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Jane Eyre (1847) – the greatest Victorian novel that Dickens didn’t write!

Jacqueline researches the literature and social history of the Victorian era with particular interest in the 1840s-50s.

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“Reader, I married him!”

Surely one of the most iconic lines in English literature!

It stands alongside Shakespeare’s “[t]o be or not to be” and Dickens’s “[i]t was the best of times, it was the worst of times” in having permeated our culture beyond the realms of its original text, and it takes us straight to the heart of this novel’s right to be called ‘the greatest Victorian novel that Dickens didn’t write’.

In her preface to the Norton Critical edition[1], Deborah Lutz writes that “the novel emerged out of the dark realms of Brontë’s psyche and has sunk deep into the roots of modern culture”[2] and she confirms that it sold well from the start and has remained popular ever since.

Yet, “Reader, I married him!” represents only the last of at least 26 occasions in this novel where Charlotte Brontë uses the technique of directly addressing her audience as ‘reader’: The first, “True, reader … I am a defective being, with many faults and few redeeming points”[3] sees Jane Eyre confronting her shortcomings and comparing them with the perfection she sees in her friend, Helen Burns.

This marks the beginning of Jane’s journey from childhood to adulthood, and from here on the reader, and the reader alone, becomes Jane’s confidante, emphasising her loneliness and isolation, and immersing the reader in the trials and tribulations she faces in her development as an individual. Confidences in, and consultations with, the reader increase in regularity as Jane passes through her teenage years, and they cease with that final acclamation of her marriage.

Jane Eyre is the first major female bildungsroman. It follows the life of its protagonist from unwanted, despised and ill-treated child, through honest, diligent school-girl and loyal friend, impoverished but hard-working and enthusiastic governess, to jilted lover, destitute vagabond, schoolmistress, heiress and wife – all in about 10 years!

For many of Brontë’s Victorian readers, that final accolade of ‘wife’ was the ultimate that society could offer, but this is no just a novel of romance; it is so much more than that. Peel apart its layers and we find a novel that Dickens himself could have been proud of.

Jane Eyre is a tale of endurance, perseverance and courage; a tale of an orphan, growing up unloved, unwanted, and unappreciated; a tale of patriarchy, oppression and passion. We first meet Jane Eyre as a child sitting – or hiding – on a window-seat behind a curtain in her aunt’s house, where her cousin John Eyre reigns supreme in the absence of his late father. Jane is contemplating Thomas Bewick’s descriptions of the Arctic, which Brontë describes as:

those forlorn regions of dreary space – that reservoir of frost and snow … [and those] death-white realms … [giving] significance to the rock standing up alone in a sea of billow and spray[4]

Here we are presented with “dreary space” into which Jane’s mind if not her body can meander; “reservoirs” of deep clear water into which it can dive and discover untold treasures; “realms” of fantasy restricted only by imagination as she herself stands as “the rock” that faces the “billow and spray” of her life.

Jane’s courage, patience and physical and mental strength are constantly and ruthlessly tested by that “billow and spray”, leading Jen Hill to conclude that, through Jane, Brontë “asserts for women those qualities developed by male Arctic explorers: courage, resolution, patience, [and] endurance.”[5] In the 1840s, at the height of Britain’s obsession with Arctic exploration, this was both topical and prescient.

Jane Eyre is a socially responsible novel with an underlying Christian ethos that undermined the established Church. It professes ideals of human compassion, humility, and kindness. It rejects falsity, immorality and duplicity, and it recognises the virtues of service, respect and justice. Yet in the first years of its publication it was condemned by the Church as heretical, sacrilegious and immoral.[6]

John Eyre, Jane’s tormentor in childhood, dies in a London opium den having caused the mother and sisters implicit in his persecution of Jane untold misery and financial embarrassment.

Rochester’s illegitimate daughter, orphaned by the death of her profligate mother in Paris, succeeds to kindness and good fortune, in stark contrast to Jane, orphaned by the death of both her lawfully-wed, upright and respectable parents yet subjected to years of abuse and misery in the name of Christian charity.

Jane Eyre is a feminist novel, although it was written before the existence of a term that Brontë would probably have despised. The novel is predicated on the assumptions that society makes about women, the expectations and restrictions is imposes on them, and the abilities of women to overcome and circumvent those assumptions, expectations and restrictions. Judged by her family and by society on the basis of her looks and not her mind, Jane is constantly reminded – and reminds herself – that she is not pretty; not beautiful; not likely to attract a man – indeed she is positively plain and unattractive, with a temper borne of frustration at the injustices heaped upon her.

“It is vain to say”, states Jane Eyre, that “human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity”, and she continues:

Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties and 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 … 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.[7]

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Obvious as this is to us, it was news to Victorian society and it caused a stir among both men and women: in 1848, its heroine was condemned as “proud … [and] ungrateful” by Miss Rigby[8], whilst in 1855, Mrs Oliphant wrote that “the most alarming revolution of modern times has followed the invasion of Jane Eyre”[9], lamenting that, prior to Brontë’s masterpiece, the heroines of novels were “humble and devoted”[10]

In the characters of Helen Burns and Bertha Mason we see reflected the extremes of Jane’s own character; the caring, calm, serene governess and the angry, destructive child within, and throughout the novel Brontë uses the opposing properties of ice and fire to portray her character and experiences: the Red Room at Gateshead Hall; the Arctic wastes of Jane’s solitary imaginings; the fires at Thornfield Hall; and the freezing temperatures that melt into a warm welcome as Jane arrives at what turns out to be her cousins’ house.

So, to conclude, Jane Eyre is a fictional biography that is acutely aware of its audience. It speaks directly to the reader, addressing thoughts, information and questions directly to that reader and engaging him or her in the development and passion of its heroine’s tale. Its impact on the world of literature was powerful and immediate, creating as it did the first fully rounded, blisteringly human, ‘warts and all’ female protagonist of the Victorian era.

So, even with only one fleeting reference to the novel’s Byronic hero, I hope I have persuaded you that Jane Eyre is without a doubt the greatest Victorian novel that Dickens didn’t write.


[1] (Brontë, 2016)

[2] (Lutz, 2016, p. vii)

[3] (Brontë, 2016, p. 73)

[4] (Brontë, 2016, p. 10)

[5] (Hill, 2008, p. 90)

[6] (Lutz, 2016)

[7] (Brontë, 2016, p. 101)

[8] Quarterly Review 84, (December 1848), pp173-174, quoted in (Gilbert & Gubar, 2016, p. 465)

[9] Blackwood’s Magazine 77, (May 1855), pp554-568, quoted in (Gilbert & Gubar, 2016, p. 465)

[10] Blackwood’s Magazine 77, (May 1855), pp554-568, quoted in (Gilbert & Gubar, 2016, p. 465)

The other contenders:

Bibliography

Brontë, C., 2016. Jane Eyre. In: D. Lutz, ed. Jane Eyre, a Norton Critical Edition, 4th edition. New York and London: W.W.Norton & Company, pp. 1-403.

Gilbert, S. & Gubar, S., 2016. From A Dialogue of Self and Soul: Plain Jane's Progress. In: D. Lutz, ed. Jane Eyre, A Norton Critical Edition, 4th edition. New York and London: W.W.Norton & Company, pp. 464-487.

Hill, J., 2008. White Horizon: The Arctic in the Nineteenth Century British Imagination. SUNY series, Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century. Series Editor: Pamela K. Gilbert ed. New York: State University of New York, Albany.

Lutz, D., 2016. Preface. In: D. Lutz, ed. Jane Eyre, a Norton Critical Edition, 4th edition. New York and London: W.W.Norton & Company, pp. vii-ix.

© 2019 Jacqueline Stamp

Comments

Shawindi Silva from Sri lanka on August 09, 2019:

Of course this is so much useful to me as I'm learning English Literature in school !

Jacqueline Stamp (author) from UK on August 09, 2019:

You’re very welcome Shawindi. I hope you found it useful.

Shawindi Silva from Sri lanka on August 09, 2019:

Thank you !!!!

Jacqueline Stamp (author) from UK on August 09, 2019:

Thank you for your feedback Ann - I'm glad you liked my piece.

I also enjoy reading works by the Brontes and Austen, and I love Victorian literature in general. However, having taken my master's in Dickens & Victorian Culture, I'm a Dickensian first and foremost.

Jacqueline

Ann Carr from SW England on August 09, 2019:

Excellent informative piece, Jacqueline.

I must confess to not being a fan of Dickens but 'Jane Eyre' is one of my favourite novels - I'd sooner read Charlotte Bronte or Jane Austen than Dickens. I studied 'Jane Eyre' for A level and thoroughly enjoyed it. It's certainly packed with observations, emotions and action!

I enjoyed reading this.

Ann

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