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Rebelling as a female in the 18th and 19th century literature. From «Pamela» to «Jane Eyre»: a path to equality?

Par Marion Lopez-Burette : professeur en CPGE - Lycée Jean Jaurès
Publié par Clifford Armion le 23/09/2013

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This article intends to study and compare the way ((Pamela)), Richardson's early heroine of the novel genre, and Charlotte Brontë's romantic ((Jane)), rebel. What follows will underscore the path trodden by female fictional characters in terms of shaping the individual, from the Enlightenment period to the romantic era. The patterns of entrapment and self-willed seclusion the protagonists are involved in function as incentives for rebellion. The ideals they rebel for play the role of living forces in a way that is meaningful to comprehend how the essence of rebellion evolved with time. No matter how much the protagonists' respective procedure may differ, from moral conservatism to personal answering of moral questions through rites of passage, the two female heroines are equally conscious of their value as human beings. Their handling of their hardships and their allegiance to God, however, points to the qualitative and quantitative evolution of the notion of equality.
The two famous novels under consideration in this article, Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded and Jane Eyre, an Autobiography are linked by the theme of rebellion, that is to say by their heroines' strong incentive to oppose authority or domination. Not only does this theme demonstrate the importance of the novel as a vehicle for social protest, but it also underlines the fact that both Pamela and Jane are placed, at one point at least, in opposition to an established authority. This opposition that we term rebellion is to be distinguished both from mere resistance and from an act of aggression - a condition both heroines fall into when they become harmful to themselves or to their male counterparts. While rebellion posits itself as a sensible, organised, and open manoeuvre, aggression might be associated with a loss of control. The open aspect of rebellion seems particularly telling in the context of fictional writing because, as protagonists' rebellions, they are widely exposed, which does not mean that the writers were clear about the exact nature of their claims. While his contemporaries have long pondered over the real existence of Pamela, because Richardson presented himself as a mere editor, Charlotte Brontë carefully chose to specify that she only published an autobiography by some Jane Eyre, as her subtitle wanted to suggest. A closer look at the contexts of publication of both works will be fruitful to shape the nature of the rebellions at stake.

1. Ideological and narrative situations

Richardson wrote during the Enlightenment period, the European intellectual movement of the late 17th and 18th centuries that put stress on reason and individualism rather than tradition. It was years before the great historic revolutions of the western world, and before the beautiful texts on the right to be happy that they generated, but Richardson followed Locke and his firm belief in the property right as a sacred right, "including one’s property over one’s body". It is not surprising therefore that his Pamela finds the strength to rebel against her master on the ground that "every man has a property in his own person […] no body has any right to but himself" (Locke, 1690, V, 26, p.130). However, the author's own enlightened ideals, together with his democratic enthusiasm and his support for the spiritual and moral potential of the common people, are counterbalanced by his puritan prejudices. Pamela appears as a virtuous damsel playing a literary role in the genre of sentimental literature, assuming the task ascribed to her by her creator in his preface: "to cultivate the Principles of Virtue and Religion in the Minds of the YOUTH of BOTH SEXES" (Pamela, p.7). Her liberty as an individual thereby seems restricted by the literary function she has to perform. Moreover, Richardson's didactic aims make it necessary for her to insist on the truthfulness of her narrative. Still, contemporary readers did not regard Miss Andrew's fight as fully legitimate and numerous are the critics who mistrusted her and accused her of "arranging her narration in order to justify or bring about its outcome" (Flohr, 1998, p.8), denying her the status of victim and the position of reliable narrator.

The apparent openness of the philosophical context of publication is thwarted by the reception of the novel, proving that contemporary readership was not ready to recognize Pamela's claims. It is mainly Richardson's use of letter writing to delineate his story that destabilizes his heroine as a narrator. Brigitt Flohr rightly underlines the fact that "a virtuous and modest woman is simply not expected to mention [that she is virtuous]" (1998, p.4). The fact that she does, makes her less respectable because less modest. Even though Pamela rarely compliments herself on her own account, the praising remarks that are presented to the reader nonetheless transit through Pamela's pen, undermining her legitimacy as a modest young lady. Ruth Bernard Yeazell points out that her creator again compromises his heroine's credibility as a rebel when he gives a teleological subtitle to his romance, as if the rewarding wedding was the incentive for being virtuous: "Richardson’s moralizing tag did more harm to the reputation of his heroine than to help it." (1991, p.87). Interestingly, as authorial choices encourage readers to see Pamela as a manipulative young lady intending from the very beginning to marry her master, they place her in the position of the protagonist of a romance. Mr. B., above all, underlines this potential duality in her character when he writes to the young lady's father: "In short, the Girl's head's turn'd by Romances, and such idle Stuff, which she has given herself up to, ever since her kind Lady's Death." (Pamela, p.93). He also addresses Pamela directly, "There is such a pretty air of romance, as you tell your story, in your plots, and my plots that I shall be better directed how to wind up the catastrophe of the pretty novel" (Pamela, p. 268). Most of Richardson's characters reflected the century's beliefs regarding traditional gender roles and social structure. Although it does not prevent Pamela from asserting her right to be respected as an individual and as a woman, it is beyond all things as a Christian and as one of the flock that she is fully recognized. Finally, the uncertainty concerning the reasons for Pamela's marriage, together with the effort to present her as a consistent and appealing being shaped by events and not artificially constructed, precisely contribute to the ranking of the book as a modern romance.

Almost a century later, a woman, Charlotte Brontë, gave voice to Jane Eyre, whose attitude towards life and narrative challenged the norms of society. Set in the middle of the 19th century, her novel both partakes of the same tradition as Richardson's and differs from it. Lucy Hughes-Hallet rightly claims that Jane Eyre is simultaneously a "wish-fulfillment fantasy", "a romantic melodrama" and a "revolutionary text" (1991, introduction, vii). The text is romantic in the sense that it incorporates themes from romantic poetry. Jane and Rochester, that stereotypical Byronic hero, are driven by a desire to overcome their own limitations and that of society. This commitment might even result in welcoming death as a way of escape. Interestingly however, when Jane thinks about lying and letting herself die, she experiences a remembrance of God that saves her from despair. The novel thus appears as only partly and ambiguously romantic. Similarly, in terms of settings, Brontë uses Thornfield as a gothic castle, as the numerous references to Bluebeard tend to show, but the scene when Grace Poole suddenly emerges as the apparent source of the laughter is a good illustration of the Gothic realm becoming ordinary. The narrator thus feels that "any apparition less romantic or less ghostly could scarcely be conceived" (Jane Eyre, p.91). The fusing of the routine and the romantic but also of the prosaic elements in women's ordinary, dull lives and the Gothic nightmare is revealing as far as the subversive dimension of romantic novels is concerned.

The romance genre is in fact encouraging women to be dissatisfied with inequality because it serves as an inducer for greater self-knowledge. While the genre used to be considered as dangerous mainly because of the way it distorted reality, it is the presentation of events itself which is subversive in Jane Eyre. Mary Poovey insists that Jane Eyre was "deemed improper in terms of its subject matter, the language and its subversive tendency" (1988, p.147). Brontë's novel is a first-person narrative involving a narrating self (an older Jane Eyre) and a narrated self (Jane the character). The narration relies on gaps, omissions and approximations. These are sometimes due to memory deficiency, again a very romantic theme, but not only. The narrator is potentially fallible and even manipulative when she deliberately omits elements to create suspense or to give a particular image of her character. This is particularly clear at the end of the novel, which is focalized on the narrating self, where the narrator has the opportunity to correct any misunderstandings about events or characters mentioned in the novel, but does not. It thus appears that Brontë's heroine insists on defining herself by her own terms, as far as both form and content are concerned. She undeniably seeks to transcend her "frail and indomitable" (Jane Eyre, p.271) envelope of flesh to reach a greater maturity and simultaneously prescribes a subversive stance.

Being true to oneself necessarily goes on a par with knowing oneself. This quest for knowledge, and more importantly for self-knowledge, structures Jane Eyre as a Bildungsroman. The Bildungsroman is a novel of self-development, the story of a single individual's growth within the context of a defined social order. For Mikhail Bakhtin, this particular type of novel conveys “the image of man in the process of becoming" (1986, p.19). Bildung is to be understood as defined by Jeffrey L. Sammons as "the early bourgeois, humanistic concept of the shaping of the individual from its innate potentialities through acculturation and social experience to the threshold of maturity" with an insistence on "evolutionary change within the self" (1991, p.42). The genre portrays a conflict between the main character and a society whose values are gradually accepted by the protagonist. The mistakes, trials, disappointments and emotional losses that structure Jane's early life lead her to maturity; so much so that she becomes able to help Rochester better appraise his needs. The particular attention paid by Brontë to the evolution of her female character clashes with the existing laws and conventions in terms of women's independence and liberty, as Gilbert and Gubar underline. They see Jane Eyre as "a story of enclosure and escape, a distinctly female Bildungsroman in which the problems encountered by the protagonist as she struggles from the imprisonment of her childhood toward an almost unthinkable goal of mature freedom are symptomatic of difficulties Everywoman in a patriarchal society must meet and overcome: oppression (at Gateshead), starvation (at Lowood), madness (at Thornfield), and coldness (at Marsh End)" (1979, p.339).

It comes as no wonder that Elizabeth Rigby, when the novel was published, censored it in the Quarterly Review, insisting on its dangerousness and pervasive nature. It is Rochester first who is deemed too charismatic for his unorthodox behavior, attracting Rigby's political and moral indictment: "[the author commits] the highest moral offence a novel writer can commit, that of making an unworthy character interesting in the eyes of the reader" (1971, p.451). Rigby continues: "Altogether the auto-biography of Jane Eyre is pre-eminently an anti Christian composition. […] There is a proud and perpetual assertion of the rights of man […] There is that pervading tone of ungodly discontent which is at once the most prominent and the most subtle evil which the law and the pulpit, which all civilized society in fact has at the present day to contend with" (1971, p.452). Although Brontë never fully recognized the way her novel calls traditional institutions into question, the formal and dramatic elements of a social critique are manifest in Jane's rebellion.

Our intent is to show how the romantic genre and the Bildungsroman genre that framed the creation of Jane Eyre have changed the forms and methods of rebelling in literature. In her thesis Postcolonializing the Bildungsroman: A Study of the Evolution of a Genre, Ericka A. Hoagland writes: "the financial and emotional dependence of women on men chronicled in Pamela and Emma is fused in Jane Eyre in which Hoffman Baruch notes significant departures from the 'traditions' established in the earlier texts. Jane seeks 'expanded experience,' which includes a life of full activities, rather than passivity and calm" (2006, p.142). We will assess the role played by each heroine in structuring her life. More precisely, it will be crucial to wonder if the receding lines that threaten the protagonists' lives and connect fleeing with rebelling are transformed into a fully chosen path leading to harmony in each novel. In Pamela's case, a disruptive external force (Mr. B. denying moral laws) makes it necessary, in the course of the narrative, to rebel in order to re-establish order through moral changes. For Jane, on the contrary, mutiny is a matter of fact from the very beginning of the story. From being at first equated with physical violence against peers (John's bleeding nose in the opening pages) and verbal violence against adults, revolt quickly threatens to turn into a self-directed rebellion. It is the balance between a rebellion that must be tamed and integration despite rigid social conventions that makes it possible for the protagonist to build her personality. Charlotte Brontë's aim is to broaden the reverberations of what is commonly viewed as rebellion.

The survey of each heroine's rebellion leads to note that receding lines structure the two novels under consideration. As a consequence, our attention will be drawn first to the substitutes that are used by the protagonists to literally or metaphorically escape from the place of entrapment. As it will rapidly appear that rebelling has evolved, from the 18th to the 19th century, from resistance to personal and internal rebellion, we will be led to focus on the motives behind the two heroines' rebellious urge. Although these greatly differ, from threatened virginity to endangered free will, they remain until the end the living forces defining the two women as human beings. Their respective appraisal of their value as god-created beings tellingly diverges, a point worth noticing when it comes to review quantitatively and qualitatively the evolution of the notion of equality in the course of a century.

2. Entrapment and escape as incentives for rebellion

Whereas Pamela is very much a novel of the interior, firstly because writing letters is an indoor activity and secondly because the heroine is confined to the private sphere and atmosphere of closets, rooms and even later salons, Jane Eyre is equally concerned with the inside and the outside. In both cases, however, oppression is a pervading feeling that contributes both to the building of a climate and to the structuration of the plot, in the sense that it prompts the acts of rebellion and helps build suspense. For Pamela, the agent responsible for her entrapment is clearly identified with the person of her master, although in her retrospective lamentation of his devises men are globally denounced: "one don't know what Arts and Stratagems these Men may devise to gain their vile Ends; and so I will think as well as I can of these poor Creatures, and pity them. For you see by my sad Story, and narrow Escapes, what Hardships poor Maidens go thro'" (Pamela, p.71).

The entrapment of the object of desire differs greatly from the type of seclusion Jane falls victim to at the beginning of the novel, for she is "a discord" in Gateshead (Jane Eyre, p.12) and, as an orphan, does not belong anywhere (Jane Eyre, p.12). Jane Eyre opens very much as a narrative from the margins. The child willingly refuses to integrate. For example, it is not so much that she is "cast away from the fire" at Gateshead but rather that her "self-willed seclusion" (Ibid, p.5) satisfies her. From being considered an outcast, she willingly becomes one when she is "shrined in double retirement" (Ibid, p.5) or considers that the others "are not fit to associate with [her]" (Ibid, p.22). The fact that seclusion could be self-imposed, even in the very young Jane, already hints at the emphasis led on personal choice in the 19th century's novel. Hence, on leaving Lowood, Jane calls for "a new servitude" (Ibid, p.72) while writing on the same page, in a famous chiasmus, "I desired for liberty; for liberty I gasped for liberty I uttered a prayer" (Ibid, p.72). In that perspective, it clearly appears that seclusion and the longing for freedom that it generates, are essential to drive the narratives forwards. The physical or moral entrapment is echoed by a recurrent withholding of information throughout a narrative that feeds on this scheme.

In Pamela, captivity generates writing, if only because she has nothing else to entertain herself with: "It is a Grief to me to write, and not to be able to send to you what I write; but now it is all the Diversion I have, and if God will favour my Escape with my Innocence, as I trust he graciously will, for all these black Prospects, with what Pleasure shall I read them afterwards!" (Pamela, p.113). Writing functions as a substitute from the place of imprisonment and provides the narrative with a chronological structure thanks to temporal markers: this is particularly clear in the journal entries' titles, where her diary becomes the means of acknowledging the duration of her custody thanks to the preceding entry. The narration feeds on Pamela's writing and on her longing for escape. The author intended it as a way to grip his readers, as his preface makes clear: "every Page, would ensue from the laudable Resistance she made. I have interested myself in all her Schemes of Escape; been alternately pleas'd and angry with her in her Restraint; pleas'd with the little Machinations and Contrivances she set on foot for her Release" (Pamela, p.7).

Jane Eyre is similarly structured through a skillful control and withholding of information. Indeed, secrecy pervades the novel, from the hidden inheritance from her uncle that Jane is to receive only on Mrs. Reeds' death, to the mystery of Thornfield's attic. These two examples clearly show that withholding information is the means to build both narration and suspense. Carol Brock comments on Brontë's writing technique: “a good deal of artistry is actually being employed when a storyteller withholds information from her audience” (1992, p.105). The reader is not given access to the origin of the strange laughter, for instance, until Jane the character herself is. Memory, this flawed confinement of information, plays a crucial role in the building of personal identity for Jane Eyre. As the faculty of remembering is fallible and undeniably linked with imagination, memory can be perceived as both a metaphoric retention and creation of information. In that respect, Hume's metaphor of the memory as a theatre is very telling: "The mind is a kind of theatre, where several perceptions successively make their appearance ; pass, re-pass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations. There is properly no simplicity in it at one time" (1739, I, 4, section 6, p.165). Memory cannot retain fully what has been experienced by the senses and the conscience of the past is necessarily altered.

The symbolic dimension of traps also plays a determining role in Pamela. It is striking to underline the religious undertones that the confined servant's thoughts give rise to. Being left alone, the entrapped soul wanders and strives to find an escape, giving birth to long religious lamentations: "So here was a Trap laid for your poor Pamela! I tremble to think of it! O what a Scene of Wickedness was here laid down for all my wretched Life" (Pamela, p.88). Despite some moments of sheer hopelessness, the servant is determined to fight for her life, and above all, for her soul: "O how I rejoiced I had got out of his Clutches! So I write you this, that you may see how Matters stand; for I am resolv'd to come away, if possible" (Pamela, p.88). Pamela's certainties are fragile: she sticks to every movement of her inner life and the reader experiences the same isolation. The escapes are always "narrow" as she asserts in her journal entries. This recurring and possibly hyperbolic detail contributes to build the suspense and to create a tension, like Jane's withholding of information. It also entraps the reader, less and less capable of solving he question of the narrator's reliability and to decipher the author's intentions.

The difference between the two heroines is nonetheless very telling, mirroring great changes from the early beginning of the novel genre as an accurate depiction of social reality (as opposed to the epic narratives) to the romantic atmosphere in which Brontë wrote. Indeed, whereas Pamela intends firmly to flee from her master to protect her soul and feels ready to attack him on the ground that they have equal souls, Jane's rebellion is concerned with taming conflicting feelings. Her personal harmony and her right to be considered as a sensible and sensitive being are at stakes. What might be termed romantic in Jane may well be her gradually coming to an awareness of what kind of relationship she wants and needs - in terms of emotions only, for her inheriting her uncle's fortune makes her "an independent woman" (Jane Eyre, p.370). What is more, although she has no other choice of religion than Christianity, she rebels against the puritan principles of Saint John because she endeavors to find more personal moral rules to abide by.

3. Rebel with a cause

Religion, passion and reason intermingle in the causes for rebellion. Pamela sticks to her ideals and to the precepts of a creed that never seems to fail her. She might even be termed a conservative in the sense that she defends traditional religious and moral laws against her master who would wish to overcome them. Strikingly, her appraisal of her worth is nowhere as poignant as when it comes to her moral value. When she bluntly declines Mr. B.'s advances and proposal to become his mistress, he is turned into the rebel, rejecting moral laws. She refuses his proposition because she does not agree on the terms. Faith gives her the strength she needs to speak up for herself. She does not value her life as such and is ready to give it back to her creator. She nonetheless clutches to her moral value, as her entreaties demonstrate: "Save then, my Innocence, good God, and preserve my Mind spotless; and happy shall I be to lay down my worthless Life, and see an End to all my Troubles and Anxieties!" (Pamela, p.158). As worthless as she deems her life, she nevertheless blames her master for attempting to ruin it: "If I was your Equal, Sir, said I, I should say this is a very provoking way of jeering at the Misfortunes you have brought upon me" (Pamela, p.232). Interestingly, it is on this ground that she dares addressing her jailer on her master's misconduct. Her cue has Lockean undertones: "And pray, said I, walking on, how came I to be his Property? What Right has he in me, but such as a Thief may plead to stolen Goods?" (Ibid, p.126). Her captor does not misinterpret Pamela's conception of her worth as an individual when she returns, outraged: "Why, was ever the like heard, says she! This is downright Rebellion, I protest!" (Ibid, p.126). Indeed, it is the servant's concern for the protection of her soul that becomes the origin of her rebellion.

On the contrary, Jane is blamed for caring "too much of the love of human beings" (Jane Eyre, p.59). Lowood's precepts stress the importance to "punish her body to save her soul" (Jane Eyre, p.56), whereas the heroine is more inclined to listen to her passion and her heart. This predisposition seems first to result in a restriction of her freedom of action. The punishments and privations endured in Gateshead and Lowood call into question the legitimacy of her ethics and weaken her sense of being right. Both Pamela and Jane are concerned with "the inside" of the cup, to use Jane's metaphor when she wants to show the power of her will: "Whatever he might do with the outside of the cup and platter, the inside was farther beyond his interference than he imagined" (Ibid, p.54). While Jane assesses the inner life in terms of feelings, a method that goes against the existing puritan laws of Lowood, Pamela's view on her soul perfectly fits the moral laws of her time. Jane's inner life is directed by a strong will: "I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will, which I now exert to leave you." (Ibid, p.216). This determination, which precipitates her rebellion, also gives her the strength to tame her feelings and go on a quest for personal laws and principles to which she will remain faithful.

As Jane's story unfolds, narration and language become ways to regulate her feelings. At the beginning of the novel, she uses language to resist oppression. Brocklehurst asks her how to avoid going to hell and she answers: "I must keep in good health, and not die". Almost simultaneously, she understands the dangers of rebellion and the vicious traps that could go with it: "I was conscious that a moment’s mutiny had already rendered me liable to strange penalties, and, like any other rebel slave, I felt resolved, in my desperation, to go all lengths" (Jane Eyre, p.9). In the course of the novel, language, from being a tool of insurrection, becomes Jane's way to communicate with the world and understand her inner-self. In that sense she is gradually transformed into a woman conscious of her own value and willing to interact and integrate society. Liberty is equated with a self-disciplinary process that lies at the core of its definition. Jane's linguistic skills give her the power to discipline her own self and to express her passions and feelings. She is able to take both her reason and her feelings into account. Therefore, she rises above her original condition, both in the eyes of the world and in terms of personal quest. Hers is not so much a social ascension as a personal elevation through integration.

Since Pamela is led to stand firm against external forces that threaten to destroy the moral laws she abides by, her story is one of reforming the people surrounding her, although she is not completely conscious of that fact. In the course of the novel, she challenges social order through moral conservatism. She converts Mr. B.'s moral rebellion into a social one, compelling him to re-evaluate his use of power and consequently to turn his sexual propositions into a proposal. It might then be thought that she has achieved social reform through moral conservatism. On the contrary, Jane Eyre, whose narrative, as we saw, fits into the Bildungsroman genre, intends to "give allegiance to duty and order" to obtain "better regulated feelings" (Jane Eyre, p.71). More than merely insisting upon the heroine's evolution, the narrative emphasizes how she progressively builds her vision of life and how she finds a place and a role in it. The fact that Jane Eyre is concerned with a personal vision of life puts the stress on the psychological evolution of the protagonist, as opposed to 18th century modern romance that used to focus on the individual growth within a context of defined social order. For Jane, the quest implies not just searching for a meaningful existence within society (in that case she may have accepted Saint John's offer and proposal) but finding personal answers to better know what she is living for.

4. The living force of rebellion

While both heroines consider committing suicide, their respective religious beliefs ward off the morbid thoughts. Their potential acts of despondency, although testifying to their powerlessness in the patriarchal society, might also be understood as a form of resistance.

This duality is particularly striking and unequivocally expressed in Pamela where passing out functions both as an acknowledgment of helplessness and as an efficient means to counter Mr B.'s assaults. Her chronic swoons come to be seen as powerful instruments to undermine patriarchy by frustrating it. In the following lines, the link between fainting fits, death and escape is confirmed: "I found his Hand in my Bosom, and when my Fright let me know it, I was ready to die; and I sighed, and scream'd, and fainted away" (Pamela, p.63). In Pamela's words, her unconsciousness forces Mr. B. to check himself and leave the room: "And at last he said, When she has acted this her first Part over, perhaps I will see her again, and she shall soon know what she has to trust to. And so he went out of the Room" (Pamela, p.183). It cannot be denied, however, that this breakout through fainting is also Pamela's escape from her own desire because of social pressure and social laws that she dares not challenge. Such a form of resistance is unsatisfactory. It is but an evading to be contrasted with the plain rebellion she engages in when she claims she owns her body.

Death pervades Brontë's gothic narrative. This clashes with Jane's appetite for life. She is eager to engage in the events taking place around her and fainting is no trick of hers to avoid a perilous situation. For instance, the protagonist stands firm and does not faint at the sight of blood when she is in charge of Mason after he has been bitten by his mad sister: "I felt a thrill while I answered him; but no coldness, and no faintness" (Jane Eyre, p.177).
 This solid disposition does not prevent her from considering dying when she has to leave Rochester. Interestingly, contrary to what happens in Pamela, it is the act of fleeing that makes Jane think about dying: "I lay faint, longing to be dead" (Jane Eyre, p.253). Had she carried out her morbid thoughts, Rochester would indeed have been desperate. However, he is no epitome of patriarchy and committing suicide would have been completely useless in terms of making him, and a reading public, more conscious about society's prejudices against women.

For neither woman is self-inflicted death, or one of its substitutes, the adequate solution to fight their predicaments and reach personal fulfilment. The incentives to avoid self-harm differ greatly in both cases however, mainly because the two heroines' visions of God are at variance. Their respective appreciation of religion is revealing of what they are ready to fight for, right to the end. Significantly, God keeps the governess alive. When she thinks about dying, it is the "remembrance of God" that "throbbed life-like within [her]" (Ibid, p.253). It is portrayed as a living force that cannot demand sacrificial death. Jane is made to value her life as a treasure, revealing a more modern way of embracing the gift of God: "I have an inward treasure born with me, which can keep me alive if all extraneous delights should be withheld, or offered only at a price I cannot afford to give." (Jane Eyre, p.171). God's will is linked with the flow of life in Jane' case, whereas in Pamela, it is the traditional association of suicide with sin that prevents the woman from committing an "Act of Despondency", [which], thought I, is a Sin, that, if I pursue it, admits of no Repentance, and can therefore claim no Forgiveness. And wilt thou, for shortening thy transitory Griefs, heavy as they are, and weak as thou fanciest thyself, plunge both Body and Soul into everlasting Misery?" (Pamela, p.168)

It appears from these close comparisons that Pamela thinks in terms of punishment (if she commits suicide) and reward (if she "die[s] a thousand Deaths, rather than be dishonest any way", p.15). She is ready to die a thousand deaths, which means suffering a thousand times the moment of trespass, for a virginity that is to be given to one's husband only. Compromising with her virtue is as unforgettable a sin as committing suicide. Her insistence on ruin, dishonour and degradation embodies puritan ideals of moral rectitude that seem at odds with the pragmatism of the Enlightenment. Interestingly, she is ready not to die but rather to live a life that could be equated with a thousand deaths in order to protect both her virtue and her soul from unforgettable sins. Her dearest principles function as living incentives but life is presented as a deadly sacrifice.

Jane's sense of self and free will could be considered as an equivalent of Pamela's virginity in terms of what she cannot be asked to compromise with. She stands firm in front of the men of her narrative (Brocklehurst, Rochester and Saint John) when they try to make her compromise with her vision of what life should be. She withstands corporal punishment (with Brocklehurst), sentimental despair (with Rochester) and foretold damnation (with Saint John) to remain true to a self she is struggling to define throughout her narrative. Nowhere is she more convincing than when she feels she is right. Jane cannot "stay to become nothing" (Jane Eyre, p.216) to Rochester because that would be a betrayal so great to her own sense of self, that it could be equated with a sacrificial death very close to committing suicide. She alludes to her soul, the very heart of her being, but does define the compromise asked in physical terms, mentioning a starvation to death: "Do you think I […] can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? […] I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh; —it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal, —as we are!’ (Jane Eyre, p.216).

Despite the differences we have pointed out regarding what each heroine values most in life, Jane's cue echoes Pamela's when the latter credits her soul with being equal to Mr. B's: "O Sir! My Soul is of equal Importance with the Soul of a Princess; though my Quality is inferior to that of the meanest Slave" (Pamela, p.213). The meaning to be ascribed to the quote is ambiguous and leads us to ponder over the qualitative and quantitative dimensions of the term equality in both narratives.

5. Has equality been reached?

The former governess accepts to submit to social norms because they are self-accepted norms in the context of a mutual-affection-wedding. Because these are self-enforced rules, they may be equated with freedom.

Although Brontë gives Saint John the last word, the closing narrative presents Jane in a relatively powerful position as she supervises her family and observes for two. The heroine explains: "He saw nature - he saw books through me; and never did I weary of gazing for his behalf" (Jane Eyre, p.384). The frontiers that would specify who is in power and who is controlled or who is seen and who sees are blurred. Jane is both a prop and a guide, in her own words, sharing a kind of "half life" with Rochester, being "bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh" (Jane Eyre, p.384). Quite early in the novel, Jane is able to make Rochester overcome his conventional definition of what a woman should look like for a discovery of what a woman can be. During the failed wedding he acknowledges: "My bride is here because my equal is here, and my likeness". Interestingly, as he mentioned himself, he has "never met [her] likeness" (Ibid, p.222). She is the one. Equality is envisaged in terms of similarity and correspondence so much so that it verges on assimilation, which comes as no surprise in a romantic text insisting on the Janusian dimension of life and of love. Janus, with its two faces and its promise for a new beginning perfectly exemplifies the synthesis that romantic love aspires at. Gender roles are apparently assimilated.

If any form of equality at all is reached in Richardson's novel it is of a substantially different nature. Firstly, Pamela has to cope with her own feeling of inferiority and inequality, which goes on a par with a fear of being unfit to handle the situation, as the double meaning of being equal highlights in the following quotation: "Surely, I shall never be equal to all these Things" (Pamela, p.108). Even once married she remains self-conscious: "O, Sir, said I, how unequal am I to all this Goodness! Every Moment that passes, adds to the Weight of the Obligations you oppress me with." (Pamela, p.308). Her uneasiness reveals the presence of a wealth gap that had not been erased when she and Mr. B united, proving that they are two distinct entities still defined by their original background. Furthermore, in their alliance the notion of debt remains very present on both sides. B. asks Pamela to "think not too much of [his generosity]" (Pamela, p.308) precisely because he feels that "tho' equally sincere, [he has] a great deal to say, and to do, to compensate the Sufferings [he has] made [her] undergo; and, at last, must sit down dissatisfied, because those will never be aton'd by all [he] can do for [her]" (Pamela, p.308). He apparently considers that she deserves to benefit from his wealth because she has brought him "what the World reckons an Equivalent" (Ibid, p.337) "an experienc'd Truth, a well−try'd Virtue, and a Wit and Behaviour more than equal to the Station" (Ibid, p.337) she will be placed in. The restrictive grammatical structure and the mercantile vocabulary used in the extract make clear however that her virtue is construed as a form of commodity that she has bargained. This prevents the spouses from being united in perfect equality. Pamela has been tried but she is kept in an inferior position and it is only "to avoid […] Comparisons [that he suggests to] talk of nothing henceforth but Equality" (Ibid, p.350). The remaining inequality between the spouses is all the more striking as Mr. B. confesses that it is the thought of Pamela with another man that has made him overcome his reserves concerning "the Distance" between him and her. He is himself going through a series of demanding trials but never refrains from envisioning Pamela as a commodity to be owned: "But, what can I do? Consider the Pride of my Condition. I cannot endure the Thought of Marriage, even with a Person of equal or superior Degree to myself; and have declin'd several Proposals of that kind: How then, with the Distance between us, and in the World's Judgment, can I think of making you my Wife? Yet I must have you; I cannot bear the Thoughts of any other Man supplanting me in your Affections." (Ibid, my underlining, p.213).

Terry Eagleton claims that the Pamela's absorption into marriage makes her "the collusive victim of patriarchy, triumphantly elevated into enemy territory […] Pamela tells the story of a woman snatched into the ruling class and tamed into its sexist disciplines" (Eagleton, p.35-36). Even if there is no radical transformation for Pamela, as she finally achieves the very conventional status of married, compliant and passive women, the narrative is nonetheless concerned with revolution. Mr. B. has to go through social pressure, and he partly atones for his deeds when he talks to his sister and maintains that he is determined to take Pamela for his wife. His claim resonates with the sense of being born again ("I am indeed" (Pamela, p.423)), which contributes to turning the narrative into a revolution. Still defending his decision, he maintains: "And why should I not, if I please? Who is there ought to contradict me? Whom have I hurt by it? Have I not an Estate, free and independent? […] And why, when I have a Sufficiency in my own single Hands, should I scruple to make a Woman equally happy, who has all I want?" (Pamela, p.423). In these excerpts, Mr. B. appears as the rebel who, after having intended to overcome religious laws, speaks up against the existing social laws, as the proclamation of independence he directs at his sister tends to prove. This seems to anticipate the American declaration of independence, all the more so as B. ends his cue suggesting that every individual has a right to be happy. A century later, what seemed to require justification in Mr B.'s speech and in his rhetorically questioning his independence has become an assertion in Jane's final discussion with Rochester. When she asserts "I am an independent woman, now" (Jane Eyre, p. 370), her use of "now" resonates with multiple implications. Not only is this state of independence the result of her personal progression, but it is also, at the final threshold of Brontë's novel, the recognition of the path women have trodden in the span of a century.


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Going further

GOLDBERG, Rita. 1984. Sex and enlightenment Rita: Women in Richardson and Diderot. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

HARDWICK, Elizabeth. 1974. Seduction and Betrayal: Women and Literature. New York: Random House.

HOAGLAND Ericka. May 2006. Postcolonializing the Bildungsroman: A Study of the Evolution of a Genre. Ph.D. dissertation. Purdue University.

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MULLAN, John. 1990. Sentiment and Sociability: the language of feeling in the eighteenth century. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

REGIS, Pamela. 2007 (2003). A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

SPACKS, Patricia. 2003. Privacy: Concealing the Eighteenth-Century Self. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

SPENS, Janet.1929. "Charlotte Bronte" in Essays and Studies by Members of the English Association, collected by H. W. Garrod, vol.14. Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp. 54-70

WOOLF, Virginia. 1989 (1929). A Room of One's Own. New York: Harcourt Brace & Co.


Pour citer cette ressource :

Marion Lopez-Burette, "Rebelling as a female in the 18th and 19th century literature. From «Pamela» to «Jane Eyre»: a path to equality?", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), septembre 2013. Consulté le 22/06/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/litterature-britannique/rebelling-as-a-female-in-the-18th-and-19th-century-literature-from-pamela-to-jane-eyre-a-path-to-equality-