omparing Brontë's Jane Eyre to Jane Austen's Fanny Price reveals the extent to which she is not the conventional woman. Before Fanny is brought to live at Mansfield Park, Mrs Norris worries that, if pretty, she will tempt Tom or Edmund to marry her. Fanny proves not to be the siren her aunt has feared but her self effacement, timidity and frailty are exactly the qualities Mrs Linton says are required to attract male attention, and Austen does not prove her wrong. From childhood Fanny inspires Edmund to protect and care for her and she grows to provide a moral base from which he can act. That he is wrong to disregard this is illustrated in the incident of the play; Fanny confirms Edmund's inner conviction that it is wrong to take part but he disregards her advice, partly due to his flirtation with Mary Crawford, and has to endure the consequences. When he rejects Mary's sexual allure for Fanny's strong morality, their happy marriage reinforces the rightness of his choice.
Where Fanny from childhood is modest and restrained, Jane struggles with an overly passionate nature, and despite the efforts of Mr Brocklehurst to "render [his pupils] hardy, patient and self denying" becomes a passionate woman. Her patience and submission are not internalised as Fanny's are, but a facade kept in place by acts of self punishment (the portraits of herself and Blanche Ingram) as harsh as any contrived by her aunt or Brocklehurst. When Rochester finally declares his love for her the scene is one of overwhelming emotion and the facade is removed. Mrs Fairfax correctly identifies the sexual tension between them when she advises "Try and keep Mr Rochester at a distance: distrust yourself as well as him." and although Jane achieves this she says "I could not, in those days, see God for his creature of whom I had made an idol."
In allowing her sexual feelings to take precedence over her love for God, Jane has failed to provide the moral centre required for a happy union and secure family life. She realises something of this - the interruption of the marriage service forces her to recognise the inadequacy of passion alone as a basis for happiness and to acknowledge the vital role of society and the Church. She rejects her passion in favour of self respect and leaves Thornfield Hall.
At Moor House the sexual/moral conundrum is explored again through St John's relationship with Rosamond. Rosamond is innocent and childlike, but her effect on St John is clearly a sensual one. He describes her as a temptation, and says "When I colour and when I shake before Miss Oliver I do not pity myself. I scorn the weakness. I know it is ignoble; a mere fever of the flesh." St John recognises the nature of the temptation Rosamond represents, and can see that even her inadvertent sexual allure threatens his commitment to become a missionary, and therefore his moral well being.
He chooses instead to offer marriage to Jane whom he does not love and who he knows does not love him. Superficially this would appear to be an ideal match, offering St John the role of teacher and provider, and Jane an opportunity to absolve her rejection of God in self effacement and obedience. However, Jane has shown in her refurbishment of Moor House and her pleasure in her new found cousins that through her sufferings her passions have matured to a traditional feminine desire for home and family. St John's religious fervour will never allow him to offer this since"he was of the material from which nature hews her heroes a steadfast bulwark for great interests to rest upon; but at the fireside, too often a cold cumbrous column, gloomy and out of place."
His morality comes from his inner convictions and he would usurp Jane's place at the moral centre of the family. He offers great deeds in the world but he would deny her a true woman's role. Now that Jane has fully accepted that role she is free to return to Rochester, who has bowed to her moral guidance by remaining at Thornfield Hall rather than returning to his life of reckless sensuality. His taking responsibility for Bertha in trying to rescue her from the fire at the risk of his own life is both his salvation and his punishment for past transgressions. He is freed of his wife but at the price of his hand and sight, and through them, his pride. Jane and Rochester's second courtship lacks the all consuming passion of the first, it is of the spirit not the senses, and gives due gratitude and humility to God. Their marriage, like Fanny and Edmund's, is dealt with by the author in an understated way, since it serves only to confirm the rightness of their reformed relationship.
While authors reward virtue with marriage, women who do not conform to the ideal tend to be dealt with more summarily. Blanche Ingram, like Mary Crawford, attempts to meet the ideal but fails. Their outward vivacity and good manners are the result of a superficial education designed only to help them to attract husbands. They offer not moral guidance but flirtatious manipulation, and indulge in overly romantic day-dreams of a "wild, fierce bandit hero," elopements and affairs. Without the innate moral strength to fulfil their place at the centre of a home they are unable to make the idealised marriages allotted to Jane and Fanny.
Bertha Mason is a more extreme case, providing the antithesis of the Angel at the hearth and a warning of what Jane might become if she allows her passions too free a rein. She is described as an animal but is more than that; animals are prey to their sexual impulses without fault but Bertha retains enough humanity for her behaviour to inspire horror. Bertha's madness manifests itself as inappropriate sexual behaviour; she is "unchaste gross, impure, depraved." This leads to her being confined out of sight, an embodiment of the treatment meted out to all female sensuality. Her attacks are physical, but Brontë links them to a moral threat when Rochester calls her a "demon" and her room "the mouth of Hell." To Jane she is "the foul German spectre — the Vampyre," echoing Mason's cry that "she sucked the blood: she said she'd drain my heart".
- Introduction: Angel or Vampire — the Portrayal of Women's Morality and Sensuality in Jane Eyre
- Angels, Vampires and Women's Emancipation
- Avoiding Dangerous Sexuality in Jane Eyre
Last modified 25 November 2004