[Rigby, Elizabeth.] "Vanity Fair--and Jane Eyre." Quarterly Review. 84:167 (December 1848): 153-185.
Art. V.1. Vanity Fair; a Novel without a Hero. By William Makepeace Thackeray. London. 1848.
2. Jane Eyre; an Autobiography. Edited by Currer Bell. In 3 vols. London. 1847.
3. Governesses' Benevolent InstitutionReport for 1847.
A REMARKABLE novel is a great event for English society. It is a kind of common friend, about whom people can speak the truth without fear of being compromised, and confess their emotions without being ashamed. We are a particularly shy and reserved people, and set about nothing so awkwardly as the simple art of getting really acquainted with each other. We meet over and over again in what is conventionally called 'easy society,' with the tacit understanding to go so far and no farther; to be as polite as we ought to be, and as intellectual as we can; but mutually and honourably to forbear lifting those veils which each spreads over his inner sentiments and sympathies. For this purpose a host of devices have been contrived by which all the forms of friendship may be gone through, without committing ourselves to one spark of the spirit. We fly with eagerness to some common ground in which each can take the liveliest interest, without taking the slightest in the world in his companion. Our various fashionable manias, for charity one season, for science the next, are only so many clever contrivances for keeping our neighbour at arm's length. We can attend committees, and canvas for subscribers, and archaeologise, and geologise, and take ether with our fellow Christians for a twelvemonth, as we might sit cross-legged and smoke the pipe of fraternity with a Turk for the same periodand know that at the end of the time as little of the real feelings of the one as we should know about the domestic relations of the other. But there are ways and means for lifting the veil which equally favour our national idiosyncrasy; and a new and remarkable novel is one of themespecially the nearer it comes to real life. We invite our neighbour to a walk with the deliberate and malicious intent of getting thoroughly acquainted with him. We ask no impertinent questionswe proffer no indiscreet confidenceswe do not even sound him, ever so delicately, as to his opinion of a common friend, for he would be sure not to say, lest we should go and tell; but we simply discuss Becky Sharp, or Jane Eyre, and our object is answered at once.
There is something about these two new and noticeable characters which especially compels everybody to speak out. They are not to be dismissed with a few commonplace moralities and sentimentalities. They do not fit any ready-made criticism. They give the most stupid something to think of, and the most reserved something to say; the most charitable too are betrayed into home comparisons which they usually condemn, and the most ingenious stumble into paradoxes which they can hardly defend. Becky and Jane also stand well side by side both in their analogies and their contrasts. Both the ladies are governesses, and both make the same move in society; in one, in Jane Eyre phraseology, marrying her 'master,' and the other her master's son. Neither starts in life with more than a moderate capital of good looksJane Eyre hardly thatfor it is the fashion now-a-days with novelists to give no encouragement to the insolence of mere beauty, but rather to prove to all whom it may concern how little a sensible woman requires to get on with in the world. Both have also an elfish kind of nature, with which they divine the secrets of other hearts, and conceal those of their own; and both rejoice in that peculiarity of feature which Mademoiselle de Luzy has not contributed to render popular, viz., green eyes. Beyond this, however, there is no similarity either in the minds, manners, or fortunes of the two heroines. They think and act upon diametrically opposed principlesat least so the author of 'Jane Eyre' intends us to believeand each, were they to meet, which we should of all things enjoy to see them do, would cordially despise and abominate the other. Which of the two, however, would most successfully dupe the other is a different question, and one not so easy to decide; though we have our own ideas upon the subject.
We must discuss 'Vanity Fair' first, which, much as we were entitled to expect from its author's pen, has fairly taken us by surprise. We were perfectly aware that Mr. Thackeray had of old assumed the jester's habit, in order the more unrestrainedly to indulge the privilege of speaking the truth;we had traced his clever progress through 'Fraser's Magazine' and the ever-improving pages of 'Punch'which wonder of the time has been infinitely obliged to himbut still we were little prepared for the keen observation, the deep wisdom, and the consummate art which he has interwoven in the slight texture and whimsical pattern of Vanity Fair. Everybody, it is to be supposed, has read the volume by this time; and even for those who have not, it is not necessary to describe the order of the story. It is not a novel, in the common acceptation of the word, with a plot purposely contrived to bring about certain scenes, and develop certain characters, but simply a history of those average sufferings, pleasures, penalties, and rewards to which various classes of mankind gravitate as naturally and certainly in this world as the sparks fly upward. It is only the same game of life which every player sooner or later makes for himselfwere he to have a hundred chances, and shuffle the cards of circumstance every time. It is only the same busy, involved drama which may be seen at any time by any one, who is not engrossed with the magnified minutiae of his own pretty part, but with composed curiosity looks on to the stage where his fellow men and women are the actors; and that not even heightened by the conventional colouring which Madame de Staël philosophically declares that fiction always wants in order to make up for its not being truth. Indeed, so far from taking any advantage of the novelist's licence, Mr. Thackeray has hardly availed himself of the natural average of remarkable events that really do occur in this life. The battle of Waterloo, it is true, is introduced; but, as far as regards the story, it brings about only one death and one bankruptcy, which might either of them have happened in a hundred other ways. Otherwise the tale runs on, with little exception, in that humdrum course of daily monotony, out of which some people coin materials to act, and others excuses to doze, just as their dispositions may be.
It is this reality which is at once the charm and the misery here. With all these unpretending materials it is one of the most amusing, but also one of the most distressing books we have read for many a long year. We almost long for a little exaggeration and improbability to relieve us of that sense of dead truthfulness which weighs down our hearts, not for the Amelias and Georges of the story, but for poor kindred human nature. In one light this truthfulness is even an objection. With few exceptions the personages are too like our every-day selves and neighbours to draw any distinct moral form. We cannot see our way very clearly. Palliations of the bad and disappointments in the good are perpetually obstructing our judgment, by bringing what should decide it too close to that common standard of experience in which our only rule of opinion is charity. For it is only in fictitious characters which are highly coloured for one definite object, or in notorious personages viewed from a distance, that the course of the true moral can be seen to run straightonce bring the individual with his life and circumstances closely before you, and it is lost to the mental eye in the thousand pleas and witnesses, unseen and unheard before, which rise up to overshadow it. And what are all these personages in Vanity Fair but feigned names for our own beloved friends and acquaintances, seen under such a puzzling cross-light of good in evil, and evil in good, of sins and sinnings against, of little to be praised virtues, and much to be excused vices, that we cannot presume to moralise upon themnot even to judge them,content to exclaim sorrowfully with the old prophet, 'Alas! my brother!' Every actor on the crowded stage of Vanity Fair represents some type of that perverse mixture of humanity in which there is ever something not wholly to approve or to condemn. There is the desperate devotion of a fond heart to a false object, which we cannot respect; there is the vain, weak man, half good and half bad, who is more despicable in our eyes than the decided villain. There are the irretrievably wretched education, and the unquenchably manly instincts, both contending in the confirmed roué, which melt us to the tenderest pity. There is the selfishness and self-will which the possessor of great wealth and fawning relations can hardly avoid. There is the vanity and fear of the world, which assist mysteriously with pious principles in keeping a man respectable; there are combinations of this kind of every imaginable human form and colour, redeemed but feebly by the steady excellences of an awkward man, and the genuine heart of a vulgar woman, till we feel inclined to tax Mr. Thackeray with an under estimate of our nature, forgetting that Madame de Staël is right after all, and that without a little conventional rouge no human complexion can stand the stage-lights of fiction.
But if these performers give us pain, we are not ashamed to own, as we are speaking openly, that the chief actress herself gives us none at all. For there is of course a principal pilgrim in Vanity Fair, as much as in its emblematical original, Bunyan's 'Progress;' only unfortunately this one is travelling the wrong way. And we say 'unfortunately' merely by way of courtesy, for in reality we care little about the matter. No, Beckyour hearts neither bleed for you, nor cry out against you. You are wonderfully clever, and amusing, and accomplished, and intelligent, and the Soho ateliers were not the best nurseries for a moral training; and you were married early in life to a regular blackleg, and you have had to live upon your wits ever since, which is not an improving sort of maintenance; and there is much to be said for and against; but still you are not one of us, and there is an end to our sympathies and censures. People who allow their feelings to be lacerated by such a character and career as yours, are doing both you and themselves a great injustice. No author could have openly introduced a near connexion of Satan's into the best London society, nor would the moral end intended have been answered by it; but really and honestly, considering Becky in her human character, we know of none which so thoroughly satisfies our highest beau idéal of feminine wickedness, with so slight a shock to our feelings and proprieties. It is very dreadful, doubtless, that Becky neither loved the husband who loved her, nor the child of her own flesh and blood, nor indeed any body but herself; but as far as she is concerned, we cannot pretend to be scandalizedfor how could she without a heart? It is very shocking of course that she committed all sorts of dirty tricks, and jockeyed her neighbours, and never cared what she trampled under foot if it happened to obstruct her step; but how could she be expected to do otherwise without a conscience? The poor little woman was most tryingly placed; she came into the world without the customary letters of credit upon those two great bankers of humanity, 'Heart and Conscience,' and it was no fault of hers if they dishonoured all her bills. All she could do in this dilemma was to establish the firmest connexion with the inferior commercial branches of 'Sense and Tact,' who secretly do much business in the name of the head concern, and with whom her 'fine frontal development' gave her unlimited credit. She saw that selfishness was the metal which the stamp of heart was suborned to pass; that hypocrisy was the homage that vice rendered to virtue; that honesty was, at all events, acted, because it was the best policy; and so she practised the arts of selfishness and hypocrisy like anybody else in Vanity Fair, only with this difference, that she brought them to their highest possible pitch of perfection. For why is it that, looking round in this world, we find plenty of characters to compare with her up to a certain pitch, but none which reach her actual standard? Why is it that, speaking of this friend or that, we say in the tender mercies of our hearts, 'No, she is not quite so bad as Becky?' We fear not only because she has more heart and conscience, but also because she has less cleverness.
No; let us give Becky her due. There is enough in this world of ours, as we all know, to provoke a saint, far more a poor little devil like her. She had none of those fellow-feelings which make us wondrous kind. She saw people around her cowards in vice, and simpletons in virtue, and she had no patience with either, for she was as little the one as the other herself. She saw women who loved their husbands and yet teazed them, and ruining their children although they doated upon them, and she sneered at their utter inconsistency. Wickedness or goodness, unless coupled with strength, were alike worthless to her. That weakness which is the blessed pledge of our humanity was to her only the despicable badge of our imperfection. She thought, it might be, of her master's words, 'Fallen cherub! to be weak is to be miserable!' and wondered how we could be such fools as first to sin and then to be sorry. Becky's light was defective, but she acted up to it. Her goodness goes as far as good temper, and her principles as far as shrewd sense, and we may thank her consistency for showing us what they are both worth.
It is another thing to pretend to settle whether such a character be primâ facie impossible, though devotion to the better sex might well demand the assertion. There are mysteries of iniquity, under the semblance of man and woman, read of in history, or met with in the unchronicled sufferings of private life, which would almost make us believe that the powers of Darkness occasionally made use of this earth for a Foundling Hospital, and sent their imps to us, already provided with a return-ticket. We shall not decide on the lawfulness or otherwise of any attempt to depict such importations; we can only rest perfectly satisfied that, granting the author's premises, it is impossible to imagine them carried out with more felicitous skill and more exquisite consistency than in the heroine of 'Vanity Fair.' At all events, the infernal regions have no reason to be ashamed of little Becky, nor the ladies either: she has, at least, all the cleverness of the sex.
The great charm, therefore, and comfort of Becky is, that we may study her without any compunctions. The misery of this life is not the evil that we see, but the good and the evil which are so inextricably twisted together. It is that perpetual memento every meeting one
'How in this vile world below
Noblest things find vilest using,'
that is so very distressing to those who have hearts as well as eyes. But Becky relieves them of all this painat least in her own person. Pity would be thrown away upon one who has not heart enough to ache even for herself. Becky is perfectly happy, as all must be who excel in what they love best. Her life is one exertion of successful power. Shame never visits her, for 'Tis conscience that makes cowards of us all'and she has none. She realizes that ne plus ultra of sublunary comfort which it was reserved for a Frenchman to definethe blessed combination of 'le bon estomac et le mauvais coeur:' for Becky adds to her other good qualities that of an excellent digestion.
Upon the whole, we are not afraid to own that we rather enjoy her ignis fatuus course, dragging the weak and the vain and the selfish, through mud and mire, after her, and acting all parts, from the modest rushlight to the gracious star, just as it suits her. Clever little imp that she is! What exquisite tact she shows!what unflagging good humour!what ready self-possession! Becky never disappoints us; she never even makes us tremble. We know that her answer will come exactly suiting her one particular object, and frequently three or four more in prospect. What respect, too, she has for those decencies which more virtuous, but more stupid humanity, often disdains! What detection of all that is false and mean! What instinct for all that is true and great! She is her master's true pupil in that: she knows what is really divine as well as he, and bows before it. She honours Dobbin in spite of his big feet; she respects her husband more than she ever did before, perhaps for the first time, at the very moment when he is stripping not only her jewels, but name, honour, and comfort off her.
We are not so sure either whether we are not justified in calling hers 'le mauvais coeur.' Becky does not pursue any one vindictively; she never does gratuitous mischief. The fountain is more dry than poisoned. She is even generouswhen she can afford it. Witness that burst of plain speaking in Dobbin's favour to the little dolt Amelia, for which we forgive her many a sin. 'Tis true she wanted to get rid of her; but let that pass. Becky was a thrifty dame, and liked to dispatch two birds with one stone. And she was honest, too, after a fashion. The part of wife she acts at first as well, and better than most; but as for that of mother, there she fails from the beginning. She knew that maternal love was no business of hersthat a fine frontal development could give her no help thereand puts so little spirit into her imitation that no one could be taken in for a moment. She felt that her bill, of all others, would be sure to be dishonoured, and it went against her consciencewe mean her senseto send it in.
In short, the only respect in which Becky's course gives us pain is when it locks itself into that of another, and more genuine child of this earth. No one can regret those being entangled in her nets whose vanity and meanness of spirit alone led them into its meshessuch are rightly served: but we do grudge her that real sacred thing called love, even of a Rawdon Crawley, who has more of that self-forgetting, all-purifying feeling for his little evil sprit than many a better man has for a good woman. We do begrudge Becky a heart, though it belong only to a swindler. Poor, sinned against, vile, degraded, but still true-hearted Rawdon!you stand next in our affections and sympathies to honest Dobbin himself. It was the instinct of a good nature which made the Major feel that the stamp of the Evil One was upon Becky; and it was the stupidity of a good nature which made the Colonel never suspect it. He was a cheat, a black-leg, an unprincipled dog; but still 'Rawdon is a man, and be hanged to him,' as the Rector says. We follow him through the illustrations, which are, in many cases, a delightful enhancement to the textas he stands there, with his gentle eyelid, coarse moustache, and foolish chin, bringing up Becky's coffee-cup with a kind of dumb fidelity; or looking down at little Rawdon with a more than paternal tenderness. All Amelia's philoprogenitive idolatries do not touch us like one fond instinct of 'stupid Rawdon.'
Dobbin sheds a halo over all the long-necked, loose-jointed, Scotch-looking gentlemen of our acquaintance. Flat feet and flap ears seem henceforth incompatible with evil. He reminds us of one of the sweetest creations that have appeared from any modern penthat plain, awkward, loveable 'Long Walter,' in Lady Georgina Fullerton's beautiful novel of 'Grantley Manor.' Like him, too, in his proper self-respect; for Dobbinlumbering, heavy, shy, and absurdly over modest as the ugly fellow isis yet true to himself. At one time he seems to be sinking into the mere abject dangler after Amelia; but he breaks his chains like a man, and resumes them again like a man, too, although half disenchanted of his amiable delusion.
But to return for a moment to Becky. The only criticism we would offer is one which the author has almost disarmed by making her mother a Frenchwoman. The construction of this little clever monster is diabolically French. Such a lusus naturae as a woman without a heart and conscience would, in England, be a mere brutal savage, and poison half a village. France is the land for the real Syren, with the woman's face and the dragon's claws. The genus of Pigeon and Laffarge claims her for its ownonly that our heroine takes a far higher class by not requiring the vulgar matter of fact of crime to develop her full powers. It is an affront to Becky's tactics to believe that she could ever be reduced to so low a resource, or, that if she were, anybody would find it out. We, therefore, cannot sufficiently applaud the extreme discretion with which Mr. Thackeray has hinted at the possibly assistant circumstances of Joseph Sedley's dissolution. A less delicacy of handling would have marred the harmony of the whole design. Such a casualty as that suggested to our imagination was not intended for the light net of Vanity Fair to draw on shore; it would have torn it to pieces. Besides it is not wanted. Poor little Becky is bad enough to satisfy the most ardent student of 'good books.' Wickedness, beyond a certain pitch, gives no increase of gratification even to the sternest moralist; and one of Mr. Thackeray's excellences is the sparing quantity he consumes. The whole use, too, of the workthat of generously measuring one another by this standardis lost, the moment you convict Becky of a capital crime. Who can, with any face, liken a dear friend to a murderess? Whereas now there are no little symptoms of fascinating ruthlessness, graceful ingratitude, or ladylike selfishness, observable among our charming acquaintance, that we may not immediately detect to an inch, and more effectually intimidate by the simple application of the Becky gauge than by the most vehement use of all ten commandments. Thanks to Mr. Thackeray, the world is now provided with an idea, which, if we mistake not, will be the skeleton in the corner of every ball-room and boudoir for a long time to come. Let us leave it intact in its unique point and freshnessa Becky, and nothing more. We should, therefore, advise our readers to cut out that picture of our heroine's 'Second Appearance as Clytemnestra,' which casts so uncomfortable a glare over the latter part of the volume, and, disregarding all hints and inuendoes, simply to let the changes and chances of this mortal life have due weight in their minds. Jos had been much in India. His was a bad life; he ate and drank most imprudently, and his digestion was not to be compared with Becky's. No respectable office would have ensured 'Waterloo Sedly.'
'Vanity Fair' is pre-eminently a novel of the daynot in the vulgar sense, of which there are too many, but as a literal photograph of the manners and habits of the nineteenth century, thrown on to paper by the light of a powerful mind; and one also of the most artistic effect. Mr. Thackeray has a peculiar adroitness in leading on the fancy, or rather memory of his reader from one set of circumstances to another by the seeming chances and coincidences of common life, as an artist leads the spectator's eye through the subject of his picture by a skilful repetition of colour. This is why it is impossible to quote from his book with any justice to it. The whole growth of the narrative is so matted and interwoven together with tendril-like links and bindings, that there is no detaching a flower with sufficient length of stalk to exhibit it to advantage. There is that mutual dependence in his characters which is the first requisite in painting every-day life: no one is stuck on a separate pedestalno one is sitting for his portrait. There may be one exceptionwe mean Sir Pitt Crawley, senior: it is possible, nay, we hardly doubt, that this baronet was closer drawn from individual life than anybody else in the book; but granting that fact, the animal was so unique an exception, that we wonder so shrewd an artist could stick him into a gallery so full of our familiars. The scenes in Germany, we can believe, will seem to many readers of an English book hardly less extravagantly absurdgrossly and gratuitously overdrawn; but the initiated will value them as containing some of the keenest strokes of truth and humour that 'Vanity Fair' exhibits, and not enjoy them the less for being at our neighbour's expense. For the thorough appreciation of the chief character they are quite indispensable too. The whole course of the work may be viewed as the Wander-Jahre of a far cleverer female Wilhelm Meister. We have watched her in the ups-and-downs of lifeamong the humble, the fashionable, the great, and the piousand found her ever new, yet ever the same; but still Becky among the students was requisite to complete the full measure of our admiration.
'Jane Eyre,' as a work, and one of equal popularity, is, in almost every respect, a total contrast to 'Vanity Fair.' The characters and events, though some of them masterly in conception, are coined expressly for the purpose of bringing out great effects. The hero and heroine are beings both so singularly unattractive that the reader feels they can have no vocation in the novel but to be brought together; and they do things which, though not impossible, lie utterly beyond the bounds of probability. On this account a short sketch of the plan seems requisite; not but what it is a plan familiar enough to all readers of novelsespecially those of the old school and those of the lowest school of our own day. For Jane Eyre is merely another Pamela, who, by the force of her character and the strength of her principles, is carried victoriously through great trials and temptations from the man she loves. Nor is she even a Pamela adapted and refined to modern notions; for though the story is conducted without those derelictions of decorum which we are to believe had their excuse in the manners of Richardson's time, yet it is stamped with a coarseness of language and a laxity of tone which have certainly no excuses in ours. It is a very remarkable book: we have no remembrance of another combining such genuine power with such horrid taste. Both together have equally assisted to gain the great popularity it has enjoyed; for in these days of extravagant adoration of all that bears the stamp of novelty and originality, sheer rudeness and vulgarity have come in for a most mistaken worship.
The story is written in the first person. Jane begins with her earliest recollections, and at once takes possession of the reader's intensest interest by the masterly picture of a strange and oppressed child she raises up in a few strokes before him. She is an orphan, and a dependant in the house of a selfish, hard-hearted aunt, against whom the disposition of the little Jane chafes itself in natural antipathy, till she contrives to make the unequal struggle as intolerable to her oppressor as it is to herself. She is therefore, at eight years of age, got rid of to a sort of Dothegirls Hall, where she continues to enlist our sympathies for a time with her little pinched fingers, cropped hair, and empty stomach. But things improve: the abuses of the institution are looked into. The Puritan patron, who holds that young orphan girls are only safely brought up upon the rules of La Trappe, is superseded by an enlightened committeethe school assumes a sound English characterJane progresses from scholar to teacher, and passes ten profitable and not unhappy years at Lowood. Then she advertises for a situation as governess, and obtains one immediately in one of the midland counties. We see her, therefore, as she leaves Lowood, to enter upon a new lifea small, plain, odd creature, who has been brought up dry upon school learning, and somewhat stunted accordingly in mind and body, and who is now thrown upon the world as ignorant of its ways, and as destitute of its friendships, as a shipwrecked mariner upon a strange coast.
Thornfield Hall is the property of Mr. Rochestera bachelor addicted to travelling. She finds it at first in all the peaceful prestige of an English gentleman's seat when 'nobody is at the hall.' The companions are an old decayed gentlewoman house-keepera far away cousin of the squire'sand a young French child, Jane's pupil, Mr. Rochester's ward and reputed daughter. There is a pleasing monotony in the summer solitude of the old country house, with its comfort, respectability, and dulness, which Jane paints to the life; but there is one circumstance which varies the sameness and casts a mysterious feeling over the scene. A strange laugh is heard from time to time in a distant part of the housea laugh which grates discordantly upon Jane's ear. She listens, watches, and inquires, but can discover nothing but a plain matter of fact woman, who sits sewing somewhere in the attics, and goes up and down stairs peaceably to and from her dinner with the servants. But a mystery there is, though nothing betrays it, and it comes in with marvellous effect from the monotonous reality of all around. After awhile Mr. Rochester comes to Thornfield, and sends for the child and her governess occasionally to bear him company. He is a dark, strange-looking manstrong and largeof the brigand stamp, with fine eyes and lowering browsblunt and sarcastic in his manners, with a kind of misanthropical frankness, which seems based upon utter contempt for his fellow-creatures, and a surly truthfulness which is more rudeness than honesty. With his arrival disappears all the prestige of the country innocence that had invested Thornfield Hall. He brings the taint of the world upon him, and none of its illusions. The queer little governess is something new to him. He talks to her at one time imperiously as to a servant, and at another recklessly as to a man. He pours into her ears disgraceful tales of his past life, connected with the birth of little Adèle, which any man with common respect for a woman, and that a mere girl of eighteen, would have spared her; but which eighteen in this case listens to as if it were nothing new, and certainly nothing distasteful. He is captious and Turk-likeshe is one day his confidant, and another his unnoticed dependant. In short, by her account, Mr. Rochester is a strange brute, somewhat in the Squire Western style of absolute and capricious eccentricity, though redeemed in him by signs of a cultivated intellect, and gleams of a certain fierce justice of heart. He has a mind, and when he opens it at all, he opens it freely to her. Jane becomes attached to her 'master,' as Pamela-like she calls him, and it is not difficult to see that solitude and propinquity are taking effect upon him also. An odd circumstance heightens the dawning romance. Jane is awoke one night by that strange discordant laugh close to her earthen a noise as if hands feeling along the wall. She risesopens her door, finds the passage full of smoke, is guided by it to her master's room, whose bed she discovers enveloped in flames, and by her timely aid saves his life. After this they meet no more for ten days, when Mr. Rochester returns from a visit to a neighbouring family, bringing with him a housefull of distinguished guests; at the head of whom is Miss Blanche Ingram, a haughty beauty of high birth, and evidently the especial object of the Squire's attentionsupon which tumultuous irruption Miss Eyre slips back into her naturally humble position.
Our little governess is now summoned away to attend her aunt's death-bed, who is visited by some compunctions toward her, and she is absent a month. When she returns Thornfield Hall is quit of all its guests, and Mr. Rochester and she resume their former life of captious cordiality on the one side, and diplomatic humility on the other. At the same time the bugbear of Miss Ingram and of Mr. Rochester's engagement with her is kept up, though it is easy to see that this and all concerning that lady is only a stratagem to try Jane's character and affection upon the most approved Griselda precedent. Accordingly an opportunity for explanation ere long offers itself, where Mr. Rochester has only to take it. Miss Eyre is desired to walk with him in shady alleys, and to sit with him on the roots of an old chestnut-tree towards the close of evening, and of course she cannot disobey her 'master'whereupon there ensues a scene which, as far as we remember, is new equally in art or nature; in which Miss Eyre confesses her lovewhereupon Mr. Rochester drops not only his cigar (which she seems to be in the habit of lighting for him) but his mask, and finally offers not only heart, but hand. The wedding-day is soon fixed, but strange misgivings and presentiments haunt the young lady's mind. The night but one before, her bed-room is entered by a horrid phantom, who tries on the wedding veil, sends Jane into a swoon of terror, and defeats all the favourite refuge of a bad dream by leaving the veil in two pieces. But all is ready. The bride has no friends to assistthe couple walk to churchonly the clergyman and the clerk are therebut Jane's quick eye has seen two figures lingering among the tombstones, and these two follow them into church. The ceremony commences, when at the due charge which summons any man to come forward and show just cause why they should not be joined together, a voice interposes to forbid the marriage. There is an impediment, and a serious one. The bridegroom has a wife not only living, but living under the very roof of Thornfield Hall. Hers was that discordant laugh which had so often caught Jane's ear; but she it was who in her malice had tried to burn Mr. Rochester in his bedwho had visited Jane by night and torn her veil, and whose attendant was that same pretended sew-woman who had so strongly excited Jane's curiosity. For Mr. Rochester's wife is a creature, half fiend, half maniac, whom he had married in a distant part of the world, and whom now, in his self-constituted code of morality, he had thought it his right, and even his duty, to supersede by a more agreeable companion. Now follow scenes of a truly tragic power. This is the grand crisis in Jane's life. Her whole soul is wrapt up in Mr. Rochester. He has broken her trust, but not diminished her love. He entreats her to accept all that he still can give, his heart and his home; he pleads with the agony not only of a man who has never known what it was to conquer a passion, but of one who, by that same self-constituted code, now burns to atone for a disappointed crime. There is no one to help her against him or against herself. Jane had no friends to stand by her at the altar, and she has none to support her now she is plucked away from it. There is no one to be offended or disgraced at her following him to the sunny land of Italy, as he proposes, till the maniac should die. There is no duty to any one but to herself, and this feeble reed quivers and trembles beneath the overwhelming weight of love and sophistry opposed to it. But Jane triumphs; in the middle of the night she risesglides out of her roomtakes off her shoes as she passes Mr. Rochester's chamber;leaves the house, and casts herself upon a world more desert than ever to her
'Without a shilling and without a friend.'
Thus the great deed of self-conquest is accomplished; Jane has passed through the fire of temptation from without and from within; her character is stamped from that day; we need therefore follow her no further into wanderings and sufferings which, though not unmixed with plunder from Minerva-lane, occupy some of, on the whole, the most striking chapters in the book. Virtue of course finds her reward. The maniac wife sets fire to Thornfield Hall, and perishes herself in the flames. Mr. Rochester, in endeavouring to save her, loses the sight of his eyes. Jane rejoins her blind master; they are married, after which of course the happy man recovers his sight.
Such is the outline of a tale in which, combined with great materials for power and feeling, the reader may trace gross inconsistencies and improbabilities, the chief and foremost that highest moral offence a novel writer can commit, that of making an unworthy character interesting in the eyes of the reader. Mr. Rochester is a man who deliberately and secretly seeks to violate the laws of both God and man, and yet we will be bound half our lady readers are enchanted with him for a model of generosity and honour. We would have thought that such a hero had no chance, in the purer taste of the present day; but the popularity of Jane Eyre is a proof how deeply the love for illegitimate romance is implanted in our nature. Not that the author is strictly responsible for this. Mr. Rochester's character is tolerably consistent. He is made as coarse and as brutal as can in all conscience be required to keep our sympathies at a distance. In point of literary consistency the hero is at all evens impugnable, though we cannot say as much for the heroine.
As to Jane's characterthere is none of that harmonious unity about it which made little Becky so grateful a subject of analysisnor are the discrepancies of that kind which have their excuse and their response in our nature. The inconsistencies of Jane's character lie mainly not in her own imperfections, though of course she has her share, but in the author's. There is that confusion in the relations between cause and effect, which is not so much untrue to human nature as to human art. The error in Jane Eyre is, not that her character is this or that, but that she is made one thing in the eyes of her imaginary companions, and another in that of the actual reader. There is a perpetual disparity between the account she herself gives of the effect she produces, and the means shown us by which she brings that effect about. We hear nothing but self-eulogiums on the perfect tact and wondrous penetration with which she is gifted, and yet almost every word she utters offends us, not only with the absence of these qualities, but with the positive contrasts of them, in either her pedantry, stupidity, or gross vulgarity. She is one of those ladies who put us in the unpleasant predicament of undervaluing their very virtues for dislike of the person in whom they are represented. One feels provoked as Jane Eyre stands before usfor in the wonderful reality of her thoughts and descriptions, she seems accountable for all done in her namewith principles you must approve in the main, and yet with language and manners that offend you in every particular. Even in that chef-d'oeuvre of brilliant retrospective sketching, the description of her early life, it is the childhood and not the child that interests you. The little Jane, with her sharp eyes and dogmatic speeches, is a being you neither could fondle nor love. There is a hardness in her infantine earnestness, and a spiteful precocity in her reasoning, which repulses all our sympathy. One sees that she is of a nature to dwell upon and treasure up every slight and unkindness, real or fancied, and such natures we know are surer than any others to meet with plenty of this sort of thing. As the child, so also the womanan uninteresting, sententious, pedantic thing; with no experience of the world, and yet with no simplicity or freshness in its stead. What are her first answers to Mr. Rochester but such as would have quenched all interest, even for a prettier woman, in any man of common knowledge of what was natureand especially in a blasé monster like him? A more affected governessy effusion we never read. The question is à propos of cadeaux.
"Who talks of cadeaux?" said he gruffly: "did you expect a present, Miss Eyre? Are you fond of presents?" and he searched my face with eyes that I saw were dark, irate, and piercing.
"I hardly know, Sir; I have little experience of them; they are generally thought pleasant things."
"Generally thought! But what do you think?"
"I should be obliged to take time, Sir, before I could give you an answer worthy of your acceptance: a present has many faces to it, has it not? and one should consider all before pronouncing an opinion as to its nature."
"Miss Eyre, you are not so unsophisticated as Adèle: she demands a cadeau clamorously the moment she sees me; you beat around the bush."
"Because I have less confidence in my deserts than Adèle has; she can prefer the right of old acquaintance and the right too of custom; for she says you have always been in the habit of giving her playthings; but if I had to make out a case I should be puzzled, since I am a stranger, and have done nothing to entitle me to such an acknowledgment."
"Oh! don't fall back on over modesty! I have examined Adèle, and find you have taken great pains with her: she is not brightshe has no talent, yet in a short time she has made much improvement."
"Sir, you have now given me my cadeau; I am obliged to you: it is indeed the meed teachers most covet; praise of their pupil's progress."
"Humph!" said Mr. Rochester.vol. i., p. 234.
Let us now take a specimen of her again when Mr. Rochester brings home his guests to Thornfield. The fine ladies of this world are a new study to Jane, and capitally she describes her first impression of them as they leave the dinner table and return to the drawing-roomnothing can be more gracefully graphic than this.
'There were but eight of them, yet somehow as they flocked in, they gave the impression of a much larger number. Some of them were very tall, and all had a sweeping amplitude of array that seemed to magnify their persons as a mist magnifies the moon. I rose and curtseyed to them: one or two bent their heads in return; the others only stared at me.
'They dispersed about the room, reminding me, by the lightness and buoyancy of their movements, of a flock of white plumy birds. Some of them threw themselves in half-reclining positions on the sofas and ottomans; some bent over the tables and examined the flowers and books; the rest gathered in a group round the fire: all talked in a low but clear tone which seemed habitual to them.' vol. ii. p. 38.
But now for the reverse. The moment Jane Eyre sets these graceful creatures conversing, she falls into mistakes which display not so much a total ignorance of the habits of society, as a vulgarity of mind inherent in herself. They talked together by her account like parvenues trying to show off. They discuss the subject of governesses before her very face, in what Jane affects to consider the exact tone of fashionable contempt. They bully the servants in language no lady would dream of using to her ownfar less to those of her host and entertainerthough certainly the 'Sam' of Jane Eyre's is not precisely the head servant one is accustomed to meet with in houses of the Thornfield class. For instance, this is a conversation which occurs in her hearing. An old gypsy has come to the Hall, and the servants can't get rid of her
"What does she want?" asked Mrs Eshton.
"To tell the gentry their fortunes, she says, Ma'am: and she swears she must and will do it."
"What is she like?" inquired the Misses Eshton, in a breath.
"A shockingly ugly old creature, Miss; almost as black as a crock."
"Why, she's a real sorceress," cried Frederick Lynn. "Let us have her in of course."
"My dear boys, what are you thinking about?" exclaimed Lady Lynn.
"I cannot possibly countenance any such inconsistent proceedings," chimed in the Dowager Ingram.
"Indeed, mamma, but you canand will," pronounced the haughty voice of Blanche, as she turned round on the piano-stool, where till now she had sat silent, apparently examining sundry sheets of music. "I have a curiosity to hear my fortune told: therefore, Sam, order the beldame forward."
"My darling Blanche! recollect"
"I doI recollect all you can suggest; and I must have my willquick, Sam!"
"Yesyesyes," cried all the juveniles, both ladies and gentlemen. "Let her come, it will be excellent sport."
The footman still lingered. "She looks such a rough one," said he.
"Go!" ejaculated Miss Ingram, and the man went.
Excitement instantly seized the whole party; a running fire of raillery and jests was proceeding when Sam returned.
"She won't come now," said he. "She says it is not her mission to appear before the 'vulgar herd' (them's her words). I must show her into a room by herself, and them who wish to consult her must go to her one by one."
"You see now, my queenly Blanche," began Lady Ingram, "she encroaches. Be advised, my angel girland"
"Show her into the library, of course," cut in the "angel girl". "It is not my mission to listen to her before the vulgar herd either; I mean to have her all to myself. Is there a fire in the library?"
"Yes, Ma'am; but she looks such a tinkler."
"Cease that chatter, blockhead! and do my bidding!"vol. ii., p. 82.
The old gypsy woman, by the way, turns out to be Mr. Rochesterwhom Jane of course alone recognizesas silly an incident as can well be contrived. But the crowning scene is the offergovernesses are said to be sly on such occasions, but Jane out-governesses them alllittle Becky would have blushed for her. They are sitting together at the foot of the old chestnut tree, as we have already mentioned, towards the close of evening, and Mr. Rochester is informing her, with his usual delicacy of language, that he is engaged to Miss Ingram'a strapper! Jane, a real strapper!'and that as soon as he brings home his bride to Thornfield, she, the governess, must 'trot forthwith'but that he shall make it his duty to look out for employment and an asylum for herindeed, that he has already heard of a charming situation in the depths of Irelandall with a brutal jocoseness which most women of spirit, unless grievously despairing of any other lover, would have resented, and any woman of sense would have seen through. But Jane, that profound reader of the human heart, and especially Mr. Rochester's, does neither. She meekly hopes she may be allowed to stay where she is till she has found another shelter to betake herself toshe does not fancy going to IrelandWhy?
'It is a long way off, Sir.' 'No mattera girl of your sense will not object to the voyage or the distance.' 'Not the voyage, but the distance, Sir; and then the sea is a barrier' 'From what, Jane?' 'From England, and from Thornfield; and' 'Well?' 'From you, Sir.'vol. ii., p. 205.
and then the lady bursts into tears in the most approved fashion.
Although so clever in giving hints, how wonderfully slow she is in taking them! Even when, tired of his cat's play, Mr. Rochester proceeds to rather indubitable demonstrations of affection'enclosing me in his arms, gathering me to his breast, pressing his lips on my lips'Jane has no idea what he can mean. Some ladies would have thought it high time to leave the Squire alone with his chestnut tree; or, at all events, unnecessary to keep up that tone of high-souled feminine obtusity which they are quite justified in adopting if the gentlemen will not speak outbut Jane again does neither. Not that we say she was wrong, but quite the reverse, considering the circumstances of the caseMr. Rochester was her master, and 'Duchess or nothing' was her first dutyonly she was not quite so artless as the author would have us suppose.
But if the manner in which she secures the prize be not inadmissible according to the rules of the art, that in which she manages it when caught, is quite without authority or precedent, except perhaps in the servants' hall. Most lover's play is wearisome and nonsensical to the lookers onbut the part Jane assumes is one which could only be efficiently sustained by the substitution of Sam for her master. Coarse as Mr. Rochester is, one winces for him under the infliction of this housemaid beau idéal of the arts of coquetry. A little more, and we should have flung the book aside to lie for ever among the trumpery with which such scenes ally it; but it were a pity to have halted here, for wonderful things lie beyondscenes of suppressed feeling, more fearful to witness than the most violent tornados of passionstruggles with such intense sorrow and suffering as it is sufficient misery to know that any one should have conceived, far less passed through; and yet with that stamp of truth which takes precedence in the human heart before actual experience. The flippant, fifth-rate, plebeian actress has vanished, and only a noble, high-souled woman, bound to us by the reality of her sorrow, and yet raised above us by the strength of her will, stands in actual life before us. If this be Jane Eyre, the author has done her injustice hitherto, not we. Let us look at her in the first recognition of her sorrow after the discomfiture of the marriage. True, it is not the attitude of a Christian, who knows that all things work together for the good to those who love God, but it is a splendidly drawn picture of a natural heart, of high power, intense feeling, and fine religious instinct, falling prostrate, but not grovelling, before the tremendous blast of sudden affliction. The house is cleared of those who had come between her and a disgraceful happiness.
'Only the clergyman stayed to exchange a few sentences of admonition or reproof with his haughty parishioner; this duty done, he too departed.
'I heard him go as I stood at the half-open door of my own room, to which I had now withdrawn. The house cleared, I shut myself in, fastened the bolt, that none might intrude, and proceedednot to weep, not to mourn, I was yet too calm for that, butmechanically to take off the wedding-dress, and replace it by the stuff gown I had worn yesterday, as I thought for the last time. I then sat down: I felt weak and tired. I leaned my arms on a table, and my head dropped on them, and now I thought: till now I had only heard, seen; moved, followed up and down where I was led or dragged, watched event rushed on event, disclosure open beyond disclosure: but now, I thought.
'The morning had been a quiet morning enoughall except the brief scene with the lunatic. The transaction in the church had not been noisy; there was no explosion of passion, no loud altercation, no dispute, no defiance or challenge, no tears, no sobs: a few words had been spoken, a calmly pronounced objection to the marriage made, some stern, short questions put by Mr Rochester; answers, explanations given, evidence adduced; an open admission of the truth had been made by my master, then the living proof had been seen, the intruders were gone, and all was over.
'I was in my own room as usualjust myself, without obvious change: nothing had smitten me, or scathed me, or maimed me; and yet where was the Jane Eyre of yesterday? where was her life? where were her prospects?
'Jane Eyre, who had been an ardent, expectant womanalmost a bridewas a cold, solitary girl again: her life was pale, her prospects were desolate. A Christmas frost had come at Midsummer; a white December storm had whirled over June; ice glazed the ripe apples, drifts crushed the blowing roses; on hay-field and corn-field lay a frozen shroud; lanes, which last night blushed full of flowers, to-day were pathless with untrodden snow; and the woods which, twelve hours since, waved leafy and fragrant as groves between the tropics, now spread waste, wild, and white as pine-forests in wintry Norway. My hopes were all deadstruck with a sudden doom, such as, in one night, fell on all the firstborn in the land of Egypt; I looked on my cherished wishes, yesterday so blooming and glowingthey lay stark, chill, livid corpses that could never revive. I looked at my love; that feeling which was my master'swhich he had created; it shivered in my heart, like a suffering child in a cold cradle; sickness and anguish had seized it: it could not seek Mr. Rochester's armsit could not derive warmth from his breast. Oh! never more could it turn to him, for faith was blighted! confidence destroyed! Mr Rochester was not to me what he had been, for he was not what I thought him. I would not ascribe vice to him; I would not say he had betrayed me: but the attribute of stainless truth was gone from his idea; and from his presence I must go: that I perceived well. Whenhowwhither? I could not yet discern; but he himself I doubted not would hurry me from Thornfield. Real affection, it seemed, he could not have for me; it had only been fitful passion: that was baulkedhe would want me no more. I should fear even to cross his path now; my view must be hateful to him. Oh, how blind had been my eyes! How weak my conduct!
'My eyes were covered and closed; eddying darkness seemed to swim round me, and reflection came in as black and confused a flow. Self-abandoned, relaxed, and effortless, I seemed to have laid me down in the dried-up bed of a great river; I heard a flood loosened in remote mountains, and felt the torrent come; to rise I had no will, to flee I had no strength. I lay faint, longing to be dead; one idea only throbbed lifelike within mea remembrance of God. It begot an unuttered prayer: these words went wandering up and down in my rayless mind, as something that should be whispered; but no energy was found to express them:"Be not far from me, for trouble is near: there is none to help."
'It was near; and as I had lifted no petition to Heaven to avert itas I had neither joined my hands, nor bent my knees, nor moved my lipsit came: in full heavy swing the torrent passed over me. The whole consciousness of my life lorn, my love lost, my hope quenched, my faith death-struck, swayed full and mighty above me in one sullen mass. That bitter hour cannot be described: in truth, "the waters came into my soul; I sank in deep mire: I felt no standing; I came into deep waters; the floods overflowed me."' vol. ii., p. 300.
We have said that this was the picture of a natural heart. This, to our view, is the great and crying mischief of the book. Jane Eyre is throughout the personification of an unregenerate and undisciplined spirit, the more dangerous to exhibit from that prestige of principle and self-control which is liable to dazzle the eye too much for it to observe the inefficient and unsound foundation on which it rests. It is true Jane does right, and exerts great moral strength, but it is the strength of a mere heathen mind which is a law unto itself. No Christian grace is perceptible upon her. She has inherited in fullest measure the worst sin of our fallen naturethe sin of pride. Jane Eyre is proud, and therefore she is ungrateful too. It pleased God to make her an orphan, friendless, and pennilessyet she thanks nobody, and least of all Him, for the food and raiment, the friends, companions, and instructors of her helpless youthfor the care and education vouchsafed to her till she was capable in mind as fitted in years to provide for herself. On the contrary, she looks upon all that has been done for her not only as her undoubted right, but as falling far short of it. The doctrine of humility is not more foreign to her mind than it is repudiated by her heart. It is by her own talents, virtues, and courage that she is made to attain the summit of human happiness, and, as far as Jane Eyre's own statement is concerned, no one would think that she owed anything either to God above or to man below. She flees from Mr. Rochester, and has not a being to turn to. Why was this? The excellence of the present institution at Casterton, which succeeded that of Cowan Bridge near Kirkby Lonsdalethese being distinctly, as we hear, the original and the reformed Lowoods of the bookis pretty generally known. Jane had lived there for eight years with 110 girls and fifteen teachers. Why had she formed no friendships among them? Other orphans have left the same and similar institutions, furnished with friends for life, and puzzled with homes to choose from. How comes it that Jane had acquired neither? Among that number of associates there was surely some exceptions to what she so presumptuously stigmatises as 'the society of inferior minds.' Of course, it suited the author's end to represent the heroine as utterly destitute of the common means of assistance, in order to exhibit both her trials and her powers of self-supportthe whole book rests on this assumptionbut it is one which, under the circumstances, is very unnatural and very unjust.
Altogether the auto-biography of Jane Eyre is pre-eminently an anti-Christian composition. There is throughout it a murmuring against the comforts of the rich and against the privations of the poor, which, as far as each individual is concerned, is a murmuring against God's appointmentthere is a proud and perpetual assertion of the rights of man, for which we find no authority either in God's word or in God's providencethere is that pervading tone of ungodly discontent which is at once the most prominent and most subtle evil which the law and the pulpit, which all civilized society in fact has at the present day to contend with. We do not hesitate to say 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.
Still we say again this is a very remarkable book. We are painfully alive to the moral, religious, and literary deficiencies of the picture, and such passages of beauty and power as we have quoted cannot redeem it, but it is impossible not to be spell-bound with the freedom of the touch. It would be mere hackneyed courtesy to call it 'fine writing.' It bears no impress of being written at all, but is poured out rather in the heat and hurry of an instinct, which flows ungovernably on to its object, indifferent by what means it reaches it, and unconscious too. As regards the author's chief object, however, it is a failurethat, namely, of making a plain, odd woman, destitute of all the conventional features of feminine attraction, interesting in our sight. We deny that he has succeeded in this. Jane Eyre, in spite of some grand things about her, is a being totally uncongenial to our feelings from beginning to end. We acknowledge her firmnesswe respect her determinationwe feel for her struggles; but, for all that, and setting aside higher considerations, the impression she leaves on our mind is that of a decidedly vulgar-minded womanone whom we should not care for as an acquaintance, whom we should not seek as a friend, whom we should not desire for a relation, and whom we should scrupulously avoid for a governess.
There seem to have arisen in the novel-reading world some doubts as to who really wrote this book; and various rumours, more or less romantic, have been current in Mayfair, the metropolis of gossip, as to the authorship. For example, Jane Eyre is sentimentally assumed to have proceeded from the pen of Mr. Thackeray's governess, whom he had himself chosen as his model of Becky, and who, in mingled love and revenge, personified him in return as Mr. Rochester. In this case, it is evident that the author of 'Vanity Fair,' whose own pencil makes him grey-haired, has had the best of it, though his children may have had the worst, having, at all events, succeeded in hitting that vulnerable point in the Becky bosom, which it is our firm belief no man born of woman, from her Soho to her Ostend days, had ever so much as grazed. To this ingenious rumour the coincidence of the second edition of Jane Eyre being dedicated to Mr. Thackeray has probably given rise. For our parts, we see no great interest in the question at all. The first edition of Jane Eyre purports to be edited by Currer Bell, one of a trio of brothers, or sisters, or cousins, by names Currer, Acton, and Ellis Bell, already known as the joint-authors of a volume of poems. The second edition of the samededicated, however, 'by the author,' to Mr. Thackeray; and the dedication (itself an indubitable chip of Jane Eyre) signed Currer Bell. Author and editor are therefore one, and we are as much satisfied to accept this double individual under the name of 'Currer Bell,' as under any other, more or less euphonious. Whoever it be, it is a person who, with great mental powers, combines a total ignorance of the habits of society, a great coarseness of taste, and a heathenish doctrine of religion. And as these characteristics appear more or less in the writings of all three, Currer, Acton, and Ellis alike, for their poems differ less in degree of power than in kind, we are ready to accept the fact of their identity or of their relationship with equal satisfaction. At all events there can be no interest attached to the writer of 'Wuthering Heights'a novel succeeding 'Jane Eyre,' and purporting to be written by Ellis Bellunless it were for the sake of more individual reprobation. For though there is a decided family likeness between the two, yet the aspect of the Jane and Rochester animals in their native state, as Catherine and Heathfield, is too odiously and abominably pagan to be palatable even to the most vitiated class of English readers. With all the unscrupulousness of the French school of novels it combines that repulsive vulgarity in the choice of its vice which supplies its own antidote. The question of authorship, therefore, can deserve a moment's curiosity only as far as 'Jane Eyre' is concerned, and though we cannot pronounce that it appertains to a real Mr. Currer Bell and to no other, yet that it appertains to a man, and not, as many assert, to a woman, we are strongly inclined to affirm. Without entering into the question whether the power of the writing be above her, or the vulgarity below her, there are, we believe, minutiae of circumstantial evidence which at once acquit the feminine hand. No womana lady friend, whom we are always happy to consult, assures usmakes mistakes in her own métierno woman trusses game and garnishes dessert-dishes with the same hands, or talks of so doing in the same breath. Above all, no woman attires another in such fancy dresses as Jane's ladies assumeMiss Ingram coming down, irresistible, 'in a morning robe of sky-blue crape, a gauze azure scarf twisted in her hair!!" No lady, we understand, when suddenly roused in the night, would think of hurrying on 'a frock.' They have garments more convenient for such occasions, and more becoming too. This evidence seems incontrovertible. Even granting that these incongruities were purposely assumed, for the sake of disguising the female pen, there is nothing gained; for if we ascribe the book to a woman at all, we have no alternative but to ascribe it to one who has, for some sufficient reason, long forfeited the society of her own sex.
And if by no woman, it is certainly also by no artist. The Thackeray eye has had no part there. There is not more disparity between the art of drawing Jane assumes and her evident total ignorance of its first principles, than between the report she gives of her own character and the conclusions we form for ourselves. Not but what, in another sense, the author may be classed as an artist of very high grade. Let him describe the simplest things of naturea rainy landscape, a cloudy sky, or a bare moorside, and he shows the hand of a master; but the moment he talks of art itself, it is obvious that he is a complete ignoramus.
We cannot help feeling that this work must be far from beneficial to that class of ladies whose cause it affects to advocate. Jane Eyre is not precisely the mouthpiece one would select to plead the cause of governesses, and it is therefore the greater pity that she has chosen it: for there is none we are convinced which, at the present time, more deserves and demands an earnest befriending. If these times puzzle us how to meet the claims and wants of the lower classes of our dependants, they puzzle and shame us too in the case of that highest dependant of all, the governess-who is not only entitled to our gratitude and respect by her position, but, in nine cases out of ten, by the circumstances which reduced her to it. For the case of the governess is so much the harder than that of any other class of the community, in that they are not only quite as liable to all the vicissitudes of life, but are absolutely supplied by them. There may be, and are, exceptions to this rule, but the real definition of a governess, in the English sense, is a being who is our equal in birth, manners, and education, but our inferior in worldly wealth. Take a lady, in every meaning of the word, born and bred, and let her father pass through the gazette, and she wants nothing more to suit our highest beau idéal of a guide and instructress to our children. We need the imprudencies, extravagancies, mistakes, or crimes of a certain number of fathers, to sow that seed from which we reap the harvest of governesses. There is no other class of labourers for hire who are thus systematically supplied by the misfortunes of our fellow-creatures. There is no other class which so cruelly requires its members to be, in birth, mind, and manners, above their station, in order to fit them for their station. From this peculiarity in their very qualifications for office result all the peculiar and most painful similarities of their professional existence. The line which severs the governess from her employers is not one which will take care of itself, as is the case of a servant. If she sits at the table she does not shock youher appearance and manners are likely to be as good as your ownher education rather better; there is nothing upon the face of the thing to stamp her as having been called to a different state of life from that in which it has pleased God to place you; and therefore the distinction has to be kept up by a fictitious barrier which presses with cruel weight upon the mental strength or constitutional vanity of a woman. People talk of the prevailing vanity of governesses, and we grant it in one sense fullybut how should it not be so? If a governess have a grain of vanity in her composition, it is sought and probed for by every species of slight and mortification, intentional or not, till it starts into unnatural life beneath the irritation. She must be a saint, or no woman at all, who can rise above those perpetual little dropping-water trials to which the self-love of an averagely-placed governess is exposed. That fearful fact that the lunatic asylums of this country are supplied with a larger proportion of their inmates from the ranks of young governesses than from any other class of life, is a sufficient proof of how seldom she can. But it is not her vanity which sends her there, but her wounded vanitythe distinction is greatand wounded vanity, as all medical men will tell us, is the rock on which most minds go to pieces.
Man cannot live by the head alone, far less woman. A governess has no equals, and therefore can have no sympathy. She is a burden and restraint in society, as all must be who are placed ostensibly at the same table and yet are forbidden to help themselves or to be helped to the same viands. She is a bore to almost any gentleman, as a tabooed woman, to whom he is interdicted from granting the usual privileges of the sex, and yet who is perpetually crossing his path. She is a bore to most ladies by the same rule, and a reproach toofor her dull, fagging, bread-and-water life is perpetually putting their pampered listlessness to shame. The servants invariably detest her, for she is a dependant like themselves, and yet, for all that, as much their superior in other respects as the family they both serve. Her pupils may love her, and she may take the deepest interest in them, but they cannot be her friends. She must, to all intents and purposes, live alone, or she transgresses that invisible but rigid line which alone establishes the distance between herself and her employers.
We do not deny that there are exceptions to this statementthat there are many governesses who are treated with an almost undue equality and kindnessthat there are many who suffer from slights which they entirely make for themselves, and affect a humility which is never neededand also that there is no class in which there are women so encroaching, so exigeantes, and so disagreeable. But still these are exceptions, let them be ever so numerous. The broad and real characteristics of the governess's qualifications, position, and trials are such as we have described, and must be such. Nor have we brought them forward with any view, or hope, or even with any wish to see them remedied, for in the inherent constitution of English habits, feelings, and prejudices, there is no possibility that they should be. We say English, for foreign life is far more favourable to a governess's happiness. In its less stringent domestic habits, the company of a teacher, for she is nothing more abroad, is no interruptionoften an acquisition; she herself, again, is pleased with that mere surface of politeness and attention which would not satisfy an Englishwoman's heart or pride; the difference of birth, too, is more obvious, from the non-existence in any other country of an untitled aristocracy like our own. But all this cannot be altered with us. We shall ever prefer to place those immediately about our children who have been born and bred with somewhat of the same refinement as ourselves. We must ever keep them in a sort of isolation, for it is the only means for maintaining that distance which the reserve of English manners and the decorum of English families exact. That true justice and delicacy in the employer which would make a sunshine even in a barren schoolroom must ever be too rare to be depended upon. That familiarity which should level all distinction a right-thinking governess would scorn to accept;all this must be continued as it is. But there is one thing, the absence of which need not be added to the other drawbacks of her lot; which would go far to compensate to her for the misfortunes which reduced her to this mode of life, and for the trials attendant upon itfor the years of chilly solitude through which the heart is kept shivering upon a diet that can never sufficiently warm it, and that in the longing season of youthfor nothing less than maternal cares and solicitudes for which she reaps no maternal rewardfor a life spent in harness from morning till night, and from one year's end to anotherfor the old age and incapacity creeping on and threatening to deprive her even of that mode of existence which habit has made endurablethere is something that would compensate for all this, and that is better pay. We quite agree with Mr. Rochester, in answer to one of Jane's sententious speeches, that 'most freeborn things will submit to anything for a salary;' in other words, that most men and women of average sense will put up with much that is fatiguing to do, or irksome to bear, if you make it worth their while; and we know of no process of reasoning by which it can be proved that governesses, as is too often required from them, can dispense with this potent stimulus.
There is something positively usurious in the manner with which the misfortunes of the individual or the general difficulty of the times is now-a-days constantly taken advantage of to cut the stipend of the governess down to the lowest ratio that she will accept. The Jew raises his rate of interest because the heedless spend-thrift will pay anything to get that loan he needs; and by the same rule the Christian parent lowers the salary because the friendless orphan will take anything rather than be without a situation. Each traffics with the necessities, and not with the merits of the case; but the one proceeding is so much the harder than the other, because it presses not upon a selfish, thoughtless, extravagant man, but upon a poor, patient, and industrious woman. 'And they are very glad to get that, I can tell you,' is the cold-hearted rejoinder, if you expostulate on the injustice of throwing all the labour of the teacher and many of the chief duties of a parent upon the shoulders of a young woman, for the remuneration of thirty or even twenty pounds a-year. It may be quite true that she is glad to get even this; and if so, it is very deplorable: but this has no relation to the services exacted and the assistance given; and these should be more especially the standard where the plaintiff, as in the case of the governess, possesses no means of resistance. Workmen may rebel, and tradesmen may combine, not to let you have their labour or their wares under a certain rate; but the governess has no refugeno escape; she is a needy lady, whose services are of far too precious a kind to have any stated market value, and is therefore left to the mercy, or what they call the means, of the family that engages her.
But is not this an all-sufficient plea? it may be urged. If parents do not have the means to give higher salaries, what can they do? We admit the argument, though it might easily be proved how often the cheap governess and the expensive servant are to be found in the same establishment; but the question is in truth whether they all have the means or the excuse to keep a governess at all? Whether it be conscientiously honest to engage the best years of a hard-working, penniless woman, without the power of making her an adequate return? The fine-ladyism of the day has, we regret to observe, crept into a lower class than that one was wont to associate it with, and where from its greater sacrifice of the comforts and rights of others, it is still more objectionable. Women, whose husbands leave them in peace from morning till night, for counting-houses or lawyers' officescertainly leave them with nothing better to do than to educate and attend to their childrenmust now, forsooth, be keeping ill-paid governesses for those duties which one would hope a peeress only unwillingly relinquishes. Women, from whom society requires nothing but that they should quietly and unremittingly do that for which their station offers them the happy leisure, must now treat themselves to one of those pro-mammas who, owing to various causes, more or less distressing, have become so plentiful that they may be had cheap! If more governesses find a penurious maintenance by these means, more mothers are encouraged to neglect those duties, which, one would have thought, they would have been as jealous of as of that first duty of all that infancy requires from them. It is evident, too, that by this unfair demand the supply has been suddenly increased. Farmers and tradespeople are now educating their daughters for governesses as a mode of advancing them a step in life, and thus a number of underbred young women have crept into the profession who have brought down the value of salaries and interfered with the rights of those whose birth and misfortunes leave them no other refuge.
Even in the highest range of salaryin the hundred, and hundred and twenty guineas, which so few now enjoyso very few get beyondthe advantage is too much on the one side not to be, in some respects, an injustice to the other. There has been no luxury invented in social life equal to that which gives a mother all the pleasure of her children's society, and the reward of their improvement, and at the same time relieves her of the trouble of either. At the highest salary, it is the cheapest luxury that can be had; and yet a mother satisfies her conscience when she gives the patient drudge who not only retails to her children every accomplishment and science of the day, but also performs the part of the maternal factotum in every other department, the notable sum of 40 l. or 50 l. a year; and then, when she has lived in the family for perhaps fifteen years, and finished the sixth daughter, dismisses her with every recommendation as 'a treasure,' but without a fragment of help in the shape of a pension or provision to ease her further labours or approaching incapacity. In nine cases out of ten, the old servant is far more cared for than the old governess.
Some amiable Mrs. Armytage will be ready to say'We have nothing to do with the governess's most frequent cause of need for a larger salary: we are not required to maintain her family as well as herself.' True enough. At the same time women with women's hearts might be expected to bear in mind that the same reasons that have placed her in this position will, with rare exceptions, be the drain upon her the whole time she is in it; and that though she may squeeze something out of the smallest salary to help disabled parents or orphan sisters, she is deprived of all possibility of laying up a provision for herself.
While we therefore applaud heartily the efforts for their comfort and relief which have been made within the last few years, in the establishment of the Governesses' Benevolent Institution, we look with sorrow, and almost with horror, at the disclosures which those efforts have brought to light. There is no document which more painfully exposes the peculiar tyranny of our present state of civilization than those pages in the Report of this Society containing the list of candidates for the few and small annuities which the Institution is as yet in the condition to give. We know of nothing, in truth or fiction, more affecting than the sad and simple annals of these afflicted and destitute ladies, many of them with their aristocratic names, who, having passed through that course of servitude which, as we have shown, is peculiarly and inevitably deprived of most of those endearing sympathies which gladden this life, are now left in their old age or sickness without even the absolute necessaries for existence. With minds also which, from their original refinement and constant cultivation, have the keener sense of the misery and injustice of their lot; for the delicate and well-bred lady we at first congratulated ourselves on having engaged in our family is equally the same when we cast her off to shift for herself. What a mockery must all this thankless acquisition of knowledge, which has been the object of her study and the puff in her credentials, appear to her now! Conversant with several languagesskilled in many accomplishmentscrammed with every possible fact in history, geography, and the use of the globesand scarcely the daily bread to put into her mouth! If there be any of our female readers so spoiled by prosperity as to magnify small annoyances into real evilsif there be any one who, forgetting
'What she is, and where
A sinner in a life of care'
is unmindful of the blessings of a home, because it contains some trial which it is difficult to bearlet her look through this list now before us of her hard-working and ill-requited fellow-gentle-women, and be thankful to God that her name does not stand there. We give a few specimensomitting the surnames, as not required here:
'Miss Juliana , aged sixty-seven. Became a governess at the age of sixteen, being left, by her father's death, without any provision. Has received too low salaries to save, and has now no prospect but the hope of being enabled to support herself by needlework while she has health and can obtain employment, and an occasional present from some of her friends. Reference: Mrs. T. Babington, 14, Blessington Street, Dublin.
'Miss Amelia , aged sixty-one. Father, a naval officer, died when she was an infant, and her mother when she was sixteencompelling her to become a governess. Unable to save on account of small salaries, ill health, and the want of a home. No income whatever, having only occasional assistance from an old friend who will have nothing to leave her at her death. Reference: Miss Anderson, 32, Cadogan Street, Chelsea.
'Miss Catherine , aged sixty-three. Became a governess on the insolvency of her father. The support of an aged father and afflicted mother prevented her laying by for herself. Her mother, dependent upon her for twenty-six years, died of cancer. Present income less than 5s. a-week. Reference: Miss Boycatt, Great Ormesby, Yarmouth.
'Miss Margaret , aged seventy-one. Fifty years a governess, having been left an orphan at three years old, and the uncle who meant to provide for her being lost at sea. Assisted her relations as far as possible from her salaries. She is now very feeble, and her health failing fast. Her entire support is an annuity of fourteen guineas.
'Miss Dorothea , aged fifty-four. Father a surgeon in the army; governess, chiefly in Scotch families, for thirty years; was the chief support of her mother and the younger members of her family from 1811 to 1838, when her mother died, leaving her with failing health through over exertion, and only 5l. a-year from the Government Compassionate Fund. Reference: R.W.Saunders, Esq., Nunwick Hall, near Penrith.
'Miss Mary , aged sixty-five. Her parents having lost all their property, she never had a home, and has devoted her whole life to her profession, supporting herself and her father, who attained his eightieth year. But she has been unable to provide for herself; and with failing health and sight, her income (an uncertain one) never exceeds 10l. a-year. Reference: Mrs. Campbell, Bickfield, Ipswich.
'Miss Mary , aged sixty-four. Her father formerly possessed very large property; but having many children, and having suffered heavy losses, he was unable to make any provision for his family. She has devoted her whole life to tuition, but has unhappily been unable to make any fund for old age; and now, in the decline of life, and with failing health, has no income whatsoever. Reference: the Countess Poulett, 5, Tilney Street, Park Lane.
'Miss Ann , aged sixty-two. Has been a governess all her life. Supported and educated two orphan nieces and a nephew, and apprenticed the latter. He is since dead; as is her eldest niece, after five years' illness, which at last destroyed her intellects. The consequent expenses were ruinous; and she is now companion to a lady for her boardan engagement which ceases with the present year. Reference: Mrs. Bradley, Hark Hill, Clapham.'
We need add no more from this touching list of ninety ladies, all more or less reduced to indigence by the edifying fulfilment of their natural duties, and who, after a life of labour and struggle, presented themselves, in November, 1847, as candidates for four annuities of 15l. each. Of these ninety it seems seven only had incomes exceeding 20l., two of those derived from public institutions; sixteen had incomes varying from 36s. to 14l., and the rest had no certain means of livelihood at all. These facts are serious lessons to all, but especially to two classes of societyto those parents who are living in ease and affluence without a thought of their children's future provision, and to those who allow themselves the luxury of a governess without either the means of remunerating her adequately, or the right conscientious desire to do it.
But if, as a people, we are, from love of habit or hatred of change, prone to submit too long to abuses, and careless how they press upon the weaker classes of the community, we are, it is to be hoped, active in assistance and redress, when once roused to a sense of its necessity. This Governesses' Benevolent Institution, though still comparatively in its infancy, is an important step towards the atonement for past neglect. If it be, in the nature of the thing, impossible to shed more social sunshine upon a governess's life, and almost equally so to secure her a full compensation for her labours, the public have at all events now been shown the way how to assist in protecting her interests, increasing her comforts and advantages, and solacing her old age. The distinct objects of the society are these1st, to bestow temporary assistance on governesses in distress; 2nd, to found elective annuities for aged governesses; 3rd, to assist governesses in purchasing annuities upon government security; 4th, to provide a home for governesses at a low expense during their intervals of engagement; and, 5th, to carry on for them a system of registration free of expense. The two first objectsthat of temporary assistance, and the annuity for the aged governessescall for a considerable increase of resourcesbut not more, we hope, than it is reasonable to look for from the liberality and right feeling of a British public. How justly the temporary assistance fund has been bestowed may be seen by a glance into the First Report, where cases, of which we give a few samples, occur in painful reiteration:
'Obliged to maintain an aged sister, who has no one else to depend upon.''Entirely impoverished by endeavouring to uphold her father's efforts in business.''Support both her aged parents, and three orphans of a widowed sister.''Has helped to bring up seven younger brothers and sisters.''Incapable of taking another situation from extreme nervous excitement, brought on by over exertion and anxiety.''Had the entire support of both parents for nearly twenty years.'
As to the annuities, the number already founded, including the five ladies elected on the 16th of this last November, amounts to thirty-two, consisting of one of 30l., four of 20l., and the remainder of 15l. each; but it is hoped that this branch of the society may be so supported and endowed as to secure the foundation of several fresh annuities, at each succeeding May and November, for some years to come.
To these several departments of charitable purpose has been added one, within the last year, which, as being more consonant with the habits and usages of the olden time, is more especially attractive to our feelingswe mean the commencement of that fund for the building and endowment of an asylum for aged governesses, which was made known to the votaries of Vanity Fair last June by the great fancy sale at Chelsea. This is not precisely the way our forefathers would have adopted to start a scheme of this character, but this is also not the occasion to discuss to much-involving a subject. The sale, at all events, realised a considerable sum of money, and Becky's stall, we have no doubt, more than any other there.
The 'Queen's College for Female Education, and for granting Certificates of Qualification to Governesses' is another new establishment which promises very essentially to promote the interests of this class of ladies. We have not space to enter into its many merits: we would only observe, that, as the real and highest responsibility and recommendation of an English governess must ever rest more upon her moral than her literary qualifications, the plan of subjecting her to an examination upon the latter appears to us neither wise nor fair. This plan, it is true, has been pursued with tolerable success abroad, but it must be kept in mind that the foreign governess is a mere teacher, whose duties cease with the school-room hours, who has her three-months' holiday in the year, and who has, in short, little or nothing to do with the moral guidance of her pupils. What we, on the contrary, require and seek for our children is not a learned machine stamped and ticketed with credentials like a piece of patent goods, but rather a woman endowed with that sound principle, refinement, and sense, which no committee of education in the world could ascertain or certify. At the best, all parents of sense must be aware that no governess can teach an art or accomplishment like a regular professor, and that her vocation is rather the encouraging and directing her pupils in such pursuits, than the positive imparting of them. We perceive that the submission to this examination is, for the present, nominally optional; but it is easy to foresee that if some ladies, in order to obtain the promised certificate, go through it, it will soon be made a necessary condition with all. This we consider unfair. As it is, the advantage is already sufficiently on the English mother's side in the balance. If she wishes for the same system as that pursued on the continent in one respect, she should adopt it in all, and she would soon discover how greatly she was the loser.
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