hough at first glance this tirade might not seem to have any stylistic similarities to Jane Eyre, it in fact bears a marked resemblance in tone to that book's exhortatory passage on the nature and place of women. "It is vain to say that human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity:" the sermon begins, and continues: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 . . . it is narrow minded in their more privileged fellow - creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings . . . It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.
Although Carlyle more aggressively points out the flaws of society, Brontë goes so far as to leave the narrative line of the plot in order to proclaim her piece on equality of the sexes, which, for a piece of fiction, is very aggressive.
The two share little in terms of political belief. Carlyle argues that role models ought to come from the "Aristocracy of fact," from men who have risen to the top through their own merit, and he says that the aristocracy of title is "extinct" and "imaginary." Rochester, Brontë's "Pattern" man, has inherited what wealth and position he possesses, has land and tenants, does not work for a living. He is a far cry, in other words, from one of Carlyle's heroes. Brontë takes a very personal approach to role models and heroes, who are strong but flawed; they grow, develop and improve until they are complete. She does not consider the aristocracy dead but accepts it as a fact of nature: Rochester's tenants, employees, and peers never question the social order. Even so, Rochester is a hero because of who he is, not because he is noble.
Brontë does side with Carlyle and take a jab at the "flunkeys," though, when she introduces the Ingrams and their entourage. A more useless, frivolous, shallow and bitchy group are not seen in the book. The only people who come close are the other members ofthe upper class - the heartless Reeds and the despicable Brocklehurst women. Brontë gives her impression of the class in Jane's description of Blanche Ingram:
She was very showy, but she was not genuine: she had a fine person, many brilliant attainments; but her mind was poor, her heart barren by nature; nothing bloomed spontaneously on that soul; no unforced natural fruit delighted by its freshness. She was not good; she was not original . . . she never offered, nor had, an opinion of her own. She advocated a high tone of sentiment; but she did not know the sensations of sympathy and pity; tenderness and truth were not in her. While Brontë has a different ideal for a role model from Carlyle, it is plain that she shares some of his disgust with the aristocracy.
The characters in Jane Eyre may unthinkingly accept the institution of aristocracy, and T.L. Nichols say that "Every country has its Aristocracy — its best people, who always ought to govern the rest." But in fact, the government of the time was beginning to share more and more power with the middle and lower classes. The Reform Acts of 1832, 1867 and 1884 "extended voting rights to previously disenfranchised citizens," and "achieved in England what the French Revolution eventually achieved in France." The repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 was "a significant triumph which was indicative of the new political power of the English middle class." Industrialization created a new working class, as well as many nouveaux riches who infiltrated and weakened the upper ranks of society — Carlylian meritocrats who caused, as The Spectator in 1843 put it, "The circle of select society every day (to widen) for the admission of candidates resting their claims on wealth and talent only." The result of these developments was, that while Brontë's characters might not have been aware of it, nor Carlyle have known the eventual outcome, the aristocracy's descent into obsolescence had already begun.
Last modified 23 October 2002