“As his curate, his comrade, all would be right…my body would be under rather a stringent yoke, but my heart and mind would be free. I should still have my unlighted self to turn to: my natural unenslaved feelings with which to communicate in moments of loneliness. There would be recesses in my mind which would be only mine, to which he never came…but as his wife—at his side always, and always restrained, and always checked—forced to keep the fire of my nature continually low, to compel it to burn inwardly and never utter a cry, though the imprisoned flame consumed vital after vital—this would be unendurable” (506-507).
This quote is part of Jane’s internal monologue as she contemplates St. John’s alarming marriage proposal. After St. John provides a pretty convincing argument in favor of her accompanying him to India, she still grapples with the prospect of marrying a man who does not truly love her. In this instance, she takes inventory of how she could likely endure the missionary trip to India if only she didn’t have to marry him.
I chose this quote because, as I was reading it, I shot out of my chair to look for an essay I had written last spring in Brit Lit II. Everything about this paragraph in Jane’s thought process reminded me exactly of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s 1856 verse novel Aurora Leigh as well as Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, published in 1929. While both of these works were published after Jane Eyre, they echo the same concepts of turning inward mentally to find comfort, solace, and room for thought. In Brit Lit II, we discussed how the oppressive Victorian Era was very unkind for woman, especially those who desired to write and spread their own ideas, and so these women found it necessary to keep their minds strengthened by doing their thinking in a private sphere. I feel as though Jane is in the same boat. While she is not looking to be a published author like Aurora Leigh, she has always had a propensity for independent thought (shocking, right? Almost as if she’s got a brain!).
I find that this passage shows Jane’s growth and development throughout the novel. As a child, she quickly tired of books without pictures, and here she is fighting for her own intellectual autonomy. And although she was raised to be a humble and subservient woman of God, her own desires have aligned differently enough so that she chooses true love over serving as a missionary. And, above all, she has come to understand what she deserves as a person, overcoming years of abuse and freeing herself from the suffocating grips of others.
As humans of the 21st century, we find it absurd that St. John feels as though he can behave in the manner that he does and still expect Jane to accept his marriage proposal. We say “girl power!” and take Jane’s side here without question. How might this have been read differently in the 19th century? These thoughts about having an “unlighted self to turn to” were still yet unvoiced by Browning and Woolf. Would a 19th century audience, and perhaps more specifically a male audience, have thought of Jane as rude and unreasonable?