Love and Equality in Victorian England

I finished re-reading Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” today as part of my Classic Club November Victorian Literature event. I think besides Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, there is no other book in English literature that is so famous or the by-word of must read lists and whose plot has been copied innumerable times for prequels, sequels, pre-prequels and it central story line used for films, stage and even modernized versions of the original book. Therefore since novel is so well steeped in the public memory, it makes little sense to summarize its story or review the book considering practically almost all of us have done that at least once middle-school upwards. Thus I adopt the same means as I when I wanted to discuss Rebecca and Sign of Four and share with you some observations and thoughts –

I have always had mixed feelings about “Jane Eyre” – as a young girl in her pre- teens, I could not warm up to Jane Eyre, with her controlled behavior and her at times cold approach. I liked my leading ladies to have all the fire in the world and I could not suppose why Jane was always striving to be so what I considered uptight in her actions. This came from the heart that worshipped Elizabeth Bennet and was fundamentally a Marianne Dashwood. However re-reading the book, several times since then, I did realize that allowances had to be made for the age – woman had limited means and character once lost would irrevocably lead to ruin. I did understand that one had to only act correct but also seem correct and one’s passion must be regulated by one’s intellect for the long-term well-being of all concerned. Jane Eyre therefore had long seized to be a cold insipid creature, but rather a courageous and strong woman who did what was right, no matter what the sacrifice and no matter how painful. The idea of what is right versus what makes me happy, is refreshing especially in the modern world of “absolute individualism” and “doing what makes me happy as long as no one is hurt” – perhaps by becoming Mr. Rochester’s mistress, no one would be hurt, after all the wife is mad!! Besides what is right for me may not be right for you and would the modern re-telling of Jane Eyre, actually hold up the value of not living in while the spouse, albeit mad lives? Would the modern readers judge such an action – such “living in the moment” more logical and plausible than the original Victorian moral guide of what is now considered as “prude”. I am very curious, what would be the turning point of should Charlotte Bronte write Jane Eyre in 21st century or is such a story longer possible, since the very socio-political background has changed?

Moving on to Mr. Edward Fairfax Rochester – I know why I never liked the “Jane Eyre”; it was because I NEVER liked the hero!! Not in my pre-teens and not now at the age of 32. I mean come on – I am all for anti-hero and all such, but Mr. Rochester is farce and a weakling! Never mind his redeeming stance about trying to save his mad wife from the fire or his utter complete love for Jane. He is pugnacious, cowardly and irresponsible from the word go. Oh! Yes! His father wanted him to marry a wealthy heiress but he did choose to marry Bertha Mason and there is no justification in saying he did not know her well enough when of marriage; really whose fault is that? The fact that he stayed married to her is no absolution for his original fool hardy actions. We have loads of heroes who choose to break away from parental tyranny to make a better life or seek fortunes through means wholly unconnected with matrimony. Cases to the point include Henry Tilney in “Northanger Abbey” and Captain Frederick Wentworth in “Persuasions” and many others. Then this whole business of marrying Jane when he was already married; I do not understand this kind of selfish love – the kind of love where you seek only one goal, your own goal and the justification of the means is that you love the person so completely that this was the only way out!! Had the marriage happened, Jane legally would have been no better than a mistress and he was willing to carry out this ceremony , despite knowing how much faith and belief Jane held to doing what is right and how much weight she gave to the appearance of what is expected of good conduct in the society. I do not understand this kind of selfish self-centered love, where you willingly sacrifice the very principles that are held dear by whom you proclaim you love; and I cannot understand how a sensible a heroine like Jane Eyre could go back to such a man.

The one last thing that I love about this book and I may have mentioned this in one my older blogs is that I believe that this is first book that takes a stand of feminism and equality.

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

Could there be a more revolutionary statement, especially considering the time it was written in? Here was this young orphaned girl with no money, no relations and no prospects; furthermore she is a mere governess in the house of rich and aristocratic landowner. Yet she demands to be treated as an equal because at the end of the day when all the material considerations are stripped away, we all stand as one and equal. This was a triumphant feminist war cry, that sought equality and that demanded that women no matter what their material situation is treated equal to a man. Jane Eyre the heroine knows that true love is made of respect and of being treated as equal, and this is not something that can be bought with money and in a position of a paid mistress!

9 thoughts on “Love and Equality in Victorian England

  1. Yeah! I’m glad you liked it this time. It is probably in my top 5 books of all-time.

    I agree with you about Jane; I feel that she knew that we all have a deeper aspect to us …. our soul …… and that actions and what we expose ourselves to can affect us on a more profound level than we sometimes realize. I really admired her convictions. However, I did like the character of Rochester. Well, perhaps “appreciated” is a better word. 🙂 I liked that he was so human. I mean, it’s nice to read books that have near-perfect male leads and the female gets a dreamy “happily ever after”, but Rochester was a real man with real faults. Yes, certain character traits about him bothered me, but one has to take into account his position and the society within which he lived. He makes the comment that he is used to saying do it and it is done. Much of his behaviour is simply due to his rank in society; this type of behaviour plays out in Pride and Prejudice as well. Rochester’s beginning attraction to Jane lies in the fact that she will not give into his whims. He also has had very little steadying or positive influence in his life. I think Charlotte Brontë made him a very believable, human character and that is part of what I like about him. While I do find him somewhat infantile at times, I think Jane is the perfect match for him and that, by being under her influence, good aspects of his character, that may have laid buried, will be strengthened and grow. We hope ……. 🙂

    Good grief, now I am dying to read this book again! :-Z Another book to add to the pile I’m already buried under!

  2. Heehaaaheee…sorry to pile up on the TBR pile again….I love Jane because like you said of her convictions and her understanding that we have to look beyond and deeper for our souls…I know what you mean by Mr. Rochester being a more flawed character, but my point is that his high handedness i accept…after all Pride and Prejudice is full of them…it is his end justifying his means that I have a problem with…you can be autocratic and still have honor…like Laski said “With great power comes great responsibility!” Rochester seemed kind of reckless in discharge of that responsibility….Jane gives him her heart, soul and honor and he needed to respect that honor instead of trying to be sneaky and pull of a so called marriage on the side…but I know this is debatable subject and you and I can go on and on!! 🙂

  3. Have you read Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys? Very good story about Bertha and Rochester and how she became the mad woman in the attic. I never much liked Rochester either for what he has done to Bertha and for all he does to Jane. The only reason she can go back to him in the end is because he has pretty much lost everything, including his eyesight.

    1. Hi Stefanie…Yes! I did read the Wide Sargasso Sea and I really liked it!!! One of the few prequels and that too by a different author that can be called a good book!! I know what you mean about Rochester…one legendry hero I cannot cannot like!!

  4. I have read Jane Eyre once and it is because of the group you mentioned. I took an instant wary eye to Mr.Rochester and sometimes I felt Jane was too good to be true but indeed she was real.

    1. I think Jane Eyre is another one of those strong independent and principled human being, who pays the price for being good! Stories like these convince me that we really need to think about whether we should be good or not 😉 Just Kidding. But I do find a lot to admire in Jane, especially the courage and the strength to do what is right, even at the cost of sacrificing you most dear desires! Don’t even get me started on Mr. Rochester…absolutely detest the man!

      1. Hehe@ your distaste for Mr. Rochester. I always wonder what Bronte thought of when she made Jane go back to him. Ha but he was broken down, no longer a haughty man. some much exploring to do in Jane Eyre, one can have a semester course on just that book.

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