Governess and the method
Guwernantka i metoda

Katarzyna Czeczot

The following concerns a novel which Queen Victoria is known to have read twice. In her diary we will find a mention of Jane Eyre before 1858 (when Her Majesty was aged nine and thirty) and in 1880. It is how we know that the royal reader was most fascinated by the scenes in which the violently insane Bertha Mason appears, as well as those, where the heroine is reunited with her love and accepts him. So, on the one hand, a gothic story, set in a mansion with battlements and high astragal windows, a story at the centre of which a “savage, sharp, shrilly sound that ran from end to end of Thornfield Hall” can be heard, a demonic laugh, which becomes a “snarling, snatching sound, almost like a dog quarrelling”1. On the other – a conventional romance, with the final “reader, I married him”, which Patricia Beer later used as the title of her book on Victorian-era women2.

The choice made by Her Majesty May come as a surprise, as the initial reviews for the Charlotte Brontë official debut3 reproached it for straying from Christian morality. The eponymous heroine was guilty of pride, it was written, as instead of accepting the fate of a destitute girl she questioned her social status and demands right which are not hers by birth. One of the reviewers went so far as to claim that the Bronte novel was occasioned by the same impulse which birthed Chartism4. Another argument was that Jane Eyre was the product of a mind filled with “hunger, rebellion and rage”5.

In their 1979 book, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar set store by the early receptions of Jane Eyre, and putting aside later interpretations, which concentrated on Jane’s confrontation with male sexuality, they attempt to rewrite that, which so frightened the Victorian critics in Bronte’s novel, this “hunger, rebellion and rage”, feminine anger and vehement refusal to fulfil one’s social destiny. Gilbert and Gubar refuse to see Jane’s story as another Cinderella affair (at the most they write of the utopia of equality between the Cinderella and her prince)6. In their detail-oriented analyses, which focus on a single description at a time, a small allusion or an insinuation, the fact that Bronte had locked an autobiography (the subtitle of the novel) in a story of a road to wedlock, beset with dangers. And it is not Jane’s rebelliousness that removes obstacles from her way, but a series of serendipitous coincidences, of which her rival’s death is the most significant – the death of the mad wife of Mr. Rochester whom he had locked in the attic. And Jane herself, by refusing to elope with her beloved, a married man, demonstrates her attachment to Victorian morals.

Jane Eyre, Second edition, 1847, F.H. Townsend

I remember reading Jane Eyre as a teenager, fascinated by the secrets of the gothic mansion, shaped as it was also by childish fantasies of becoming an orphan. I must have envied Jane with all my heart, that she could manifest her hatred towards her caretakers in such an open way. But the momentous possibility of sublimation through reading of one’s hatred for one’s parents now seems secondary to me. However the novel keeps on coming back, along with the story of the three sisters who at the parish house of Haworth, under the watchful gaze of their egocentric clergyman father, created a true “residential arts centre”, as Ewa Kraskowska calls it7, an unusual women writer’s community, united in their struggle to enter the public sphere. It is the biographic context that makes the novel of the eldest of sisters (who all at some time or other in their lives earned their living through teaching) seem most about the governess as a person of an ambivalent social status, moving endlessly between the centre and the margins, out of necessity agreeing to all the gestures of exclusion and inclusion made towards her. All the more striking then it seems today, how sentimental the ending of Jane Eyre is, especially if we have accepted the opening scenes of the novel, where eight-year-old Jane, an orphan reluctantly kept by her aunt, ill-disposed towards her, cannot understand the nature of her own exclusion, of being “less than a servant”, for she does “nothing for [her] keep” – as the cruel explanation provided by the nurse goes8.

Jane Eyre, Second edition, 1847, F. H. Townsend

Work, which Jane ultimately gets, although it fends off the mockery she suffered as a child, does not bring a sense of rootedness in the world. Bronte makes this trait all the more acute, by making her heroine truly homeless; unlike all the daughters of the Haworth clergyman who were always able to return to the parish house, Jane, having escaped Thornfield, has, quite literally, nowhere to go. The distance between a private tutor and a beggar on the verge of exhaustion from hunger and cold is only a matter of one day.
But equally surprising is the opposite direction, into the arms of the prince, therefore we must be slightly taken aback by the fact that this story which replicates the dominant model of feminine biography of its time became such a pivotal place for three major 20th century discourses in literary theory. The feminist reading by Gilbert and Gubar was preceded by Terry Eagleton’s The Myth of Power: a Marxist study of the Brontës, published in 19759. And in 1985 in the Critical Inquiry a study by Gayatri Spivak was published, entitled Three Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism (it later became part of In Other Worlds published in 1987)10. The Brontë novel, which was, at the time of the publication, received rather unanimously by the critics, who only addend on to one another’s thoughts, has, in the 20th century become a laboratory, in which the divergent modes of criticism were able to crystallise. The most interesting representatives of neo-Marxist, feminist and postcolonial theory have honed their views on literature based on this text, formulating their critical postulates, taking up more radical stances.

Jane Eyre, Second edition, 1847, F.H. Townsend

As all the three theories mentioned see literature as connected closely to the cultural context, alongside the analyses by Eagleton, Spivak or Gilbert and Gubar specific visions of Victorian culture are born. Reading those texts I revisit once more the narratives on class struggle, repressed sexuality, imperialist politics. In my mind’s eye I see the rising power of bourgeoisie, the women squeezed in their corsets to be all the more ideally angelic, British colonialists, workers destroying the factories, women bursting into literature and the exhibition of rarities, of humans brought from the colonized lands in Africa or the Americas. And then Jane Eyre herself comes back to me: “It is vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth. 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 efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, 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, of they seek to do more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex”11 (highlights mine – K.Czeczot).

But what rebellion does Jane speak of, when she says it is not political? Would the “nobody knows” appease the uneasiness of the Queen, reaching to read Jane Eyre for the second time? Eagleton, concentrating in his deliberations on the category of independence notices that in Bronte’s prose this term is rather ambivalent. “It means not wanting to be a servant, which implies a class-judgment on those below you as well as suggesting a radical attitude to those above”12. In Jane’s rebellion against her aunt, who constantly reminds her protégée of her interior status and poverty, Eagleton sees a mark of egalitarianism. At the same time, however, he points to those moments in the novel, where Jane – suddenly destitute – still believes herself to be a member of the upper classes and vehemently manifests her separateness from the servants. “Where Charlotte Bronte differs most from Emily is precisely in this impulse to negotiate passionate self-fulfillment on terms which preserve the social and moral conventions intact”13. Indeed, Jane’s story is that of an orphan who, severing all family ties and exposing herself to hurt and exploitation, starts choosing and shaping new relations by herself, yet ultimately the status she reaches turns out to be “merited” and “proper”. Jane, before she marries Mr. Rochester, by chance she finds her gentle cousins and receives a handsome inheritance. In Brontë’s vision the individualistic scheme referring to meritocratic visions, “leads to roles and relations which are objectively fitting”14. Therefore rather than liken Jane Eyre to Cindirella, Eagleton would rather choose the fable of a beggar who discovered her royal descent. Only one element of the puzzle is returned to its rightful place, while the structure refuses to budge.

To Gilbert and Gubar, Jane’s rebellion is deeply feminist. It is the rebellious feminism which, in their opinion, so shocked the Victorian readers – Jane’s anger, whose encounter with Bertha is not so much a confrontation with repressed sexuality, but with her own repressed feelings of “hunger, rebellion and rage”. Her progress is read as a persistent pilgrimage towards maturity, independence and true equality with Rochester, a “pilgrimage towards selfhood”. The ending seems a victory for Jane, as though the dream of equality of the spouses bears the price of physical isolation from society, it is, nevertheless, achievable.

The feminist critics have, similarly to Eagleton, put the emphasis on the individualistic dimension of Jane’s progress, depicting it as a pilgrimage towards a point at which her ambitions – seemingly impossible to realize in a patriarchal world – become fulfilled thanks to bourgeois (Eagleton) values: belief in her own abilities and talents, persistence, determination, consistency. Gilbert and Gubar, however, introduce a character omitted by Eagleton, Mr. Rochester’s wife, Bertha Mason, who having gone mad some years after the marriage had been locked up in the attic. Introduction is perhaps too small a word – it is Bertha Mason, who is the eponymous mad woman in the attic, treated by the critics as a figure of feminine rebellion tamed by the male ego. It is the mad woman in the attic who gives us the story of women authors and their suppressed creative prowess, described by Gilbert and Gubar as a “anxiety of authorship”15. Brontë’s novels, with their dramatization of prison and escape remain, in this perspective, particularly characteristic of feminine prose of the first half of the 19th century: the tale of escape from confinement is a reflection of the situation of the first generation of writers entering the world of literature.

Jane Eyre, Second edition, 1847, F.H. Townsend

But it will be Bertha Mason, who will turn Gayatri Spivak’s attention against Gilbert and Gubar, when analyzing the Brontë novel she will, step by step, demonstrate the insufficiency of feminist criticism reproducing, according to her, the axiom of imperialism. Spivak plants her attention firmly on those fragments, which – as we remember – shook Queen Victoria so. The description of Bertha, setting in motion the boundaries between human and that which is animalistic, reveals the Rochester marriage to be a confrontation between Europe and its “not-yet-human Other” 16. Bertha, a white Jamaican Creole, which to Gilbert and Gubar is but Jane’s dark psychological double, becomes a central figure of Brontë’s acquired colonial discourse. She comes from a world described in the novel as hell, a world which eludes rational laws established by Western culture. It is the same world that another protagonist in the novel, St. John describes while making plans for his missionary voyage to India, where he revels in the oppositions between European civilization and Asian barbarity. Spivak’s reading traces the hidden imperialist subtext in the bourgeois narrative of feminine individualism, exposing Jane’s self-realization as a virtue denied another woman, stripped of her historical and cultural being.

Of Charlotte Brontë Virginia Woolf wrote that “all her force, and it is the more tremendous for being constricted, goes into the assertion, ‘I love,’ ‘I hate,’ ‘I suffer’”17. Just as Gilbert and Gubar, she stressed in her prose that, which the Victorian critics have emphasized: the expression of her own feelings and needs, so unusual for a woman, irrespective of whether these were in accordance with the dominant cultural mode. Spivak demonstrates that the order of emotions is never created outside of the political context. That which has grasped the attention of feminist critics (but was also praised by Eagleton) this “hunger, rebellion and rage” is rewritten in the postcolonial perspective as a series of gestures denoting the exclusion of the Other. Which is why in Spivak’s text the key counterpoint to Brontë’s novel is Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), which by depicting Bertha Mason’s story prior to her arrival in England, is inexorably precise in exposing the breadth of masculine violence, intensified by the position of the colonizer18.

Jane Eyre, Second edition, 1847, F.H. Townsend

But now time has come for a revelation the substance of which never ceased to frustrate me: I would have never reached for the novel if it weren’t for the eponymous heroine of Małgorzata Musierowicz’s book Ida Sierpniowa which is a part of the Jeżycjada, a popular cycle for teenage girls in Poland (which started out in 1977 with Szósta klepka). The context of, this cycle remains significant. Here we are faced with a similarly created utopian project. The Borejko household, an oasis of joy in the wide sea of grim PRL reality (and, since 1989, in the pitiful ocean of consumption), the land the virtuous inhabitants of which adhere to antiquated values in defiance of all encompassing conformism, hypocrisy and cowardice, corresponds with the enclave of the Rochesters at the end of Jane Eyre, separated from the world, which turned out to be undeserving of them. Could queen Victoria have liked the novel precisely because it allowed for a way to channel the rebellion in a way which would not threaten the existing order? Mother Borejko, presented in the subsequent novels of the cycle by Musierowicz as a prefect housewife (devoted 24/7 to her family) in the installment entitled Kalamburka is revealed as a successful drama writer, who has been publishing under a pen-name for years, of which none of her household had the faintest idea. Charlotte Brontë would sign her novels with the name Currer Bell and for many years kept her identity concealed. One can almost be under the impression that Musierowicz not only plants a Vitorian novel in her heroine’s hand, but also continues the Brontëan narrative. Yet, are we then entitled to sat that the story of the Borejko family as a late grand-daughter of a specific educational project exposes all of its drawbacks?

Yes, we are. And yet I would still argue that the duel is won by Brontë still today. Perhaps I am being seduced by the soothing rhythm of Jane’s language, or perhaps by the marshlands and heaths, but there is something in this book, something that makes it a more penetrating story of maturation. The ambivalent status of the narrator makes it impossible to adopt but one perspective and the movement, the ceaseless motion between the centre and the marginal I mentioned earlier, brings insightful observations on the way social roles are learned. The romantic narration of Jane’s is punctuated by intimate revelations and though it is only the story of the governess, the confusions are, until the very end, the confusions of the ward.

English translation: Aleksandra Walentynowicz


(1) Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, Bedford Books of St Martin’s Press, Boston and New York 1996.
(2) See: Patricia Beer, Reader, I Married Him. A Study of the Women Characters of Jane Austen, Charlotte Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot, Macmillan, London 1980.
(3) Jane Eyre was the first published novel by Charlotte Brontë. Earlier on she wrote The Professor, which was rejected by many publisher sand only came out two years after she died.
(4) A political movement in England in 1836-1848, he program of which comprised the People's Charter, hence the name. The demands included universal franchise for men and the removal of financial census. The parliament rejected the proposal three times, which caused strikes.
(5) See: Sandra M. Gilbert, Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic. The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary and Imagination, Yale University Press, New Haven and London 2000, s. 337.
(6) Ibidem, p. 354.
(7) Ewa Kraskowska, Siostry Brontë [The Brontë Sisters], Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków 2006.
(8) Charlotte Brontë, op. cit., p. 24.
(9) Terry Eagleton, Myths of power: a Marxist study of the Brontës, MacMillan, London 1975.
(10) Gaytri Chakravorty Spivak, Three Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism, „Critical Inquiry, Vol.12, No.1, „Race,” Writing, and Difference (Autumn, 1985), pp. 243-261.
(11) Charlotte Brontë, op. cit., pp. 116-117.
(12) Terry Eagleton, op. cit., p. 27.
(13) Ibidem, p. 16.
(14) Ibidem, p. 26.
(15) Gilbert and Gubar refer to a notion introduced by Harold Bloom. His Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry presents the history of poetry as an arena of struggles of poets against other poets, of the plight of adepts against their precursors. According to Gilbert and Gubar Bloom’s categories cannot be used for women writers, as they lack not only precursors, but must also face the image of women perpetuated by male texts, in which passivity, irrationality, intellectual impotence are emphasized.
(16) Spivak, op. cit., p. 247.
(17) Virginia Woolf, Pochyła wieża: eseje literackie [The Leaning Tower: literary essays] selected by Aleksandra Ambros; transalted by Aleksandra Ambros and Ewa Życieńska, Czytelnik, Warszawa 1977, p. 176.
(18) Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea, Penguin Books, London 1997.

Pictures: Wikimedia Commons