By Charlotte Brontë
Jane Eyre is a story about growing up and coming of age through adverse circumstances. I suppose my fascination with books about unwanted children is the result of being one of those incompatible children myself. At the age of ten, Jane Eyre starts out at her snobbish aunt’s mansion called Gateshead Hall, with three unruly and non-inclusive cousins. The Victorian era provided the social fodder to which I could relate in my own upbringing. How does a young girl learn about self-reliance in the face of religious hypocrisy, poverty, sexism, and corporal discipline? These are issues of which no child at any age, deserves to be subjected.
Jane’s cousins were taught that their orphaned cousin was a dependent, a beggar, lower than servants who at least earned their keep. The only reason she landed with these ill-fitted relatives was because of a promise made by her mother’s brother. At this beginning point in the book, Jane’s father, mother, and her mother’s brother (Mr. Reed) were now all dead. No matter, the vow got transferred onto the brother’s wife — Jane’s aunt, Mrs. Reed. Through the marriage, she was now obligated to take on the parental duty because of a vow uttered by her now dead husband. Apparently it was a pledge Jane’s aunt felt unable to keep. It was an overwhelming responsibility which disturbed the equilibrium of her precariously-balanced Victorian elitist constitution.
Throughout the book, we arrive at various challenges the young orphan girl faces. It wasn’t long before the aunt reached a breaking point in trying to force Jane to fit her idealistic mould. The Lowood Orphange’s owner, Mr. Brocklehurst, where her aunt sent her in short order was just as strict as Mrs. Reed had been. Those two were birds of a feather. Fortunately, the teachers there attempted to offset that painfully impoverished, inhospitable environment with compassion and empathy for their students — a saving grace.
After completing her years of school, then two more years of teaching at Lowood Hall, Miss Eyre set her heart on a governess position in a private home. After that — and a broken cherished romance — she took another leap of faith, finding herself in a series of synchronicities which led her to a new life with some joys — but some sorrows, too.
One joy included discovering lost cousins — two females and a male all within her age range. She unwittingly landed on their doorstep at Moor House an exhausted stranger in a village called Morton, where she was welcomed and immediately cared for. She was invited to live with these relatives, and was needed and appreciated not only by her family, but also in the community. Again, this is my definition of what I call grace. Upon accepting a position as teacher, she moved to a small cottage in close proximity to both the community school and church.
Miss Eyre was nicely settling into her new life when legal papers presented her with an inheritance from an uncle she never knew existed — this gift would forever change the trajectory of her life. For one, she was elevated socially — from a homeless orphan to a woman of privilege. No longer could society permit her to be a teacher, and a replacement was located. She moved back in with her cousins. Her gratitude to her newly discovered relatives resulted in her sharing the good fortune with her three cousins equally.
Her male cousin Pastor St. John E. Rivers was of unusual character. He issued a strangely “flat” response to her redecorating their home in her simple but tasteful fashion, while reintegrating all their most favorite possessions. She gained some insights about his true nature, so different from her dearly-loved female cousins. Another factor that concerned her was unearthed while working at the school. St. John came around almost daily to see how their new teaching arrangement was working out. As well, the beneficent and very pretty, rich, and refined Miss Oliver hovered around St. John like a bee to a honeysuckle. She was so obviously batting her eyes at him and otherwise flirting. And yet all the attention he received from her only made him blush and squirm with discomfort. Mystifying.
Miss Eyre was humbled upon receiving her windfall discovery of her cousins. She was overwhelmed by her generous inheritance from her uncle.
…my blood relation(s). Glorious discovery to a lonely wretch! This was wealth indeed! — wealth to the heart! — a mine of pure, genial affections. This was a blessing, bright, vivid, and exhilarating; — not like the ponderous gift of gold, rich and welcome enough in its way, but sobering from its weight. I now clapped my hands in sudden joy — my pulse bounded, my veins thrilled. “Oh, I am glad! — I am glad!” I exclaimed.
St. John revealed a peculiar way of looking at Miss Eyre’s new circumstances. Yet again, she found the pastor’s oddly critical response bewildering:
St. John smiled. “Did I not say you neglected essential points to pursue trifles?” he asked. “You were serious when I told you you had got a fortune, and now, for a matter of no moment, you are excited.”
“What can you mean? It may be of no moment to you; you have sisters, and don’t care for a cousin; but I had nobody; and now three relations, — or two, if you don’t choose to be counted, — are born into my world full grown. I say again, I am glad!”
Strange exchange indeed. Was the pastor thinking more about money than relationships? To my way of thinking, at times I’m lonely without my family. I’ve never had a lot of money and would choose family over money any day! I can be happy without a lot of money, but I cannot be happy without loved ones around me. Also, I’m aware that not everyone reasons like me.
Then there was Miss Oliver, who having frustrated herself over St. John’s unresponsive behavior to her allurements, went off dancing to the nearby town and met someone who did find her appealing in so many ways. Within a few short months they were married. St. John was an enigma to Miss Jane. She thought again of Miss Oliver’s choice of another:
“As I looked at [St. John’s] lofty forehead, still and pale as a white stone — at his fine lineaments fixed in study — I comprehended that he would hardly make a good husband: that it would be a trying thing to be his wife. I understood, as by inspiration, the nature of his love for Miss Oliver; … I comprehended how he should despise himself for the feverish influence [passion] exercised over him; how he should wish to stifle and destroy it; how he should mistrust its ever conducing permanently to his happiness, or [Miss Oliver’s]. I saw he was of the material from which nature hews her heroes — Christian and Pagan — her lawgivers, her statesmen, her conquerors: a steadfast bulwark for great interests to rest upon; but, at the fireside, too often a cold cumbrous column, gloomy and out of place. ‘This parlour is not his sphere,’ I reflected. — A merry child would have the advantage of him on this hearth. He is right to choose a missionary’s career — I see it now.” (p. 591) [bracketed texts mine]
While tutoring Pastor St. John with his foreign language studies, Miss Jane further scrutinized his character.
“I found him to be a very patient, very forbearing, and yet an exacting master: he expected me to do a great deal; and when I fulfilled his expectations, he, in his own way, fully testified his approbation. By degrees, he acquired a certain influence over me that took away my liberty of mind: his praise and notice were more restraining than his indifference. I could no longer talk or laugh freely when he was by; because a tiresomely importunate instinct reminded me that vivacity (at least in me) was distasteful to him. I was so fully aware that only serious moods and occupations were acceptable, that in his presence every effort to sustain or follow any other became vain: I fell under a freezing spell. When he said “go,” I went! “come,” I came; “do this,” I did it. But I did not love my servitude:” (p. 598-99)
As time went on, sorrows inevitably arose around religious issues due to his austere personality. When a man is preparing to propose marriage, ladies, how romantic is this presentation?
God and nature intended you for a missionary’s wife. It is not personal, but mental endowments they have given you: You are formed for labour, not for love. A missionary’s wife you must — shall be. You shall be mine. I claim you — not for my pleasure, but for my Sovereign’s service.” (p. 605)
The pastor decided arbitrarily who he’d marry and what her role would be within the marriage. As an aside, cousin-marriage was not frowned on during those centuries.
Exchanges between why she must refuse his proposal — and his insistence on her acceptance — continued for well over a chapter in the book. He would not take no for an answer. Certainly, some major changes in her would be required to suit him. He couldn’t accept her as she was!
“Think like me, Jane — trust like me.” (p.606)
Was he seeking a female version of himself? Jane attempts to reason with the man:
“But my powers — where are they for this undertaking? I do not feel them. Nothing speaks or stirs in me while you talk. I am sensible of no light kindling — no life quickening — no voice counseling or cheering. Oh, I wish I could make you see how much my mind is at this moment like a rayless dungeon, with one shrinking fear fettered in its depths — the fear of being persuaded by you to attempt what I cannot accomplish!” (p. 606)
St. John reveals he has been studying her and he has the solution:
“I have an answer for you — hear it. I have watched you ever since we first met: I have made you my study for ten months. I have proved you in that time by sundry tests: and what have I seen and elicited?” (p. 606)
He reiterates her talents, right down to her wealth, and concludes,
“I can trust you unreservedly. As a conductress of Indian schools, and a helper amongst Indian women, your assistance will be to me invaluable.”
My iron shroud contracted round me; persuasion advanced with slow sure step. Shut my eyes as I would, these last words of his succeeded in making the way, which had seemed blocked up, comparatively clear. My work, which had appeared so vague, so hopelessly diffuse, condensed itself as he proceeded, and assumed a definite form under his shaping hand. He waited for an answer. (p. 607)
Jane’s inner struggle continued, but his compelling argument helped her see a way through his challenge.
Consent, then, to his demand is possible: but for one item — one dreadful item. It is — that he asks me to be his wife, and has no more of a husband’s heart for me than that frowning giant of a rock, down which the stream is foaming in yonder gorge. He prizes me as a soldier would a good weapon; that is all. Unmarried to him, this would never grieve me; but can I let him complete his calculations — coolly put into practice his plans — go through the wedding ceremony? Can I receive from him the bridal ring, endure all the forms of love (which I doubt not he would scrupulously observe) [namely, sex???] and know the spirit was quite absent? Can I bear the consciousness that every endearment he bestows is a sacrifice made on principle? No: such a martyrdom would be monstrous. I will never undergo it. As his sister, I might accompany him — not as his wife: I will tell him so. … [Square bracketed text is mine.]
“I am ready to go to India, if I may go free.” (p. 609)
Unmarried, as a sister.
But that response wasn’t the “right” one for Pastor St. John Rivers.
We cannot — we cannot,” he answered, with short sharp determination: “it would not do. You have said you will go with me to India: remember — you have said that.”
“Well — well. To the main point — the departure with me from England, the cooperation with me in my future labours — you do not object. You have already as good as put your hand to the plough: you are too consistent to withdraw it. You have but one end to keep in view — how the work you have undertaken can best be done. Simplify your complicated interests, feelings, thoughts, wishes, aims; merge all considerations in one purpose: that of fulfilling with effect — with power — the mission of your great Master. To do so, you must have a coadjutor — not a brother; that is a loose tie; but a husband. I, too, do not want a sister; a sister might any day be taken from me. I want a wife: the sole helpmeet I can influence efficiently in life, and retain absolutely till death.”
I shuddered as he spoke. I felt his influence in my marrow — his hold on my limbs.
“Seek one elsewhere than in me, St. John: seek one fitted to you.”
“One fitted to my purpose, you mean — fitted to my vocation. Again I tell you it is not the insignificant private individual — the mere man, with the man’s selfish senses — I wish to mate: it is a missionary.”
“And I will give the missionary my energies — it is all he wants — but not myself: that would be only adding the husk and shell to the kernel. For them he has no use: I retain them.”
“You cannot — you ought not. Do you think God will be satisfied with half an oblation? Will he accept a mutilated sacrifice? It is the cause of God I advocate: it is under His standard I enlist you. I cannot accept on His behalf a divided allegiance: it must be entire.”
“Oh! I will give my heart to God,” I said. “You do not want it.” (p. 610-11)
After this conversation, living with him and his sisters was a daily torment. Every look, every sound echoed in every crisp answer he gave. Even so, in the chilled atmosphere, language lessons continued as usual.
“I fear the corrupt man within him had a pleasure — unshared by, the pure Christian; in evincing with what skill he could, while acting and speaking apparently just as usual, extract from every deed and every phrase the spirit of interest and approval which had formerly communicated a certain austere charm to his language and manner. To me, he was in reality become no longer flesh, but marble; his eye was a cold, bright blue gem; his tongue, a speaking instrument — nothing more.
All this was torture to me — refined, lingering torture. It kept up a slow fire of indignation, and a trembling trouble of grief, which harassed and crushed me altogether. I felt how — if I were his wife, this good man, pure as a deep sunless source, could soon kill me: without drawing from my veins a single drop of blood, or receiving on his own crystal conscience the faintest stain of crime. Especially I felt this, when I made any attempt to propitiate him. No ruth met my ruth. He experienced no suffering from estrangement — no yearning after reconciliation; as though, more than once, my fast falling tears blistered the page over which we both bent, they produced no more effect on him than if his heart had been really a matter of stone or metal. To his sisters, meantime, he was somewhat kinder than usual: as if afraid that mere coldness would not sufficiently convince me how completely I was banished and banned, he added the force of contrast; and this I am sure he did, not by malice, but on principle.” (p. 619-20)
The entire mortifying narrative encompassing more than an entire chapter consisted of Pastor St. John’s insistence that Miss Eyre marry him and support his missionary zeal. It continues in bursts throughout the remainder of their now distanced and strained relationship. It turned to resentment and even worse. The relationship was never about love. His heart was closed. Oh yes. He was going to India — to teach love? Or religion — stone cold religion. The Indian population needed that? Tell me why?
Why would I focus my attention on the pastor’s behavior with such fervor? Unapologetically, I don’t agree on the severe lengths some religious people will go to force their beliefs on others, to gain power or influence over another. Effectively, they overwrite another’s free will by using a “God says” action plan. By their progress of action, they literally bypass their own humanity and raise themselves into a type of “god” archetype in executing those disrespectful tactics on another. These very strategies were used on Jane Eyre by her cousin the pastor, who wanted to marry her before beginning his missionary trip to India. Jane refused, saying she didn’t love him. And neither did he love her. I appreciate how she broke down her justification as he attempted to use what I can only describe as a religious “hammer” to manipulate and force her into submission as a strategy to get his own way.
St. John perhaps unknowingly, “elevated” his human-ness into the stratosphere, claiming he was performing “God’s will”. It’s a common practice some religious people use to gain power or advantage over another. Back in the day, I tried to use that strategy on my then husband, to convert him to our family religion. I failed, thankfully. He was not swayed. He kept his free will. Good thing, because as much as his addictions didn’t bring about family happiness, neither does religion. I’m proof of that. All the praying I did never helped our family. Fortunately, religious fanaticism can only remove another’s free will if a person is vulnerable. Thank goodness the Jane Erye archetypes in our world have strong beliefs in their own self-care and self-preservation. I only wish I had read this book years ago.
This particular Jane Eyre “archetype” was grounded in reality. She knew she could never marry unless she and her lover deeply and truly loved each other — respected each other enough to trust the relationship — enough to still be separate people. Charlotte Brontë clearly knew this in the 1800s when she wrote the book. This archetypal lesson clearly demonstrates the importance of not losing one’s self in a relationship. Give and take is necessary where differences exist. So is respect for self and other. The more I move away from my past, the more I understand these imperatives.
This book is beautifully written, and it inspired me to always remember my own self-sufficiency and sovereign nature. It is our natural state, inherently. We have all the tools we require to guide us through life, namely our intuition, conscience, common sense, gut sense, and even our inner voice, synchronicities, the dreamtime, and the knowledge that we are only accountable for our own path, whether or not we have a partner along the way. There is an obvious natural law at work if we remain in our ground of being.
How Charlotte Brontë knew so intimately about religious conundrums likely was the result of having a father who was a pastor. I completely relate to the struggles of Jane Eyre. After leaving my family’s religion, and after acquiring my divorce, I dated another man for a time. His idea for me, having left my family religion, included finding another “nice Christian religion of which he approved” — to again swallow my soul.
Now, I conclude that we must always be true to our self and not allow others to sway us off-center by “god-talk” — whether well-meaning or agenda-driven. Often our religious leaders lost in their own doctrines have forgotten their humanity and craft a convincing “god narrative” that supports their own agenda. Like Jane Eyre, we can search within our selves, stand firm in our wisdom unearthed, and avoid the contrived undertakings which so very often end badly.