Jane Eyre takes place in 19th century rural Yorkshire. It’s a very ‘English novel’, because almost all the characters are English, and the protagonists clearly represent typical traits of Victorian England.
Jane embodies an English appearance; she is pale, short, slim, with green eyes and russet hair. She also represents manners generally associated by an ideal Victorian woman; she’s meek, reserved, quiet, modest, morally upright, thoughtful and intelligent.
Mr. Rochester embodies all the characteristics of a typical, wealthy Victorian landowner and colonial imperialist. He’s arrogant, dominant, relatively idle, egotistical, self-assured, and tyrannical. How else was he supposed to rule the ‘uncivilised’ non-English world?
There is also a stark contrast between British and non-British characters. The most significant foreigner in Jane Eyre is Mrs. Rochester, née Bertha Mason, a Creole who was born and brought up in Jamaica, and spent the novel locked in a windowless attic. The negative connotations of madness and evil, which stem from the native inhabitants of the barbarian colonies have already been discussed in these three posts on The Madwoman in the Attic
On this occasion, I’d like to bring your attention to the European non-British characters and the presence of (other) European countries in Jane Eyre.
Jane’s approach to other cultures is through the study of literature and language.
She learns to speak French fluently at Lowood, which is why she is able to get the position of governess to Rochester’s French-speaking ward, Adele. French opens doors to Jane, making her stand out among the rest and enables her to further her position in the world.
She describes her French teacher thus;
“a strange, foreign-looking, elderly lady, the French teacher, as I afterwards found…”
Jane describes her knowledge of French in these terms:
“Fortunately I had had the advantage of being taught French by a French lady; and as I had always made a point of conversing with Madame Pierrot as often as I could, and had besides, during the last seven years, learnt a portion of French by heart daily—applying myself to take pains with my accent, and imitating as closely as possible the pronunciation of my teacher, I had acquired a certain degree of readiness and correctness in the language, and was not likely to be much at a loss with Mademoiselle Adela.”
Jane corrects Adele’s French defects; she’s too excitable, loud and superficial. Jane also teaches Adele English, in an attempt to make her into an ideal Victorian lady, as opposed to a French harlot, as Rochester would have us believe her mother was.
While Jane is in Morton with her cousins, Mary, Diana and John Rivers, she studied German and read Schiller, because her cousins were doing so. Jane shows a great respect for the German language and culture.
“I sat reading Schiller….. As I exchanged a translation for an exercise.”
We should bear in mind that Queen Victoria’s mother was a German princess. Princess Victoria was raised under close supervision by her German-born mother Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld.
Victoria was brought up by her German governess, Baroness Louise Lehzen, from Hanover, who taught her only German until she was three years old. After she became queen, her courtiers were almost entirely German and, of course, she married a German prince, Albert.
The language that was spoken in Buckingham Palace, and at all private occasions. It has even been said that when she was a young girl, Princess Victoria spoke English with a German accent.
From a literary and linguistic point of view, Jane respects and admires both French and German, although she has no first hand knowledge of the people or the countries. Her knowledge is purely academic and therefore theoretical.
The practical knowledge and experience of other European countries comes to the reader through the widely travelled Mr. Rochester.
“For ten long years I roved about, living first in one capital, then another; sometimes in St. Petersburg; oftener in Paris; occasionally in Rome, Naples, and Florence”
France is the most prominent European presence in Jane Eyre and the presence of France and the French people in the novel is shaped mainly through Mr. Rochester’s eyes.
His representation of French women is negative. Rochester admits to an affair with the French opera singer Céline Varens (Adele’s mother) in Paris, only to find out in time that Céline is Being unfaithful to him. He says he caught her with another man. (By the way, he also accuses Bertha of infidelity. Perhaps he chose his mistresses/wives unwisely, or maybe he was not the great lover we were led to believe?)
For Rochester, Céline Varens represents of a vain and immoral Continent who responds to his love with promiscuity.
Rochester also reveals to Jane that he has an array of former mistresses throughout Europe:
“I could not live alone; so I tried the companionship of mistresses. The first I chose was Céline Varens … She had two successors; an Italian, Giacinta, and a German, Clara, both considered singularly handsome”
Rochester established a specific link between beauty, sexual immorality and continental Europe, forgetting the fact that he was hardly behaving like an English gentleman himself, or perhaps he was?
After the wedding farce, when it was discovered that Rochester was already married, he offers Jane a villa in France where they can travel to and live without being married. This passage is also an example of his lies. He tells her she shall be Mrs. Rochester when he knows full well it can’t happen. Then he tells her she’ll live with him ‘innocently’.
“You shall be Mrs. Rochester—both virtually and nominally. I shall keep only to you so long as you and I live. You shall go to a place I have in the south of France: a whitewashed villa on the shores of the Mediterranean. There you shall live a happy, and guarded, and most innocent life. Never fear that I wish to lure you into error—to make you my mistress. Why did you shake your head? Jane, you must be reasonable, or in truth I shall again become frantic.”
Jane, is quick and clever enough to see his deceit and naturally declines. She wasn’t prepared to live an immoral life in France and become one of his many conquests. Jane wanted a lot more than Rochester. She wanted it all; respectability, marriage and children, in an English upper-class setting.
Other European nations mentioned in Jane Eyre.
Jane finally becomes a rich woman thanks to her uncle John Eyre’s inheritance, derived from his wine importing business in Madeira, a Portuguese colony in the Atlantic Ocean.
Blanche Ingram’s skin is described as dark as a Spaniard’s. Bearing in mind all the other negative aspects in Blanche’s character and appearance, it’s not a compliment to the Spanish! Exotic, dark beauty in women, such as Bertha Mason and Blanche Ingram is associated with negative qualities and Spanish and Hispanic origins.
In summary, Mr. Rochester’s depiction of Europeans as has been seen is anything but positive.
On the other hand, Jane Eyre shows great respect for French and German culture and language, limited knowledge of other European languages or cultures, she does not give any evidence of bias against other Europeans, in spite of Mr. Rochester’s negative portrayal.
Jane does mention that she will not be an English Céline Varens, which is not a criticism of all French women, just one. She speaks kindly of Madame Pierrot, her French teacher, Adele, and Sophie, Adele’s French maid. She meets no other Europeans and makes no negative comments.
Jane is aware of her British heritage, culture and language, but she does not berate or undermine any others as Rochester does, and she expresses a marked interest in learning about French and German culture and language. Jane represents an open-minded and respectful approach to Europe, whereas Mr. Rochester treated Europe, literally, as a whore house.
Now I ask you, does this have anything to do with Brexit?
I’d say that half of the British population takes Jane’s respectful attitude to Europe, while the other half considers Europe with caution or even contempt, as Rochester does.
What do you think?