Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters and that lady with literary blood in her veins, Virginia Woolf, are the women writers that we have heard about during our early college days, albeit frugally.
Amongst the three, it is of course, Bronte sisters who have often been talked about, perhaps more out of their eccentricities and temperament that is quite unusual of women—particularly women of Victorian era—to display. Over it, their literary output which is of piercing originality, made them stand out distinctly from the rest.
Of the Bronte sisters, readers often tend to place Emily Bronte—perhaps because of her much popular novel, Wuthering Heights—at the top, Charlotte in the middle followed by Anne at the last. But with her debut novel, Jane Eyre: An Autobiography, which according to Queen Victoria was an “intensely interesting novel” that traces the depths of the mind of a woman and its emotions while narrating the journey of a thinking and feeling woman’s struggle to uphold her passionate and honest nature within the confinements of her womanly destiny, Charlotte had become the most popular writer of her time.
Unlike her illustrious predecessor, Jane Austen, who focused more on social criticism, Charlotte Bronte focusing on delineating the passions of the women’s heart—that could, of course, be at odds with the social norms of the day because of which women are often found suppressing them within—for the first time presented the soundings of ‘female heart and mind’ to the readers with a fiery conviction and poetic intensity.
This independent streak of her mind is visible all through her novel. For instance, in the very preface to the 2nd edition of Jane Eyre, reacting to the “carping few who doubt the tendency of such books as Jane Eyre in whose eyes whatever is unusual is wrong; ...” she reminds them of certain simple truths: “Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last.” In the same vein, reacting to a reviewer who commented that if Currer Bell was a woman, “she must be a woman pretty nearly unsexed”, Charlotte replied: “to such critics I would say—‘to you I am neither Man nor Woman—I come before you as an Author only—it is the sole standard by which you have a right to judge me—the sole ground on which I accept your judgment.’”
Intriguingly, Bronte, who, with a searing eye portrayed the emotional realism associated with women and their moral searching in her novel, Jane Eyre, had published it in 1847 under an adopted male name, Currer Bell. It is perhaps this fact of concealing her authorship from even her family and close friends and the subtitle, ‘An Autobiography’ that she added, which had prompted quite a few like Elizabeth Gaskell, Winifred Gerin, Lyndall Gordon, Juliet Barker, Claire Harman, etc. to carry out behind-the-scenes investigation into her much acclaimed novel which, musing on the female heart, challenged 19th century conceptions of appropriate female behaviour. One such latest attempt is: The Secret History of Jane Eyre: How Charlotte Bronte Wrote Her Masterpiece by John Pfordresher.
Like many of the readers of the past who wondered at the ability of a shy curator’s daughter, that too, a single woman writing about a passionate relationship—a fine blend of passion and darkness—Prof Pfordresher, perhaps marvelling at her craft and taking the fact of her writing it under an adopted name at its face value, like a detective, tracing the people Bronte know and the events from her life, and connecting them with the characters and narration of the novel, argues how she used her own deeply repressed emotions—emotions that are according to Mathew Arnold, are “nothing but hunger, rebellion and rage”—to come up with Jane Eyre. In the course of his exploration, he, arguing that she had good reason to be hungry, rebellious and overflowing with rage, avers: “While she insisted that her invented protagonist had little relationship to her own life, in fact, just about everything that the novel reveals about Jane comes from Charlotte’s experience.” Although Prof Pfordresher’s imagination and his drawing parallels between the characters and events in the life of Charlotte and the novel emphasises its autobiographical nature, it however, cannot fully satisfy the reader’s enigma about the “perfectly fresh and life-like” novel.
Let us now take a peek at the novel to appreciate its very heart of darkness that the “frail little creature” had painted to ultimately prove that how a strong woman with moral courage could illuminate it. For, I believe, it is the only way to pay our tribute to the novel and its creator on its 170th anniversary of publication …..
Choosing to narrate the story from the perspective of a child—for the first time, perhaps—that too, in first person, Charlotte presents her female protagonist, Jane Eyre as an orphaned ten-year-old child living with her unloving and indeed bullying aunt and her children. Much against the argument of her sisters that readers would not accept an unattractive heroine, she portrays her Jane as an ordinary looking girl but endowed with unusual courage and intelligence that makes her stand up against the antipathy of John, son of her aunt and cry like a rebel slave: “Unjust! Unjust!” Resolving, “Speak I must” Jane had the courage to say on the face of her aunt, the only support she had in this world thus: “I am not deceitful: If I were, I should say I loved you; but I declare I do not love you…I will never call you aunt again as long as I live. …if anyone asks me …how you treated me I will say the very thought of you makes me sick, and that you treated me with miserable cruelty.” As her aunt wonders, “How dare you affirm that, Jane?” she asserts: “How dare I, Mrs Reed? …Because it is the truth?” It is by ascribing such traits as zeal for moral righteousness, intense desire to speak her mind, stand by truth with a rebellious spirit that Charlotte could make her novel relevant even to present day readers.
Later joining Lowood School, she, fired by “a desire to excel in all”, standing up to the odds and manoeuvring through humiliations under the tutelage of her friend Helen, who proclaims, “Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity or registering wrongs”, and, of course, duly aided by hard work and intellectual abilities, distinguishes herself by rising to be the first girl of the first class and finally becoming a teacher in the same school. But with the going away of Ms Temple, to the instruction of whom she owed all that she had accomplished at the school, she seeking a change, making a humbler supplication: “grant me at least a new servitude”, arrives at Thornfield as an 18-year-old governess.
Thus, begins a new chapter in her life and it is at Thornfield that Jane learning about the pleasure and pains of love from her rich, all-powerful and surly master, indeed a Byronic hero, Rochester, with whom she falls in love. One splendid midsummer night as Rochester, revealing his plans to marry Ms. Ingram, insists Jane to stay back in Thornfield, Jane, rejecting his offer, asserts thus: “Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you? Do you think I am an automaton?—a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!—I have as much soul as you,—and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh;—it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal,—as we are!”
In response to her assertion, Rochester, gathering her to his breast, says, “so Jane!” and she, responding in the same vein, “Yes, so, sir” struggles to get out of his arms. But Rochester, holding her intact, entreats her: “Jane, be still, don’t struggle so, like a wild frantic bird that is rendering its own plumage in its desperation”. It is here that the real strength of her character radiates as she declares: “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will, which I now exert to leave you.” Following a lengthy pleading by Rochester, she, of course, finally gives consent to his proposal, which merits to be noticed by even today’s readers, thus: “Then, Sir, I will marry you.” Before the marriage, once Rochester takes Jane on a shopping trip. The whole expedition at Silk and Jewellery shops become a kind of harassment for Jane, the bride-to-be, as she felt “the more he bought me, the more my cheek burned with a sense of annoyance and degradation.” And, mark, what a word Bronte used: “degradation!” That is Charlotte’s Jane!
Subsequently, as she learns that Rochester is a married man who keeps his insane wife locked up in the attic, Jane—an expectant bride suddenly turning solitary girl again—wondering, “to rise I had no will, to flee I had no strength, … longing to be dead”, and with a prayer on lips, “Be not far from me, for trouble is near: there is none to help”, mustering her moral courage, decides to leave him and his Thornfield, for marrying an already married man is wrong, no matter how much she loves him. Here again, before leaving, she leaves a sane advice to Rochester: “Do as I do: trust in God and yourself… I advise you to live sinless, and I wish you to die in tranquil …we were born to strive and endure—you as well as I: do so...God bless you, my dear master! …God …direct you, solace you…” Thus, she not only upholds her self-respect but also her moral rectitude.
Finally leaving Thornfield, as she heads towards Marsh End, a naggy inner voice confronts her with a question: “Who will care for her now?” But immediately her conscience responds thus: “I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more un-sustained I am, the more I will respect myself.” And thus she faces the ordeal of staying alive for three days in snow with no food till St John and his sisters gave hospitality. Here, when St John Rivers proposes to marry her, she, an 18-year-old girl, fearing that she may not be able to “endure all the forms of love (which …he would scrupulously observe) and know that the spirit was quite absent… No: such a martyrdom would be monstrous”, turns it down.
As the novel nears the end, Jane, sensing that a human voice—voice of Rochester—calling, “Jane! Jane! Jane!” heads to Thornfield, and there coming to know of the fire accident at Thornfield, in it the death of Rochester’s insane wife and his losing his hand and sight while attempting to save his wife, Jane, perhaps not to give the go-by to her individuality, blissfully announces: “Reader, I married him” [Rochester].
That is Jane, the heroine of Charlotte Bronte’s innovative and enduring romantic novel, with her narrative voice expressing so openly her desire for identity, definition, meaning and agency continues to engage and provoke even modern day readers. Bronte’s Jane is the epitome of a strong woman, who believed “that the real world was wide, and that a varied field of hopes and fears, of sensations and excitements, awaited those who had the courage to go forth into its expanse, to seek real knowledge of life amidst its perils.” She, supporting herself at a time when it was extremely difficult for a woman to do such things on her own, teaches the importance of self-reliance. Yet, one cannot but wonder how such a strong-willed lady continued to call her love interest ‘master’—it sounds pretty bizarre, for it exhibits her as a semi-subservient to him.
Bronte, true to what she stated in one of her letters to her friend: “Unless I have the courage to use the language of Truth in preference to the jargon of Conventionality, I ought to be silent ...”, makes Jane air a passionate plea on behalf of womankind: “Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.”
It is this style of her forthright writing that earned her recognition as: “the first historian of the private consciousness”, besides securing her fame as a literary genius for ages to come.
Image source: Internet