Monday 30 October 2017

Sex and power in Jane Eyre

The latest crop of sexual predators has me searching for literary precedents. 

An orphan, dependent on charity in childhood and on her own industry as an adult, Jane Eyre understands the importance of money and the necessity of working for it. When she runs away from Rochester’s house, having discovered that he’s already married, she leaves the pearl necklace she would have worn as his bride and takes only what she has earned as his employee. “My purse, containing twenty shillings (it was all I had), I put in my pocket.” Both the integrity and the precision are characteristic. 
Image result for image for jane eyreExposed as a would-be bigamist, Rochester has made Jane a tempting offer. He has enough money to keep them both in comfort. Who needs a wedding? They can live as husband and wife in France, where no one will know or care about the technicalities. Though it means giving up her home and her only source of income to face loneliness and destitution, Jane turns him down. Her reasons are both principled and pragmatic. Rochester has recounted his search for love in all the wrong places, specifically Parisian music halls, setting up a series of mistresses in lavish comfort. He concludes that “I now hate the recollection of the time I passed with Celine, Giacinta and Clara”. Jane fears that if she allows herself to become “the successor of these poor girls, he would one day regard me with the same feeling which now in his mind desecrated their memory”.

As Jane’s patron and employer, Rochester invites comparison with Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly and the rest. If Jane is a victim of sexual harassment in the workplace, she’s in good literary company. A hundred years earlier, Samuel Richardson wrote Pamela, which some consider to be the first fully fledged novel in the English language. Scandalous and much parodied, it was also hugely successful. Teenage maidservant Pamela Andrews has to fight off the groping advances of her boss, a country squire identified only as Mr B, for hundreds of pages before Mr B is moved by her virtue to propose marriage.

Half a century after Jane Eyre, Thomas Hardy recounted the rape of Tess by her employer, Alec D’Urberville, an event that blights her life. The Victorians wouldn’t have called this rape, though Hardy is clear that Tess is in no position to give consent. There was a lot of scholarly debate about this during the twentieth century. In an online forum, I just came across a question posted as recently as 2012 by a first-time female reader who wonders whether Alec was “a monster for raping a woman or… a licentious cad for seducing a virgin.” The question is answered, I think, by the archaic language used for the second option. It’s hard to read this phrase without imagining the writer's air-quotes.

The history of the English novel is full of such stories. John Jarndyce, the owner of Bleak House whom Vladimir Nabokov described as “one of the best and kindest human beings ever described in a novel” seriously blots his copybook when he wins the hand of the sweet-natured and self-effacing Esther Summerson.  The problem isn’t just that he’s too old for her: Esther happens to be an orphan living under his roof as a ward of court, a charity case until he elevates her to the status of housekeeper. When I first read Bleak House and got to this bit, I assumed that Dickens must have considered such creepy Allenesque boundary-crossing just fine. Not so. Later on, seeing that he has exploited Esther’s youth and gratitude, Jarndyce releases her from the engagement. Perhaps it’s this act of renunciation that earns him Nabokov’s praise.

If Rochester is less scrupulous than Jarndyce, he isn’t an unambiguous predator either. Jane falls for Rochester long before he makes any discernible move towards her. He is the most hesitant and respectful suitor, not without reason as it turns out. His crime is not that he exploits his power as her employer but that, once they’ve acknowledged their feelings for each other, he attempts to involve her in a fake marriage. What’s more, he’s got the wife, Bertha, locked away upstairs. What that’s about?

More than 50 years ago, Jean Rhys upended Charlotte Brontë’s story of that relationship, offering an alternative version from Bertha’s point of view. A powerful feminist text and an early classic of postcolonial fiction, Wide Sargasso Sea makes it impossible to swallow Rochester’s own victim narrative whole. As a representative of his race and gender, Rochester is the one with the power, even if we overlook his current role as jailer. And, in any case, a modern reader is bound to rebel against the image of the madwoman as caged animal. But in the context of the novel, Rochester’s personal story is compelling. Having been manoeuvred as a young man into a marriage with an older woman he hardly knows, as a result of a squalid deal between her father and his, he has carried the burden of that youthful mistake ever since.

For Charlotte Brontë, placing Bertha in the attic of Rochester’s house, from which she can escape periodically to haunt the bedrooms, is a brilliant Gothic device. It also has archetypal resonance. Just so in The Tempest, Prospero lives in close quarters with Caliban and must claim ownership of him: “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine”. Thornfield is not only Rochester’s house, but his psyche, containing the past from which he is unable to free himself.       

On a practical level, Rochester could so much more easily have dumped Bertha in a lunatic asylum. This possibility was perhaps so obvious in Victorian England that Charlotte Brontë saw no need to spell it out. Running private asylums was a growing business during the early nineteenth century. In 1828, 19 years before the publication of Jane Eyre, Commissioners in Lunacy were appointed for the first time to licence and inspect them. Hiding one’s mentally disabled or otherwise embarrassing female relatives in institutions continued into the twentieth century. Katherine Bowes-Lyon, cousin to the Queen, died only three years ago at the age of 87, having been incarcerated with her sister Nerissa since 1941 in the Royal Earlswood Asylum for Mental Defectives. In this context, Rochester’s personalised service looks positively conscientious. 

Given that his marriage is beyond rescue, and without the option of divorce, Rochester must choose between, on the one hand, relationships corrupted by money with women for whom he feels passion but no respect and, on the other, unfulfilled love for “a good and intelligent woman” such as Jane. The Madonna-whore dichotomy is written into his social condition.   

Always straightforward about money, Brontë is obliged to be more allusive on the subject of sex. Even so, she finds a way of saying what needs to be said. For example, when Jane considers a later offer of marriage from the evangelical minister St John Rivers, she wonders if she would be able to “endure all the forms of love (which I doubt not he would scrupulously observe)”. The abstract language is chilling. That scrupulous observance, which may be admirable in Rivers’ professional role, would be distinctly unpleasant in the mariage bed.

Rochester’s sex life is discussed in more sensuous language, but its details remain somewhat oblique. In confessing to Jane, he says, “I tried dissipation – never debauchery: that I hated, and hate.”  I must have skimmed that sentence half-a-dozen times over the years, assuming it was making a subtle distinction significant to Victorians but lost on the modern reader. Both nouns suggest an indulgence in sensual pleasure. Only now that I give the language the attention it deserves does it occur to me to refer to the verbs on which the nouns are based. To dissipate is to waste or squander something – energy, passion, time. To debauch is to seduce someone else from virtue. Dissipation is a waste of what’s yours. Debauchery requires a victim. It is the exploitation of the weak and vulnerable for sexual pleasure that Rochester is condemning.

When Jane leaves Rochester’s house it takes every ounce of her courage and resolve. It isn’t Rochester she is running from but her own feelings for him. Rochester is far from faultless, but he’s no Harvey Weinstein.