Charlotte isn’t explicitly or even implicitly equating her sisters and brother with her fictional characters, but it’s likely there was some overlap in terms of the Jane-Charlotte figure being part of a quartet of three women and a man.
There is a less defined relationship between Jane and Rochester’s acquaintances the Ingrams, making yet another quartet: in this the vapid Lord Theodore Ingram and his snooty sisters Mary and, especially, Blanche disregard the mousey Jane, for she is merely the governess of Rochester’s ward Adèle.
I now come to Jane’s relationships with men, particularly the ones that propose to her. I begin with Rochester, a distant but polite man, not conventionally handsome yet striking, a man who pretends to be attracted to another (Blanche Ingram), who is in fact married to Bertha Mason while all the time attracted to plain Jane.
Let me introduce you — should you not already be acquainted with him — to Constantin Héger, the married professor at the school in Brussels where Charlotte first studied and latter taught at. Here too is a distant yet polite man, maintaining a scrupulous relationship with his pupil and later employee; utterly infatuated with Constantin, Charlotte believes he only pretends to love his wife, Claire Zoë, while secretly wishing to be with the young Englishwoman. When CB returned to Yorkshire he ceased to correspond with her, allowing her to believe that Mme Héger was, like Bertha Mason, a millstone around Constantin’s neck.
All of this scenario is on record, in Charlotte’s letters and other documentary evidence. But then not only did Charlotte fictionalise this pretended ménage à trois in Jane Eyre, but aspects appeared later in Shirley (between Caroline, the Anglo-Belgian Robert Moore and his sister Hortense) and particularly in Villette (between Lucy Snowe, professor Paul Emanuel and headteacher Mme Beck).
Extraordinary that CB should persist with a theme of obsessive love throughout her adult fiction, prefigured even in The Professor, unpublished in her lifetime. There famously exists a family portrait of the Hégers: it’s noteworthy that Constantin stands somewhat apart from his six children, while Zoë Héger forms the absolute focal point of the painting.
The other two males who take a close interest in Jane will be the subject to round off this essay. First to come are the evangelical figures of Mr Brocklehurst, who stalks the early chapters, and St John Rivers, who in fact features in the final paragraphs of the novel (not, as one might expect, Edward Rochester). Both are stern, hard and unyielding figures — each notably compared to black pillars — and surmised to be based on individuals CB was familiar with (at least one of whomlike proposed to her, as Rivers does to Jane). Both wanted to ‘master’ her, Brocklehurst to rid her of the falsehoods that supposedly were her stock in trade and later to force her to remain and teach at Lowood, Rivers to persuade her not only to marry him but to work and die as a missionary, doing the Lord’s work as interpreted by a humourless husband.
But Jane won’t submit to such a joyless, loveless life, she literally shudders to think of being St John’s “helpmeet” whom he can “influence efficiently in life, and retain absolutely till death.” She cannot imagine a middle way between “absolute submission and determined revolt,” she writes, between being
“always restrained, and always checked — forced to keep the fire of my nature continually low, to compel it to burn inwardly and never utter a cry, though the imprisoned flame consumed vital after vital”
and the opposite extreme, when she would reach “the moment of bursting, sometimes with a volcanic vehemence” (Volume III chapter 8).
That insistence on a fiery image is of course a kind of unconscious premonition of the fire that will subsequently consume Thornfield, as much as it is a contrast to her assessment of St John as “good and great, but severe; and, for me, cold as an iceberg”. Such contrasts and comparisons in characters and relationships are for me a distinguishing feature of CB’s masterful technique.
Charlotte Brontë: Jane Eyre. Penguin Classics 1996
Juliet Gardiner: The World Within. The Brontës at Haworth: A Life in Letters, Diaries and Writings. Collins & Brown 1992
Paul Thompson: The Reader’s Guide to Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre”. Accessed 28/11/2019