Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre has been the subject of much discussion and I won’t pretend that I’m going to add anything novel or groundbreaking to those conversations; all I can do is say what strikes me as interesting or enlightening, in the hope that you too may find it so — even if you disagree (in which case feel equally free to say so!).
In this rather long post I mainly want to talk about aspects of the novel’s central relationship, that between Jane and Rochester. I shall rely on points made by a study or two to structure my remarks but other observations will be largely mine. Are you ready? Then I shall begin!
Anne Wilson’s The Magical Quest (1988) is largely about medieval texts but she does mention modern works in passing, including this novel. Her study takes the view that certain works have ‘magical’ plots, which consist of
a series of mental rituals, through which participants bring about their desires (in the mind, of course) and dispel fear or guilt.
What she calls ‘participants’ are auditors or creators of the story, in which magical devices such as “exorcism, ritual punishment and magic words are employed.” The story’s form is a series of steps or moves “in the hero’s (or heroine’s) struggle to achieve desires and solve their conflict with fear or guilt.”
Steps — or, rather, moves — in Wilson’s definition are (pp 4-5)
- related very closely to each other
- make use of ‘repeat’ characters (many characters becoming few in the protagonist’s mind)
Our problem, she adds, is that we try to rationalise the irrational all the time, but that this leaves “many details and problems in the text unaccounted for.”
You may guess — correctly — that Wilson is going for a psychological approach to the dream-like or fairytale aspects of certain texts: she goes on to talk of primal situations with Oedipal interactions because, she suggests,”the magical plot employs an entirely primitive system of thought and therefore has no access … to areas of experience beyond inner, solipsistic emotional experience” (p 15).
What does all this amount to? As far as I can gauge she is saying that a novel like Jane Eyre (which already has fairytale antecedents) employs a magical plot that not only has the narrator Jane as a stand-in for the author herself, with a limited cast of characters (note, for example, the doublets of Reed, Rivers and even Ingram siblings), but also, as Wilson says, lays bare “an inner conflict, one between the heroine’s need for fatherly love and the threat which that need presents to her own power.” To this is added “a fear of incest” (p 15).
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Is this all a bit over the top, or are there nuggets of true insight here? Let’s consider a few of the males of some social standing in the novel.
- Jane’s father died of typhus when she was very young, along with her mother.
- Jane’s Uncle Reed was kind to her at Gateshead but died many years before.
- Mr Brocklehurst at Lowood is stern and cruel, with not a shred of compassion.
- Richard Mason is weak, nearly letting the genie (his sister, Rochester’s wife) out of the bottle, as it were.
- Jane’s Uncle Eyre, whom she never met, dies in Madeira.
- Her cousin St John Eyre Rivers promises her a loveless marriage.
You can see why Jane might unconsciously be seeking a positive father figure if, before she reaches her teens, it turns out that she barely knew her father, her kind uncle died leaving her with a cruel aunt, and the Lowood director is equally unsympathetic. When, deeply disappointed, she later leaves Thornfield, her cousin St John appears as a cold fish, although her unknown Eyre uncle leaves her a legacy when he dies. None of these fits the model of a kindly father who, above all, is there in person to give her due consideration and esteem.
Wilson sees “the apparent incest theme in Jane Eyre as being about a desire for fatherly love, with its attendant fear of incest, rather than a desire to marry the biological father.” So when Rochester appears we have a man virtually twice Jane’s age: she is eighteen and he seems to be in his mid to late thirties. Jane hears her relationship described thus near the end of the novel:
“Mr Rochester was about forty, and this governess not twenty; and you see, when gentlemen of his age fall in love with girls, they are often like as if they were bewitched.”
It was an age when the husband was often a lot older than his wife — consider for example the heroine and Mr Knightley in Austen’s Emma — yet it was still clearly possible for an age difference to be remarked on. But at Thornfield that age gap was exacerbated by social differences, with Jane an inpecunious governess while Edward Rochester was landed gentry.
That combination of social standing and attendant power imbalance is an obstacle in the path of the magical plot, which can only be resolved in the end by a series of crises. Following the revelation of the existence of a Mrs Rochester Jane can only be finally reunited with Edward when, after Bertha’s self-immolation and Thornfield is in ruins, he is blinded and disabled and physically reliant on Jane, now a mature woman of independent means.
The fire is one of the “exorcisms” Wilson describes: in this magical plot the heroine “burns down the house haunted by her fears and lessens the power of Rochester” (p 15). The problem is “the nature of the heroine’s desire, that the deserted lover is too like a paternal figure; linked to this are her doubts and fears in relation to her own power.”
What is Jane’s power? She was fierce and passionate as a child, which got her into trouble with authoritarian figures, but she learned to work more subtly to get what she wanted. She later applies for a governess’ post, thereby thwarting Mr Brockenhurst’s plans for her, and verbally she proves more than a match in conversations with Rochester and Rivers. Of course, the novel is Jane’s own “autobiography” so she gets to write her own dialogues, in which she can always get the better of supposed superiors.
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In a later piece, available online, Wilson lists the five ‘moves’ of the novel’s magical plot. Unsurprisingly, they coincide with physical moves as Jane resides first in Gateshead, then Lowood, Thornfield, Moor House (Marsh End), and finally Ferndean. You will doubtless have noted the significance of the names the author has chosen for her moves:
- Gateshead is both the book’s start (‘head’) and Jane’s portal (‘gate’) out into the world; not to be confused of course with the town near Newcastle-upon-Tyne
- Lowood School is initially out of the frying pan into the fire for Jane (‘low’) and also the first landscape feature included in the place-names (‘wood’): like Snow White or Red Riding Hood she has escaped one home only to find herself in an equally threatening environment, though the influence of the significantly named Miss Temple will make things more bearable
- Thornfield Hall at first seems a respite, with space to live and breathe (a ‘field’) after the confines of Lowood; but it is soon revealed that there is a ‘thorn’ present there (Bertha Mason), the spindle on which Jane will prick her finger and go into a kind of hibernation like Sleeping Beauty
- Moor House is at first the lonely dwelling at the other end of the wasteland, where she can recuperate and find kindly hosts; but its alternate name, Marsh End, suggests it is a place where she is in danger of being bogged down in the swamp fed by her cousin Rivers
- Finally, Ferndean Manor proves to be a haven for the reunited lovers: despite its damp, unhealthy situation (hence the ferns) in a wood, it is nestled in a valley (‘dean’) surrounded by fields open to the air.
Though real-life models for many of these buildings can reasonably be identified it seems to me significant Charlotte Brontë has chosen symbolic, almost Bunyan-like, names for them rather than something approaching the actual names of the houses. In term of the magical moves, each of the first four buildings is the location of a test Jane has to undergo, whether physical chastisement or spiritual temptation (for instance, should she become Rochester’s mistress or not).
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Finally, in this overlong essay, I want to draw attention to another aspect of the two principals’ relationship. Fairytales and other traditional narratives often included a variation of the Patient Griselda tale-type: in this the heroine is subjected to all kinds of humiliations and physical and mental abuse by a husband who wants to test her loyalty, all of which she bears without a murmur. This degrading, demeaning trope was shamefully popular in the Middle Ages but proved resilient until modern times, no doubt remaining current in some misogynistic cultures.
We see this in evidence in Jane Eyre from the start, but particularly in the central Thornfield episodes. Here, Rochester at first appears cold and distant to the young governess, but she grows to welcome any sign of intimacy from him. However, he chooses to test her patience in at least two ways. John Burrow, husband of the late Diana Wynne Jones (he himself died in 2017) is cited by Anne Wilson as seeing Rochester
as an example of the tester in stories where truth belongs to the fantasy world of myth and folktale: how could Rochester subject the woman he loved to such an ordeal as his test?
The test is this: first he appears to give all his attention to the haughty Blanche Ingram, and is slow to either confirm or deny the impression that they may soon be married. Secondly, he disguises himself as a palm-reading gypsy woman to see if he can worm out whether Jane’s quiet attraction to her ‘Master’ is dinted by his apparent indifference. As Wilson quotes Burrows,
‘Despite all Charlotte Brontë can do, the behaviour of the tester and heroine alike is implausible; and the whole episode remains in the mind as a piece of dream-work — one of the fantasies which the author spins around the person of her hero.’ — Wilson, p 193
Burrows rightly sees cracks appearing in the façade of this novel when “high romance begins to give ground before lower, more realistic forms of presentation.” That uneasy relationship between fairytale fantasy and social realism I feel gives Jane Eyre its Gothick edginess and its peculiar attractiveness: by the pretence that this is an autobiography Charlotte is able to incorporate all the fairytale tropes she chooses, the veil of religiosity and erudition that she throws over the magical narrative revealed as gossamer thin.
My review of Jane Eyre: https://wp.me/s2oNj1-eyre
Paul Thompson, The Reader’s Guide to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre http://jane-eyre.guidesite.co.uk/ Accessed 13.12.2019
Anne Wilson, The Magical Quest: The Use of Magic in Arthurian Romance. Manchester University Press 1988.
— Jane Eyre http://www.annewilson.co.uk/janeeyre.htm. Accessed 13.12.2019