Victorian England in Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre”
Set in Victorian England Charlotte Bronte’s, Jane Eyre, displays the effects of Victorian England class hierarchy. In 19th century England, class stratification was a predominant societal force. The novel Jane Eyre, describes the experiences of the orphan Jane as she grows from a ten year-old girl into a young woman. As she matures Jane encounters several people who follow the notion that the people who make up the lower classes of society are more immoral people. Throughout her development, Jane faces these people and is forced to make her own decisions regarding class prejudices. In the novel, the author uses Jane’s interactions with other characters to expose several classist views, and to show the difficulties that arose as a result of low social standing. Out of these difficulties Jane began to find herself, as she was able to overcome the classist implications of her society.
Members of the lower class were often dehumanized because of their social position. After Jane’s parents died, she was sent to live with her Aunt Reed and her family. The Reed family does not show affection towards Jane, as she is of lower class than them, being an orphan. Instead, they use her social standing as a reason to treat her poorly. Jane’s cousin, John Reed in particular shows this attitude through his actions towards Jane. The first chapter describes an encounter between Jane and John Reed where John abuses Jane. As justification for his cruel actions John states, “”You have no business to take ours books; you are a dependent, mamma says; you have no money; your father left you none; you ought to beg and not to live here with gentlemen’s children like us, and eat the same meals we do, and wear our clothes at our mamma’s expense”” (5). John Reed, like so many others during this era, believes that Jane’s place among the social hierarchy of Victorian England is reason for neglect. The feeling of superiority that John exhibits makes him feel as though Jane is not worthy to live in the same house as the Reeds, and any abuse given to her is justified. Jane’s place in the house as a ‘dependent,’ enables John see no faults in his constant beatings, that Jane has become accustomed to.
Eventually Mrs. Reed decides to put Jane into a boarding school, Lowood. Before leaving for Lowood Jane meets with Mr. Brocklehurst, the head of the school. During the meeting Mrs. Reed shares Jane’s life story with Brocklehurst and speaks cruelly of her. Later on in their encounter at Lowood School displays how Brocklehurst’s religious bias leads to his prejudice against the lower class. In this first encounter with Mr. Brocklehurst he proclaims, “”Humility is a Christian grace, and one peculiarly appropriate to the pupils of Lowood. I therefore, direct that especial care shall be bestowed on its cultivation among them”” (33). Mr. Brocklehurst shows his conformation to the idea that it is the duty of the poor to be held to special moral standards. Although he has claimed to be a Christian himself, Mr. Brocklehurst makes no mention of the duties of his class towards this humility he speaks of. When Jane encounters Mr. Brocklehurst for the second time, his hypocrisy is even more evident. In this instance, Jane has been at Lowood School for quite some time, and Mr. Brocklehurst is visiting the institution with his family. During his visit Mr. Brocklehurst is appalled by the naturally curly hair of one student. He then proceeds into a outburst against any kind of individualism at Lowood School. Mr. Brocklehurst even goes as far as ordering that each of his students shear their hair because he states, “”I have a Master to serve whose kingdom is not in this world; my mission is to mortify in these girls the lusts of the flesh; to teach them to clothe themselves with shamefacedness and sobriety-not with braided hair or costly apparel”” (69). This event is similar to the first time Jane and Mr. Brocklehurst met and once again he proves that he applies certain Christian principles to only the lower class.
Another example of class prejudice in Jane’s life occurs when is employed as a governess in the house of Edward Rochester. Jane and Mr. Rochester eventually fall in love and become engaged. This romance between them is made more complex due to their differences in caste. As the wedding approaches Rochester has the intent of spoiling Jane with dresses and jewelry. Instead of pleasing Jane, the gifts make Jane uncomfortable. Jane tries to brush off these offerings politely. This instance displays how, although engaged to be married, Jane and Mr. Rochester are from distinctively different social classes. Jane has worked for everything in her life and is anxious when receiving things she has not earned. Jane’s uneasiness surrounding the situation results in her demand that, “”I shall continue to act as Adele’s governess; by that, I shall earn my board and lodging, and thirty pounds a year besides. I’ll furnish my own wardrobe out of that money, you you shall give me nothing,”” (313). Even though Jane is engaged to Mr. Rochester, their social backgrounds are instilled in their identity. Jane is not complacent in accepting her place in this instance however, and chooses to hold on to her dignity. Jane’s last wish is to be a dependent of Rochester and is able let Rochester know her opinions on the fact, unlike other instances where Jane would have blindly followed the authority of those from a higher class.
Eventually Jane makes to choice to leave Mr. Rochester after having discovered his disgraceful secret. Jane wanders around, and nearly starves until she arrives at at the Moor House. Jane is initially turned away by the tenets and is made to feel shameful of her poverty by people of her same social standing. Following several days of recovery, Jane speaks to Hannah who denied her entrance into the River’s house. Although Jane forgives Hannah for her misdeeds, she still holds onto the resentment that Hannah made Jane feel inferior. Jane professes her bitterness towards Hannah stating, “”But I do think hardly of you, and I’ll tell you why;””not so much because you refused to give me shelter, or regarded me as an impostor, as because you just now made it a species of reproach that I had no ‘brass’ and no house. Some of the best people that have ever lived have been as destitute as I am; and if you are a Christian, you ought not consider poverty a crime,”” (397). Jane reprimands Hannah for believing that anyone without a home or money must be a beggar. This interaction was the final straw in Jane truly overcoming the classist views of Victorian England. Hannah’s judgement irritates Jane as she is capable of supporting herself and is a functional member of society. Jane fights the injustice that poverty does not signify bad character.
Throughout her life Jane has been a victim of classism and has experienced cruelty because of her low standing in society. Jane Eyre began with Jane being religiously tormented by this oppression which she thought she had no control over. Towards the end of the book Jane’s growth is apparent as she combats the discrimination and prejudices she has felt throughout her life. Through Jane’s experiences dealing with this preconception, Jane is able to discover and prove to others that her morality exists regardless of class. Jane is ultimately able to overcome and deny the classist views that surround her.