Historical Context in Jane Eyre
19th-Century English Society: Jane Eyre was originally published in 1847 and the events of the novel take place relatively contemporaneously, in an unnamed area of Northern England. The characters’ actions are all grounded within the traditional social norms of the time, with social status and gender subsequently playing a large role in shaping character interactions. For instance, women had few, if any, opportunities to work outside the home, other than as a governess to children. Additionally, women were seen as the weaker sex, and, as evidenced by Bertha, the men in their lives traditionally maintained a level of control over them. The church was hugely influential and knowledge of the Bible was of paramount importance, as evidenced by numerous biblical allusions. Women’s rights were minimal at the time, and the novel received criticism when it was first published due to Jane’s portrayal as an independent woman who demanded equality and respect.
Historical Context Examples in Jane Eyre:
"Martha G—, ..." See in text (Chapter IV)
Dashes were used to replace last names in 19th century literature to lend authenticity to a fictional narrative. It allows the character in question to maintain a modicum of privacy or anonymity.
"sincere nature in your ardent eyes..." See in text (Chapter VIII)
This phrase refers to the popular 19th century pseudoscience of physiognomy, which purported that one’s inner character could be revealed by their facial features. This is similar to phrenology, which believed that one’s inner character could be revealed by the shape of their head. Brontë makes many references to both throughout the novel.
"A new servitude..." See in text (Chapter X)
Jane, who has lived at Lowood for eight years, no longer has financial support from Mrs. Reed. Her favorite teacher, Miss Temple, has left the school, so Jane sees little reason to stay. She must find work ("a new servitude") because she has no inheritance, but there were few respectable professions for women in 19th-century England.
"C'est là ma gouverante?..." See in text (Chapter XI)
[French] “Is this my governess?”
It was assumed that educated people throughout Europe could understand French, so Brontë did not bother translating these passages. As a well-educated woman, she learned French in school and wrote in French in many of her novels.
"It is thoughtless to condemn them or laugh at them if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex...." See in text (Chapter XII)
Jane directly addresses society's unenlightened views on female accomplishments and education. Respectable women were discouraged from learning (beyond learning how to copy pictures, embroider, play the piano, sing, and dance) and working. When Jane refers to action, she means mental activity as well as the activity inherent in pursuing a profession (like being a governess).
"fairy tales..." See in text (Chapter XIII)
There are many allusions to fables and fairy tales throughout the novel, and this is the second direct reference to fairy tales. All of the Brontë children were very interested in fairy tales as children, and critics believe that Brontë modeled much of this narrative on stories like “Beauty and the Beast” and “Cinderella”.
"Apollo Belvidere..." See in text (Chapter XV)
“Apollo Belvidere” is a classical Greek statue sculpted from marble that epitomized the ideals of aesthetic perfection. Note how Rochester has been described in the story thus far: He is not particularly handsome according to society’s standards of beauty, but Jane is willing to look past his rough exterior. For this reason, many critics compare Jane Eyre to "Beauty and the Beast," adding another fairy tale element to the story.
"ever shifting kaleidoscope of imagination..." See in text (Chapter XXI)
Jane Eyre is often described as a Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story. The protagonist’s psychological and moral growth is a defining characteristic of this literary genre. Jane is a model Bildungsroman character as she learns and matures over the course of the novel, “ever shifting” and never at rest.
"the sympathies of Nature with man..." See in text (Chapter XXI)
Notice how “Nature” is capitalized and personified. These were typical characteristics of Romantic literature, which glorified nature to a nearly religious extent. A main feature of Romanticism that appears in Jane Eyre is an emphasis on emotion and individualism, which is realized in Jane’s intimate first person narrative and her desire for freedom and independence.
"a force turned me round..." See in text (Chapter XXII)
In some respects, Jane Eyre is also a Gothic novel. While many of the supernatural elements seem fairy tale-like, some are more related to horror, like the secret of the woman in the attic or this ghostly “force” that controls Jane. Rochester’s air of mystery and darkness is a large part of why Jane is drawn to him, giving their relationship a mystic quality.
"Creole..." See in text (Chapter XXVI)
In the Caribbean, “Creole” refers to someone of European and African descent. This culture is rooted in a history of European colonization and African enslavement, and Bertha represents this. Rochester reinforces colonial cruelty when he marries her and brings her back to Europe, treating a real person like the natural resources colonists extracted from the land.
"the germs of insanity..." See in text (Chapter XXVII)
Scholars speculate that Bertha Mason may have contracted syphilis, which characterizes her as sexually promiscuous. Black women, including Creole women, have long been stereotyped as being either hyper-sexual or otherwise sexually deviant, and Jane Eyre perpetuates this. If Bertha does have syphilis, it would go against the religious and extremely conservative Victorian society. Rochester’s own behavior is also brought into question, and he is just as much at fault as she.
"do you think I feared him in his blind ferocity?..." See in text (Chapter XXXVII)
Rochester’s physical disabilities also allow him and Jane to become equals. Jane was worried about marrying Rochester because she did not want to become dependent on her husband. Rochester must now rely on Jane for support. This transfer of dependency, this change in gender roles, was received as a fairly feminist idea in Victorian England.