Charlotte Bronte and politics

Questioning the status quo

Compared with other writers of her time, Charlotte Brontë does not seem to be a very political writer. Lady EastlakeCertainly, when her novels are set side by side with those of Charles Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli, Elizabeth Gaskell or Anthony Trollope, she seems much less concerned with public events.

Yet the more hostile reviewers of Jane Eyre read the novel in political terms. The review by Lady Eastlake, which appeared in the Quarterly Review, a conservative periodical, in 1848, speaks of:

‘a murmuring against the comforts of the rich and the privations of the poor, which, as far as each individual is concerned, is a murmuring against God's appointment – there is a proud and perceptible assertion of the rights of men, for which we find no authority either in God's word or in God's providence …'

And it goes to on to assert that:

‘the tone of mind and thought which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine abroad and fostered Chartism and rebellion at home, is the same which has also written Jane Eyre.'

Religion and social position

In Lady Eastlake's review, religion and politics are inextricably linked: if the relative social positions of the rich and the poor come about as a result of ‘God's appointment', then there is nothing that people can do to change the situation; and to try to do so offends not only the political but also the religious establishment and God himself.

There was a popular hymn called All Things sung by Church of England congregations and written by C. F. Alexander in 1848, the year after Jane Eyre was published. It contains a verse summing up these sentiments:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high and lowly,
And ordered their estate.

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.

However, Brontë seems instead to echo the philosophy of the Christian Socialist Movement (officially launched in 1848, but inspired by FD Maurice's The Kingdom of Christ a decade earlier) which held beliefs such as the equality in humanity resulting from the incarnation, that there is an intrinsic worth in work, and therefore in workers. This is seen particularly in Jane's great (and shocking) declaration of equality in ch. 23:

Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain and little, I am soulless and heartless? ….and we stood at God's feet, equal – as we are!

The right use of wealth

The episodes in Jane Eyre concerning the Reed family and the members of Rochester's house party suggest that Charlotte Brontë had serious doubts about the position enjoyed by those who inherit land and wealth and the power and privilege that went with them. Yet Jane herself has no qualms about accepting her Uncle John's legacy – other than to insist on sharing it with her cousins - whilst Rochester, too, is a landowner, and at the end of the novel she has settled into life with him.

In fact, any political doubts expressed in the novel are translated into ethical terms. Charlotte Brontë is less concerned with the subversion of the system that creates wealth and awards it to a privileged few, than with its proper use:

  • Jane is anxious that her legacy should be equitably distributed within her family
  • Rochester and others like him should deal with their employees benevolently and paternalistically
  • Rich people like Rosamund Oliver should use their wealth for charitable purposes.

The novel criticises those who misuse their wealth and privilege:

  • John Reed, who squanders his fortune
  • Blanche Ingram and others like her who live idle and selfish lives – Georgiana Reed is another example
  • Mr. Brocklehurst, who denies even basic comforts to the girls at Lowood, yet allows his daughters to dress in the latest fashion
  • Jane even criticizes Rochester for spending too much money on jewellery and clothes in preparation for their wedding.

However, at the end of the book, whilst Rochester and Jane live in semi-seclusion, existing on Jane's modest fortune, they do so in a society that continues unchanged.

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