Friday, 23 March 2012
The Victorian era was a time of sexual repression. Men weren’t even allowed to sit where a woman had been seated until a suitable amount of time had passed, because that warm cushion might give them ideas.
Sexuality in the Victorian era was simmering beneath the surface, yet the lid was tightly, tightly screwed on.
It was difficult for a female writer to find a publisher. Charlotte Brontë took an androgynous pseudonym, Currer Bell, when she submitted Jane Eyre for publication. A life as a novelist was not considered suitable for a lady of the genteel classes. It was also thought that women were morally weak and could be corrupted. It was thought dangerous for the writer, and her female readers.
"Miss Brontë has written a hideous, undelightful, convulsed, constricted novel . . . one of the most utterly disagreeable books I've ever read . . . [because] the writer's mind contains nothing but hunger, rebellion and rage and therefore that is all she can, in fact, put in her book"
Multiple petticoats and collars to the chin, hide every inch of flesh, in Jane Eyre, and this covering up, and denial of sexuality, brings about an erotic tension. Our own erotica is heavily informed by Victorian ladies’ under garments. But it is not just in the descriptions of female attire, that makes Jane Eyre so erotic. Jane Eyre is filled with barely suppressed, dark desire, through Charlotte Brontë’s use of language, pace and timing.
At the time of writing, Charlotte had not been married. She did not marry until 1854; Jane Eyre was published in 1847. She was raised by a strict clergyman, and probably was not truly knowledgeable about men and women’s romantic relationships. Yet she could not have filled Jane Eyre with more thickly layered sexual tension. Perhaps the latent eroticism, from all three of the sisters in their writing, comes from them living, and probably menstruating together, in a remote parsonage, with only a drunken brother to lavish affection on. It's hardly surprising, that they conjure up males like Heathcliff, Gilbert Markham and Rochester.
Jane Eyre first encounters Mr Rochester on a "tall steed" and mistakes him for a Gytrash, a north-of-England spirit that takes bestial form. Rochester's horse slips on the ice, and he is unseated. Jane describes her first impression of Rochester.
"I traced the general points of middle height, and considerable breadth of chest. He had a dark face, with stern features, and a heavy brow; his eyes and gathered eyebrows looked ireful and thwarted just now; he was past youth, but had not reached middle age; perhaps he might be thirty-five. I felt no fear of him, and but a little shyness. Had he been a handsome, heroic-looking young gentleman, I should not have dared to stand thus questioning him against his will, and offering my services unasked...I had a theoretical reverence an homage for beauty, elegance, gallantry, fascination; but had I met those qualities incarnate in masculine shape, I should have known instinctively that they neither had nor could have sympathy with anything in me and should have shunned them as one would fire, lightning, or anything else that is bright but antipathetic.”
It is an eloquent and intense description of a man that she has barely had the chance to glance at. The lover of Romance novels immediately recognises the Romantic hero. The man who strides across every Romance writer’s pages usually causing havoc and upsetting the mental faculties of the heroine. The reader of Erotica sniffs the breeze and scents virility, experience, vitality, testosterone, pheromones.
Their courtship is conducted through language. A verbal parrying, in which Jane demonstrates that she is easily Rochester’s equal. Yet he confounds her; he confuses her. She feels his fascination and the reader can feel her falling for him.
Rochester seems to test her, and her answers, always short and always honest, thrill and
She “knew the pleasure of vexing and soothing him by turns,”
All of this flirtatious banter is intensified by sensuous details that set a scene of romance. Rochester is sexually experienced; Jane is not, and his behaviour puzzles her; she does not know the rules of the game.
“He would sometimes pass me haughtily and coldly, just acknowledging my presence by a distant nod or cool glance, and sometimes bow and smile with gentleman-like affability.”
The mixture of Rochester’s cold masculinity and warm gallantry make him the ideal Romantic hero. He is dark and brooding, yet capable of kindness and tenderness. He is a vessel of vitality. Charlotte Brontë intimates that Rochester transforms his home just by flinging open the doors and entering. Eroticism comes home to Thornfield.
“Thornfield Hall was a changed place. No longer
silent as a church, it echoed every hour or two to a knock at the door
or a clang of the bell…a rill from the outer world was flowing through
it. It had a master; for my part, I liked it better”
Vitality is sexy and it comes purely from the character of Rochester.
But Rochester is an enigma, to Jane and the reader, and the setting of Thornfield Hall and the demented woman in the attic create an air of mystery and danger. Battlements, sprawling lands, and sinister noises all make Thornfield Hall a character of its own.
Jane quickly realizes that the servants within the ominous hall are hiding something from her. They chatter in low voices amongst themselves, yet abruptly stop when she enters a room. There is a fire in Rochester’s bedroom, yet he brushes off the incident, and the mysterious cackles that Jane has heard, as the work of Grace Poole. But Jane can sense there is something more. Why does Rochester keep Grace if she wishes him dead? Why does she get paid more than any other servant? There is also the question of who tried to suck Mr. Mason’s blood, and why Rochester ordered him to not say a word to Jane? The book is full of questions, but it is also laden with foreshadowing, such as Rochester’s frequent rants about innocence, and the chestnut tree splitting in half. Danger lurks around every dimly lit corner.
There is a fire in Rochester’s room and Jane comes to his rescue. When the fire is out she stands awkwardly in his dark bedroom, clad in only a thin nightgown. When she tries to leave, he exclaims;
“What, are you quitting me already, and in that way?”
There is a sense of repression in Rochester’s words; he is struggling to convey something to her. But what is it?
When she tries to leave, he grabs her hand tightly and exclaims;
“What, you WILL go?”
He appears to be asking Jane to stay with him, alone at night in his dark bedroom. They are wearing only their nightclothes. This would have been outrageously shocking to the Victorian reader. Even to the 21st century reader, it is erotic; exciting.
“He paused; gazed at me; words almost visible trembled on his lips-but his voice was checked…”Strange energy was in his voice, strange fire in his look.”
He continues to hold her hand. There is tremendous fervour in his words
When she returns to her room, Jane cannot rest, such is the effect that Rochester has had on her.
“Some would resist delirium; judgement would warn passion. Too feverish to rest, I rose as soon as day dawned.”
At this point, I have to try and take my mind back to when I first read Jane Eyre. Before I knew the tale. Before I knew that the creature that gropes its way into Jane’s room is poor, demented Bertha Mason. The reader is excited and curious; is it Rochester? Grace Poole? The reader doesn’t know and neither does Jane.
Rochester leaves Thornfield for two weeks. A letter comes from him addressed to Mrs Fairfax. As she breaks the seal, Jane is overheated; she blushes and trembles.
“And while she broke the seal and perused the document, I went on taking my coffee (we were at breakfast): it was hot, and I attributed to that circumstance a fiery glow which suddenly rose to my face. Why my hand shook, and why I involuntarily spilt half the contents of my cup into my saucer, I did not choose to consider.”
Up until her time at Thornfield, Jane’s life has been one of complete greyish misery, and suddenly she is thrust into a world of danger, mystery, and desire.
Society comes to Thornfield with all of its sophistication and style. One woman in particular stands out, and is the focus of everyone’s attention. This is entirely as it should be. Blanche Ingram is beautiful and talented and Rochester flirts with her outrageously. They are a perfect couple. When they sing a duet, their voices blend together harmoniously. And Rochester makes damn sure that Jane is present to observe. He is her employer and he orders her to attend the evening gatherings.
“…understand that so long as my visitors stay, I expect you to appear in the drawing-room every evening; it is my wish; don’t neglect it.”
Rochester leaves her. “‘Goodnight my - ’ He stopped, bit his lip, and abruptly left me.”
What was Rochester going to say, before he stopped himself?
But Jane sees that Blanche is besotted with Rochester, as he is with her and Jane knows that the pair will soon marry. How could such a plain little woman ever have thought that she could inspire such love and desire?
“I saw he was going to marry her, for family, perhaps political reasons; because her rank and connexions suited him; I felt he had not given her his love, and that her qualifications were ill adapted to win from him that treasure. This was the point – this was where the nerve was touched and teased – this was where the fever was sustained and fed: she could not charm him.”
But Jane feels foolish for having thought that a plain, poor governess such as herself could ever be of interest to Mr. Rochester.
“That a greater fool than Jane Eyre had never breathed the breath of life; that a more fantastic idiot had never surfeited herself on sweet lies and swallowed poison as if it were nectar.”
“YOU," I said, "a favourite with Mr. Rochester? YOU gifted with the power of pleasing him? YOU of importance to him in any way? Go! your folly sickens me. And you have derived pleasure from occasional tokens of preference--equivocal tokens shown by a gentleman of family and a man of the world to a dependent and a novice. How dared you? Poor stupid dupe!--Could not even self- interest make you wiser? You repeated to yourself this morning the brief scene of last night?--Cover your face and be ashamed! He said something in praise of your eyes, did he? Blind puppy! Open their bleared lids and look on your own accursed senselessness! It does good to no woman to be flattered by her superior, who cannot possibly intend to marry her; and it is madness in all women to let a secret love kindle within them, which, if unreturned and unknown, must devour the life that feeds it; and, if discovered and responded to, must lead, ignis-fatuus-like, into miry wilds whence there is no extrication.”
There has been a period of separation; Jane is called away on family matters.
Rochester waits impatiently for her. It is midsummer and the weather has been pleasant. In the evening, Jane walks alone in the gardens. From an open window, she scents Rochester’s cigar. Charlotte Brontë uses the device of scent as a means of conveying Rochester’s virility. The scent of a cigar is a fragrance particularly associated with males. Rochester’s scent draws her, but repels her too. Knowing that he could see her from his study window, she darts into the shadowy orchard “laden with ripening fruit.” She can’t escape his scent, however, and smells “the perfume increasing.” She tries to hide in some hanging ivy, but to no avail.
Rochester comes into the garden. He senses Jane is there, even though he has his back turned to her, and she moves silently. It is a demonstration of the psychic connection that lovers have. A lover knows that he is coming, before her sweetheart taps on her door.
He speaks to her. She remarks to the reader, that her usually quick tongue, is silenced. He says that he is soon to be married. He toys with Jane. Finally, she can stand it no more. She speaks passionately of her feelings.
“I tell you I must go!" I retorted, roused to some thing like passion. "Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you? Do you think I am an automaton? - machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? 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! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me as it is now for me to leave you. 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!”
Her outburst decides Rochester, and he proposes marriage to her.
“But, Jane, I summon you as my wife; it is you only I intend to marry.”
“His face was very much agitated and very much flushed, and there were strong workings in the features, and strange gleams in the eyes.”
The pace of the scene is fast. They are both heated and passionate. They dance with erotic words. She refuses to go to him. He goes to her and pulls her to him. She does not believe him, and struggles from his grasp. Finally, she is calm. She acquiesces and studies his face.
The sexual charge, like a charge of electricity, comes from the intensity of the central relationship. Rochester says to Jane:
"I sometimes have a queer feeling with regard to you - it is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string in the corresponding quarter of your little frame."
They are of one flesh, even though they haven’t had sex.
His speech is followed by a flash of lightning from the calm of a midsummer's night. These characters, like Cathy and Heathcliff, do not inhabit the realistic and rational universe of, say, George Eliot. This is a world shadowed by phantasmagoria, where there is opportunity for the reader to unearth dark secrets in the attics and on the moors. What is eroticism if not the desire to embrace the hidden and forbidden?
A sudden storm makes them hurry into the house. The clock strikes midnight. They kiss. Jane sees Mrs Fairfax watching them; “pale and grave.”
The next morning, Adèle, runs to Jane’s room, to tell her that the centuries old horse chestnut tree, has been struck by lightening in the night. Half of it has split away. A Freudian, and French feminist writers, would see the old tree as the phallus; a symbol of towering masculinity,
The following days and weeks, they cannot keep their hands off each other. They kiss, caress, they linger in their embraces. Rochester does not want a long engagement and they settle for four weeks. He spoils her, dresses her in expensive silks, velvet and lace. He plans to smother her with jewels; she remonstrates with him. He insists.
“'I will make the world acknowledge you a beauty, too,' he went on, while I really became uneasy at the strain he had adopted, because I felt he was either deluding himself or trying to delude me. 'I will attire my Jane in satin and lace, and she shall have roses in her hair; and I will cover the head I love best with a priceless veil.'
'And then you won't know me, sir; and I shall not be your Jane Eyre any longer, but an ape in a harlequin's jacket--a jay in borrowed plumes. I would as soon see you, Mr. Rochester, tricked out in stage-trappings, as myself clad in a court-lady's robe; and I don't call you handsome, sir, though I love you most dearly: far too dearly to flatter you. Don't flatter me.'
He pursued his theme, however, without noticing my deprecation…”
The day of the wedding arrives and the party walk to the little church. Rochester and Jane stand at the communion rails. The priest begins the marriage ceremony. He reaches the point where he declares that they should speak if there is any impediment to hinder their marriage and make it unlawful.
“He paused, as the custom is. When is the pause after that sentence ever broken by reply? Not, perhaps, once in a hundred years. And the clergyman, who had not lifted his eyes from his book, and had held his breath but for a moment, was proceeding: his hand was already stretched towards Mr. Rochester, as his lips unclosed to ask, 'Wilt thou have this woman for thy wedded wife?'--when a distinct and near voice said--
'The marriage cannot go on: I declare the existence of an impediment.’”
Rochester demands that the ceremony continue. The priest insists that it cannot.
Rochester has a wife still living. There will be no wedding.
They return to the house and Rochester introduces them to his wife. Afterwards, Jane shuts herself in her room. She ponders on what she should do. When she finally comes out, she stumbles over Rochester. He has been waiting at her door for hours.
He tells her that had she kept him waiting any longer, he would have kicked in the door.
“'You come out at last,' he said. 'Well, I have been waiting for you long, and listening: yet not one movement have I heard, nor one sob: five minutes more of that death-like hush, and I should have forced the lock like a burglar. So you shun me?--you shut yourself up and grieve alone! I would rather you had come and upbraided me with vehemence. You are passionate. I expected a scene of some kind. I was prepared for the hot rain of tears; only I wanted them to be shed on my breast: now a senseless floor has received them, or your drenched handkerchief. But I err: you have not wept at all! I see a white cheek and a faded eye, but no trace of tears. I suppose, then, your heart has been weeping blood?'
'Well, Jane! not a word of reproach? Nothing bitter--nothing poignant? Nothing to cut a feeling or sting a passion? You sit quietly where I have placed you, and regard me with a weary, passive look.’”
Jane simply asks for a glass of water. He sweeps her into his arms and carries her down the stairs. It is an enduring image, and one that the lover of Romance novels will cherish.
“‘I am tired and sick. I want some water.' He heaved a sort of shuddering sigh, and taking me in his arms, carried me downstairs. At first I did not know to what room he had borne me; all was cloudy to my glazed sight: presently I felt the reviving warmth of a fire; for, summer as it was, I had become icy cold in my chamber. He put wine to my lips; I tasted it and revived; then I ate something he offered me, and was soon myself. I was in the library--sitting in his chair--he was quite near. 'If I could go out of life now, without too sharp a pang, it would be well for me,' I thought; 'then I should not have to make the effort of cracking my heart-strings in rending them from among Mr. Rochester's. I must leave him, it appears. I do not want to leave him--I cannot leave him.’”
Rochester his feverish. His actions are swift and impatient. He attempts to kiss her, but she turns her head away.
“Suddenly he turned away, with an inarticulate exclamation, full of passionate emotion of some kind; he walked fast through the room and came back; he stooped towards me as if to kiss me; but I remembered caresses were now forbidden. I turned my face away and put his aside.”
He tells her of what he wants to do. They will go away, leave Thornfield. They will make a swift departure the very next day.
“I shook my head: it required a degree of courage, excited as he was becoming, even to risk that mute sign of dissent. He had been walking fast about the room, and he stopped, as if suddenly rooted to one spot. He looked at me long and hard: I turned my eyes from him, fixed them on the fire, and tried to assume and maintain a quiet, collected aspect.”
Jane sees that she is seconds away from rape.
“He recommenced his walk, but soon again stopped, and this time just before me.
'Jane! will you hear reason?' (he stooped and approached his lips to my ear); 'because, if you won't, I'll try violence.' His voice was hoarse; his look that of a man who is just about to burst an insufferable bond and plunge headlong into wild license. I saw that in another moment, and with one impetus of frenzy more, I should be able to do nothing with him. The present--the passing second of time--was all I had in which to control and restrain him--a movement of repulsion, flight, fear would have sealed my doom…”
Jane is aroused, just as the reader of Romance will be by now. The eroticism in this
scene stems from the tension of danger and restraint. Rochester is about
to lose control, yet Jane is able to restrain him.
“But I was not afraid: not in the least. I felt an inward power; a sense of influence, which supported me. The crisis was perilous; but not without its charm: such as the Indian, perhaps, feels when he slips over the rapid in his canoe.”
Again, he tells her that they must go away; leave Thornfield and the putrid taint of insanity.
“'Of course: I told you you should. I pass over the madness about parting from me. You mean you must become a part of me. As to the new existence, it is all right: you shall yet be my wife: I am not married. You shall be Mrs. Rochester--both virtually and nominally. I shall keep only to you so long as you and I live. You shall go to a place I have in the south of France: a whitewashed villa on the shores of the Mediterranean. There you shall live a happy, and guarded, and most innocent life. Never fear that I wish to lure you into error--to make you my mistress. Why did you shake your head? Jane, you must be reasonable, or in truth I shall again become frantic.’”
Jane sees the sugar coated image crumble. He is dissembling; playing with words. Making them mean what he wants them to mean. Jane refuses to allow the argument any validity.
“'Sir, your wife is living: that is a fact acknowledged this morning by yourself. If I lived with you as you desire, I should then be your mistress: to say otherwise is sophistical--is false.’”
Rochester tells her how he was lured by his own family, and by the Mason family, into marrying Bertha. The dark secret of congenital madness had been carefully kept from him.
Jane listens. But still, she leaves Thornfield alone, the very next morning, while the rest of the house sleeps.
Charlotte Brontë has made the character of Mr. Rochester an erotic image for
generations of women. Maybe it’s his raging libido, his wicked tongue, his
dry sense of humour, or even his flaws that make him so enticing. Rochester has been the template for the hero of millions of Romance writers.
It is no surprise that when surveyed by Mills and Boon, the nation's readers voted Charlotte Brontë’s Mr Rochester the most romantic character in literature. The true hero, has to have more than charm and dash. Those things are fine for a flirtation; a dalliance. But if he is to get a real hold of your heart, then he must hurt it a bit, a lot; make it bruise and bleed.
Charlotte Brontë’s story is well known. It has been retold many times, in film, theatre and television adaptations. But here is a synopsis;
“Jane Eyre is a young orphan being raised by Mrs. Reed, her cruel, wealthy aunt. A servant named Bessie provides Jane with some of the few kindnesses she receives, telling her stories and singing songs to her. One day, as punishment for fighting with her bullying cousin John Reed, Jane’s aunt imprisons Jane in the red-room, the room in which Jane’s Uncle Reed died. While locked in, Jane, believing that she sees her uncle’s ghost, screams and faints. She wakes to find herself in the care of Bessie and the kindly apothecary Mr. Lloyd, who suggests to Mrs. Reed that Jane be sent away to school. To Jane’s delight, Mrs. Reed concurs.
Once at Lowood School, Jane finds that her life is far from idyllic. The school’s headmaster is Mr. Brocklehurst, a cruel, hypocritical, and abusive man. Brocklehurst preaches a doctrine of poverty and privation to his students while using the school’s funds to provide a wealthy and opulent lifestyle for his own family. At Lowood, Jane befriends a young girl named Helen Burns,whose strong, martyrlike attitude toward the school’s miseries is both helpful and displeasing to Jane. A massive typhus epidemic sweeps Lowood, and Helen dies of consumption. The epidemic also results in the departure of Mr. Brocklehurst by attracting attention to the insalubrious conditions at Lowood. After a group of more sympathetic gentlemen takes Brocklehurst’s place, Jane’s life improves dramatically. She spends eight more years at Lowood, six as a student and two as a teacher.
After teaching for two years, Jane yearns for new experiences. She accepts a governess position at a manor called Thornfield, where she teaches a lively French girl named Adèle. The distinguished housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax presides over the estate. Jane’s employer at Thornfield is a dark, impassioned man named Rochester, with whom Jane finds herself falling secretly in love. She saves Rochester from a fire one night, which he claims was started by a drunken servant named Grace Poole. But because Grace Poole continues to work at Thornfield, Jane concludes that she has not been told the entire story. Jane sinks into despondency when Rochester brings home a beautiful but vicious woman named Blanche Ingram. Jane expects Rochester to propose to Blanche. But Rochester instead proposes to Jane, who accepts almost disbelievingly.
The wedding day arrives, and as Jane and Mr. Rochester prepare to exchange their vows, the voice of Mr. Mason cries out that Rochester already has a wife. Mason introduces himself as the brother of that wife—a woman named Bertha. Mr. Mason testifies that Bertha, whom Rochester married when he was a young man in Jamaica, is still alive. Rochester does not deny Mason’s claims, but he explains that Bertha has gone mad. He takes the wedding party back to Thornfield, where they witness the insane Bertha Mason scurrying around on all fours and growling like an animal. Rochester keeps Bertha hidden on the third story of Thornfield and pays Grace Poole to keep his wife under control. Bertha was the real cause of the mysterious fire earlier in the story. Knowing that it is impossible for her to be with Rochester, Jane flees Thornfield.
Penniless and hungry, Jane is forced to sleep outdoors and beg for food. At last, three siblings who live in a manor alternatively called Marsh End and Moor House take her in. Their names are Mary, Diana, and St. John (pronounced “Sinjin”) Rivers, and Jane quickly becomes friends with them. St. John is a clergyman, and he finds Jane a job teaching at a charity school in Morton. He surprises her one day by declaring that her uncle, John Eyre, has died and left her a large fortune: 20,000 pounds. When Jane asks how he received this news, he shocks her further by declaring that her uncle was also his uncle: Jane and the Rivers are cousins. Jane immediately decides to share her inheritance equally with her three newfound relatives.
St. John decides to travel to India as a missionary, and he urges Jane to accompany him—as his wife. Jane agrees to go to India but refuses to marry her cousin because she does not love him. St. John pressures her to reconsider, and she nearly gives in. However, she realizes that she cannot abandon forever the man she truly loves when one night she hears Rochester’s voice calling her name over the moors. Jane immediately hurries back to Thornfield and finds that it has been burned to the ground by Bertha Mason, who lost her life in the fire. Rochester saved the servants but lost his eyesight and one of his hands. Jane travels on to Rochester’s new residence, Ferndean, where he lives with two servants named John and Mary.
At Ferndean, Rochester and Jane rebuild their relationship and soon marry. At the end of her story, Jane writes that she has been married for ten blissful years and that she and Rochester enjoy perfect equality in their life together. She says that after two years of blindness, Rochester regained sight in one eye and was able to behold their first son at his birth.”
Synopsis from Sparknotes.