Becoming Jane: 175 years of Jane Eyre

How the Bronte sisters gave us alternative versions of childhood and femininity 

April 27, 2022 10:30 am | Updated 08:51 pm IST

A still from the movie Jane Eyre.

A still from the movie Jane Eyre.

It could be the opening of a chillingly realistic children’s novel. In the very first two paragraphs, the narrator announces that she hates long walks, chilly afternoons, and almost all the adults and children in her vicinity. She is dogged by a sense of physical inferiority, which adds to her mental isolation. The wild intensity of feelings, freely expressed, is typical of childhood, when emotions are still unfettered by social conventions.

But the narrator isn’t actually a child — she is an adult looking back and ventriloquising her 10-year-old self at the beginning of Jane Eyre. Charlotte Brontë, who published Jane Eyre in 1847 when she was 31, seems to have preserved her child self almost intact within her, re-entering it whenever the occasion demanded, so that she could write as a child-adult. In this she is exceptional for while all writers long for this gift, very few possess it.

Terry Eagleton says in a review essay, “There is nothing nice about the Brontës, as there is about Elizabeth Gaskell, for example. They have the voracious demand and implacable sense of entitlement of emotionally deprived children, which in some ways is what they were.” Jane is full of a murderous passion, which is at its rawest in Emily’s heroine, Wuthering Heights’ Catherine Earnshaw. Both girls scratch, thrash around and lash out. In the very first few paragraphs of Jane Eyre, Jane has thrown a book at her cousin, John Reed, for bullying her. The Brontë sisters seem to have inherited their father’s notorious temper, made worse in them by the fact that as women they could not vent it freely. They risked being labelled as mad and laughed at, or worse, if they did.

Born on April 21 in 1816, Charlotte straddled the Romantic and Victorian era, when childhood was a much-discussed topic in literature. While the Romantics idealised childhood, Victorians sentimentalised it. The Brontës did neither. Rather, they saw childhood as a state of abject powerlessness when the child is baffled by the adult world, which controls them. Charlotte knew the black, impotent rage of childhood only too well, having grown up in a motherless household ruled by her volatile father who had packed her off to a school she hated. She poured out her rage in Jane Eyre, recalling the daily humiliations of a plain little precocious girl rebuffed by adults and peers.

Angry women

The grown-up Jane is a bit more socialised, but underneath the civil exterior still seethes the angry girl, who must have her hero blinded and maimed, as an indirect comeuppance for concealing his first marriage from her, before she accepts him. The Brontës give us alternative versions of childhood and femininity that are the farthest from the sweetness and light associated with Victorian representations of both. They would probably have easily related to Freud’s revelations about the twists of the mind, had they lived that long.

It is strange that there is not much representation of female rage in literature even now. Maybe authors risk losing readers’ sympathy if they create an unwomanly female protagonist yelling in anger. The ancient Greeks knew what a dangerous form it could take — think of Medea slaughtering her children. A recent novel that hardly got the attention it deserves is Elizabeth Macneal’s The Doll Factory (2019), set in Victorian London of the 1850s and about an aspiring artist, Iris, who becomes the muse of a fictional Pre-Raphaelite painter. If the women in Pre-Raphaelite paintings are gorgeous, sullen and boring in their stillness, Iris is gorgeous, sullen and gloriously difficult in her fits of fury.

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