this might need a wee bit of editing, but here is the main for the moment.
A Historical Reading of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre
Charlotte Bronte’s crisp and hauntingly heartful Jane Eyre, when read with an eye towards its historical perspective, is remarkably informative of the age in which its heroine lived. Jane is admittedly in a unique and, presumably, extremely uncommon situation in the novel. However it is very likely that the world she lives in, takes joy in, observes with such an animated mind, such sound judgement and such a keen eye, is a relatively accurate portrayal of English society in the early nineteeth century. One of the things that stands out the most historically to the eye of this student situated in London is simply the detailed surroundings of the story. Like watercolors painted with a dreamy, deep vision, they tug at the heart while at the same time remaining utterly true to the English landscape. Another notable feature of the book, following on this, is how clearly Gothic and Romantic notions are brought out in it as a whole. It is quite often that one finds oneself in the midst of a scene in which the influence and symbolism of nature dwarfs materialistic reality. This is the mechanism Bronte uses in order to make her point that equality is an inward thing, though it has outward manifestations and trappings. Thus, the third most vivid feature of the novel would be its pervasive theme of station, class, gender, and age, each of which their relation to the customs, freedoms, and notions of beauty, of the age. It is in this setting that Bronte unfolds her ingeniously lovely and disarmingly simple heroine, displaying the many subtle ways in which young Jane Eyre breaks her given mold — especially centered in relating to Mr. Rochester.
Two passages stand out as beautifully faithful to the kind of greenery in the English countryside and the scattered wildlife being composed of various birds — such an integral part of their surroundings somehow. These passages as well seem to reflect Jane’s inner state of being in a mysteriously whole way, spreading her soul out upon the earth for all to see in the fruit of British soil. When she had been at Thornfield (What a name, that! Even it is revealing.) for some time and had given in to her need for a good walk one winter evening — the same evening she met Rochester for the first time on the road — she described her surroundings by saying with quiet satisfaction that
the ground was hard, the air was still, my road was lonely. . . the church bell tolled as I passed under the belfry: the charm of the hour lay in its approaching dimness, in the low-gliding and pale-beaming sun. I was a mile from Thornfield, in a lane noted for wild roses in summer, for nuts and blackberries in autumn, and even now possessing a few coral treasures in hips and haws; but whose best winter delight lay in its utter solitude and leafless repose. If a breath of air stirred, it made no sound here; for there was not an evergreen to rustle, and the stripped hawthorne and hazel bushes were as still as the white, worn stones which causewayed in the middle of the path. Far and wide, on each side, there were only fields, where no cattle now browsed; and the little brown birds which stirred occasionally in the hedge, looked like single russet leaves that had forgotten to drop (105-6).
I have seen this here — these are the plants and birds I have seen in bus rides and class trips to Oxford for example. The wildlife being so predominantly composed of various birds seems true to me, and the fields on each side, far and wide, and the lack of cattle in the winter, and the hardy plants and bits of color that make their simple presence known among the leafless skeletons of lush summer. The feel, I think, is entirely in keeping with England’s countryside — and so descriptive! Bronte’s command of language is such that it plays over one’s mind like carefully orchestrated moving water, gently brushing, pulling, pushing, sweeping with a liquidity one might almost fail to notice if one weren’t so affected by it.
At the beginning of chapter twenty-three Jane is again describing herself in a sense: glowingly contented. This is evidenced by the happy and hopeful state of her relationship with Mr. Rochester at the conclusion of the previous chapter. She begins the next by observing that
a splendid Midsummer shone over England: skies so pure, suns so radiant as were then seen in long succession, seldom favour, even singly, our wave-girt land. It was as if a band of Italian days had come from the South, like a flock of glorious passenger birds, and lighted to rest them on the cliffs of Albion. The hay was all got in; the fields round Thornfield were green and shorn; the roads white and baked; the trees were in their dark prime; hedge and wood, full-leaved and deeply tinted, contrasted well with the sunny hue of the cleared meadows between (233).
Because this outer world reflects her inner one, we see Jane’s life is ripe for something — is on the brink of something rich and fulfilling. And yet at the same time we see England again, and we know that this clear-eyed beauty of sky is not typical of the weather here, that the sunny views are unusual. This treat to Jane’s heart tells us something of Britain’s atmosphere and seasons.
One character in particular shows off the novel’s Gothic theme, and that is Thornfield’s mysterious Grace Poole and her eerie, horrible laughter. She lives alone in the highest floor of the large house, often takes her meals alone, and is the seeming perpetrator of violent acts which are hushed to secrecy. The Gothic-Romantic image is also portrayed through Jane’s watercolors. The symbolism in the midnight storm that whips up when Rochester decides to marry Jane, and in the horse-chestnut tree itself being struck by lightning, are such images as well — foreboding, charred: ignored warnings of catastrophe (240-241). Even Mr. Rochester’s reference to Jane as an elf or a sprite or some magical being sprung up out of the grass with mystical powers fits this theme well.
The idea of Jane’s internal life being reflected in her exterior life leads to an extremely Romantic world in which nature becomes a guiding force — a mirror, yes, but also a guide. She speaks of the garden outside Thornfield the night Mr. Rochester wrung out her confession of love, saying that there was
No nook in the grounds more sheltered and more Eden-like; it was full of trees, it bloomed with flowers… a winding walk, bordered with laurels and terminating in a giant horse-chestnut . . . Here one could wander unseen. While such honeydew fell, such silence reigned, such gloaming gathered, I felt as if I could haunt such shade for ever. . .”(234).
The Eden reference is phenomenally idealistic, as is the winding walk, and the honeydew and silence hold the unmistakable scent of Romantic poetry, having direct access to her inner being. Nature, as a separate entity in which Jane is cleansed and guided, is lifted up and revered in such a way that Her acts become prophetic of wholeness, vision, and wisdom. The moon is representative of this force, which puts one in mind of the Romantic poets like Wordsworth, who wrote a poem called “To the Moon; Composed by the Sea…” in which he addresses the moon thus:
WANDERER! that stoop’st so low, and com’st so near
To human life’s unsettled atmosphere; . . .
Yes, lovely Moon! if thou so mildly bright 40
Dost rouse, yet surely in thy own despite,
To fiercer mood the phrenzy-stricken brain,
Let me a compensating faith maintain;
That there’s a sensitive, a tender, part
Which thou canst touch in every human heart,
For healing and composure.–But, as least
And mightiest billows ever have confessed
Thy domination; as the whole vast Sea
Feels through her lowest depths thy sovereignty;
So shines that countenance with especial grace 50
On them who urge the keel her ‘plains’ to trace
Furrowing its way right onward. The most rude,
Cut off from home and country, may have stood–
Even till long gazing hath bedimmed his eye,
Or the mute rapture ended in a sigh–
Touched by accordance of thy placid cheer,
With some internal lights to memory dear,
Or fancies stealing forth to soothe the breast
Tired with its daily share of earth’s unrest,–
Gentle awakenings, visitations meek; 60
A kindly influence whereof few will speak,
Though it can wet with tears the hardiest cheek. (http://www.bartleby.com/145/ww864.html)
The moon is a recurring presence throughout Bronte’s novel — Jane even speaks to it! At other times she gazes at it, it seems to watch over her, she is woken by it, or she feels the loss of it keenly. She appears to follow it’s direction in her life in a unique way. This is an especially Romantic feature of the book, and thus a historical style marker revealing of society’s sensitivities and assumptions.
Station, class, gender, and age are also pervasive themes in Jane Eyre. Jane’s “Quakerish” notions of propriety, proper dress, modesty, making sure she fits her station in both appearance and action are indicative of the strict social hierarchy upon which it was rare to see an individual rise in status. Upon arrival at Thornfield as the new governess, Jane meets Mrs. Fairfax and is attended to by her so kindly and thoughtfully that she is startled, as she had assumed Mrs. Fairfax to be far above her in status. When she discovers that the woman who tended to her was not in any way above her but was rather her equal as the housekeeper, Jane is quite pleased and relieved. Jane attempts to keep her place at Thornfield for a very long long time, even after preferential treatment by Mr. Rochester and the waiving of conventional rules of conversation in order that he might enjoy some pleasure in conversing with someone who suits him in mind and spirit. They become friends and more, without mention of the change in attitude made, and Jane tries hard not to betray her feelings because of her station. The scene where she draws Miss Ingram’s face and then her own in stark contrast to one another is very revealing. Her own face is as plain and true-to-life in the mirror as she can, done in materials less attractive themselves, and Miss Ingram’s face is the picture of beauty in the day, done in the finest materials Jane can lay hands on. She tells herself severely that Miss Ingram is far more fitting for Mr. Rochester despite their lack of love because of the societal conventions and forms which make the match advantageous and because of Miss Ingram’s beauty.
Women and men are markedly different in the novel, holding different powers completely to one another. The men have a traditional place of power in that they have property and money and they travel and they woo the women and give them gifts. The women — even the non-traditional Jane cannot fully escape this — are objects of desire and possessions to be taken care of. They are powerful in the internal world and add to the men on that level, as well as showcasing his abilities by displaying themselves as his capture in an odd sort of way. The reader can observe this phenomenon play itself out over and over again in different ways at the party at Thornfield in chapters twenty-seven and twenty-eight. Jane, though recognized by Mr. Rochester initially as an equal in the internal sphere, has trouble with the outer one because both riches and age are denied her — although she really does not even wish to conform to the dictates of this outer world. She is quite content with her modest, youthful self. And she is eventually (after much trial and error) accepted by Mr. Rochester for who she is because of the way she stands true to herself in this matter.
Three things stood out to me as I read Jane Eyre with an eye out for insights into the historical details of life during these times. One was the English countryside, described in such beautiful and striking detail that it seems almost as if the sequence of words on the page create a landscape of the texture of Britain. Another was the romantic and gothic notions woven throughout the telling of the story, the symbolism inherent in an almost conscious Nature which guides the impressionable Jane down the path of her life with sure foot and tongue. And lastly, the hierarchical set up of the society of the day apparently depended much on station, class, gender, and age such that we see our Jane at a real disadvantage in all possible respects — and yet she continues to have respect for herself and to walk as straight as she can according to what her conscience tells her. Young Jane Eyre breaks the mold given her by society — most boldly in her relations with Mr. Rochester. Admittedly, she is in a unique position — probably quite an unusual one. But that her observations and surroundings are more than likely a relatively accurate portrayal of English society in the early nineteenth century. Her joys, struggles, animated mind, sound judgement, and keen soul are a wonderful portal through which to glimpse the times.
c. Mary Kathryn Gough, March 24, ’06, During a Semester in Britain