The Ecphorizer

Safety Net Saves Jane Eyre
Joan Tobin

Issue #63 (February 1987)

Although there are a number of female characters on hand who could do the job, Charlotte Brontë used two male characters (activated by a third male character) to head off the marriage of Jane Eyre to the already married (to a mad woman) Edward Rochester. Brontë choice is something to

...women and their sexuality had to be regulated by men...

speculate about.

The interruption of the romance comes dramatically at the moment in the marriage ceremony when the minister asks if there is [quoteright]any reason why the prospective bride and groom should not be married. A solicitor, Mr Briggs of London, speaks. Edward Fairfax Rochester already has a wife to whom he was married fifteen years earlier. Wife Bertha's brother, Richard Mason, also in the church, steps forward to verify the solicitor's charge. Richard Mason had been alerted to the impending marriage by a business associate, John Eyre, Jane's uncle.

So it's not just three random male characters we're reading about. A male representative of Jane Eyre's family, John Eyre, a male representative of Bertha Mason Rochester's family, Richard Mason, and a representative of the law, Mr Briggs, stop Rochester from taking advantage of Eyre's passionate condition and Bertha's imprisoned condition.

In Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë created an independent woman who was earning her own way in the world, a possibility which was unlikely in the early nineteenth century when "female adulthood was virtually synonymous with marriage." Jane's passion for Edward Rochester was also startling to 1847 readers who repressed women's sexuality by insisting that sexual behavior in "proper" women was impossible. With this patriarchal cultural milieu in view, I have the feeling that Charlotte Brontë was not completely ready to hand over control of their own sexuality to women. The three men who save Jane from becoming a bigamist's wife are Brontë safety net, in effect.

That Brontë used these three male characters instead of using Mrs. Fairfax, Grace Poole or Bertha Rochester — or Jane herself, or some combination of males and females — to prevent the wedding from being completed may mean that the author was, in part, afraid that women were not ready or not fit to be self-governing, that women and their sexuality had to be regulated by men and men's laws and men's arrangements amongst themselves.

The story of Jane Eyre is the romance of Rochester, a dark brooding hero whose sexual knowledgeableness is attested by the fact that he has had, in the past, some mistresses (and even keeps the daughter of an ex-mistress as his ward), and the innocent young orphaned Jane Eyre, whose life so far has led from childhood in her aunt's house to a church-run school for girls, to a governess' job at Thornfield Hall, the manor house of Rochester's family estate. There in addition to the ward, Adele, a housekeeper, Mrs Fairfax and other household help, Mr Rochester secretly keeps his wife, the insane Bertha, locked up in a third floor suite.

Mrs Rochester being hopelessly insane, Mr Rochester has decided that "unheard-of combinations of circumstances demand unheard-of rules" (ch XLV), and commences, studiedly, to romance the young innocent Jane, knocking her right off her feet as the saying goes. Not content with trying to seduce Jane, Edward proposes marriage and Jane accepts the proposal.

Jane Eyre is spunky. She is strong, independent, fair-minded and impeccably virtuous. But she makes a mistake that makes it impossible to trust her judgment. That is that the first major decision she makes after her sexual awakening is a disastrous one. Her decision to marry Rochester would have made her a bigamist's wife and when it was found out she would have been a lost soul, Rochester's mistress, neither married nor "eligible" and unemployable as a governess or teacher, the only employments available to middle-class Victorian women. This mistake of Jane's contributes support to a theory that Charlotte Brontë, while insisting on women's right to an active role in romantic involvements on one hand, was afraid on the other hand of where romantic involvements might lead if they were unsupervised by men in the family.

This quote from Death and Rebirth of the Novel by Leslie Fielder further illuminates the connection:

"...the authors and audience of popular art... operate on levels beneath the perception and control of anyone, even of the author themselves. The novel is subversive because it speaks from and for the most deeply buried, the most profoundly ambivalent levels of the psyche of the ruling class."

The ruling class in Charlotte Brontë's 19th century England times were patriarchal. In Jane Eyre, the author is ambivalent; she wants to free women's sexuality from men's supervision and she wants it to be controlled by men.

In "Family Disintegration and Creative Reintegration: The Case of Charlotte Bronte and Jane Eyre," presented at a 1975 symposium on the Victorian family, author Maurianne Adams shows that in Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë's need to reestablish the stability of her own family is discernible.

The Brontë family was wracked by tragedy. The mother died in 1821, when Charlotte was 5, and the youngest of the 6 children was 1 year old. The two oldest sisters, Maria and Elizabeth died in 1825. The only son Branwell, who was expected to do great things in London as a painter, failed miserably in the attempt. Back home at Haworth, he worked at portrait painting and then tutoring. Charlotte, who taught school, and Emily (Wuthering Heights' author) planned to open a school of their own but Branwell brought disgrace to the family by having an affair with the mother of one of his students and then by becoming a habitual drunkard.

Brontë's use of three men representing Eyre's family, Mason's family, and the law, fits into Maurianne Adams' view of Jane Eyre, too. A third service is performed by men doing the rescue of Eyre. The fantasy of men living up to the status vis-a-vis women that they presumed for themselves in 19th century England was acted out by the rescue.

Jane Eyre was begun and nearly completed while Brontë was in Manchester where she had taken her father, Patrick Brontë, for cataract operations. Both males in the family, the only family members eligible (in their culture) to earn enough money to keep the family together, were in a state of collapse.

The "patriarchal prerogatives which relegated 'all the Marys and Elizabeths' to the single category of wife" kept women incapable of providing for a family. There were no job opportunities other than governess or teacher for Jane Eyre or for Charlotte Brontë.

The frustration of being a woman in a family of men who didn't live up to their part in the sexual hierarchy that kept women dependent on men must have been hard to bear. How much more unbearable, then, when the men turned for support to the same women whose ambition and talents they had suppressed from day one.

In Charlotte Brontë's fantasy novel, Jane Eyre, men live up to their guardian billing. Rochester is blinded and maimed trying to get everyone out safely when Thornfield Hall burns. Jane's uncle, John Eyre, makes her an heiress when he leaves her a fortune in his will. Richard Mason, when he interrupts the Eyre-Rochester marriage ceremony, is taking care of the welfare of his sister who Rochester married for her own large inheritance. St John Rivers gives up a life of comfort to be a missionary and bring Christianity to the Hindus in India (presumptuous-sounding now but Englishmen were superior to everyone in the 19th century and this was an admirable thing to do then).

Ms Charlotte also knew how to deal with men who didn't shoulder their responsibilities. Would-be bigamist Rochester doesn't get back together with his beloved Jane until after tragedy has crippled him. John Reed, who squanders his inheritance, commits suicide. Mr Brocklehurst, who mismanages Lowood Institution, the orphan home of Jane's childhood (whose counterpart in Charlotte's life caused the girlhood death of her two older sisters), is exposed and demoted. We know how delinquent patriarchs would end up if Charlotte Brontë was running the world — but how women would end up is a puzzle. In a safety net? 

JOAN TOBIN, this month's resident expert on Charlotte Bronte, lives in Connecticut.

More Articles by Joan Tobin

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