In Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Jane Eyre and Dorothea Brooke are only in their late teenage years when they are courted by older men. Lacking parental protection as orphans, and denied formal educational opportunities as girls in Victorian society, romantic relationships become the means by which Jane and Dorothea develop their senses of self. In both novels, the major secrets kept from the female protagonists are intended to diminish them into the Victorian ideal of femininity. While men worked and socialized in the public sphere, women were expected to remain “angels in the house”—subservient to their husbands, devoted to their children, and dutiful to their households—in the private realm of society. In the novels, while Edward Fairfax Rochester withholds a secret in order to preserve Jane’s loyalty, Edward Casaubon keeps a secret in order to possess Dorothea’s devotion for the remainder of her life. Paradoxically, the revelations of said secrets compel Jane and Dorothea to reconsider their desires, morals, and possibilities. Both novels suggest that secrets, once revealed, actually empower the female protagonists to undergo psychological development and imagine alternative realities for themselves—thereby pushing them to find options beyond sacrificing their selfhood in order to become angels in the house.
Although Jane is portrayed as an independent and passionate child, when she enters a romantic relationship with Rochester, her worldly, affluent employer, she suppresses what she feels for what she is conditioned to believe. Neither his kin nor his servant, Jane’s position at Thornfield Hall is ambiguous—she must navigate not only her budding romance with Rochester, but also the disparity in their wealth, power, and experience. Initially, Jane believes that she is unworthy of Rochester’s affection, merely because she falls below him in social standing. Calling herself “disconnected, poor, and plain,” Jane decides, “He is not of your order: keep to your caste, and be too self-respecting to lavish the love of the whole heart, soul, and strength.”1 As she internalizes her social inferiority, Jane adopts a disillusioned, elevated perception of Rochester: “I was forgetting all his faults. [. . .] I saw no bad.”2 Leading up to the revelation of Rochester’s secret, Jane maintains a god-like image of him: “My future husband was becoming to me my whole world and more than the world: almost my hope of heaven.”3 Ironically, as she becomes more idolatrous, Jane also becomes subconsciously more weary of Rochester’s lack of transparency. Nonetheless, despite a nightmare before the wedding that reveals Jane’s underlying apprehension about committing to a life with Rochester, Jane decides to proceed in marrying him. Neglecting her own feelings while prioritizing her undiscerning devotion to Rochester, “of whom I had made an idol,” put Jane in danger of becoming an angel in the house.4
However, the revelation of Rochester’s secret—that his mentally ill wife, Bertha Mason, is locked away on the third story of Thornfield Hall—jolts Jane into realizing Rochester’s moral weakness and her inner strength. Sympathizing for Bertha, Jane rebukes Rochester: “You are inexorable for that unfortunate lady: you speak of her with hate—with vindictive antipathy. It is cruel—she cannot help being mad.”5 Although Rochester does not regard Jane as a “fierce ragout” as he does Bertha, Jane deduces that to a lesser extent, he also objectifies her as an “automaton . . . a machine without feelings.”6 Yet, it takes physically seeing Bertha’s imprisonment for Jane to validate her fears about marrying Rochester, and to dismantle her glorified perception of him. Acknowledging that “Mr. Rochester was not to me what he had been; for he was not what I thought him,” Jane decides,“from his presence I must go.”7 The disclosure of Rochester’s secret compels Jane to disentangle her sense of self from Rochester by considering the discrepancies between her ethics and those of Rochester.
Moreover, the discovery of Rochester and Bertha’s marriage forces Jane—who might have been on the path to becoming the angel of Thornfield Hall—to imagine an alternative reality, one in which she is independent from both Rochester and the confinement of his estate. The thought of renouncing her relationship with Rochester provokes Jane’s internal conflict, as she questions whether she possesses the strength to leave him: “I have wakened out of most glorious dreams, and found them all void and vain, is a honor I could bear and master; but that I must leave him decidedly, instantly, entirely, is intolerable. I cannot do it.”8 Initially, Jane’s inner voice tells her to consider the effect that her decision would have on Rochester: “Think of his misery; think of his danger—look at his state when left alone; remember his headlong nature; consider the recklessness following on despair.”9 Besides her concern for Rochester, Jane’s desire to “soothe him; save him; love him; tell him you love him and will be his” is further complicated by her social status as a female orphan in Victorian society.10 Rochester provides Jane with not only financial security, but what she prizes even more, her first sense of belonging. In taking stock of her relationship with Rochester after the revelation, she asks herself, “Who in the world cares for you? Or who will be injured by what you do?”11 In this critical moment, Jane realizes, for the first time, that she also has an obligation to herself—one that must transcend her devotion to Rochester. Jane asserts, “I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself,” signaling the growth of her self-reliance.12 The cognitive dissonance that Jane experiences from the revelation of Rochester’s secret, as well as her final decision to leave him, illuminates for her that the only person she can—and should—rely on is herself.
Uncovering her strength, Jane sets in motion additional opportunities that allow her to develop her values, desires, and sense of self. Upon leaving Rochester’s estate, Jane sets forth on a spiritual pilgrimage that awakens her to the purpose of her life, which “was yet in my possession; with all its requirements, and pains, and responsibilities. The burden must be carried; the want provided for; the suffering endured; the responsibility fulfilled.”13 Understanding the wholeness of life when her journey leads her to Marsh End, Jane develops the facets of her identity that could not be fulfilled by romance alone. The discovery of her cousins—Diana, Mary and St. John Rivers—fulfills Jane’s need for familial roots. With her family, Jane establishes a home at Marsh End, which is more modest than Thornfield Hall, but the ideal environment for her personal growth. Through engaging in intellectual conversations with Diana and Mary, Jane realizes her hunger for an education:
I devoured the books they lent me: then it was full satisfaction to discuss with them in the evening what I had perused during the day. Thought fitted thought; opinion met opinion: we coincided, in short, perfectly.14
Whereas Rochester converses with Jane in a flirtatious manner, Diana and Mary converse with Jane as if she were their sister; they regard her as an equal, offer her refuge, and welcome her opinions.
Moreover, at Marsh End, the importance that Jane attaches to her independence deepens, as she refuses to enter a personally-compromising marriage for the second time. St. John’s proposal for Jane to become “the sole helpmeet I can influence efficiently in life and retain absolutely till death” forces Jane to contemplate her values and identity once again.15 He informs her, “God and nature intended you for a missionary’s life,” but because of her spirituality and self-knowledge, Jane is certain that St. John misinterprets God and misconstrues the purpose of her life. In the same way that she asserts, “Mr. Rochester, I will not be yours,” Jane refuses to sacrifice her identity for St. John: “I will give the missionary my energies—it is all he wants—but not myself.”16 In her relationship with St. John, Jane learns that she desires both passion and equality in romance. She imagines that it would be “unendurable” to be St. John’s wife, “at his side always, and always restrained and always checked—forced to keep the fire of my nature continually low.”17 In imagining becoming St. John’s wife, Jane realizes that her ideal marriage would honor her independence and kindle her passion. Feeling more passion for Rochester than anyone else, Jane embarks on her return to him—an act of independence and a reassertion of desire.
Although Jane’s critics contend that her eventual marriage to Rochester at the end of the novel indicates her surrender to the conventional role for Victorian women, Jane’s return to Rochester can also be interpreted as her defiance of convention. Jane marries Rochester on her own terms, and only after a series of events that allow her to develop her sense of self. The revelation of his secret marriage provokes Jane’s independent thinking:
Til now I had only heard, seen, moved—followed up and down where I was led or dragged—watched event rush on event, disclosure open beyond disclosure: but now, I thought.18
By further cultivating her critical thinking during her time at Marsh End, Jane is able to return to Rochester, certain about who she is and what she wants. Coincidentally, as Jane becomes independent in thought, a surprising inheritance from her uncle renders Jane financially secure, affording her the possibility to live as an autonomous woman. Therefore, cognizant of her options, Jane’s ultimate choice to commit to Rochester in marriage is an act of self-determination. Upon their reunion, she assures him, “you shall not be left desolate, so long as I live,” speaking from kindness and empowerment rather than blind, obligatory devotion. 19 At the end of the novel, Jane is able to marry “what I love best on earth” while maintaining that “I am an independent woman.”20 The disclosure of Rochester’s secret, as well as the physical and psychological journey it forces Jane to undergo, allow these statements to be complementary.
In Middlemarch, the revelation of a major secret also protects Dorothea from becoming an angel in the house, much as it protects Jane. Limited by the narrow range of vocations offered to women in Victorian society, Dorothea attempts to actualize her philanthropic goals through her only plausible outlet: marriage to the middle-aged scholar, Edward Casaubon. However, the relationship that she expects to “deliver her from her girlish subjection to her own ignorance and give her the freedom of voluntary submission to a guide who would take her along the grandest path” only disappoints her, for Casaubon has no intention to cultivate Dorothea’s personhood.21 Besides wishing for a husband who would educate her, Dorothea also desires for a partner to converse with her as an equal: “Poor Dorothea before her marriage had never found much room in other minds for what she cared most to say.”22 However, in the early days of their relationship, Dorothea attempts to adhere to convention and subdue her selfhood in order to assimilate into her husband’s identity. She tells him,
I would rather have all those matters decided for me. I shall be much happier to take everything as it is—just as you have been used to have it or as you yourself choose it to be. I have no motive for wishing anything else.23
When Dorothea discovers that Casaubon is neither “a modern Augustine who united the glories of doctor and saint” nor a partner who is interested in mutuality, it is too late—she sinks into a depression, with no means of escaping the marriage.24 It is not until the revelation of Casaubon’s secret codicil to his will—that would disinherit her if she marries his younger cousin Will Ladislaw—that Dorothea thoroughly considers the viability of an alternative relationship.
With the codicil, Casaubon intends to possess Dorothea’s devotion for the remainder of her life; however, in actuality, his premature death and the revelation of the conditions of his will protect her from that exact fate. Upon his death, Dorothea, who is still young, must imagine how she hopes to live the remainder of her life. Although faithful to Casaubon to her utmost ability, through reflection and reason, she concludes that “there was a deep difference between that devotion to the living and that indefinite promise of devotion to the dead.”25 Casaubon intends for his codicil to restrict Dorothea’s development—to keep her precisely the same after his death as before it. Paradoxically, the revelation of the codicil altogether changes Dorothea’s relationship with Casaubon, Will, and most importantly, herself:
Now her judgement, instead of being controlled by duteous devotion, was made active by the embittering discovery that in her past union there had leaked the hidden alienation of secrecy and suspicion. The living, suffering man was no longer before her to awaken her pity; there remained only the retrospect of a painful subjection to a husband. 26
Despite suffering from an unsatisfactory marriage, Dorothea never considers before his death that “Mr. Casaubon had taken a cruelly effective means of hindering her.”27 Repulsed by his intention, Dorothea imagines an alternative future, one in which she is entirely free from Casaubon.
The codicil, which uncovers Casaubon’s jealous and insecure feelings provoked by the friendship between Dorothea and Will, ironically produces the very feelings within Dorothea that Casaubon sought to prevent. After hearing about the conditions of her inheritance, “She was conscious of another change which also made her tremulous; it was a sudden strange yearning of heart towards Will Ladislaw. It had never before entered her mind that he could, under any circumstance, be her lover.”28 The nature of the codicil poses a question to Dorothea’s morals and desires: Does she value love and friendship, or does she value financial security? When alive, Casaubon patronizes Dorothea’s intellectual capacity, telling her, “Dorothea, my love, this is not the first occasion, but it were well that it should be the last, on which you have assumed a judgement on subjects beyond your scope.”29 On the contrary, Will accepts Dorothea as his intellectual equal, and “Their interviews had been enough to restore her former sense of young companionship.”30 The revelation of the codicil allows Dorothea to analyze how a romantic relationship with Will would differ from that with Casaubon, while propelling her awareness of her desires. Dorothea concludes, “I don’t mind about poverty—I hate my wealth.”31
Although critics of Dorothea’s choice to marry Will assert that she fails to pursue her philanthropic ambitions in the public sphere in order to settle for the conventional roles of wife and mother, Dorothea, in fact, does not become the Victorian ideal of an angel in the house. Dorothea’s choice does not indicate that she chooses to be fulfilled by romance rather than humanitarianism; it only suggests that after considering her limitations, Dorothea chooses her conventional desire for marriage, and is forced to renounce the ambitions that are unattainable for someone in her place, time, and position. In a gender-equal society, Dorothea’s “young and noble impulse” would not have to struggle “amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state,” and having “a love stronger than any impulses” would not come at the cost of other sources of fulfillment32 Despite regretting her lack of educational and professional opportunities, presuming that “there was always something better which she might have done if she had only been better and known better,” Dorothea still participates in the public life to the extent that women of her time could. 33 With Will, Dorothea follows her sense of righteousness by making micro-level contributions that are uncredited and uncompensated but undoubtedly vital to “the growing good of the world”34
In Jane Eyre and Middlemarch, some major male characters conceal secrets in order to diminish the female protagonists into the Victorian ideal of femininity. Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot, however, do not allow their heroines to stagnate in ignorance. Paradoxically, Jane and Dorothea are empowered by the revelations of secrets that are intended to reduce their knowledge and power, and they undergo metamorphoses in which they transition from dependency to autonomy. Standing at the crossroads of their romantic relationships, Jane and Dorothea must rely on their imagination, critical thinking, and self knowledge to make independent decisions that are congruent with their personal truths. While it is true that neither Jane nor Dorothea is able to reach her potential in the public sphere due to social limitations, at the end of the novels, both heroines become certain about who they are and whom they love, which, regardless of place and time, is still a remarkable accomplishment
- Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, (Norton & Company, 2016), 146-147.
- Brontë, Jane Eyre, 170.
- Brontë, Jane Eyre, 246.
- Brontë, Jane Eyre, 246.
- Brontë, Jane Eyre, 270.
- Brontë, Jane Eyre, 263; 227.
- Brontë, Jane Eyre, 265.
- Brontë, Jane Eyre, 266.
- Brontë, Jane Eyre, 284.
- Brontë, Jane Eyre, 284.
- Brontë, Jane Eyre, 284.
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- Brontë, Jane Eyre, 291.
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- Brontë, Jane Eyre, 283; 362.
- Brontë, Jane Eyre, 363.
- Brontë, Jane Eyre, 265.
- Brontë, Jane Eyre, 387.
- Brontë, Jane Eyre, 401; 387.
- George Eliot, Middlemarch (Penguin Books, 2015), 27.
- Eliot, Middlemarch, 340.
- Eliot, Middlemarch, 71.
- Eliot, Middlemarch, 23.
- Eliot, Middlemarch, 451.
- Eliot, Middlemarch, 465.
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- Eliot, Middlemarch, 462.
- Eliot, Middlemarch, 352.
- Eliot, Middlemarch, 340.
- Eliot, Middlemarch, 762.
- Eliot, Middlemarch, 782, 784.
- Eliot, Middlemarch, 782.
- Eliot, Middlemarch, 785.