Jane Eyre – A Victorian Shocker
The third story in Mr Blackwood’s Fabularium, ‘Miss Biddlecombe’s Proprieties’, describes what happens when sea bathing and a clandestine copy of Jane Eyre are introduced into a respectable young ladies’ boarding school. (You’ll have to read the story to find out what actually happens!) What is hard for us to imagine today is how shocking the Victorian reading public found Jane Eyre once its female authorship had been revealed. The strength of female emotion – not just Jane’s but Bertha’s (‘What a pigmy intellect she had, what giant propensities!’) – led to its being accused in the Quarterly Review of ‘moral Jacobinism’. Images of passion and of fire run through the novel, symbolised by the fire that burns down Thornfield Hall. On the surface Jane and Bertha might appear to be opposites, but at a deeper, emotional level Brontë hints at affinities between them.
The emotional world that Charlotte Bronte and her characters inhabit could not be more different from that in inhabited by Jane Austen and hers. Small wonder that Charlotte Bronte despised her great predecessor.” Anything like warmth or enthusiasm,” she wrote, “ anything energetic, poignant, heartfelt, is utterly out of place in commending these works: all such demonstrations the authoress would have met with a well-bred sneer, would have calmly scorned as outré or extravagant. She does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well … But she no more, with her mind’s eye, beholds the heart of her race than each man, with bodily vision, sees the heart in his heaving breast. Jane Austen was a complete and most sensible lady, but a very incomplete and rather insensible (not senseless) woman.”