Note: This is a guest posting from Autumn McConnico, production dramaturg for our fall MainStage production of Jane Eyre.
“Speak I must,” says Jane.
Who is listening to this story? Jane Eyre is subtitled An Autobiography, with Bronte’s pen name of Currer Bell credited as the editor. Jane frequently refers to the reader directly, in the manner of one expecting or assuming kinship:
“I will tell you, Reader, what they are.”
“Reader, here an illustration.”
“(oh, romantic reader, forgive me for telling the plain truth!)”
Now we have two things: an awareness that this book is presented as an autobiography, having for its fictional frame a (mostly) realistic life; and a sense that its narrator seeks a voice in kind with our hearing, purposefully helping and entreating a real audience.
Linda Peterson describes Victorian and pre-Victorian placement of women outside the field of self-analysis and discovery by compiling a list of religious admonitions, concerns about a woman’s mental and spiritual weakness which may be so significant as to make it impossible for her to safely continue a thorough analysis of anything, especially a Biblical text, without guidance:
“Victorian women did not have the authority to speak the language of biblical types. By Pauline injunction, they had been admonished to ‘learn in silence with all subjection.’ ‘I suffer not a woman to teach,’ St. Paul had written, ‘nor to usurp authority over the man’ (I Tim. 2.11—12). By ecclesiastical decree, they were denied ordination in the Church of England during the whole of the nineteenth century, prohibited from interpreting the Scriptures to a congregation in most Dissenting sects, and banned from Methodist pulpits by the Convention of 1803. John Wesley’s comments to Sarah Crosby, a woman who felt the call to preach, are instructive: ‘Even in public you may properly enough intermix short exhortations with prayer; but keep as far from what is called preaching as you can; therefore never rake a text; never speak in continued discourse without some break, about four or five minutes.’” (Peterson 131-2)
Peterson goes on to define Jane Eyre as a subversion of the further belief that female writing could be both factual and analytical or self-aware. Brontë used the novel as a perhaps satirical means of delineating “between when a woman may apply types and when she may not, between what aspects of a woman’s life are accessible to typological interpretation and what aspects are beyond (or beneath) interpretation” (133).
Harriet Martineau, novelist and philosopher who wrote about feminine roles and sociological frames, and who wrote her own Autobiography to be published after her death in 1877, met Charlotte Brontë later in the latter’s life. Friends of Martineau who knew her life history, upon reading Jane Eyre, told Martineau they suspected she must have consulted in the writing, so close was Martineau’s accounted early life to that of the fictional Jane (and, perhaps by another degree, to Brontë). The events which Jane encountered early in her youth and adolescence might explain Jane’s later choices according to Peterson’s view of Martineau, since she “chooses to trace in the Autobiography the forces that contribute to the growth of a mind—and these forces, while including the internal, consist in greater proportion of the observable and external” (150). The autobiography, for Martineau and perhaps for Brontë, serves as a way of laying out the events of a life and considering them as instruments or guides in a continued development, the causes leading to the mind and situation of the narrator, the autobiographer – the person at the heart of the story who now has the voice to tell it.
“But in the world outside the novel, Brontë assumes no such enlightenment. Jane Eyre’s autobiography makes its way into the world through the offices of a man, Currer Bell, who appears on the title page as the editor and who, according to Victorian convention, selects and arranges what a woman has to say about her life.” (135)
Is this why Jane tells her story so earnestly to a “reader”? Is it a “chick flick” of a book – or play – intended for female audiences to commiserate and nod along with, or take encouragement from? But Jane’s struggle to find listeners bridges gender divides, and falls along lines of authority of all sorts: age, institutional roles, religious and familial tradition. For our part now, knowing the Jane speaks directly to us as readers and, in Lifeline’s production, perhaps to us as viewers, there is an implicit need for a listener who will add another dimension to this conversation. That understanding of a need may place a heavier burden on us as observers, since we appreciate that extra relationship. Watching Jane’s life and the outcome of her repeated attempts to find a listener or kindred spirit, what do we see? According to Carla Kaplan, writing about the complications of reading Jane Eyre as a feminist conversation:
“…A ‘true conversation,’ in which neither partner dominates, controls, coerces, or instrumentalizes the other, in which the partners ‘do not talk at cross purposes,’ is an object of Jane’s narrative desire to the very extent that it is not a feature of her everyday lived experience.”
So, it seems, the fictional world of Jane is not letting her voice resound. Are we to fill that void by giving her an outlet, an audience which will receive her story and use it? Kaplan goes on to ask, “does assuming that the text ‘desires me’ re-perform the essentialism against which this novel strains by assuming that because we can identify with Jane we must be the listener/lover she desires?” Later, we will ask this question of some of our Lifeline collaborators, to see what about Jane’s story impels them to help her tell it. And what about Jane’s story, Brontë’s story, we hope our own audiences will find to consider about us and themselves, and perhaps about the world we inhabit.
Further reading and quoted:
Kaplan, Carla. “Girl Talk: Jane Eyre and the Romance of Women’s Narration.” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction. 30(1). Autumn 1996. pp. 5-31
Peterson, Linda H. “Chapter 5. Martineau’s Autobiography: The Feminine Debate Over Self-Interpretation.” from Victorian Autobiography: The Tradition of Self-Interpretation. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.