Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Class in Jane Eyre (1847) & Vanity Fair (1847-48)

Jane Eyre and Becky Sharp are both penniless orphans who grow up as boarders in the schools to which they've been sent to be educated as governesses for children of upper-class families. Since such a person would be too well educated to be a servant but too poor, obscure and powerless to be a lady, hers would ordinarily be a pretty miserable fate, trapped in a classless and therefore powerless no-man's land without any rights whatsoever. You can see why a novelist drawn to the subject of class might choose to put a governess at the center of his or her story. 

Though both Charlotte Brontë and William Thackeray are writing about class, only the former was willing or able to think hard, i.e. radically, about the meaning of 'equality' half-a-century after the excesses of the great revolution in France had put the subject out of bounds.

The great manifesto occurs in chapter 23, after Mr. Rochester has deliberately provoked Jane beyond endurance with his joke–which only he knows is a joke– about sending her off to work for a Mrs. Dionysius O'Gall, of Bitternutt  Lodge, Connaught, Ireland. "Do you think," she demands fiercely, "I am an automaton?–a machine without feelings? . . . Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!–I have as much soul as you–and full as much heart! . . . 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!"

Equal before God? Yes of course. Anyone could have said that and anyone could have agreed for such words are cheap, and cost nothing. Jane is not Rochester's equal because he has all the power—his joke is itself a demonstration of power—and she has none. But Charlotte Brontë is not going to leave it at that; the rest of the novel is about making them equal. That can only be done violently. Before Jane and Rochester can meet as equals in this world, his house has to be burned down and he must become blind and paralysed from the waist down. In other words, I guess, the idea or ideal of a gentleman has to be (as we might say) deconstructed. 

1 comment:

  1. I think that we may have crossed paths a long time ago in Baoding. My husband and I taught at Hebei University from 1981 - 1982. We were at Jilin University after that, then in Beijing for two more years.