I saw the new Jane Eyre adaptation yesterday, and I join with the many reviewers who’ve given the film an enthusiastic thumbs up. It’s as good, I think, as my personal favorite among the earlier versions I’ve seen, the 1983 Jane Eyre starring the charismatically crazed Timothy Dalton and the quietly impressive Zelah Clarke. In particular, I found the out-of-sequence chronology of the new version quite effective, it seemed to allow the screenwriter to present the entire story in only two hours, without the viewer feeling the loss of any significant material from the book.
Anyway, as I watched Wasilowska and Fassbender (and those who said that Judi Dench upstaged them are wrong, they were all three of them great), Jane Austen was never very far from my mind. I began to revisit in my mind all the research I did 4 years ago (spurred by the invaluable assistance of a very brilliant and good Janeite/ Brontean friend) on the mysterious relationship between Jane Eyre and JA’s novels.
Then, this morning, I thoroughly enjoyed reviewing all my files on this topic, and then extending my previous understandings. I was not surprised to be reminded that in 2001, when I first considered the Austen-Eyre connection, I took a conventional view and saw Bronte as rejecting Jane Austen because Bronte was a wild romantic in contrast to JA’s controlled genteel world.
In 2011, I am a million miles away from that interpretation, in two crucial and fundamental ways:
First, it has been many years that I have seen JA as a covert radical feminist who in many ways was deeply in sync with, and even went beyond, Bronte’s radical romantic feminism; and
Second, and closely connected to the first, I have, since 2007, been utterly convinced that Bronte only _pretended_ (famously, to George Eliot’s soul-mate, Henry Lewes) not to have read any of JA’s novels before writing Jane Eyre, and also later only pretended to find Austen’s novels emotionally sterile. And so I also am convinced that Bronte wrote Jane Eyre as a veiled homage to, and enthusiastic extension of, the feminism of _all_ six Austen novels! In a variety of ways, I think that Bronte was pulling Lewes’s pompous chain, exactly the same way that Austen herself had pulled off a massive put-on of false self deprecation on the pompous James Stanier Clarke.
I’ve written a few posts over recent years in Janeites and Austen-L about the JA in Jane Eyre, but I think this is a good moment to pull things together today in light of my having crystallized my thinking about JA as a radical feminist.
As background, I first give you the following citations of three articles which have been most important in looking at Jane Eyre in an Austenian light:
Margaret Lenta, "Jane Fairfax and Jane Eyre: Educating Women" Ariel, Vol. 12, #4, Oct. 1981, ppg. 27-41. This was a pioneering essay from 30 years ago. Although Lenta does not suggest or realize that Bronte read Emma before writing Jane Eyre, she nonetheless does an excellent comparison that brings out many striking parallels between Jane Fairfax and Jane Eyre.
Kathryn Sutherland, “Jane Eyre's Literary History: The Case for Mansfield Park”, ELH, Vol. 59, No. 2 (Summer, 1992), pp. 409-440. Although Sutherland’s article is for the most part unreadable with all its dense, verbose, off-putting jargon, Sutherland does, to her great credit, take the plunge and make the following insightful claim:
“ In a series of letters written between January 1848 and April 1850, to Lewes and later to her editor and friend W. S. Williams, Bronte declared her settled antipathy to Austen. Surprisingly, she had read no Austen at all, until Lewes recommended Pride and Prejudice; and two years later she has added only Emma to the list. "I excite amazement," she informed Williams, "by replying in the negative" when asked "whether I have read" Austen. Nevertheless, _it seems clear that Jane Eyre addresses itself to the revision of Mansfield Park_…”
However, although Sutherland makes this leap to realizing Mansfield Park was a crucial allusive source for Jane Eyre, she apparently saw MP as the _only_ Austen novel read by Bronte, because Sutherland is utterly silent about the other five Austen novels.
And finally, I recommend most strongly the article I have previously written about in Janeites and Austen-L, Jocelyn Harris’s “Jane Austen, Jane Fairfax, and Jane Eyre” in the 2007 issue of Persuasions. Harris waffles on the question of whether (i) Bronte read Emma, or (ii) Bronte and Austen’s novels resemble each other because they both alluded to a common source, Wollstonecraft’s Vindication. However, Harris, who seems not to have been aware of either Lenta’s or Sutherland’s earlier articles, does bring out many important parallels between Emma and Jane Eyre, which augment those found by Lenta 26 years earlier.
While I will be expanding on this topic at length in my book, I would like to give a brief overview here of how I extend Lenta, Sutherland and Harris’s insights vis a vis Mansfield Park and Emma, respectively, all of which I find to be spot-on:
First, I see Bronte as having alluded, in Jane Eyre, in a variety of ways, to _all six_ of Austen’s novels. For example, and only as the tip of the iceberg;
It is no coincidence, as Harris points out, that both Rochester and Mrs. Fairfax share a name with Jane Fairfax; but it is also no accident that the doctor at the Lowood school who is called in to treat poor Helen Burns who is dying of typhus (strangely, the disease that almost killed Jane Austen at almost the same age as Jane Eyre’s age when sent to Lowood, and which, according to my friend Linda Walker’s recent Persuasions article, may well have flared up again and killed Jane Austen at age 41!) is named…Mr. Bates!
It is no coincidence that Jane Eyre, like Mansfield Park, is haunted by the spectre of slavery in the West Indies, and that in both novels, there are several characters who, mysteriously, have brown or olive colored skin. As good as Sutherland’s analysis is, she only goes halfway into the allusive shadows connecting Mansfield Park and Jane Eyre.
It is no coincidence that Jane Eyre, while at Whitwell with St. John and his sisters, chooses the false name “Jane Elliot” which of course is the surname of the Elliots of Kellynch Hall in Persuasion;
It is no coincidence that the impecunious heroines of S&S and Jane Eyre, respectively, for extended portions of their respective stories, are secretly in love with (i) a younger son (ii) born to wealth (iii) named “Edward” (iv) who has a second name beginning with an “F” (recall Mrs. Jennings’s guessing game in that regard, and note the very similar sound of “Ferrars” and “Fairfax”), and (v) as to whom they must suffer the torture of having to keep silent while knowing that he is likely to be marrying another woman (Lucy Steele, Blanche Ingram), and (vi) as to whom each heroine suffer a huge, but temporary shock, at a climactic moment late in each novel, when she hears news from a servant that appears to mean that the hero is not available for marriage (Elinor does not realize at first that the “Mr. Ferrars” who has just gotten married is Robert, not Edward; and Jane does not realize at first the “Mr. Rochester” who died is Rochester’s father, not Rochester himself). And there are a number of _other_ covert textual allusions to S&S in Jane Eyre which are even more remarkable and sly, which I will outline in my book. I think Bronte particularly resonated to the fearless honesty of Marianne Dashwood, and so she, along with Fanny Price and Jane Fairfax, are the primary individual allusive sources for the character of Jane Eyre.
It is no coincidence that early in Jane Eyre, we hear about Jane Eyre’s literary reading (just as we do in Chapter 1 of Northanger Abbey), and in particular we hear how Bessie, the young housemaid in the otherwise unrelentingly cruel Reed household (which Sutherland shows is so similar to the Bertram home at Mansfield Park—and I add that Bessie’s surname is “Lee”, also the surname of the governess at Mansfield Park), “fed our eager attention with passages of love and adventure from…the pages of Pamela and ‘Henry, Earl of Moreland.’ ” Although “Henry, Earl of Moreland” was indeed a popular novel written by the Irishman Henry Brooke around the time JA was born, of course Bronte chose to specifically spell out this title because the names are a veiled allusion to _Henry_ Tilney, the hero who marries Catherine _Morland_, and shows that Bronte recognized that JA had secretly alluded to that same earlier novel. Might JA have been particularly struck by Brooke’s hero Henry having been raised in infancy by a local woman the same way as all the Austen children?
And, when Jane is taken from the Reed home to the Lowood School, we read of concern expressed for Jane Eyre’s safety because she will travel fifty miles by coach without any adult escort, just as we read of Eleanor Tilney’s concerned for Catherine Morland’s safety when she travels _seventy_ miles alone from Northanger Abbey, whence (like Jane Eyre) Catherine has been banished by a cruel, domestic tyrant for a crime she did not commit.
And don’t forget that there is a character named “Northangerland” in the “Angria” tales we find in Charlotte Bronte’s juvenilia! Indeed, Northanger Abbey (which is a ruined ancient structure which, like Thornfield Hall, seems to be haunted by the ghost of a woman who turns out to be the wife of the temperamental master of the residence) is another significant allusive source for Jane Eyre!
I leave for last an allusion in Jane Eyre to Emma, which, standing alone, would seem only a coincidence, but when added to the mix of all the above collectively unmistakable allusions, becomes an interesting possibility. Read how Jane Eyre first gets the idea of applying to work as a governess:
“A kind fairy, in my absence, had surely dropped the required suggestion on my pillow; for as I lay down, it came quietly and naturally to my mind.—“Those who want situations advertise; you must advertise in the ---shire Herald’ “
Is this a tip of the hat to the following passage in Emma to the long charade in Chapter 9 of Emma (and by the way, Rochester puts on a game of charades at Thornfield Hall, and also disguises himself as a gypsy!):
“A piece of paper was found on the table this morning -- (dropt, we suppose, by a fairy) -- containing a very pretty charade, and we have just copied it in."
I hope you will agree with me now that Bronte was indeed pulling Lewes’s leg with both arms when she claimed not to have read any Jane Austen before writing Jane Eyre! Indeed, I conclude with my most ambitious claim of all, which is that the character of Jane Eyre herself is Charlotte Bronte’s imagining of her secret heroine, the benign ghost who secretly haunts Bronte’s first and most famous novel, the madwoman in the attic of Charlotte Bronte’s feverish imagination----- Jane Austen herself!
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