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ritish colonialism and emigration were much discussed in 1840s newspapers and periodicals. Numerous articles from that period focus upon the ironic coupling of successful international expansion and abject domestic poverty, of rapid outward growth and a concurrent inability to accommodate the influx of immigrants from other countries. And yet the ethos of imperialism still resounded in England's popular imagination. Newspapers such as The Illustrated London News had a hand in producing a colonial discourse — or in the exact words of the title of one particle article, "The Imperial Principle." Another article from The Illustrated London News, entitled "Emigration and Colonization," smacks of ethnocentric, elitist, if not megalomaniacal dogma and propaganda.

As a people, it may be truly said of us that we are pre-eminent among the nations of the earth. our spirit rules the world. Our wisdom enters into the composition of everyday life and half the globe. Our physical as well as intellectual presence is manifest in every climate under the sun. Our sailing ships and steam-vessels cover the seas and rivers. Wherever we conquer, we civilize and refine. Our arms, our arts, our literature are illustrious among the nations. We are a rich, a powerful, an intelligent, and a religious people. (The Illustrated London News, July 22, 1848)

As perhaps Gayatri Spivak first pointed out in her "Three Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism," Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre abounds in allusions to colonized subjects abroad — most notably the wildly pathologized and exotified Bertha Mason, whose madness and primitive physicality drive Rochester to "hideous and degrading agonies" (302) in attempts to keep her secret. If British colonialism was already a debated issue rife with internal contradictions, then Jane Eyre likewise projects an ambiguous perspective on the colonized subject — a curious conflation of fear and desire for the "other." In his oft-quoted introduction to Orientalism, Edward Said delineates the ways in which images of the "Orient" are constructed by Western society in order to legitimate and validate Western dominance:

Taking the late eighteenth century as a very roughly defined starting point Orientalism can be discussed and analyzed as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient — dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.

Said emphasizes the expansive range of discourses which inform the idea of Orientalism — economic, academic, religious, literary. Anthony S. Wohl, for one, indicates the role of science in the production of racism and ethnocentric bias. "During the nineteenth century theories of race were advanced both by the scientific community and in the popular daily and periodical press. Even before Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, the old concept of the great chain of being, marking the gradations of mankind,was being subjected to a new scientific racism."

Literature obviously plays an equally large role in the cultural production of an Orientalist discourse which describes conquered subjects in terms of negation — how, as "others," they are unlike and unequal to the colonizing force. In Jane Eyre, Rochester makes his fortune in the West Indies where he is persuaded to Bertha — whose "lavishly displayed" charms "dazzled" and 'stimulated" him with their promise of exotic mystery and conquest (301). Rochester's disclosure of Bertha's presence is couched in terms of her madness and primitive "nature" which is "wholly alien" to his own. She is intellectually deficient; her "common, low, narrow" mind and "pigmy intellect" comprehend only "coarse and trite, perverse and imbecile" conversations. She is pathologized in terms of medicine. Her family includes a "dumb idiot" brother and a mother who had been in a "lunatic asylum" (302). From her assault on Paul Mason to her firey death, Bertha's unrestrained passion stands in stark opposition to Blanche Ingram, whose very name suggests the whiteness which excludes Bertha. In any case the same privileges given the English intellect in the newspaper passage above are operative in literature.

If Bertha is the colonized subject, then Rochester is the despotic master who literally keeps her captive. Keep in mind that economics plays a large part in his dominance, perhaps even more so than his nationality and gender status. It interests me that media in the 1840s makes clear the distinction between base economics and the nobler moral scope of imperialism. In "The Imperial Principle," from The Illustrated London News, imperialism is valued as being almost antithetical to commerce. "The word 'imperial' conveys an idea of splendour, of sceptres and crowns, of boundless power and command; 'commerce' on the other hand, gives a vulgar notion of buying and selling." What's telling is that Bertha tends much more towards the "vulgar" notions of the latter. In other words, Rochester makes no attempts to rehabilitate Bertha and little enjoys his conquest of her, instead lamenting how much of a "gross, grovelling, mole-eyed blockhead" he was not to have realized her deficiencies sooner.

Indeed, Elsie Michie's Post-colonial reading of Jane Eyre suggests that Rochester's identification as a "gross, grovelling" and "mole-eyed" indicates the dubious nature of his own subjectivity. In other words, he is as much of an "other" as Bertha.

Rochester is, in fact, linked to two mid-century images of racial difference. On the one hand, descriptions of him as darker than and physically different from other characters in the novel resemble mid-nineteenth-century caricatures of the Irish as, in the words of Charles Kingsley, 'white chimpanzees.' On the other hand, he is also characterized as an oriental despot" (584).

The context makes sense, Michie argues, given that Charlotte Brontë's father was born and raised in Ireland. As opposed to the Anglo-Saxon features of St. John Rivers, Rochester is characterized by his "unusual breadth of chest, disproportionate almost to his length of limb" (138), and his "dark face, with stern features and a heavy brow" (120). Rochester's appearance is not unlike the stereotyped features of the Irish vagrant. Wohl describes how "in much of the pseudo-scientific literature of the day the Irish were held to be inferior, an example of a lower evolutionary form, closer to the apes than their 'superiors,' the Anglo-Saxons. Cartoons in Punch portrayed the Irish as having bestial, ape-like or demonic features" (Wohl).

Arguably more important than Rochester's appearance is his impetuosity and irrationality — traits which supposedly marked the Irish temperament. Media from the 1840s suggests how much of a burden destitute and vagrant Irish immigrants had become. The following passage from The Illustrated London News suggests that English people's attitudes towards Ireland were marked by a curious dichotomy — on the one hand Irish immigrants were a nuisance, but on the other hand they relegitimated the English ethos of superiority. If Ireland has offered to the world the spectacle of a gigantic misery, England has offered to the world the spectacle of an unparalleled effort to relive and to remove it ("The Irish Poor Law," The Illustrated London News, Nov. 25, 1848). Paradoxically, the construction of an English sensibility depends upon the construction of an "other." Time and again we encounter the internal incoherences and contradictions which mark colonial discourse.

Perhaps the final irony in Jane Eyre is that at the end of the novel, an inversion takes place in which Jane herself perhaps arises as an imperialist saviour of the crippled Rochester. Having been an "other" herself to Mrs. Reed and at Lowood, Jane can identify with Rochester's predicament, and perhaps this facilitates their successful relationship at novel's end.

Website Overview Jane Eyre

Last modified 1996