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!