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November's title: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

02 November 2006

Madwoman in the attic: Alison Shell considers one of the great love stories as a Christian allegory

"CONVENTIONALITY is not morality." "Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless?" "Reader, I married him."

Jane Eyre, like Hamlet, is full of quotations — which is only one reason why encountering Charlotte Brontë’s novel for the first time can feel more like re-reading it. Few Victorian novels have retained their place in the popular consciousness so successfully, which is why one needs to think oneself away from the dramatisations, and give the novel itself another look.

To be fair to Hollywood, Jane Eyre is one of the greatest love stories of all time. By subverting the fictional ideals with which Brontë was most familiar, it has flattered the widest possible number of readers into seeing themselves as romantic leads. Famously, both Jane Eyre and Edward Fairfax Rochester are plain, and Brontë’s brilliance was to give definitive expression to the idea that intelligence and personal dynamism are more attractive than mere good looks.

Films and television serialisations have capitalised on this, though never — for this writer’s taste — thoroughly enough: in the 1944 film, Orson Welles’s unique looks were counterbalanced by the glamorous Joan Fontaine, while in the BBC adaptation of 1983, Mr Rochester was reincarnated as James Bond in the person of Timothy Dalton.

As this suggests, Mr Rochester has come to define a romantic ideal, fathering a posse of ruggedly irresistible fictional heroes. This has sometimes not worked in the book’s favour; male readers, in particular, writing him off as the product of Brontë’s sexually repressed yearnings — not a problem that Petrarch ever had with Laura.

It is a strange fate for a book that, in some ways, exhibits such an anti-romantic spirit. For a landowner to fall in love with a governess may be contra mundum, but Jane never allows her passion for Rochester to override her personal integrity and sense of religious duty. When their wedding is halted by the revelation that Rochester’s first wife Bertha is still alive, she repudiates the idea that she live as his mistress: unconventionality need not be morality either.

Escaping from this morally compromising situation, Jane ends up destitute on the doorstep of the Rivers family, who turn out to be her relations: this is the point at which the plot, everywhere sensational, risks real improbability. But is Jane "too romantically assisted in her difficulties", as one contemporary reviewer complained?

One should not underestimate the function of Providence in the book. The God of Jane Eyre is a real and immanent presence, using melodramatic events to effect personal transformation. When his marriage to Jane is first thwarted, Rochester declares: "Fate has out-manoeuvred me; or Providence has checked me, — perhaps the last." As the denouement unfolds, he realises this to be true. "I would have sullied my innocent flower. . . The Omnipotent snatched it from me. . . I began to experience remorse, repentance; the wish for reconcilement to my Maker."

Charlotte Brontë’s treatment of Bertha is surely a greater problem to this generation of readers, with its presumption that women brought up in enervating Caribbean climes are more prone than the English to mental instability and pyromania. Even more worryingly to current sensitivities, Bertha’s Creole ancestry may indicate that she is of mixed race.

Yet, some years before post-colonialism became a familiar concept, Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) sympathetically re-imagined the early life of Bertha — here called Antoinette — before she came to England, casting Rochester as the villain. Not for the first time, one writer’s perceived moral imbalance annoyed another into composing a riposte, stealing a march on academic theory in the process.

All the same, Bertha’s replacement of Jane as protagonist does take its bearings from Brontë’s original. The whole point of narrating Jane’s development from child to adult is to show how she bends her formidable intelligence towards self-discipline, while retaining the passionate consciousness of injustice that got her into trouble when younger.

Yet Jane remains temperamentally volcanic, and Bertha acts as her double because she shows what Jane might have become without the advantages of Protestantism and the English weather. The Jekyll-and-Hyde relationship of the two, politically incorrect but psychologically absorbing, is described in Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s pioneering feminist reading of 19th-century women writers, The Madwoman in the Attic (1979), a title inspired by Bertha’s fate.

Allegory has always been a good way of forcibly diverting texts towards moral improvement, and perhaps one way to solve the Bertha problem is to allegorise it. If one reads Bertha as the unsubdued human will and Jane as the embodiment of self-control, it brings out Brontë’s emphasis on Christian stoicism — more of a virtue to the Victorians than to us. But Jane Eyre ’s celebration of endurance still gives it an edge that lesser love-stories lack, heightening the romantic element, but also undercutting it.

The last paragraph, after all, wrenches the reader’s attention away from the married bliss of Jane and Rochester to St John Rivers’s joyful acceptance of a solitary death on the missionary field, echoing the penultimate verse of the New Testament: "Amen; even so come, Lord Jesus!"

Dr Alison Shell is a lecturer in the Department of English Studies at the University of Durham.

Jane Eyre: Some questions

Christianity is an underlying theme of this book. What does Jane reveal about her faith? How important is faith in the motivation of other characters, such as St John Rivers and Mr Brocklehurst? *

What in Jane’s personality makes her an attractive heroine?

What part do coincidences play in the story?

What does the book tell us about the place of women in Victorian society?

When Jane Eyre was first published, the author used a male pseudonym. Could this book have been written by a man?

What do Bertha and Jane have in common?

Jane Eyre is widely believed to be a classic of literature. What puts it in that category? Which book from recent years might one day be seen as a classic?

IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 3 December, we will print further information about our next book. This is Fighter Boys by Patrick Bishop. It is published by Perennial/HarperCollins at £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20); 0-00-653204-7.

Book notes
Fighter Boys tells the story of the Battle of Britain, as seen through the eyes of the pilots. Patrick Bishop reflects not only on the factual details of the conflict, but also goes behind the scenes to investigate the character of the squadrons that defeated the Luftwaffe against the odds. Drawing on diaries and letters from the time, as well as interviews with the survivors, he examines the new ethos formed by the fighter pilots.

Author notes
Patrick Bishop was born in Ashford, Kent, in 1952. He was educated at Wimbledon College and Corpus Christi College, Oxford, before making a career as a journalist. He has held various posts on a variety of national newspapers, including those of Diplomatic Correspondent on The Sunday Times and Foreign Editor on The Daily Telegraph. His previous books include The Irish Empire (2000) and Famous Victory: The Gulf War (1992).

Books for the next two months:

January: Companions of Christ by Margaret Silf
February: Mr Golightly’s Holiday by Salley Vickers

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