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A voice and a place of one’s own: women, knowledge and empowerment in Charlotte Brontë’s «Jane Eyre»

Par Christine Vandamme
Publié par Marion Coste le 17/11/2023

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[Article] The article deals with women and knowledge in Charlotte Brontë’s ((Jane Eyre)) (1847). The novel was quite revolutionary in its time for its strong assertion of female agency and self-empowerment and a keen perception of power dynamics inherent in the definition of gender and gender roles. However considering ((Jane Eyre)) through the sole prism of a novel of emancipation only dealing with women’s rights and aspirations would be reductive. ((Jane Eyre))’s fiery narrative is a strong plea against all forms of intersectional oppression in Victorian times despite its own unconscious bias relative to ethnicity and the colonial question notably.

This article is based on a paper given at a conference entitled "Women and Knowledge in 19th century Britain", organised by Virginie Thomas at Lycée Champollion (Grenoble) on the 24th of May 2023. Other presentations included:


The question of women and knowledge in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) immediately brings to mind the related issues of education, teaching and learning as well as apprenticeship. All those aspects are prominent in both the autobiographical genre that Jane Eyre professes to belong to and in the novel of education or formation. However a certain type of knowledge, namely academic and formal education, only partly helps the heroine on the way to emancipation as both a woman and a dependent deprived of any financial means. What really helps her achieve her liberation is personally acquired knowledge on how best to navigate her way within strictly defined gendered and social rules and norms so as to finally reach self-knowledge and self-worth. The main question at the core of the novel is therefore how to enable women to “learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex” (Brontë, 2006, 130) and thus empower themselves through knowledge. However women also have to learn to care for themselves, as Jane Eyre puts it, even if it comes at the cost of being declared traitors to their own gender.

In its exploration of the complex relations between women and knowledge in Jane Eyre, this article will first examine the type of knowledge that was accessible to Victorian women when the novel was published and assess whether the novel should be considered as a novel of education or rather as a novel of emancipation. The issue of gender and gender roles will then be explored, revealing the heroine’s expert knowledge of the power dynamics inherent in the Victorian patriarchal system. Finally Jane’s elusive gender and social status will shed a new light on what is commonly referred to as knowledge and should effectively be referred to as Foucauldian power-knowledge, a set of beliefs and social and political norms which has to be replaced in its historical context but also has to be analysed in taking intersectionality into account ((Intersectionality is now a well-respected concept in the humanities and in postcolonial studies more particularly. Kimberlé Crenshaw is considered as the one critic to have most forcefully and most illuminatingly studied the entangled issues of oppression when it takes multiple forms as was and still is the case for Black women. Her early work on the type of discrimination they faced in the labour market was seminal in launching the idea of intersectionality as an approach in which you cannot artificially separate race from gender or any other factor of oppression for that matter (See Crenshaw’s 1989 article “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics”). One can only speak of intersectionality between gender and class in Jane Eyre though: the question of race remains a disturbing blind spot for Jane and hence, possibly for the reader as well.)). However, in Jane Eyre, the race-related forms of oppression are never evoked by first-person narrator Jane. It is only the combination of class-related forms of discrimination and gender-related ones that the heroine is so vehemently denouncing, and her plea for emancipation is surprisingly, and quite startlingly, silent about Bertha Mason, Rochester’s racialized first wife. 

1. Jane Eyre’s emancipation through knowledge

1.1 Jane Eyre’s vast knowledge as a source of empowerment

Charlotte Brontë’s novel starts in a quite grim and deterministic context as the protagonist Jane is made to feel an outsider like the ugly little duckling of the family. In the opening scene of the novel, she has just found refuge in the breakfast room adjoining the drawing room. Not only is Jane made to feel an intruder among the family group of Mrs Reed and her three darlings around her, but she is being sharply rebuked by her aunt for asking questions. Mrs Reed assigns her a place which is one of submission and utter silence: “Be seated somewhere; and until you can speak pleasantly, remain silent.” (10)

Right from the start, the knowledge Jane has of her place in the world is therefore that of most women at the time—they have to conform to a social role, accept strict obedience but also “speak pleasantly” (10) or they will be denied the right to speak. Jane’s alienation is made all the more necessary as she is an orphan and thus deprived of any financial means. Her cousin John Reed reminds her repeatedly of her dependent status. In his classist worldview, Jane’s place should be in the streets, begging for mere survival: “You have no business to take our books; you are a dependent, mama says; you have no money; your father left you none; you ought to beg, and not to live here with gentlemen’s children like us […].” (13) In other words, the only knowledge Jane is expected to have is that of her dependence and subservient position, basically “knowing her place”. Despite such strictures, Jane manages to enlarge her knowledge of the wide world through books, which gives her the courage and the confidence to speak back to her cousin: “‘Wicked and cruel boy!’ I said. ‘You are like a murderer—you are like a slave-driver—you are like the Roman emperors!’” (13). Older narrating Jane then explains to the readers she made a parallel at the time between her cousin’s oppressive behaviour and the oppression of Roman tyrants thanks to her having read Oliver Goldsmith’s History of Rome.

The very first scene thus determines the readers’ horizon of expectations. The book will be a fictional autobiography but also a story of emancipation of a female heroine whose destiny she assimilates to that of a female slave thanks to her extensive readings and knowledge.

1.2 Jane Eyre: a novel of education or emancipation?

The question whether we should consider the novel as primarily an apprenticeship novel, a novel of education or more precisely a novel of emancipation has been the object of much scholarly work. One of the most original and enlightening articles on such issues is Julia Sun-Joo Lee’s “The (Slave) Narrative of Jane Eyre” published in 2008 where she very convincingly delineates the many similarities between slave narratives and the narrative of Jane Eyre.

Jane Eyre may first be examined as a novel of education, a genre closely linked to the issue of knowledge. The novel includes many references to books but also to formal education and teaching. Jane Eyre is first of all a self-taught 10-year-old whose curiosity and precocity are remarkable. As we saw earlier, it is her keen understanding of underlying power dynamics in the Roman empire through her reading of Goldsmith’s History of Rome that enables her to answer back to her young cousin John Reed and to rebel against his tyranny. It is also such scholarly references that help her control her passionate temper and rebellious nature when unjustly “place[d]” on a stool (78) to punish her for a crime she never committed. Her schoolfriend Helen Burns then sends her a supportive glance (80), leading Jane to identify herself as “a slave or victim” (80) who recognises in Helen a fellow-sufferer, both a “martyr” and a “hero” (80).

While at Lowood school, Jane is shown to enjoy enlarging her mind and knowledge tremendously. Her admiration for Miss Temple and Helen sounds almost lyrical: “They conversed of things I had never heard of; of nations and times past; of countries far away; of secrets of nature discovered or guessed at: they spoke of books: how many they had read! What stores of knowledge they possessed!” (87). The same type of exquisite delight in extending her scholarly knowledge and argumentative abilities in discussing intellectual and philosophical matters is to be found at the end of the novel when she flees Thornfield and providentially reunites with close relatives she did not even know existed. Her two female cousins and her male cousin St John Rivers share the same taste for books, intellectual stimulation and spiritual elevation. St John Rivers even asks Jane to teach poor and uneducated girls at a local school, which she does very efficiently and profitably. Her cousin actually praises her for such formidable achievements in “regenerating [her] race” (450). The misogynistic undertone of St John’s remark is worthy of note in suggesting he expected very little indeed from women as far as learning was concerned. Jane had also previously been asked to become a teacher at Lowood, for two years. In both cases there is a suggestion that knowledge and education are somehow sacred and that some women like Miss Temple and then Jane herself will act as vestals of such knowledge they pass on from one female generation to the next. However in both cases, Miss Temple’s marriage and then Jane’s reunion with Rochester before finally getting married to him render such a sacred mission incomplete.

Knowledge in Jane Eyre is also about getting to know oneself and acquiring both authority and autonomy, as an emancipated female subject first and then as a writer. The central paradox of the novel is that the type of knowledge that makes Jane’s emancipation possible is not only of a scholarly type but also of a personal and experiential type – self-knowledge and hence self-respect. Kathryn White and Frank Ferguson summarise the novel as follows: “In Jane Eyre in particular, the reader is offered a particularly profound experience of a fictionalised life recounting its coming to knowledge, self-command and personal authority” (2019, 3). They conclude their article on the importance of education in Jane Eyre by pointing out the qualities inherent in a good professional teacher: “autonomy, creativity, awareness of self and place” (9). Even if both critics insist on the importance of education within the Bildungsroman narrative underlying the novel, they also foreground the issue of self-awareness and knowing one’s place.

However there could be a major objection to considering the novel as a successful “novel of education” or “novel of formation”. Indeed such novels are supposed to be inspirational to their readers and to thus help them resist oppression and alienation. But how can Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre achieve this goal when another essential female character, Bertha Mason, is being commodified, exploited and dehumanised with Jane herself being for once speechless and apparently blind to one of her fellow females’ plight? Jane does not utter a single word in the whole scene in chapter 26 when she is first introduced to Mr Rochester’s first wife, Bertha Mason, who is being sequestrated in inhuman conditions in the attic. Mr Rochester and Jane have just had to leave the church where they were about to get married after a sollicitor interrupted the ceremony on behalf of his client Mr Mason, Bertha Mason’s brother and Rochester’s brother-in-law. The master of Thornfield Hall then forces them all to follow him and pay a visit to his “wife” and see with their own eyes whether or not he had “a right to break the compact” binding him to his “bad, mad, and embruted partner” (337). When faced with Bertha Mason “grovel[ling], seemingly, on all fours” (338), Jane remains silent and is described by Rochester as “this young girl who stands so grave and quiet at the mouth of hell” (339). Bertha Mason herself has been so dehumanised that she is no longer able to speak but only “grow[ls] like some strange wild animal” (338). This is all the more paradoxical as finding a voice of her own seems to have been Jane’s one main achievement and to be inseparable from her journey towards self-knowledge.

This being said Jane does finally impose a voice of her own, if only for herself, thus escaping the submission and subjection expected from her sex or, to say it in more modern and Butlerian terms, her gender as a woman.

2. Jane’s expert knowledge of gender and its attendant power dynamics

Some critics see Jane Eyre as “one of the first discourses of female subjectivity” (Craina, 2015, 45) as well as a text about self-knowledge and “self-empowerment” (Craina, 39). Such female subjectivity and self-empowerment are present right from the start with Jane’s compulsion to “speak out” but she will learn to temper her fiery spirit with a fine mastery of words when faced with oppressive figures of authority. Whereas chapter 2 ended on her having a fit after being once again locked in the red room by Mrs Reed and forced to keep silent, she then progressively learns how to use language to protect herself.

2.1 Can the dependent woman speak? Eluding alienating power dynamics

From a very early age Jane realised that knowledge and the possibility to impose it onto others were only given to people whose “gendered capital” to use Bourdieu’s terminology (namely men or boys like John) or whose social capital (namely wealthy people like the Reed family) give them the right to ask questions and provide answers without any possibility for the oppressed to answer back.

After the episode when Jane gets locked in the red room comes a crucial scene in which the heroine adopts another strategy to escape alienating power dynamics. This is a scene of confrontation with Mr Brocklehurst, the Head of Lowood school where Jane has been sent after her violent argument with “Master John” and Mrs Reed. What is striking in this episode is the heroine’s ability to settle the terms of the debate herself. Instead of following Mr Brocklehurst’s line of reasoning, she makes his casuistic rhetoric derail. Thus, when he implies that she will end up in hell because she is supposedly “naughty” and “a liar”, and when he tries to frighten her into repenting for what she has done, she cunningly retorts that she might choose not to die to avoid hell: “‘What must you do to avoid it?’ I deliberated a moment; my answer, when it did come, was objectionable: ‘I must keep in good health, and not die’” (39). As White and Ferguson note, such an answer is a way for Jane “to speak her mind” even in a parody of a dialogue where the Master dictates both the questions and the expected answers (5). Jane Eyre is neither naive nor resigned. What shocked her readers most was her proud assertion of self-sufficiency despite being a woman and deprived of any means of subsistence except through governessing or teaching. Both White and Ferguson are fully aware that the most startling aspect of the novel had to do with the assertion of “female agency”: “Offering a startling first-person account of a woman’s childhood, adolescence and adulthood, Jane Eyre enthralled and shocked a public with its provocative and uncompromising assertion of female agency.” (2)

It is true that Jane manages to assert her power even when she feels most constrained by her condition. If anything, she can at least decide what sort of servitude she will now accept for herself and she asserts it in a defiant tone:

And now I felt that it was not enough; I tired of the routine of eight years in one afternoon. I desired liberty; for liberty I gasped; for liberty I uttered a prayer; it seemed scattered on the wind then faintly blowing. I abandoned it and framed a humbler supplication; for change, stimulus: that petition, too, seemed swept off into vague space: “Then,” I cried, half desperate, “grant me at least a new servitude!” (101-2)

Jane is fully aware that her enslavement as a woman stems from a social expectation of obedience and of service. The Victorian wife and mother, Patmore’s “angel in the house”, was expected to accept “order’d freedom” and duties restricting her liberties and turning her into an “inmate” of sorts:

For something that abode endued
With temple-like repose, an air
Of life's kind purposes pursued
With order’d freedom sweet and fair.
A tent pitch’d in a world not right
It seem’d, whose inmates, every one,
On tranquil faces bore the light
Of duties beautifully done
(Coventry Patmore, ‘The Angel in the House’, 1854)

As to the governess, her liberty was even more restricted and no better than a form of chosen “servitude”. Jane as a governess and then as Rochester’s love interest incur the same risk, that of being “subjugated” as women have always been according to Mary Wollstonecraft. Wollstonecraft, who is considered as one of the first female philosophers to express what would be considered today as feminist thoughts, thus provocatively declared in her groundbreaking Vindication of the Rights of Woman: “[I]t cannot be demonstrated that woman is essentially inferior to man because she has always been subjugated”. The volume was published in 1792, some fifty years before Jane Eyre.

And yet Jane always manages to reassert her dignity and self-respect as a citizen who is equal to any other citizen at least in principle, a citizen who can “petition” for the right to choose the type of servitude and oppression she will be submitted to or even the right to refuse any form of servitude. Jane Eyre thus includes a reflection on authority, power, and mastery with a subtle reversal of power dynamics between the master of Thornfield and his subject governess, Miss Eyre.

2.2 Can the dependent woman claim a place of her own?

2.2.1 Challenging the empowered gender of the master

At the age of only ten Jane Eyre could already perceive the underlying power dynamics in the very terms used to designate everyone in the family. When rebuked by Miss Abbot for striking “[her] young master”, she retorted: “Master! How is he my master? Am I a servant?” (15). When she leaves Lowood for another kind of servitude than teaching, as she accepts the position of governess in the service of a “master”, Mr Rochester, she nonetheless remains acutely conscious of her own worth and her equality to him outside social and gendered norms. She always speaks to Rochester as if they were equals, and resents his attempts to try and order her what to do as his future wife. Once Rochester has proposed to Jane, he is very assertive and uses all the codes of the commanding man, imposing his will:

“You shall sojourn at Paris, Rome, and Naples […] I shall revisit [Europe] healed and cleansed, with a very angel as my comforter.”
I laughed at him as he said this. “I am not an angel,” I asserted; “and I will not be one till I die: I will be myself.” (300, my emphasis)

What is striking in the passage is that Jane is not impressed in the least by Rochester and she answers him in a very assertive tone that would have been seen as highly inappropriate for a woman and even more so for a subordinate such as a governess. The fact that she was already “Fairfax Rochester’s girl-bride” (298) in Rochester’s eyes would not justify such language. She refuses the whole “celestial” angel rhetoric common to Rochester, Patmore and their contemporaries. And Rochester ends up admitting he is literally charmed by such resistance:

“I never met your likeness. Jane, you please me, and you master me […] I am influenced—conquered; and the influence is sweeter than I can express; and the conquest I undergo has a witchery beyond any triumph I can win.” (301, my emphasis)

The underlying power dynamic is obvious as it borrows from a military metaphorical network with references to conquests and triumphs typical of a patriarchal power-knowledge in the sense given by Michel Foucault (1977, 27). In Discipline and Punish Foucault notes that “it is not the activity of the subject of knowledge that produces a corpus of knowledge, useful or resistant to power, but power-knowledge, the processes and struggles that traverse it and of which it is made up, that determines the forms and possible domains of knowledge.” (27) In other words the reason women have such reduced access to knowledge outside the domestic sphere is because they are considered as “angel[s] in the house” (Patmore, 1854) whose “sacred place” (Ruskin, 1886, 100) is that of Home, “a vestal temple” (Ruskin, 1886, 100) cut off from the outside world where war, battle and danger prevail. Men on the contrary were supposed to “encounter all peril and trial” (Ruskin, 1886, 99) and to spend their “energy for adventure, for war, and for conquest, wherever war is just, wherever conquest necessary” (Ruskin, 1886, 99). This explains why Jane is not so easily deceived by Rochester’s performance of the self-effacing knight submitting to his lady. She knows that if she accepts to be cherished and spoilt like a princess or a queen, or any celestial being, she is also implicitly accepting dependence and servility. She thus returns back to the neutral terrain of the law as she often does when she refers to countless “petitions” to ask for equality between the sexes.

2.2.2 Challenging the very idea of the immutability of a patriarchal power-knowledge

In one of the most provocative passages of the novel, after Rochester has insisted on buying her beautiful dresses and she has refused, she imagines herself as a bold female missionary scouring the Middle East to free any enslaved woman she encounters and convince them to mutiny against patriarchy and to finally force Rochester to sign a charter:

I’ll be preparing myself to go out as a missionary to preach liberty to them that are enslaved—your harem inmates amongst the rest. I’ll get admitted there, and I’ll stir up mutiny; and you, three-tailed bashaw as you are, sir, shall in a trice find yourself fettered amongst our hands: nor will I, for one, consent to cut your bonds till you have signed a charter, the most liberal that despot ever yet conferred […]. (310)

And she then goes on to ask for a private marriage contract making sure she does not fall under the legal strictures of coverture where a married woman loses any real legal existence in fusing with her husband:

“Why, Jane, what would you have? […]”
 “I shall continue to act as Adèle’s governess; by that I shall earn my board and lodging, and thirty pounds a year besides. I’ll furnish my own wardrobe out of that money, and you shall give me nothing but—”
“Well, but what?”
“Your regard; and if I give you mine in return, that debt will be quit.”
“Well, for cool native impudence and pure innate pride, you haven’t your equal,” said he. (311)

What is striking in this passage is that asking for mutual regard and financial independence is considered by Rochester as a sign of impudence and pride, thus revealing a profoundly imbalanced power dynamic between Victorian men and women. Rochester’s choice of the phrase “having [one’s] equal” almost sounds like a slip of the tongue revealing his resentment of the very idea of equality between men and women.

And this is where the core of the question of women and knowledge in Jane Eyre really lies. Jane Eyre is asking for liberty, equality and fraternity for all citizens, men and women alike. In one lyrical and impassioned passage she speaks to herself in a way that sounds as if she were voicing Charlotte Brontë’s own innermost convictions about the plight of women. For Jane and Charlotte alike, it is high time Victorian men accepted to enlarge the knowledge and opportunities given to women:

Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; […] and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex. (129-130)

Jane’s eloquence here is not without recalling the fiery speeches of leading political and religious figures of the time. For instance, her oratory is reminiscent of William Wilberforce’s own speeches from the end of the 18th century onwards when he was denouncing the enslavement of Black people in the House of Commons.

The political and social stakes of the novel are here self-evident: a wider scope for the knowledge and education of women was urgently needed but Jane also claims for an even more modern type of right which our own 21st century episteme has put in the limelight, the right to be oneself and to feel free to behave in a way that corresponds to one’s innermost self, independently of fixed gender norms and roles. Jane would most probably not want to define herself as gendered in any specific way as she is fully aware of the degree of essentialisation inherent in such identity politics. If anything, Jane’s “gender” remains elusive to the very last.

3. Redefining gender and gender roles: self-knowledge and self-worth

More than anything else self-knowledge is what preoccupies Jane. According to Violeta Craina’s article on Jane Eyre and women’s education, Jane is surprisingly independent in making her own decisions and she relies mostly, if not exclusively, on her own experiences as a source of education rather than any formal type of learning or second-hand acquired knowledge: “[h]er specific method of balancing each new experience that she undergoes through other experiences of different types makes influences, and thus learning, useless” (Craina, 45). Jane Eyre should thus be considered as a novel mostly turned towards self-knowledge through personal experiences and their analysis. And such a process ultimately leads to self-acceptance and self-respect.

3.1 Self-knowledge and Jane’s elusive gender or status

3.1.1 Self-knowledge and self-worth

After a traumatising childhood Jane is so dependent on other people’s good opinion of herself that she feels quite desperate. At Lowood school, after Mr Brocklehurst has subjected her to a violent scene of public humiliation, a fellow-sufferer, Helen Burns, tries to comfort her, insisting on the importance of one’s own conscience: “If all the world hated you, and believed you wicked, while your own conscience approved you, and absolved you from guilt, you would not be without friends” (82). However it will take more or less the whole novel for Jane to accept that. At this early stage she says she would rather die if others did not love her: “No; I know I should think well of myself; but that is not enough: if others don’t love me I would rather die than live […]” (82). Conversely, when she finds out Rochester is already married, she remains firm and decides to leave Thornfield and her “master’s and lover’s eye” behind (310). When Rochester insists, she only retorts: “I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself” (365).

What is particularly interesting in the passage is Rochester’s reaction to such an assertion of self-knowledge and self-respect on Jane’s part. Not only is he piqued and startled but he desperately tries to define Jane and ascribe her to a species or a gender, this to no avail.

3.1.2 Jane’s elusive nature and ambivalent gender

To define Jane, Rochester uses names of different species from the plant world to the animal world, and also terms implying that Jane belongs to some supernatural “species”: the young woman is alternately compared to a “reed”, or a bird in a cage, a “captive” but also to a “creature” or a “spirit”:

“Never,” said he, as he ground his teeth, “never was anything at once so frail and so indomitable. A mere reed she feels in my hand!” […] “Consider that eye: consider the resolute, wild, free thing looking out of it, defying me, with more than courage—with a stern triumph. Whatever I do with its cage, I cannot get at it—the savage, beautiful creature! If I tear, if I rend the slight prison, my outrage will only let the captive loose. […] And it is you, spirit—with will and energy, and virtue and purity—that I want: […] seized against your will, you will elude the grasp like an essence—you will vanish ere I inhale your fragrance. Oh! come, Jane, come!” (366)

Jane’s animalisation has been recurrent all along the novel: she is a “mad cat” for Bessie (15), a “little toad” for Miss Abbot (31). But what is even more thought-provoking in this passage is her association with gender neutral terms like “thing”, “creature”, “spirit”. The phrase “the resolute, wild, free thing” defines Jane as an individual with characteristics of her own that defy any prior categorisation. The definite article also suggests there is only one of a kind that could both look back at him and escape his grasp, whether literally or figuratively. Even Elizabeth Rigby, a well-respected Victorian critic, is at a loss granting her any identified gender. Jane eludes all typologies and is simply referred to as a “thing”, “an uninteresting, sententious, pedantic thing” (Rigby, 167). At the age of ten Jane is perceptive enough to guess why her relatives reject her and only consider her as an object, a “thing”. She is neither one of them, the well-to-do middle class, nor a “servant” or a subordinate that could be of use to them. Her relatives see her as “a heterogeneous thing”, a “useless thing” (19), in other words a being that does not find its place in a utilitarian society that denies her any value. The gender- neutral term “thing” even becomes threatening in their eyes: “a noxious thing”. As to Jane, she sees herself as a subjugated subject: a “rebel slave” (15), a “revolted slave” (18). Such shifts and contrasts in focalisation, passing from the way others see Jane to the way Jane sees herself, are very frequent.

In another episode Jane first describes herself as “a wretched child enough” before her nurse Bessie calls her a “naughty little thing” (47), a “strange child” (47), “a little, roving, solitary thing” (47), “a queer, frightened, shy, little thing” (47). Bessie finally perceives Jane as an independent young woman worthy of respect only after Jane has embraced her and thus broken the litany of reproachful nicknames she had been given until then: the scene climaxes with the nurse ultimately calling her “my little lady” (48).

In other words the novel is about self-knowledge, self-respect and strategies of “persistence and survival” as Judith Butler calls them in her essay on gender and the need to deconstruct gender (Butler, 2004, 4). What Butler means is that the dynamics of gender and sexuality is a matter of having one’s singularity recognised and accepted. She claims that depending on your perceived gender, you can be considered as human or less than human. As a result anyone whose gender or whose gender-related behaviour would be considered transgressive has to either perform a socially accepted gender as a form of survival or willingly try and escape any such form of gendering. The latter is Jane’s choice, to simply be herself – Jane, a woman who speaks and acts in a way that would be considered as unwomanly.

Even more importantly the novel has a wider scope than the knowledge and the power/knowledge granted to women in Victorian society. The book deals with all forms of oppression, be it gender-related or class-related. To that extent reflecting on women and knowledge in Jane Eyre is inextricably linked with the more modern notion of intersectionality. Jane’s oppression does not only derive from her gender as a woman, it also stems from her social status as a dependent, a female orphan having but two choices in life, teaching or marrying.

3.2 The reception and legacy of the novel: the issues of intersectionality

We will not delve too deeply into the highly contentious issue of Bertha Mason herself, Rochester’s sequestrated first wife. And yet her own alienation as both a woman and a colonised subject has long been strongly downplayed, if not simply ignored. Even in Gilbert and Gubar’s own groundbreaking article, “A Dialogue of Self and Soul: Plain Jane’s Progress”, her oppression is often interpreted allegorically as a form of unconscious projection of Jane’s feelings of anger and frustration in a patriarchal society subduing women and reducing them to silence. She is described as mostly an “avatar of Jane” (Gilbert, 796) and “Jane’s truest and darkest double” (Gilbert, 796). But there is much more to Bertha’s objectification and indefinite status and gender than a dark, aggressive double to Jane. It is no coincidence if she is not given the right to speak at all and the most forceful critique of such intersectional oppression did not first come from academia but from a female writer born on the Caribbean Island of Dominica, Jean Rhys. In 1966 she published Wide Sargasso Sea, a postcolonial rewriting of the novel, and her aim was to give back her humanity, identity and voice to Antoinette, Bertha’s “real” name in Rhys’s own piece, a female character who had been doubly objectified as a woman and a white Creole inextricably entangled in the complex dynamics of colonialism in Jamaica. Gayatri Spivak offers a very illuminating study of Jean Rhys’s work in relation to Jane Eyre when she points out that one of the confounding weaknesses of Brontë’s original work is Jane’s passive acceptance of the sacrifice of her female double for Jane herself to become “the feminist individualist heroine of British fiction” (Spivak, 242). More recently still Bertha’s “ambiguous ethnicity” has also been more fully taken into account, notably by Carol Atherton who aptly remarks that “even as a white Creole, Bertha would have been seen as ‘alien’, a recurring term applying to Jane and the difficulty both women have in trying to have their selves respected and taken into account as independent subjects with a will and rights of their own” (Atherton).

As to the authoress herself, Charlotte Brontë, it is quite extraordinary from our 21st century perspective, to see how violently she could be attacked and this, simply because of double standards applying to male and female writers respectively. Elizabeth Rigby who, as mentioned earlier, was a highly respected and influential Victorian literary and art critic, wrote a quite acerbic review of Jane Eyre in the Quarterly Review in 1848. She acknowledged the novel was “remarkable” but could not help castigate its “horrid taste” in the same sentence: “It is a very remarkable book: we have no remembrance of another combining such genuine power with such horrid taste” (Rigby, 1848, 163). Mrs Rigby first objects to the author’s and main protagonists’ rebellious tone and nature, which she considers as in very bad taste indeed: “[...] the tone of mind and thought which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine abroad, and fostered Chartism and rebellion at home, is the same which has also written Jane Eyre” (Rigby, 1848, 163). More interestingly, one of the main faults she sees in the novel is that Mr Rochester should speak to his governess sometimes as a servant, and at other times as if she was a man (Rigby, 1848, 164). In short Mrs Rigby found the novel’s revolutionary and chartist leanings as well as its plea for more women’s rights and assertiveness quite vulgar and misplaced. And yet the famous Victorian critic at first seemed to appreciate Jane Eyre precisely for its ability to “speak out”, an ability she considered as very much lacking among British people:

We are a particularly shy and reserved people […] But there are ways and means for lifting the veil which equally favour our national idiosyncrasy; and a new and remarkable novel is one of them […] we simply discuss Becky Sharp, or Jane Eyre, and our object is answered at once.
There is something about these two new and noticeable characters which especially compels everybody to speak out. (Rigby, 1848, 164)

Further down in her assessment of the novel Elizabeth Rigby also paradoxically betrays her own prejudices in declaring that the novel should be considered vulgar in many aspects simply because the narrator seems ignorant of the ways of the refined world of the upper middle class and upper class. And she even adds that there is no doubt the novel cannot but have been written by a man as no woman, at least no lady, would disgrace herself in showing such ignorance as to matters having to do with women’s domestic sphere: how to cook, how to dress, how to discuss.

No woman—a lady friend, whom we are always happy to consult, assures us—makes mistakes in her own métier—no woman trusses game and garnishes dessert-dishes with the same hands, or talks of so doing in the same breath. Above all, no woman attires another in such fancy dresses as Jane’s ladies assume […]. This evidence seems incontrovertible. Even granting that these incongruities were purposely assumed, for the sake of disguising the female pen, there is nothing gained; for if we ascribe the book to a woman at all, we have no alternative but to ascribe it to one who has, for some sufficient reason, long forfeited the society of her own sex. (Rigby, 1848, 175-176).

Such a final judgment on Jane Eyre just proves how modern and transgressive Jane’s voice was considered at the time. No wonder then that the novel should have been an instant success. And yet, if a voice and a place of one’s own were needed for women to get access to knowledge and self-knowledge, such a voice and such a place would not be granted in the same way and with the same facility depending on your ethnicity, class, and even perceived gender. Bertha as a Creole is not even considered a human being any longer, and Jane is first only seen as a “dependent” and “an uncongenial alien” before simply becoming Jane.

So if we were to sum up the modernity of Charlotte Brontë’s message we could offer a pastiche of Woolf’s concluding words of A Room of One’s Own: “it is fatal for [any woman who seeks knowledge] to think of their sex. It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly.” And if doing so is “forfeiting the society of [one’s] own sex” as Elizabeth Rigby claimed, well, so be it! Jane Eyre was in her way a precursor to Judith Butler, she desired to undo gender to make the life of millions of oppressed women more livable:

Sometimes a normative conception of gender can undo one’s personhood, undermining the capacity to persevere in a livable life. Other times, the experience of a normative restriction becoming undone can undo a prior conception of who one is only to inaugurate a relatively newer one that has greater livability as its aim. (Butler, Undoing Gender, 2004, 1)

However the novel also offers tentative forays into the complex and entangled issues of intersectionality when not only gender and gender norms but also class can clip your wings and make your life hardly livable. As mentioned above, there remains one main blind spot though concerning intersectionality, which is the issue of ethnicity and the exploitation of the colonial other with Bertha Mason’s life being everything but “livable”.



ATHERTON, Carol. “The Figure of Bertha Mason”, British Library Website, 15 May 2014, https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/the-figure-of-bertha-mason.

BRONTË, Charlotte. 2006 (1847). Jane Eyre. London: Penguin Classics.

BUTLER, Judith. 2007 (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and Subversion of Identity. London: Routledge.

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CRENSHAW, Kimberlé. 1989. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics”, University of Chicago Legal Forum, Volume 1989, Article 8, https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/uclf/vol1989/iss1/8

DAVIS, Mary Ann. 2016. “‘On the Extreme Brink’ with Charlotte Brontë: Revisiting Jane Eyre’s Erotics of Power”, Papers on Language and Literature, volume 52, n°2, pp.115-148.

FOUCAULT, Michel. 1977. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, London: Random House.

GILBERT, Sandra. 1977. “Plain Jane’s Progress”, Signs, volume 2, n°4, pp.779-804.

LEE, Julia Sun-Joo. 2008. “The (Slave) Narrative of Jane Eyre”, Victorian Literature and Culture, volume 36, n°2, pp.317-329.

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---.1997. “Foucault and the Subject of Feminism”, Social Theory and Practice, volume 23, n°1, pp.109-128, https://www.jstor.org/stable/23559121.

RHYS, Jean. 2001 (1966). Wide Sargasso Sea. London: Penguin, 2001.

RIGBY, Elizabeth. 1848. “Vanity Fair–and Jane Eyre”, Quarterly Review, volume 84, pp.153-185.

RUSKIN, John. 1886. Works of John Ruskin: Sesame and Lilies. Ethics of the Dust. Crown of Wild Olive. Queen of the Air. Hoboken: Wiley.

SPIVAK, Gayatry Chakravorty. 1985. “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism”, Critical Inquiry, volume 12, n°1, pp. 235-261.

THORMÄLHEN, Marianne. 2007. The Brontës and Education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

WHITE, Kathryn and FERGUSON, Frank. 2019. “The Silence, Exile, and Cunning of “I”: An Analysis of Bildungsroman as the Place Model in the Work of Charlotte Brontë and James Joyce”, Education Sciences, volume 9, n°4, pp.1-11.

WOLLSTONECRAFT, Mary. 1792 (1975). A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: With Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects. Ed. Miriam Kramnick. London: Penguin.

WOOLF, Virginia. 1929 (1998). “A Room of One’s Own”, in Morag Shiach, A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Further Reading

Jane Eyre

Podcasts on France Inter :

“Jane Eyre, le chef d'oeuvre de Charlotte Brontë”, 20 avril 2013. https://www.radiofrance.fr/franceinter/podcasts/ca-peut-pas-faire-de-mal/jane-eyre-le-chef-d-oeuvre-de-charlotte-bronte-3927139

“Jane Eyre, le chef d'oeuvre de Charlotte Brontë”, 22 avril 2013. https://www.radiofrance.fr/franceinter/podcasts/autant-en-emporte-l-histoire/autant-en-emporte-l-histoire-du-samedi-22-avril-2023-2770687

Articles on the British Library website

“Jane Eyre and the 19th-century woman”. https://www.bl.uk/works/jane-eyre

“The Figure of Bertha Mason”. https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/the-figure-of-bertha-mason

Gender and Gender roles in 19th century Britain

Hughes, Kathryn. “Gender roles in the 19th century”. https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/gender-roles-in-the-19th-century

Teaching pack on “Gender, behaviour and etiquette” with essential articles and thought-provoking videos on Jane Eyre and the role of women (Professor John Bowen), gender in 19th-century Britain (Kathryn Hughes). https://fr.scribd.com/document/626555656/NF-19C-Gender-behaviour-and-etiquette-teachers-pack

Major Victorian articles on women’s “sphere”

John Ruskin’s essay on men and women’s respective spheres: “Of Queens’ gardens” (in Lecture II, Lilies). https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1293/1293-h/1293-h.htm

Elizabeth Rigby’s 1848 review of Jane Eyre: “Vanity Fair–and Jane Eyre.” http://www.quarterly-review.org/classic-qr-the-original-1848-review-of-jane-eyre/

Pour citer cette ressource :

Christine Vandamme, "A voice and a place of one’s own: women, knowledge and empowerment in Charlotte Brontë’s «Jane Eyre»", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), novembre 2023. Consulté le 18/07/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/litterature-britannique/women-knowledge-and-empowerment-in-charlotte-bronte-s-jane-eyre