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  • Print publication year: 2009
  • Online publication date: March 2010

10 - Charlotte Brontë

Summary

“'Master! How is he my master?'” Jane Eyre , 1847 / Every reader who remembers what it was like, as a child, to be hurt without reason and punished for crimes not committed, must warm to the first scene of Jane Eyre, where the young Jane breaks out 'like a mad cat' (JE, 12) against her bullying cousin, John Reed. Her protest, 'Unjust ! - unjust!' (JE, 15) claims common cause with categories of oppression well beyond her situation as an orphan and poor relation: 'Wicked and cruel boy!', she cries, 'You are like a murderer - you are like a slave-driver - you are like the Roman emperors!' (JE, 11). Her aunt's lady's maid, however, insists on a specific class and gender context, finding Jane's conduct 'shocking' because it fails in due deference to her 'young master' (JE, 12). Jane's reply, 'How is he my master?', opens up a dominant theme in Charlotte Brontë's work. Jane Eyre's earliest readers were alarmed by this self-reliant heroine, who moves from childish 'mutiny' (JE, 12) to an adult claim to stand 'equal' with the man she loves, despite his apparent superiority in class and wealth (JE, 266). 'Every page burns with moral Jacobinism' wrote one reviewer: ' “Unjust, unjust,” is the burden of every reflection upon the things and powers that be', while another found that 'the tone of the mind and thought which has overthrown authority . . . abroad, and fostered Chartism and rebellion at home, is the same which has also written Jane Eyre'. Nowadays, when Jane Eyre is read primarily as a love story, this response seems extreme. In 1847, however, when the novel appeared, the Chartist movement threatened civil anarchy in England.