Filling/Falling in the Gender Gap: Jane Eyre’s Early Readers

Filling/Falling in the Gender Gap: Jane Eyre’s Early Readers

Harry Heuser

Today’s readers may comfortably approach Jane Eyre as a fiction of female development written, the book cover informs us, by a woman named Charlotte Brontë.  I say “comfortably” because, as the initial reception of Jane Eyre illustrates, readers like to judge a book by its cover and often depend on the three basic interpretative signposts it provides: author (Brontë), genre (novel), and subject matter (someone called Jane Eyre).  Those three signposts were cancelled out or knocked out of place in the first edition, which, as Jerome Beaty reminds us, was introduced by the title page “Jane Eyre: An Autobiography.  Edited by Currer Bell” (169).  And even though Jane Eyre, which frequently comments on the reader-text-author relationship, comes fully equipped with a set of instructions for the text play it cocreates with the reader, many of Brontë’s contemporaries engaged instead in text play defined primarily by the societal context and literary conventions of Victorian England.

Reading Life-Writing

The novel, as David Madden points out, has traditionally half-denied its own existence—or always proved its protean form—by pretending to be what it is not: documentary.  To be sure, considering Jane Eyre’s gothic elements and melodramatic plot twists, the subtitle “Autobiography” alone does little to increase the verisimilitude of the story.  Instead, “Autobiography” signals a way of reading.  In “Autobiography as De-facement,” Paul De Man suggests that autobiography “is not a genre or a mode, but a figure of reading or of understanding that occurs, to some degree, in all texts” (921).  Autobiography places readers in the position of listener to—rather than actor in—a story.  The autobiographical pact is based on the listener’s trust in the speaker’s sharing of her secrets.

While “Reader, I married him,” the opening sentence of chapter 38 (429), is undoubtedly the novel’s most prominent apostrophe, Sylvère Monod has identified thirty passages in which Jane directly addresses the reader.  Readers are frequently reminded of their dependence on Jane for information: “Stay till he comes, reader, and, when I disclose my secret to him, you shall share the confidence” (chapter 25; 262); “Hear an illustration, reader” (chapter 36; 405).  Clearly, Jane is in charge here and interpretation, or, as Stanley Fish calls it, “text making,” is discouraged.  Instead, readers are asked to accept what is provided rather than to supply what they are alerted to as being withheld or wanting: “Do not ask me, reader, to give a minute account of that day” (chapter 28; 314); “Perhaps you think I had forgotten Mr. Rochester, reader. . . .  Not for a moment” (34; 381); “And, reader, do you think I feared him. . . ?—if you do, you little know me” (chapter 37; 412).  In return, Jane, who is willing to cut eight years out of her life to move the story forward, makes considerable concessions to her listeners: “[T]his is not to be a regular autobiography: I am only bound to invoke memory where I know her responses will possess some degree of interest” (chapter 10; 75).  However accommodating, Jane decides what is of interest and what may be cut.  It is, after all, her story—or is it? 

Although Jane Eyre was not the first novel to be packaged as autobiography, its truth-telling premise seemed unacceptable to many early readers.  The story of a young, unassuming woman of limited social influence (an orphan) or historical significance (a governess) did not seem to warrant such a hubristic celebration of self.  Jane’s autobiography needed to be authorized.  Consequently, many early readers neglected the reading instructions provided by the narrator-author equation and went in search of an author.

Authorizing the Author

That search was complicated by the pseudonymous editor Currer Bell.  Even though, as Showalter points out, anonymous or pseudonymous publications were the rule rather than the exception among women writers in Victorian England—Gilbert and Gubar call them “metaphorical trousers” (65)—the first edition of Jane Eyre proved a provocative twist on this convention.  The function of Currer Bell, editor, is never defined or apparent, since the first edition did not even have a preface and was free from editorial notes.  If considered as the work’s author, the elusive Currer Bell becomes even more perplexing.  As Elizabeth Gaskell puts it, “England was in a ferment to discover the unknown author” and “[e]very little incident mentioned in the book was turned this way and that to answer, if possible, the much-vexed question of sex.”

While language was scrutinized for clues about the author’s gender—either judged to be “evidently a woman” (Lewes 84) or to contain “evidence which at once acquit the feminine hand” (Rigby 141)—the text, although inciting the search, frequently signals that such categorizations are morally questionable:

Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their effort as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid constraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags.  It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.  (Chapter 12; 101)

Early readers, having dismissed Jane’s authority, found it difficult to accept such commentary without knowledge of the author’s gender.  Thus, while “text play,” according to Iser (in The Fictive and the Imaginary), contains all basic elements of play—agonaleamimicry, and ilinx—many early readers of Jane Eyre reduced the as-if play of reading (mimicry) to the either-or play (agon) of seeking to conquer the work’s apparent ambiguity. It certainly was a way of reading Bronte resented.  As a critic of the Economist was informed by the author of Jane Eyre:

To you I am neither man nor woman.  I come before you as an author only.  It is the sole standard by which you have a right to judge me—the sole ground on which I accept your judgment” (qtd. in Showalter 96).

The autobiographical premise of storyteller and listener gave way to a debate between both; letters were written in response to reader-responses, prefaces were added.  “Conventionality is not morality,” warns Currer Bell in the preface to the second edition.  Yet the dedication to Thackeray stimulated even wilder speculations.  

Curiously, the search for clues concerning authorship continued well after Brontë’s identity was revealed.  Both Sharon Marcus and Mark M. Hennelly, Jr. have pointed out, for example, that Jane Eyre’s initials form the word “Je” (207; 703) which, considering the significance of French culture and language in the novel, may be interpreted as Brontë’s ludic acknowledgment of her self-effacement or, as Sharon argues, her “veiled self-advertisement” (205).  Yet while such an exercise in acrostics remains arcane to most readers, Jane Eyre provides far clearer reading instructions: indeed, reading lessons may be read as the very subject matter of Jane Eyre.

Reading Jane Reading

If subject matter of a work is encoded in its title, the subject of the first edition of Jane Eyre was not Jane Eyre.  The full title, after all, reads: Jane Eyre: An Autobiography, drawing attention not only to the life being told, but also to the telling: a growing-up experience through language based on the premise that, as Karen Chase puts, the “Jane who narrates cannot be identified with the Jane narrated” (76).

The opening chapter of Jane Eyre already establishes what Hennelly has identified as “the book’s preoccupation with the problematic phenomenology of reading.”  The autodiegetic character introduces herself as a reader; and the reader-text-author relationship is defined as one based on trust.  While Jane is hidden from public view, she takes her readers into her hiding place.  Not unlike the doubly-disguised Brontë (as editor Currer Bell, she has switched both name and role), reader-author Jane is “shrined in double retirement” (1).  Happily reading, she “feared nothing but interruption.”  She comments on the “significance” of the “introductory pages” of her favorite book (“my book”), of having “possessed” herself of a book appropriated from John Reed’s library, who, finding her out, reminds her of the patriarchy that owns the “book-shelves.”  In the hands of another, her favorite book-companion becomes a weapon which is hurled at her.  

All this suggests that the reading event, the author-text-reader bond is seen as an intimate and delicate one, threatened by patriarchal conventions.  If uncorrupted, it can lead to self-discovery through a spiritual union, as the one experienced by Jane and Mr. Rochester, who, Jane reminds us in the final chapter, “saw books through me. . . .  Never did I weary of reading to him” (chapter 38; 432).  Attempts at demanding more than the reader-narrator is willing to share, on the other hand, corrupt this union, and the obsession of interpreting through naming will only lead to name-calling (John Reed calls Jane “Madame Mope” and “bad animal” [3]).

Temma F. Berg argues that Jane’s “story is the story of her increasing powers as a reader” (124).  Yet the early readers of Jane Eyre also asserted their powers, backed up by the societal and literary conventions of their time; conventions which proved stronger reading lessons than those provided by Jane Eyre.  Discussions on reading gender are far from over today.  Nels C. Pearson remarked about gender in Jane Eyre that it is the “fact that we are so inclined to define our existence in terms of binary oppositions in the first place that makes the text seem to resist, or blunt, the ways in which we want to read it.”  Robyn R. Warhol suggests that “Victorian women novelists like the Brontes are not so much unconsciously ‘written by’ gender codes as they are actively engaged in rewriting them” (858).

Apparently, though, early readers of Jane Eyre were not quite ready for such rewrites.  They seemed unwilling to have their own preconceptions overtaken, of allowing the text to become their present while their own ideas fade into the past which, as to Iser argues in The Implied Reader, is a prerequisite of experiencing the text.  If, as Walter J. Ong once put it “The Writer’s Audience is Always a Fiction,” Brontë fictionalized a more open-minded audience for her work—a project that Millicent Bell calls “utopianism,” being that it “daringly confronts social reality” (268)—than the one that limited text play to filling or—falling into—the gaps perceived on the book’s very cover.

Works Cited

Beaty, Jerome.  “Jane Eyre at Gateshead: Mixed Signals in the Text and Context.” Victorian Literature and Society.  Edited by James R. Kincaid and Albert J. Kuhn.  Ohio UP, 1984, pp. 168-96.

Bell, Millicent.  “Jane Eyre: The Tale of the Governess.”  The American Scholar, vol. 65, no. 2, Spring 1996, pp. 263-269.

Berg, Temma F.  “From Pamela to Jane Gray; or, How Not to Become the Heroine of Your Own Text.”  Studies in the Novel, vol. 17, no. 2, Summer 1985, pp. 115-37.

Chase, Karen.  Eros and Psyche: The Representation of Personality in Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, and George Eliot.  Methuen, 1984.

De Man, Paul.  “Autobiography as De-facement.”  MLN, vol. 94, No. 5, Dec. 1979, pp. 919-30.

Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar.  The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination.  Yale UP, 1979.

Hennelly, Mark M.  “Jane Eyre’s Reading Lesson.”  ELH, vol. 51, no. 4, Winter 1984, pp. 693-717.

Iser, Wolfgang.  The Fictive and the Imaginary.  Johns Hopkins UP, 1993.

—.  The Implied Reader.  Johns Hopkins UP, 1974.

Lewes, G. H.  Review of Jane Eyre in Fraser’s, no. 36, Dec. 1847, pp. 686-95.  The Brontes: The Critical Heritage.  Edited by Miriam Allott.  1974.  Routledge, 1995, pp. 83-87.

Madden, David.  A Primer of the Novel for Readers and Writers.  Scarecrow, 1980.

Marcus, Sharon.  “The Profession of the Author: Abstraction, Advertising, and Jane Eyre.”  PMLA, vol. 110, no. 2, Mar. 1995, pp. 206-19.

Monod, Sylvère.  “Charlotte Brontë and the Thirty ‘Readers’ of Jane Eyre.”  Jane Eyre.  By Charlotte Brontë.  Edited by Richard J. Dunn.  Norton, 1971, pp. 496-507.

Pearson, Nels C.  “Voice of My Voice: Mutual Submission and Transcendental Potentiality in Jane Eyre.”  Victorian Newsletter, no. 90, Fall 1996, pp. 28-32.

Rigby, Elizabeth.  “Review of Jane Eyre: An Autobiography.”  Rpt. from Quarterly Review, no. 84, Dec. 1848, pp. 173-76.  Critical Essays on Charlotte Brontë.  Edited by Barbara Timm Gates.  G. K. Hall, 1990, pp. 139-42.

Showalter, Elaine A.  A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Bronte to Lessing.  Princeton UP, 1977.

Warhol, Robyn R.  “Double Gender, Double Genre in Jane Eyre and Villette.”  Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 36, no. 4, Autumn 1996, pp. 857-75.

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