Jane Eyre: Restricted choices for women in the 19th century

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I love reading 19th century English literature, the detailed description of the life of minor gentry, budding cities, country lanes… but I am always disturbed by the plight of women in those days, assuming fiction provides a faithful depiction of it. There were so few choices available to them. For many families, marriage is a matter of economics or political alliance. Young women with no fortune may become nuns, or governesses, or remain as a dependent of a more fortunate relative. Not to speak of orphans… of which there may have been a lot given the state of medical knowledge at the time and the prevalence of death in childbirth for women.

Jane Eyre is an orphan. Both her parents died when she was young and she was left in the care of an uncle, brother of her mother. While her family had shunned the mother for marrying a poor clergyman (too low for her in their opinion), the brother dearly loved his sister and maintained contact with her. Unfortunately, this uncle also died young and his wife resented having to bring up this orphan as one of hers. The way in which she treated Jane for the years she remained under her care could be qualified as child abuse: constant accusation of lying and misbehaving even in the absence of proof, and frequent physical punishment or confinement. At the age of ten, Jane is sent to a school for poor children and is left there even during holidays. At the age of eighteen, with some basic education, Jane seeks a position as a governess.

Once a governess, what are the options for the future? Going from family to family as children age, or maybe marrying? In Jane Eyre’s case, she and the gentleman who employs her mutually fall in love and there are no close relative to counteract their plans. Well, of course, the matter of the mad first wife does eventually come out…

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5 responses »

  1. Pingback: Jane Eyre (via rebelld) « Pilant's Business Ethics

  2. I absolutely loved Jane Eyre. It’s the only book I’ve read where the author directly addresses her reader. Jane Eyre’s character became so real to me I almost forgot that it was Charlotte Bronte.

    And then I realized that Charlotte Bronte’s life story is so similar to that of Jane’s. She was a governess herself. She wrote this book initially under the name ‘Currer Bell’ and used Jane’s character to speak to the world and give the society her opinion that women should not be compelled to that life.

    I love 19th century literature too. You would probably love Tess of the D’urbervilles

    • Hi Joanna! I have not read Tess of the D’Urbervilles yet… but I do have it on my ereader. So I will eventually get to it. I am in the middle of reading Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolfo, which was published in 1794 and comes up in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.

  3. Jane Eyre was another of the classics I actually read when I should have and of which I was very fond. Have you read Wide Sargasso Sea (Jean Rhys)? It would be an interesting accompaniment 🙂 There’s a MG book tie-in too: It all Began with Jane Eyre (Sheila Greenwald). I was going to suggest something of this sort with Austen, but the variations are endless (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, anyone?). The Brontes might be more reasonable ground to explore 🙂

    • Hi Melanie,
      Thanks for reminding me of Wide Sargasso Sea. One of my favorite book bloggers, Robert Bruce (http://101books.net/) reviewed it some time back and recommended it. The connection has slipped my mind. This is another read for the MOOC I am currently doing (The Fiction of Relationship) so the reading time will be taken up with course reading for the next little while, but I’ll try to get back to Jean Rhys sometime.

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