In the ‘Behind the Classic’ series, editor-in-chief Roselinde takes you on a trip to well-known novels and their less well-known backstories. In this second instalment, she takes you through a postcolonial reading of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.
In 1979, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar published The Madwoman in the Attic¹, a highly influential feminist critique on texts by Victorian women authors. In this book, Gilbert and Gubar argue that the “fallen woman” and “angel in the house” dichotomy, a well-known trope in Victorian literature2 where women are represented as either sexual degenerates or dutiful, composed saints, is not an accurate representation of women and should therefore be omitted. The book’s title is a reference to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), in which the titular character is hired as a governess by a Mr. Rochester. Eyre and Rochester fall in love and decide to get married, but their wedding ceremony is crudely disrupted by the news that Rochester is already married (oh, drama!). As it turns out, Rochester’s first wife, a Creole woman called Bertha Mason, has been living in his attic the entire time.
In recent decades, postcolonial criticism has emphasised how deeply invested this classic is in England’s colonial past and has pointed out that the Victorian angel/demon dichotomy is often not only sexist, but also highly racist.
Take, for example, Jane’s description of Bertha:
“In the deep shade, at the farther end of the room, a figure ran backwards and forwards. What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight, tell: it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal: but it was covered with clothing, and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face.”
By stressing her animalistic behaviour and referring to her as an ‘it’, Jane dehumanizes Bertha. Rochester, not very well-versed in the art of flattery, does the same, when he begs the witnesses to understand his opting for “something at least human”, meaning Jane. Rochester portrays himself as the unsuspecting victim of deceit. When he left for the West Indies, he was an innocent man – or at least, as innocent as a man who goes abroad to make money off colonialized slaves can be – and was tricked into marrying a madwoman. Bertha possessed an exotic sensuality that, although initially attracting him, he came to repulse and blame on her racial background.
Yet, his exotic fetishism and oppressive nature are still present when he is with Jane, as becomes clear in the passage where he buys her new clothes. Jane claims that “his smile was such as a sultan might, in a blissful and fond moment, bestow on a slave his gold and gems had enriched” and tells him to spend his money on “extensive slave-purchases” instead. A few lines later, Jane describes herself as a liberator of oppressed women, when she claims: “‘I’ll be preparing myself to go out as a missionary to preach liberty to them that are enslaved – your harem inmates amongst the rest.’” In truth, as we have seen, Jane sides with Rochester’s colonial view and dehumanization of the “racial Other”.
Moreover, when she is asked to accompany a real missionary on his way to India, she refuses and her friend, congratulating her with this decision, says: “‘You would not live three months there, I am certain.’” It seems that India is a place where a good-natured, dutiful English person like Jane could not survive, and indeed, the missionary who invited her to go with him dies shortly after arriving there, but is revered for the “firm, faithful and devoted” way he “labour[ed] for his race”, i.e. for attempting to convert the “savage heathens” in India to the Christian faith. At the end of the novel, Jane, the “missionary [who will] preach liberty to them that are enslaved”, obtains financial independence by means of an inheritance, a fortune that is derived entirely from colonial money.
Much has happened since the publication of The Madwoman in the Attic. In 1966, Jean Rhys published the best-selling novel Wide Sargasso Sea, which tells the story from Bertha’s perspective and has proved a global eye-opener. At present, new articles on the colonial backdrop of your favourite classics are still written daily, and it is a bewildering, but fascinating experience to see your personal favourites in a completely different light. So are you a big fan of Austen, Conrad, Dickens, the Brontës or Thackeray? Pick up some postcolonial criticism and broaden your horizon!
¹Full title: The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination.
2Open a random Dickens novel and you will see what I mean. Dombey and Son’s (1848) Edith vs. Florence, David Copperfield’s (1850) Emily vs. Agnes, Bleak House’s (1853) Honoria (Lady Dedlock) vs. Esther, the examples are endless.