Jane Eyre: The role of women

Professor John Bowen explores the central role of women in Jane Eyre and the unique role of the governess in 19th-century society. Filmed at the Brontë Parsonage, Haworth.

So, the question of the role of women is absolutely the centre of all of Charlotte Brontë's novels and particularly so with Jane Eyre and it's an important time in the history of English literature, because it's in the 19th century that women start to take on such a dominant role within literature, so as Emily Brontë, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot – all of them absolutely major figures in the whole history of 19th-century writing. So, Jane's a very assertive heroine in many ways – she's the person who speaks the truth against powerful figures, against her aunt, or against St. John Rivers, she's the person who speaks the truth against them and there's often these very powerful dominant male figures, against whom Jane has to find her own voice and her own identity and so it's a very important text for asserting the value, the independence and the depth of women's lives.

So, we think of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, both of them as novels really concerned with passion – sexual passion, but also passion for cruelty or anger, so violence, kind of primal passions – and what's so interesting in both of them is this very complicated relationship between expressing your desires, expressing your passions and constraining or restraining them and that often the two aren't exactly opposites. It's like they somehow incite each other – that the moments of greatest passion are moments when you're most restrained, so Jane Eyre is often trying to restrain herself, but it's exactly that moment that she's most passionately expressive.

So, before Jane Eyre, she's mainly talking to her sisters and they're developing this complicated like writing workshop together. The moment she publishes Jane Eyre, she then gets lots and lots of useful, or rather useless, advice from, particularly from men and G H Lewes, who's a very interesting figure, he himself had, was living unmarried with George Eliot, the novelist, so intelligent, intellectual man, sympathetic to great women writers and he advises her to read Jane Austen and there's a very interesting letter back from Charlotte Brontë, in which she marks the difference and it's a historical difference and it's a critical difference and it's a creative difference from Austen's fiction and this is what she says, “Why do you like Miss Austen so very much?  I'm puzzled on that point." And then she goes on to describe Pride and Prejudice as, “An accurate Daguerreotyped portrait” – so, it's like a photograph – “of a common-place face; a carefully fenced highly cultivated garden with neat borders and delicate flowers – but no glance of a bright vivid physiognomy – no open country, no fresh air – no blue hill – no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen in their elegant but confined houses." So she's marking there lots of significant differences between the kind of writing that she wants to make and the kind that Austen makes. So, she shows a difference of landscape first of all, there's no bonny beck, there's no rill, so it's a much wilder landscape she wants, but it's also she wants a different kind of house, she wants a different kind of people, she wants a wider social range than anything that Austen can give her. But also, I think, it's a difference of passion really. She wants a much less inhibited and restricted kind of relationship between the people – the people are much franker and more emotive kind of response to one another and you see that in the fiction.

So, Jane Eyre works as a governess and governesses really matter in 19th-century fiction and in 19th century society. They're one of the very few jobs that respectable middle-class women can do, but it's paid badly, they're often very badly treated – you see that in Anne Brontë's novels just how badly the children can treat the governess, just how badly the employers could, but in Jane Eyre, what you get is a figure who is socially quite marginal – the governess – it's a bit like an orphan in a way. An orphan is socially marginal, but both of those figures – the governess and the orphan, and Jane Eyre is both, manage to reveal central things about the whole way that that society works. Both in class terms and in gender terms they're somewhere oddly betwixt and between Jane – there she is in the sitting room – she's in the room, but she's not really properly of it. And Charlotte Brontë uses that as a kind of wedge or a kind of prism through which she reveals so much about the workings of 19th-century society – and, of course, it's got a happy ending. There are lots of governesses in 19th-century novels – some of them are murderers, some of them are terribly oppressed, but this is one that eventually, eventually, she fights through to a fulfilled and happy conclusion.

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