Sunday, October 19, 2014

"I scorn your idea of love": Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre

A portrait of Charlotte Brontë by George Richmond, 1850

A couple of weeks ago Filmi Girl wrote a post on the recent Bollywood release Bang Bang in which she describes Hrithik Roshan's character as "the perfect fantasy of the invulnerable hero who’s actually vulnerable, needing to be saved by the heroine." Perhaps this "perfect fantasy" also explains the timeless appeal of Edward Fairfax Rochester in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847).

Rochester is a troubled and troubling character. There's no way to talk about why without discussing key plot points, so if you are one of the few people who has never read Jane Eyre (as I was until last month), be forewarned that spoilers follow.

"Happiness is irrevocably denied me." Rochester is physically powerful and emotionally mercurial, a dangerous combination made still more so by his rejection of conventional morality. (He can get away with rejecting it, of course, because he is a wealthy lord.) Jane Eyre describes him as "severe," "moody," "sullen," "grim," "fractious," "morose," "stern," "sardonic," "gloomy," and compares him to a "wild beast." But he also behaves at times with "gentlemanlike affability" and "contentment"; after dinner, and a few glasses of wine, he can even be "genial" and "more cheering than the brightest fire."

Jane is a diminutive and introspective young woman who, at 19, is half Rochester's age. He calls her "little girl" or "Little Jane"; she calls him, only half in jest and even after they have declared their love for one another, "my master," and tells him "I like to serve you, sir, and obey you." [1] (Early in the book she calls herself "habitually obedient." [2])

After they are engaged, they partake in a strange, almost sadomasochistic ritual:
He continued to send for me punctually the moment the clock struck seven; though when I appeared before him now, he had no such honeyed terms as "love" and "darling" on his lips: the best words at my service were "provoking puppet," "malicious elf," "sprite," "changeling," &c. For caresses, too, I now got grimaces; for a pressure of the hand, a pinch on the arm; for a kiss on the cheek, a severe tweak of the ear. It was all right: at present I decidedly preferred these fierce favours to anything more tender. [3]
Charlotte Brontë drew on figures in her own life to people her fiction. The Professor (1857) and Villette (1853) transmuted her unrequited love for a married schoolmaster; Shirley (1849) featured characters so recognizable that the real-life models themselves bragged about their appearance in the book (even though the portraits were unflattering). After having read Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857), it's hard to escape the suspicion that Rochester is at least in part a combination of her stern, fierce, forbidding, emotionally volatile father Patrick, and her playful, teasing, if at times annoying, brother Branwell. Also like Branwell, Rochester drinks, at times to excess, is irreligious, and has had affairs (and perhaps an illegitimate child); also like Patrick, Rochester is fiercely jealous, loses his sight, and then has it partially restored by the treatments of "an eminent oculist." [4] It's not for nothing, I suspect, that Jane Eyre is subtitled "An Autobiography," which makes this reader feel queasy about the dynamic of dominance and submission between Rochester and Jane.

The rescue fantasy. Rochester is not only mad, bad, and dangerous to know, he needs rescuing: from a deranged wife, from his emotional and physical wounds, and from himself. Jane, of course, is all too aware of his faults, but believes that he can change:
He was proud, sardonic, harsh to inferiority of every description. In my secret soul I knew that his great kindness to me was balanced by unjust severity to many others. He was moody, too unaccountably so....But I believed that his moodiness, his harshness, and his former faults of morality (I say former, for now he seemed corrected of them) had their source in some cruel cross of fate. I believed he was naturally a man of better tendencies, higher principles, and purer tastes than such as circumstances had developed, education instilled, or destiny encouraged. I thought there were excellent materials in him; though for the present they hung together somewhat spoiled and tangled. [5]
The idea that Jane can save Rochester from himself recurs throughout the novel. The very first time Jane and Rochester meet, he is riding recklessly. He takes a bad spill, sprains his ankle, and to recapture and remount his horse must lean on Jane. Later, it is Jane who rouses a sleeping Rochester from a burning bed; still later, after he has been blinded and maimed, she becomes his "prop and guide." [6]

It is Rochester's vulnerability, as well as his strength, that appeals to Jane. And it is only when he acknowledges that vulnerability that he is finally worthy of becoming her husband. But Rochester's helplessness and dependence come to feel strangely like wish-fulfillment on Jane's part: see, reader, he does need me!

"Such a martyrdom would be monstrous": After Jane discovers the truth about Rochester's wife and flees across the storm-swept moor, she finds refuge with a clergyman, St John Rivers, and his sisters. St John (pronounced "sinjun") decides that it is his mission is to convert Hindus to Christianity, and after he has known Jane for some time he asks her to accompany him to India—as his wife.

Jane is prepared to go with him, but refuses his offer of marriage; instead, she wants them to continue to live together as sister and brother. But St John is afraid of scandal. Or so he claims; but Jane will not agree to a marriage where there is no love or attraction, at least on her side:
'It is what I want,' he said, speaking to himself; 'it is just what I want....we must be married. I repeat it: there is no other way; and undoubtedly enough of love would follow upon marriage to render the union right even in your eyes.'

'I scorn your idea of love,' I could not help saying, as I rose up and stood before him, leaning my back against the rock. 'I scorn the counterfeit sentiment you offer: yes, St. John, and I scorn you when you offer it.' [7]
This scene may tie in with another incident from Charlotte's life. In July 1846 she wrote to her friend Ellen Nussey to deny a rumour that she was engaged to the Rev. Arthur Bell Nicholls, who had been her father's curate for the past year:
A cold faraway sort of civility are the only terms on which I have ever been with Mr. Nicholls.  I could by no means think of mentioning such a rumour to him even as a joke. It would make me the laughing-stock of himself and his fellow curates for half a year to come.  They regard me as an old maid, and I regard them, one and all, as highly uninteresting, narrow, and unattractive specimens of the coarser sex. [8]
Jane describes St John as both "cold" and "scrupulously polite." Could St John, often thought to have been based on the missionary Henry Martyn and on Ellen's brother Henry Nussey (who proposed to Charlotte in 1839), have also been modelled in part on Nicholls? And if so, could Nicholls have made an overture to Charlotte in 1846 that she rebuffed, and concealed from her family and acquaintances?

St John is relentless in his pursuit of marriage to Jane, and she almost yields to him. Nicholls, too, was evidently not a man easily discouraged. Whether or not he had developed a romantic interest in Charlotte as early as 1846, it seems that she never treated him with any partiality. Nonetheless, in December 1852 he formally proposed:
He stopped in the passage: he tapped: like lightning it flashed on me what was coming. He entered—he stood before me. What his words were—you can guess; his manner—you can hardly realize—nor can I forget it—Shaking from head to foot, looking deadly pale, speaking low, vehemently yet with difficulty—he made me for the first time feel what it costs a man to declare affection where he doubts response. The spectacle of one ordinarily so statue-like—thus trembling, stirred, and overcome gave me a kind of strange shock. He spoke of sufferings he had borne for months—of sufferings he could endure no longer—and craved leave for some hope. I could only entreat him to leave me then and promise a reply on the morrow.

...When he was gone I immediately went to Papa—and told him what had taken place. Agitation and anger disproportionate to the occasion ensued—...Papa worked himself into a state not to be trifled with—the veins on his temples started up like whip-cord—and his eyes became suddenly blood-shot—I made haste to promise that Mr. Nicholls should on the morrow have a distinct refusal. [9]
Nicholls immediately resigned his curacy. Charlotte wrote to Ellen a few days later that while she was dismayed by her father's furious response and the monetary grounds for his objections to the match, that did not mean that she was looking with any more kindness on Nicholls' offer:
Mr. N. must never expect me to reciprocate the feeling he had expressed...My own objections arise from sense of incongruity and uncongeniality in feelings, tastes—principles. [10]
But something radically changed Charlotte's view of marriage to Nicholls over the next year or so. He continued to write to her, visited the neighborhood of Haworth Parsonage in January 1854, and by April he and Charlotte were engaged. Her announcement of this event to Ellen is tinged with trepidation and sadness:
...all I learnt [about Mr. Nicholls] inclined me to esteem and, if not love—at least affection—Still Papa was very—very hostile—bitterly unjust. I told Mr. Nicholls the great obstacles that lay in his way. He has persevered—The result of this his last visit is—that Papa’s consent is gained—that his respect, I believe is won—for Mr. Nicholls has in all things proved himself disinterested and forbearing. He has shewn too that while his feelings are exquisitely keen—he can freely forgive. Certainly I must respect him—nor can I withold from him more than mere cool respect. In fact, dear Ellen, I am engaged.

...What seemed at one time—impossible—is now arranged—and Papa begins really to take a pleasure in the prospect. For myself—dear Ellen—while thankful to One who seems to have guided me through much difficulty, much and deep distress and perplexity of mind—I am still very calm—very—inexpectant. What I taste of happiness is of the soberest order. I trust to love my husband—I am grateful for his tender love to me—I believe him to be an affectionate—a conscientious—a high-principled man—and if with all this, I should yield to regrets—that fine talents, congenial tastes and thoughts are not added—it seems to me I should be most presumptuous and thankless. Providence offers me this destiny. Doubtless then it is the best for me.

...Good-bye—There is a strange—half-sad feeling in making these announcements—The whole thing is something other than imagination paints it beforehand: cares—fears—come mixed inextricably with hopes. [11]
What could have caused Charlotte to accept Nicholls' offer after she had so strongly emphasized in Jane Eyre the need for husbands and wives to share a passionate attachment? The answer is contained in another letter to Ellen that Charlotte wrote shortly after her engagement:
My hope is that in the end this arrangement will turn out more truly to Papa’s advantage—than any other it was in my power to achieve. Mr. N. only in his last letter—refers touchingly to his earnest desire to prove his gratitude to Papa by offering support and consolation to his declining age. [12]
And she wrote to her publisher George Smith regarding her marriage, "thus Papa secures by the step—a devoted and reliable assistant in his old age." [13]

By this time, Charlotte's siblings were all dead, and she must have been aware of her own uncertain health (in a letter written on her honeymoon she reports that her "cough was become very bad" [14]). "This arrangement"—after their marriage, she and Nicholls would live in the Parsonage—was Charlotte's way of insuring that her father would continue to be supported and cared for by a family member, even in the event of her own death.

In Jane Eyre, Charlotte wrote bitterly of marriage without love as a "sacrifice" and "martyrdom":
Can I receive from him the bridal ring, endure all the forms of love (which I doubt not he would scrupulously observe) and know that the spirit was quite absent? Can I bear the consciousness that every endearment he bestows is a sacrifice made on principle? No: such a martyrdom would be monstrous. [15]
While in this passage Jane is referring to St John's plan to marry her without love, reverse the genders and we can see what agreeing to "endure" marriage with Nicholls must have cost Charlotte.

Encountered too late? As I read Jane Eyre, I began to wonder whether I had waited too long to read it for the first time. The opening scenes at the home of the Reeds, where the orphaned Jane is relentlessly bullied by her cousin John and treated cruelly by her aunt, are emotionally wrenching. The chapters set at Lowood School (based on Charlotte's experience at the Cowan Bridge School), where Jane and her schoolfellows are humiliated and starved, and spend their time shivering with cold and sickened by the brutal conditions, are horrifying. And Jane's flight on foot across the moors, in which she is exposed to the storms and cold and nearly dies from lack of food or shelter, is harrowing.

But the core of the novel is the relationship between Jane and Rochester, and the book ends, apparently happily, with their marriage. I found the ending to be problematic, though, and I'm not sure that the author intended it to be so. Over the course of the novel, Rochester has proven that he is domineering, violent, moody, deceptive, and selfish; he views other people as either obstacles to or instruments of his pleasure. Can his cruelty toward his first wife be rationalized so easily (and isn't her self-inflicted death just a bit too convenient)? Has he really been chastened and reformed by his brush with mortality and by Jane's love? And is the greatest fulfillment of the intelligent, capable, and deeply-feeling heroine to be Rochester's nurse for the rest of his life? Reader, "all sorts of doubts and fears are troubling my thoughts." [16]

Charlotte Brontë's greatest novel is not Jane Eyre. The novel that in my view deserves that honor will be the subject of the next post.

Next time: "Hunger, rebellion, and rage"
Last time: "I am not like you": Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë


1. Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre, Chapter 20
2. Jane Eyre, Chapter 4
3. Jane Eyre, Chapter 24
4. Jane Eyre, Chapter 38
5. Jane Eyre, Chapter 15
6. Jane Eyre, Chapter 37
7. Jane Eyre, Chapter 34
8. Margaret Smith, ed. Selected letters of Charlotte Bronte, Oxford University Press, 2007, Letter 44. To Ellen Nussey, 10 July 1846, pp. 76-77 (see
9. Selected letters of Charlotte Bronte, Letter 141. To Ellen Nussey, 15 December 1852, p. 212 (see
10. Selected letters of Charlotte Bronte, Letter 142. To Ellen Nussey, 18 December 1852, p. 213 (see
11. Selected letters of Charlotte Bronte, Letter 153. To Ellen Nussey, 11 April 1854, p. 227-228 (see
12. Selected letters of Charlotte Bronte, Letter 154. To Ellen Nussey, 15 April 1854, p. 230 (see
13. Selected letters of Charlotte Bronte, Letter 155. To George Smith, 25 April 1854, p. 231 (see
14. Selected letters of Charlotte Bronte, Letter 158. To Margaret Wooler, 10 July 1854, p. 234 (see
15. Jane Eyre, Chapter 34
16. Jane Eyre, Chapter 11


  1. "Can his cruelty toward his first wife be rationalized so easily (and isn't her self-inflicted death just a bit too convenient)? "

    I think his cruelty stems from his desperation. He is not a villain. Just a faulty person who had no idea how to deal with an insane wife (to whom he married without prior knowledge of her mental problems). A wife who is not only insane but violent. Considering the conditions of that era, he didn't really have much choice. He is just not as smart and resourceful as Jane. And he certainly is not as strong. The man just didn't know how to deal. I think his in laws were the cruel ones. And as a reader I think the only logical solution for Rochester to be single and available was his wife dying without it being his fault. I find those scenes very dramatic and in sync with rest of the tone of the novel (the boarding school, the moors etc.)

    "Has he really been chastened and reformed by his brush with mortality and by Jane's love? "
    Yes of course. He found his true self. Remember he was not like that when he first got married in Jamaica?

    "And is the greatest fulfillment of the intelligent, capable, and deeply-feeling heroine to be Rochester's nurse for the rest of his life? Reader, "all sorts of doubts and fears are troubling my thoughts." "
    She loves her and doesn't see looking after a man who she wants to spend rest of her life with as a chore. She is happy to be with him. I wouldn't know whether it is the "greatest fulfillment" since there are other factors in Jane's life that contributed to her happiness (such as her finding a family, sisters she liked)

    And please excuse my question, but are you a man? Long time reader and I have neve wondered before but your points of view regarding Jane Eyre made me think that you are.

    1. Eliza, I take it as a compliment that you were uncertain of my gender, but I've never made a secret of it: see my second post ever, "Why I Love Bollywood," if you're in any doubt. And I admit that sometimes my gender lets me down. (I can hear my partner in the background saying, "Sometimes?")

      My reading of Jane Eyre may be one of those times. But I'm not the only one who has been tempted to read this novel against the grain, and with greater sympathy for the imprisoned "madwoman" than for her jailor. Jean Rhys wrote Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), a novel written from the point of view of Rochester's first wife. And feminist literary critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar wrote Madwoman in the Attic (1979), which among other things critically examines the category of the "madwoman" in Victorian literature. There are quite a lot of them, including Laura Fairlie in Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White (1859), who is committed to an asylum by a domineering husband who finds her sanity an inconvenient barrier to his plans. Once branded as "mad," of course, Laura can never convince anyone that she is in full possession of her senses.

      As I try to show in my posts on Jane Eyre, Villette and Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Bronte, Rochester's character includes elements taken from men in Charlotte's life: her brother, her father, and Constantin Heger, the married schoolteacher she fell in love with in Brussels. The behavior of all of these men caused Charlotte a great deal of unhappiness and pain. That Rochester, so much like these men, is transformed into gentleness and dependence in the final chapters of the book seems to me too much like wish-fulfillment on Jane's—and Charlotte's—part.

      I wrote in the post that "As I read Jane Eyre, I began to wonder whether I had waited too long to read it for the first time." Perhaps I should add that I'm beginning to wonder whether I'm the wrong gender to fully appreciate it. But even if you disagree with my misgivings about the Jane-Rochester relationship, I tried to show in the post that those misgivings are grounded in my reading of the novel, Charlotte's biography, and her letters, and not just a knee-jerk (or gender-determined) reaction.

      So I hope that you will continue to read E & I, not because we'll always agree, but because I started this blog to try to think out loud about my responses and the reasons for them. And I would hate to lose a reader who is so passionate and articulate about her own responses, even if she's convinced that sometimes I'm completely wrong.



  2. Oh no! I'm sorry that I'm not as articulate and as good to convey my thoughts. I love your site and find many new subjects of interest. And I would never think of stop reading just because I don't agree with some of your thoughts.

    Well the thing is Jane Eyre is one of my all time favorite novels and seemed a subject safe enough -for me- to discuss with someone who is obviously more informed and intelligent than I'm. The thing that I like most about the novel is that Jane is a strong women who does not conform. Rochester is not the ideal partner for a woman as far as I'm concerned (as you may have guessed it is of course Mr.Darcy :) ) but if Jane likes him and is happy with him, I never felt the need to question her choice since to me it was well explained and reasoned in the novel. That's why I thought you were a man - and I didn't mean it that your thoughts were offending, just that they are different. I just don't understand why Jane should not be happy with him, looking after and taking care of him. At the end of the novel she is financially independent and has company she likes. She doesn't need Rochester, she loves him. Why should that be questioned? Fiction is a place where the writer and the reader can arrange things that may not be to their liking in real life, so Brönte's real life may not necessarily hinder her fantasies. Sorry I'm not very good at explaining my thoughts.

    As for the mad woman, I have not read Jean Rhys but it is perfectly alright to write something that appealed to her in Jane Eyre and would want to tell a different story of a character she thought may have more to say. And I'm aware that even until 1930s (not very good with dates) men had the right to put women dependent on them (mothers, sisters, wifes) to asylums claiming that they are not mentally healthy. I believe many of these women were victims. However, in Jane Eyre Mrs.Rochester is not such one. First off she has a genuine illlness that makes her violent and dangerous to the people around her. We are told again and again that she is really mad and this is not one of those situations so I decided to take it as is.

    I want to read Woman in White (it has been coming at me from so many quarters).

    Thank you for replying and of course I'll keep on reading your site sorry if I sounded as if I won't.

    1. Eliza, you are absolutely right to remind me of two things: first, Jane Eyre is fiction. Whatever autobiographical elements it includes have been imaginatively transformed. So I shouldn't view the Jane-Rochester relationship primarily through the lens of Charlotte's biography; characters in fiction have their own autonomy. That Jane and Rochester are both described so vividly that they seem real is a testament to Charlotte's expressive gifts as a novelist.

      The second thing you're absolutely right about is that the novel is entitled Jane Eyre, not Rochester. It's about her development, her desires, and her choices. As you write, "Jane is a strong women who does not conform," and this is true of her throughout the novel. Her brutal and humiliating experiences at the Reed's and at Lowood might have broken her spirit; her flight across the moor might have been fatal; and her browbeating by St John Rivers could have forced her into a decision contrary to her most profound convictions and feelings. Through it all, and at great cost, she remains true to herself.

      This is what you and many other readers of Jane Eyre appreciate, and what my focus on Rochester may have obscured. In the end, whether I think Jane's choice of Rochester is wise or not, it is the fulfillment of her deepest desires. As she writes in the final chapter of the book, "I know what it is to live entirely for and with what I love best on earth. I hold myself supremely blest—blest beyond what language can express; because I am my husband's life as fully is he is mine. No woman was ever nearer to her mate than I am: ever more absolutely bone of his bone, and flesh of his flesh….To be together is for us to be at once as free as in solitude, as gay as in company. We talk, I believe, all day long: to talk to each other is but a more animated and an audible thinking. All my confidence is bestowed on him, all his confidence is devoted to me; we are precisely suited in character—perfect concord is the result." If this is Charlotte's re-imagining of her own romantic unhappiness, who wouldn't wish this for Jane, for Charlotte, or for themselves?

      There is one thing that you're wrong about, though: that you're not good at conveying your thoughts. You've shown me that I need to reconsider my reading of the novel, and reminded me that no reading can ever be final. So if I think I may have waited too long to read (or may be the wrong gender to fully appreciate) Jane Eyre, perhaps I should test those ideas by revisiting the book in a few years' time.

      Thanks again for your thought-provoking comments, and for reading E & I.



  3. Charlotte's statements to Ellen about marrying Mr. Nicholls and marriage in general ,cannot be taken at face value imo. Their life long friendship was broken off for 6 months in June of 1853 when Ellen realized Mr. Nicholls was still in the picture, even though he had left Haworth. Ellen's reaction at that time was much like Mr. Bronte's , a type of cold fury. She wrote letters complaining about CB to Mary Taylor and other's during that time.

    When Miss Wooler helped to patch the friendship up later, CB would tread very carefully on the topic,and downplay its importance least Ellen's jealously would over boil again. CB didn't even mention Mr. N again to Ellen until she was engaged. It would be characteristic of Charlotte to down play her happiness rather than boast about it hurtfully to Ellen. To see CBN's feelings more clearly, one has to read her letters to Miss Wooler...who was happy in her single state and there for happy for Charlotte