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Jan-Melissa Schramm considers the extent to which Anne, Charlotte and Emily Brontës’ ideas of the human depend upon, and differ from, legal and theological ideas of ‘rights’ before the law and ‘creatureliness’ before God. Providing a detailed examination of the submissive self in Victorian Evangelical theology; Romantic autobiography and the language of experience; and nascent formulations of human rights frameworks, Schramm moves to a close reading of Jane Eyre, including an analysis of religious (William Ellery Channing) as opposed to later secular (Samuel Smiles) self-culture in Jane’s ethical education. Anne and Charlotte Brontës’ inclusion of Biblical quotation both worked to underpin trajectories of female empowerment and helped to create a more liberal sense of Biblical meaning. As Schramm attests, the sense of equality of all before God had to be established in the public sphere before legal recognition could follow. The Brontës’ complex ideas of the human, combining reason, the heart and Christian humility, serve for Schramm as a case-study of the extent to which modern ideas of autonomy might be successfully grafted onto self-abnegation before God: and Jane Eyre, Shirley, Agnes Grey, Wuthering Heights, Villette and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall all play a part in this process.
Jan-Melissa Schramm explores the conflicted attitude of the Victorian novel to sacrifice, and the act of substitution on which it depends. The Christian idea of redemption celebrated the suffering of the innocent: to embrace a life of metaphorical self-sacrifice was to follow in the footsteps of Christ's literal Passion. Moreover, the ethical agenda of fiction relied on the expansion of sympathy which imaginative substitution was seen to encourage. But Victorian criminal law sought to calibrate punishment and culpability as it repudiated archaic models of sacrifice that scapegoated the innocent. The tension between these models is registered creatively in the fiction of novelists such as Dickens, Gaskell and Eliot, at a time when acts of Chartist protest, national sacrifices made during the Crimean War, and the extension of the franchise combined to call into question what it means for one man to 'stand for', and perhaps even 'die for', another.
According to John Forster's Life, Charles Dickens was empanelled to serve on a coroner's jury sometime in 1840 for an inquest on the body of a young baby allegedly murdered by its mother. Dickens's ‘persevering exertion’ and ‘the humane help of the coroner, Mr Wakley … combined to ensure she was only charged with concealing the birth’ instead of the capital crime of murder:
‘The poor desolate creature dropped upon her knees before us with protestations that we were right (protestations among the most affecting that I have ever heard in my life), and was carried away insensible. I caused some extra care to be taken of her in the prison, and counsel to be retained for her defence when she was tried at the Old Bailey; and her sentence was lenient, and her history and conduct proved that it was right’. How much [Dickens] felt the little incident, at the actual time of its occurrence, may be judged from the few lines written next morning: ‘Whether it was the poor baby, or its poor mother, or the coffin, or my fellow-jurymen, I can't say, but last night I had a most violent attack of sickness and indigestion, which not only prevented me from sleeping, but even from lying down.’