So in my summer odyssey of brain fog, I became a bit of a Youtube junkie, because that was a relatively effort-free distraction from my back injury and its sequelae as well as my complete inability to make and carry out plans. (As any ADHD person knows, you have to make a plan to make a plan, so sometimes you’re just SOL on a bad brain day.) There, that should fill you, gentle reader, in on what was going on while I wasn’t blogging.
But, I’m back, with a whole list of Youtubers whose channels I’ve been enjoying, and today I’m linking a recent video by Dr. Octavia Cox, who does close readings of 18th and 19th century literature as a public service, and really, why more English majors don’t do this, I don’t know. Dr. Cox invites people to open discussion in the comments, but to be honest there’s no way I’m going to fit my ersatz Romanticist reax into a mere Youtube comment, so I’m blogging it instead. Plus, it has a bearing on the kind of writing talk I do here, so that’s where I’m going with this post.
You should really watch the video for the nuances — it’s only 20 minutes — but the gist is that a very celebrated passage in Jane Eyre, in which Jane-as-narrator castigates the cultural bonds that give women no scope for action and creativity, is bookended by her rather repressive methods as governess at the beginning, and the bitter laugh of Grace Poole (which is really Bertha Mason but Jane doesn’t know it yet), in a metaphorical commentary on Jane’s feminist mental rant at the end.
I think Dr. Cox is mostly right in her analysis of the passage (she is pretty good with these close readings generally — I particularly commend her commentaries on Jane Austen). What I’d like to discuss is the wider angle of Charlotte Brontë’s engagement with the themes of non-balanced power dynamics.
Jane Eyre is one book — among all the other books I read in surveys of the period — that all but demanded that I read it like a writer. I mostly do that anyway, but I think CB deliberately invites the interlocutor into the space where the story is being created: “Reader, I married him” seems to me another way of saying, “Writer, this is how I’m doing this story.” At some points of the text this invitation seems almost like daring the reader/writer to argue; at others it seems to presume a collaborative listening on our part, and this is where I’m reminded that the Brontë children made up stories together in a literal collaboration of writing/reading.
When it comes to this feminist/counter-feminist tidal lock in Jane Eyre, I have to (pause to groan) bring up The Professor. I’m not going to say go read The Professor if you haven’t, because you probably will wish you hadn’t. It’s an extremely idtastic early novel of CB’s in which the titular professor goes to Belgium, courts one of his students and marries her, and finally achieves a relationship in which he can be the dom he’s dreamed of being all his life but who no one in real life would ever want to have as a dom. If you think I’m exaggerating, this novel really puts the sub in subtext, and the reason I bring it up is that this novel is also written in first-person POV — but from the POV of the male character. The female character (well, all the other characters, really, but the love interest in particular) is seen entirely from the outside and is objectified by the narrative as well as the professor. My overall impression of this story is that CB had to write it to cleanse her writerly palate; but the point is this. The D/s elements in The Professor are very strong, counter-feminist, and appear to be quite unexamined; but in Jane Eyre they are brought to the center of the narrative and deliberately engaged by the author with the intent of making a fully integrated story realized not just in the POV of Jane the character, but in the 360 degrees of vantage surrounding her.
What this suggests to me is that while Jane the character is replicating the repressive education she herself received, the narrative is interrogating it, and the author is continuing a process of engaging with elements of her own interior world that she is working out through stories.
That’s one of the things that makes Jane Eyre so exciting as a novel, in my opinion; this deliberate cultivation of the id in story to narrate and re-narrate the experience of powerlessness minus trauma. Part of the mechanism of that in Jane Eyre is an actual redressing of the balance of trauma — Rochester has to suffer in order for Jane’s coming back to him to work as a story. But part of it is also setting up situations in which sexually-inflected power imbalances are handled without threatening the integrity of the person who has less power. I’m thinking particularly of St. John whatsisname and how he tries to tell Jane who she is and is destined to be, which is of course his obedient wife, very Professor-like; so, she leaves. And goes back to Rochester, who may be chaotic but at least seems to get her. I have a very strong memory of the scene in which Rochester is begging her to be his bigamous mistress and becomes so insistent and tearful that Jane in the narrative voice says “in another moment, I should be able to do nothing with him” — i.e., if she doesn’t change the trajectory of this scene he is going to make her his mistress by force. Jane frames the threat of rape by someone she loves who lied to her as a situation in which she can’t “do something” with him — she can’t make him be obedient, tractable, calm, or docile as she can with his ward, Jane’s pupil. The Professor this is definitely not.
No, Jane Eyre is not reliably feminist as a governess; one would be surprised if she were. But her counter-feminist tendencies are mingled with this element of dominant-submissive power exchange as a part of the author’s ongoing project of recasting potential and even actual traumas as more integrated stories. Conceptually, feminism and D/s interplay are two different issues, but in the human heart, it ain’t necessarily so. Charlotte Brontë has invited us into her parlor as collaborative listeners as she tells this story; she sets the parameters, and we have the opportunity to reimagine trauma as integrity along with her. I think it’s this aspect of the book that makes it a feminist project, more than the sum of its ideological parts.
Part of the problem for my generation of writers, though, is that the New Critics stand between us and the Brontës, with their insistence that “objective” (which is to say, established and therefore male) storytelling is superior to that which draws on the author’s id; that the recasting of trauma and power imbalances as integrated stories is a contemptible project for a writer to undertake. To which, at this point in my life, I want only to make the same reply that Captain Marvel did: “I don’t have to prove anything to you.”
But I am writing this blog post: I’m glad people are still reading Jane Eyre and grappling with its implications, because it’s still a hugely important book, and I can only aspire to the kind of narrative theology that CB’s achievement represents.