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Historical research has always been an issue of trial and error. Through analyzing novels such as Jane Eyre, historicists can learn about that part of our past by looking at the prevalent themes in the novels, such as social and gender inequalities. By analyzing the historical context of Charlotte Brontï¿½’s novel, Jane Eyre, as well as the readers’ present-day biases, Jane’s story of love and personal evolution transforms into a revolutionary cry against religion, gender and social inequalities.
The time when novels are released is an extremely important piece of information that any new historicist has to look at. Jane Eyre was published in London, England in 1847. When it was published in 1847, Jane Eyre was a bestseller. Many critics believed that the novel was well written but they were curious amongst them regarding the author. The book was originally printed with Currer Bell as the editor and no other information was disclosed concerning the author. The gender of the author was debated for a while until it was released that the author was a woman. Soon, the reviews of the novel became increasingly negative because the public could not believe that a woman could have “written such a passionate novel and seemed so knowing sexually” (Brooklyn CUNY Jane Eyre). I found two reviews of Jane Eyre, one from 1847 and one from 1848.
The reviewer for the Atlas in 1847 claimed:
“This is not merely a work of great promise; it is one of absolute performance. It is one of the most powerful domestic romances which have been published for many years. It has little or nothing of the old conventional stamp upon it … but it is full of youthful vigour, of freshness and originality, of nervous diction and concentrated interest. The incidents are sometimes melo-dramatic, and, it might be added, improbable; but these incidents, though striking, are subordinate to the main purpose of the piece, which is a tale of passion, not of intensity which is most sublime. It is a book to make the pulses gallop and the heart beat, and to fill the eyes with tears.” (Brooklyn CUNY Jane Eyre)
The reviewer for the Rambler in 1848 claimed:
“Jane Eyre is, indeed, one of the coarsest books which we ever perused. It is not that the professed sentiments of the writer are absolutely wrong or forbidding, or that the odd sort of religious notions which she puts forth are much worse than is usual in popular tales. It is rather that there is a tendency to relapse into that class of ideas, expressions, and circumstances, which is most connected with the grosser and more animal portion of our nature; and that the detestable morality of the most prominent character in the story is accompanied with every sort of palliation short of unblushing justification” (Brooklyn CUNY Jane Eyre)
One can see that the views completely changed as time passed. In 1847, people gave good reviews and supported the novel because they thought it was a good novel with great themes which showed the world for what it was. But in 1848, after the public was told that the author was the female, they greatly criticized Brontï¿½ for her revolutionary thoughts. This shows us that the world was extremely prejudiced back in the mid 19th century, as the women were not treated as fairly as men.
Religion plays quite an important role for Jane as it shapes her and makes her do things that she might not like but, regardless, has to end up doing to keep her faith. Jane is first introduced to Mr. Brocklehurst’s strange view of Christianity which involves extreme sacrifice and hypocrisy. She is then exposed to Helen’s more optimistic view of Christianity in which her faith relies on God’s goodness and the power of love. When Jane is a woman, she meets St. John and sees that his faith is a mixture of Mr. Brocklehurst’s and Helen’s, as his beliefs revolve around sacrifice and dedication towards God’s will.
As stated above, Jane is shaped by religion as she is forced to leave Mr. Rochester because she knew that for her to marry him, he would have to divorce Bertha, which was against their religion in that time. She is forced to leave him for her own good because she knows that her love cannot break the bonds of religion that hold her down. By looking at the theme of religion that is prevalent in this novel, one can find out many things about that society by reading a book which was written in that time. Hence, we can understand that back then divorcing other people was a sin as it was not accepted by the church and was condemned by the greater mass of the mid to late 19th century.
Much of Jane’s childhood emphasizes her status as a member of the lower class in society. When she takes a deeper look at her relationship with Mr. Rochester, she realizes that it’s more of a server vs. master relationship. Rochester tells Jane the truth that they cannot be together but he doesn’t care and he flaunts the social norms when he states, “Come, we will sit there in peace to-night, though we should never more be destined to sit there together.” (Brontï¿½ 23). Jane retorts back, “And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you…and we stood at God’s feet, equal-as we are!” with fiery emotions that show her beliefs that ‘some beauty’ and, but mainly, ‘much wealth’ has kept them apart even though they are equals (Brontï¿½ 23).
When speaking of being bejeweled by Mr. Rochester, Jane responds, “And then you won’t know me, sir; and I shall not be your Jane Eyre any longer, but an ape in a harlequin’s jacket, a jay in borrowed plumes” (Brontï¿½ 24). Jane shows her reluctance to relinquish her identity, and settle for nothing else than Rochester’s marriage to Jane Eyre, not some ornamented prize or object. Later on, when Jane decides to marry him, she makes it very clear that she wants to marry his equal in personality not fortune. Jane reveals her true revolutionary side when she decides to only marry Mr. Rochester if he marries ‘the’ Jane Eyre that he knows rather than the Jane Eyre that he will create. Therefore, we see that Jane tries her best to show that she is equal to Rochester even though they are not, socially.
Throughout the novel, Jane has a quest to become an independent woman. In almost any relationship, she is always the one being controlled. Jane shows her thoughts on women being put down by men when she says, “Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do…It is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings… It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than costume has pronounced necessary for their sex.” (Brontï¿½, 93). Here, Jane proves that she thinks women should be equal to men because they do the same amount of work that men do and it is wrong for men to look at women in a negative way.
She proves her point at the end of the novel, when she goes back to Rochester but the roles are reversed as he is the one in need of dire help rather than vice versa. Earlier on in the novel, Jane writes “Not that I humbled myself by a slavish notion of inferiority: on the contrary, I just said – You have nothing to do with the master of Thornfield further than to receive the salary he gives you for teaching his protï¿½gï¿½e,” showing her refusal to be subjugated, after she had just noted how she missed Mr. Rochester’s presence (Brontï¿½, 317).
This, subliminally, shows that she needs Mr. Rochester in her life for her to succeed. Even though Brontï¿½ believes that she doesn’t need a man in her life to succeed, she unwillingly accepts that she does because that’s what society has told her. At the end of the novel, Jane finally allows herself to take Rochester in her arms after they are both finally free of the issues that kept them apart. She tells Rochester, “I love you better now, when I can really be useful to you, than I did in your state of proud independence, when you disdained every part but that of the giver and protector.” (Brontï¿½ 505).
Throughout Jane Eyre, Jane is introduced to many problems and this helps us learn of the problems that were prevalent at that time. Varying from gender inequalities to social and economic inequality, we learn about mid 19th century England society and the rules that they abide by. By reading almost any novel through a new historicist lens, we can learn a lot about their society.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre with Connections. Austin: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston Harcourt Brace and Company, 1991.
Melani, Lilia. “Charlotte Bronte “Jane Eyre”.” Brooklyn CUNY. 29 March 2005. Brooklyn CUNY Department of English. 8 Nov 2008 <http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/bronte.html>.