During the reign of Queen Victoria, a woman’s place was in the home, as domesticity and motherhood were considered by society at large to be a sufficient emotional fulfilment for females. These constructs kept women far away from the public sphere in most ways, but during the 19th century charitable missions did begin to extend the female role of service, and Victorian feminism emerged as a potent political force.
The transformation of Britain into an industrial nation had profound consequences for the ways in which women were to be idealised in Victorian times. New kinds of work and new kinds of urban living prompted a change in the ways in which appropriate male and female roles were perceived. In particular, the notion of separate spheres – woman in the private sphere of the home and hearth, man in the public sphere of business, politics and sociability – came to influence the choices and experiences of all women, at home, at work, in the streets.
As John Burgon pointed out in 1884, “Women’s strength lies in her essential weakness” (Burstyn 1980: 33), according to him, women are said to be men’s conscience and their strength is pureness in spirit. Inevitably, men’s and women’s tasks are likewise clearly distinguished. A man is expected to earn money, make it available to his wife, mother, daughters and sisters. Women’s tasks on the other hand, are overseeing the education and care of their children, shopping, organizing the household and by providing tranquility in a peaceful and comfortable home.
A woman’s work is performed inside the sheltering house: it is spiritual and educational as it consists of teaching good virtues and moral values through her tenderness – the woman is to be the “moral guardian of society” (Burstyn 1980: 99) A women in the Victorian age who does not have to work is a status symbol for husband and family. The more well-off a family and the greater its economic success are deciding factors in how much leisure a woman can afford.
Working middle-class women who had to make their own living came from socially deprived families and were treated with contempt. Excluded from the financial world, women depend completely on men. The denial of women being capable of experiencing passion and of having the natural ability to learn and to be suitable for a higher education leads to a general captivity of women, that many do not realize at all.
Grace Pool in ‘Jane Eyre’ hardly ever leaves the attic, and both Adele and Georgiana are only concerned with their beauty and luxury. Helen Burns endures constant submission and takes refuge in religion. Other women, however, revolt against this assumption – not without result. As a women longing for fulfillment, Jane Eyre finds herself in captivity, imposed upon by society. This idea is symbolised through the red-room scene. Faced with her aunt’s degradation and injustice, Jane’s situation is best portrayed in this scene.
As an unjust punishment Jane is locked up in a mysterious room and bound with a pair of female garters that symbolise her fate – one that women in Victorian England often face: ignorance, passivity, reserve, submission and stillness. Women are given no space for self opinion or free development of their own personality. “It’s only on condition of perfect submission and stillness that I shall liberate you,” Aunt Reed warns her (Bronte 2005: 16), but Jane can neither stand submission nor “endure patiently” (Bronte 2005: 67).
Jane’s strong will to fight is symbolised by the “hot fire” (Bronte 2005: 503) inside her. “Suffer and be still” (Vicinus 1972) becomes a guiding principle of feminists who revolt and bring into conscience the doctrine of their society. That Jane cannot identify herself with the traditional ideal of women proves her utterance: “Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; […] they suffer […] precisely as men would suffer” (Bronte 2005: 141).
While more and more women become conscious of their situation and slowly start to take action, other circumstances accelerate the progress towards equality of men and women in English society when the “woman question” comes up. To understand the social situation in which ‘Jane Eyre’ is set and why Jane is such an extraordinary and revolutionizing character, one needs to briefly examine how society is constructed at that time.