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or the middle classes, the years preceding the publication of Jane Eyre were a time of turbulence and change from which the family provided a haven of stability and security. At the centre of the family stood the "Angel at the hearth" — a Madonna-like wife and mother from whom all morality sprang. Not everyone agreed but the conception was supported by mainstream political and religious beliefs, and girls were taught that they should aspire "not [to] self will, and government by self control, but submission, and yielding to the control of others, … to live for others; to make complete abnegation of themselves, and to have no life but in their affections."

Despite some social reforms and widespread debate about the role of women, the idea was tenacious. Soon after Jane Eyre was published, while John Stuart Mill wrote of "a principal of perfect equality" for men and women, Mrs Lynne Linton complained that the Girl of the Period was excessively forward and independent, comparing badly with the "simple and genuine girl of the past." Many of the middle classes agreed, but not all, and by the end of the century the Girl of the Period had matured into the "New Woman," a predatory figure who rejected marriage, advocated contraception and wanted independence through paid work. To those like Mrs Linton who supported the status quo this represented a state of anarchy. If society was built upon the family, which in turn depended upon a particular role for woman, to change that role was to threaten the whole structure of society.

Novels and periodicals, widely read at the time, offered a good medium in which to debate the "women's question", since the fate meted to characters could reflect opinions of their behaviour. Social, personal and religious integrity often depended upon the (generally male) choice between female sensuality and morality.

Before meeting Jane, Rochester has faced this dilemma and failed. He admits of Bertha Mason "I was not sure of the existence of one virtue in her nature: I had marked neither modesty, nor benevolence, nor candour, nor refinement in her mind or manners" but he married her because "[his] senses were excited". He recognised too late that Bertha's sensuality, exciting before their marriage, is immoral, but his naiveté and the family pressures he experienced do not absolve him of the responsibility for his choice. His marriage and his subsequent liaisons are ultimately unsatisfactory because they are based on sexual gratification; none of the women offer the stability and morality necessary for true happiness.

Jane initially appears to offer this chance, although she is not a traditional "Angel," as can be seen by a comparison with Jane Austen's Fanny Price. Both are daughters of marriages unsanctioned by their mother's families. Both live with wealthy relatives, outwardly as part of the family, but actually considered inferior to their cousins because of their backgrounds. They are portrayed, however, very differently.

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Last modified 25 November 2004