When Jane Eyre came out, it was garbed as an autobiography, “edited” by an author with a gender-neutral name. Currer Bell was not an unheard name though; he (a convenient , patriarchal assumption that the author of as brilliant a book as this must be a male), alongwith his “brothers” Ellis and Acton Bell, had published a collection of poetry a year before. Yet, it was only because of the self-conviction and believability in the first-person narration of Miss Eyre that the gender of Currer Bell began to be questioned.
The unanimously favourable critics immediately changed tack when the suspicion arose; Jane Eyre was now proclaimed to be “coarse” as it wasn’t “feminine” enough. The minute one becomes acquainted with this fact, the crucial role played by Charlotte Bronte as a woman writer in the Victorian era becomes clear.
It is no small feat to have created as resonant a voice as Jane Eyre’s while concealing her own gendered identity. Bronte’s and her sisters’ use of ostensibly masculine pen names tell us of the desperate times she was living in and her sheer creativity, if not courage, in bringing out hitherto inchoate “feminist” desires. It is for this reason that Jane Eyre has often been labelled a “proto-feminist” novel. Choosing a first-person narrative is another of her tactics to ensure an emotional proximity of the reader to a character who isn’t conforming in the (then)-conventional sense of the word.
How is Jane Eyre deviant? There has been a lot of debate on using that word for the character, and quite rightly so. She clearly doesn’t want dominance over any of the patriarchal figures in her life. In fact, she is ever-ready to supplicate herself to her employer, Mr. Rochester, and later on, St. John, and to describe herself in self-deprecating terms like “obscure” and “poor”. Her heightened consciousness of her social status and her voluntary deference to those above her in class can make her nothing but a conformist. These inferences, however, are drawn from the perspective of modern reader. To understand how the novel seemingly heralded a bout of feminism in literature, it is imperative to contextualize the text.
This is the Victorian era that we are talking about, where domesticity and submissiveness were the only desirable traits in a woman. Women were literally bred for marriage; Jane Eyre’s cousin Georgiana Reed echoes this attitude when she chooses to lead a sedentary lifestyle, much to the chagrin of her sister Eliza, hoping for her beauty (an aspect much emphasised on by the people around her) to attract a good proposal. With the society running to curtail a woman’s independence, Jane Eyre’s demand for the same after getting engaged to Mr.Rochester was almost rebellious for the Victorian readers. The wealthy Mr. Rochester is keen to tilt the power-dynamics of the relationship in the conventional, patriarchal way of his society, by showering Jane with lavish gifts and consequently making her increasingly dependent on him. Yet Jane, despite being passionately in love with him, refuses to let him dominate over her, and demands to let her remain his employee as a governess till they are married. She acts on these very sentiments when she refuses St. John’s proposal for her to be a sort of a pseudo-wife to him, “an object he can never love”. And finally, she comes back to Mr. Rochester not only when it is morally right for her to (since his wife is dead), but also establishes herself as his equal by telling him about the wealth she has inherited from her uncle.
What does it tell you about Charlotte Bronte then? It wouldn’t be entirely incorrect to assume that Jane Eyre is more of a projection of Bronte. She did not call the novel an autobiography for no reason. Everyone knows that there are autobiographical elements in the novel but that isn’t the only reason. Jane Eyre is Bronte’s attempt to create a world where her voice would be heard with a mind unclouded with gender biases and prejudices, a world where a woman would not have to adopt a male pseudonym to use her pen and a world where a Mr. Rochester could appreciate her with and for all her faults and deviancy.