Charlotte Bronte and Victorian Britain

When was Jane Eyre set?

Only one event in Jane Eyre can be dated with any certainty: Sir Walter Scott's poem Marmion, mentioned in Chapter 32 (Volume 1, Chapter 6) as a ‘new publication', appeared in 1808.
Other references, however, suggest a later date:

  • In ch. 17 (Volume 1, Chapter 17) the discussion of corsairs suggests that it take place after the publication of Byron's The Corsair in 1814
  • In ch. 19 (Volume 2, Chapter 2), Jane appears to allude to ‘Ode to a Nightingale' by John Keats: her words ‘Did I wake or sleep?' echoes the last line of Keats's poem: ‘Fled is that music … Do I wake or sleep?': Keats wrote his ode in 1819 and it was published in book form in 1820
  • Eliza's adherence to High Church principles and her leanings towards Catholicism, described in Chapters 21 and 22 (volume 2, Chapters 6 and 7), seem to refer to the religious debates of the 1830s
  • In ch. 31 (Volume 3, Chapter 5), there is a reference to riots involving working people in the nearby town of S--------; this town may be based on Sheffield, where there was Chartist unrest in 1839 and 1840.

This gives a range of just over thirty years, from 1808 to 1840, for the date of the events in the last two-thirds of the novel, but since these events take place, in fictional terms, in about two years, this is clearly implausible (see also Time structure in Jane Eyre).

Difficulties of dating

Because of varying date references, it is difficult to date the action with any certainty. Details of social behaviour, books and decorative taste often seem to belong to the early decades of the nineteenth century, but other references place it closer to the novel's date of composition in the 1840s.

In the final chapter, Jane says that she has been married to Rochester for ten years, and if we assume that a work that on its title page describes itself as an ‘Autobiography' ends somewhere close to when it was written, this would again take the action back to the 1830s. The inconsistencies in dating (all of them reference to poems or books of poetry) need to be seen as part of the thematic and metaphorical texture of the novel.

Works of fiction, however, even when they are set in the remote past, are shaped by the time at which they are written, published and received. The context given here, therefore, relates to Charlotte Brontë's own lifetime.

Nineteenth century Britain: a country transformed

During Charlotte Brontë's lifetime, Britain underwent changes that transformed the lives of its people:

  • British manufacturing became dominant in the world and trade and the financial sector also grew significantly; living in a village whose livelihood depended on wool, and close to the major manufacturing centres of Bradford and Halifax, Charlotte Brontë would have been very conscious of these developments
  • The rail network, begun in the 1830s and largely completed by the 1870s, had a great effect not only on the accessibility of travel and speed of movement, but also on the appearance of the countryside
  • British power and influence overseas expanded and seemed to be permanent; references in Jane Eyre to the West Indies, Madeira and India demonstrate an awareness of these activities (see also Post-colonial criticism)
  • The population grew enormously, from around 12 million at the time Charlotte Brontë was born to over 20 million by the time she died
    This period also saw a significant shift of population from the countryside to the towns and the consequent growth of large cities.

An age of optimism

This was a turbulent period which in many ways saw itself as a time of confident progress. Many people believed that Britain was leading the world into a new and better age, illustrated by:

  • More enlightened laws
  • The benefits of wealth created through industrial development (though its distribution was uneven)
  • Greater political stability than in the rest of Europe, though it is worth noting that
    • Rev. Brontë had experienced industrial unrest in his early years in Yorkshire and this is the subject of Charlotte's novel Shirley (1849)
    • There is a reference to Chartist agitation in Chapter 31 (Volume 3, Chapter 5)
  • The spreading of what was seen to be the ‘civilising influence' of Christianity around the world. This was a result of the missionary impulse which developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. For example the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel first sent missionaries to India in 1820 & to South Africa in 1821. (Relevant to St John Rivers was the Church Missionary Society founded in 1799.)
  • Other important values included
    • Deference to class and authority
    • The conviction that work is a duty which is good for the soul.

Brontë and social issues

Social concerns and social reform were not central topics in Charlotte Brontë's fiction. Shirley (1849) was the only one of her novels that specifically addressed socio-political issues. She wrote quite personal novels, usually with a relatively limited cast of characters and with none of the social breadth of, say, Charles Dickens. Nor did she consistently attempt the kind of biting criticism or satire found in Dickens' work.

This is not to say that her novels were completely free of social concerns, but she tended to approach issues in terms of their impact on the personal lives of individuals rather than as matters of institutional reform or legislative action. In Jane Eyre:

  • The most obvious example of a social issue can be found in the kind of education offered at Lowood School and the physical and emotional privations suffered by the girls there; but the school is improved after the typhus outbreak, so that providential change comes about as a result of an unhappy event
  • The issue of inherited wealth and the problems of the leisured gentleman are touched upon in the lives of John Reed and in Mr. Rochester (see also Characterisation)
  • The bad effects of class and snobbery can be seen in the episodes concerning Blanche Ingram and the other members of Rochester's house party
  • Related to this, the novel dramatizes the ambiguous social position occupied by governesses
  • Underlying many of these other topics is a concern with the expectation and opportunities of women (see Gender and the role of women and Characterisation).
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