‘Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! – I have as much soul as you, – and full as much heart! 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!’ ~ Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre.
In reading Jane Eyre, perhaps more so than many other texts, it’s important to look at the life of Charlotte Brontë and weep. Or laugh, depending on how sadistic you are as a person.
Let’s forget, for a moment, that she lost her mother and two sisters before she’d turned 18. Let’s focus on why she’d probably be one of those people with a picture of her cat as a profile photo, as opposed to, say, one of her actual face.
Did you notice that throughout Jane Eyre, Jane is plain, and her love interest- the beautifully rich Rochester, is actually ugly? How often do you have to picture that? How many writers write hundreds of pages of novel, only to ask you to imagine less-than-beautiful characters throughout? Why do you think that is?
Brontë was insecure about herself- that much is evident from the works of a majority of her biographers. Now, let’s think about Victorian society- you know, that ‘awkward period’ of British history when you’d get locked up if you were a woman who showed anything more than a psychopathic lack of emotion. Now, look at this excerpt from one of Brontë’s letters to the one man she became infatuated with- her French tutor, Constantin Héger (courtesy of the British Library):
“Day and night I find neither rest nor peace — if I sleep I have tormenting dreams in which I see you always severe, always saturnine and angry with me —
Forgive me then Monsieur if I take the step of writing you again — How can I bear my life unless I make an effort to alleviate its suffering? “
Was she overly emotional? Naaaaahhhhhhh, probably not. Was she at all the normative angel of Victorian society that we like to paint her as in old images and older lit classes.
Now, let’s think for a moment about the Victorian ideals of ‘beauty’ at the time. Here’s a tiny list for the sake of saving both our time:
- Looking ‘fragile’ – the more like a plump porcalian pot, the better.
- Pale- again, like porcalain. Being pale was a sign of status- the richer you were, the less you’d have to work outside, the paler you’d be. Common romantic economics, really. Some women even painted blue lines onto their faces to make their skin appear more translucent- as if the veins were showing… Ugh.
- long curls- hopefully your porcalain doesn’t have hair, but if it does it should have curls. Women usually only cut their hair when sick, and even if they never cut it in their life they still wore wigs to add to the volume of what they already had.
Now, think about what people who knew Charlotte said about her:
- “She looked a little, old woman.” -Mary Taylor
- “She was at that times anything but pretty, even her good points were lost.” and “Charlotte’s, was in the same unbecoming tight curl and frizz, and there was the same want of complexion.”– Ellen Nussey
Not to mention what she said about herself:
“I am tolerably well convinced that I shall never marry at all.”
Gee, this lady just exudes self-esteem, doesn’t she?
But, there is an upside to all of this. Think about what Charlotte Brontë; think about what she did with her life. For the majority of her life an unmarried woman- a plain and perhaps classically unattractive one- she made a goddamn NAME for herself- sure, for a time this name was actually that of a man, before her work was found to be, in fact, the work of a her. She didn’t let the fact that perhaps every single tide was against her that could have possibly been against her weigh her down.
Unlike many female writers throughout history- Emily Dickinson, the classically prime example- she was not a recluse. In fact, she spent weeks at a time in London, socialising with even the male writers of her time. Why wasn’t she a socialite? Because she felt the desire to spend the majority of her time in Yorkshire, caring for her elderly and ailing father. She was a good person- and perhaps we can see that this matters equally in Jane Eyre, where St John desires to marry Jane not for her frankly drab looks, but for her intelligence and strength. Wishful thinking on Brontë’s part? Not so. She did not live a life without love, and in fact married within the last few years of her life, to a man below her station who had found himself utterly smitten with her.
Perhaps to some extent the life of Jane Eyre is a mirror of Brontë’s inner struggle; her beauty and her ‘beast’- if it can be called such a thing- the outer appearance of Jane contrasting her inner beauties.
So, next time you feel anything less than a strong independent Brontë, remember that what you see in the mirror isn’t necessarily your reflection at all. …It wasn’t for Brontë, was it?