1. "Nature's cravings": The Professor and Jane Eyre

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hen Charlotte Brontë embarked on her first novel, The Professor, she was determined to follow the poet Robert Southey's advice and move on from her early sibling collaborations — those vivid Angrian "daydreams" (Letters 1: 166). The priority of her chief male protagonist in the novel, William Crimsworth, is to secure a "competency" (207), while his future wife Frances is far more resilient than the conventional romantic heroine, "neither hysterical nor liable to fainting fits" (195). Reality, however inimical, however painful, must be tackled resolutely. Frances expresses just such a sentiment herself: asked what she would have done if she had married a dissolute tyrant, she replies stoutly that she would have resisted such enslavement at any cost: "though torture be the price of resistance," she declares, "torture must be dared ... for freedom is indispensable" (279).

Nevertheless, as this strongly worded declaration suggests, the pain itself would not be denied. Brontë would not gloss over it. When G. H. Lewes too advised her to tone down her writing, and to eschew the melodramatic, Brontë responded presciently, even assertively, that she could not promise always to do so: "When authors write best, or at least, when they write most fluently," she responded, "an influence seems to waken in them which becomes their master.... Is it not so? And should we try to counteract this influence? Can we indeed counteract it?" (Letters 2: 10). All through her work she would continue to express painful, sometimes painfully mixed, feelings in scenes of the highest drama.

In The Professor itself, one such episode occurs towards the end, when Crimsworth's old demon "hypochondria" returns to haunt him. Ironically, this is just when, as he himself says, his "affections had found a rest" (253), and Frances has agreed to become his wife. He explains that he is subject to such "spells" – in both the temporal and the nightmarish sense of the word. However, he also talks of trying to stave off his present affliction "as one would a dreaded and ghastly concubine coming to embitter a husband's heart towards his young bride" (254), strange terms that suggest some underlying resentment of Frances. It would not be unnatural for such a self-obsessed young man to enter an intimate relationship with some degree of trepidation, and indeed after this he seems barely able to crush his negative feelings, giving off "ominous sparks" much as the couple's son Victor does (289), and continually requiring his wife's submission and deference. Our last glimpse of them is when Frances comes to his library to call him for tea, and then waits patiently for him to finish some work. But that earlier episode, that strange "spell," has exposed undercurrents that call the apparently happy ending into question.

"I am alone." Jane at the crossroads after leaving Thornfield, by H. S. Grieg. Source: frontispiece, Dent ed.

Another example of painful inner conflict comes in Brontë's next novel, when Jane Eyre struggles with herself after her aborted marriage ceremony. Much as she loves Rochester, she is resolute about leaving his home at Thornfield, where she had been engaged as governess of his ward Adele, once she discovers that he has a wife already, albeit a demented one (poor Bertha in the attic). Rochester grips her hard, grinds his teeth, shakes her; but at last his rage at her intransigence gives way to sorrow. Jane tells herself firmly, "only an idiot ... would have succumbed now" (315), and leaves at the crack of dawn the next day, soon falling to the ground in her distress, but picking herself up again, "as eager and as determined as ever to reach the road" (318). So the head wins, as it must; but the hurt goes on. Jane says that her heart, with its natural impulse to stay with the man she loves, has been left with "gaping wounds" and "inward bleeding," and she vividly evokes her painful and futile yearning by describing her damaged heart as being "impotent as a bird with both wings broken," still quivering "its shattered pinions in vain attempts to seek him" (320).

Again, the imagery is an important vector for her feelings. Just as her heart has been starved of love, her body is "gnawed with nature's cravings" (324), and she is reduced to begging a farmer for bread one day, and a child for solidified left-over porridge the next. By the time she is taken in by charitable strangers (not knowing then that the Rivers family are relatives of hers) she is as "white as clay or death ... bloodless" (332), so far gone, in fact, that these people talk freely over her sickbed, commenting on such personal matters as her appearance and class, not supposing that she can hear them. It is three days or so before Jane can even begin to speak to them and put them right about her. In this way, the pain continues to vibrate through the narrative, even as it resumes a more even tenor.

The telepathic communication that urgently summons Jane Eyre back to Thornfield for a more convincingly happy ending has been seen as a lapse: such incidents led Lord David Cecil, long ago, to criticize her plots for being "badly constructed" (114). But they have also been defended. Robert B. Heilman, for example, commends her deployment of the Gothic: "it released her from the patterns of the novel of society and therefore permitted the flowering of her real talent." Lewes had noted another level of reality in Jane Eyre; Heilman actually links it to this flouting of the mundane. Brontë had a talent, he says, "for finding and giving dramatic form to impulses and feelings which, because of their depth or mysteriousness or intensity or ambiguity, or of their ignoring everyday norms of propriety or reason, increase wonderfully the sense of reality in the novel" (108-9; emphasis added).

"I saw a blackened ruin" (Jane Eyre returns to Thornfield), by H. S. Grieg. Source: Brontë, Dent ed., Vol. II, facing p. 251.

There is another aspect here. A later critic, Pauline Nestor, co-opts Heilman's argument for the feminists by suggesting that, for example, when Jane Eyre "hears" Mr Rochester calling her, she demonstrates the power of the more sensitive, emotional, "intuitive" female (65). Brontë, very much abreast of the scientific thinking of her age, was deeply interested in the psyche (see Ingham 155ff.). By implying that women, then considered to be more mentally as well as physically vulnerable than men, have superior access to it, she suggests that their supposed weakness could actually be a strength: "It was my time to assume ascendancy. My powers were in play and in force" (415), Jane says at this juncture, banishing the importunate St John Rivers from her side so authoritatively that he obeys her. Her strength will soon be confirmed when she becomes not Mr Rochester's dependent, but, to use her own well-known words, his "prop and guide" (443) after the devastating fire that both freed him from the encumbrance of Bertha, and deprived him of his sight. No wonder this author has been taken as a spokeswoman for the women's cause, despite her own warning about "evils — deep-rooted in the Social system — which no efforts of ours can touch — of which we cannot complain — of which it is advisable not too often to think" (Letters 2: 457).

Created 20 January 2018