To celebrate the National’s current interpretation of Jane Eyre and Claire Harman’s new biography of Charlotte Brontë a mini panel chaired by Kate Mosse discussed these two remarkable Victorian women. The panel evenly represented the three Brontë sisters, each championing a different. This serves as a reminder that although they are often lumped together, their work discussed as part of the same oeuvre, they were very different people and had very individual, distinctive writing styles. In saying this however, their shared experiences and working practices clearly impacted on their work.
Lucy Mangan believes the isolation that the sisters experienced gave them a freedom of voice that enabled them to produce such remarkable literature and which may have been stifled in a different environment. She followed this with a comment reassuring us that she does not doubt that they would have been remarkable anywhere.
We kept returning to the image of Anne, Emily, and Charlotte writing together, sharing their work with each other. Mosse believes that they shared a sense of the importance of writing, and that Charlotte especially felt a desire to put the things she felt so deeply on paper so as not to let go of them. Harman agreed that much of the intensity of Jane Eyre comes from the intensity of its author, that she offloaded a lot of very intense feeling in to her work.
It was questioned whether Bertha Mason serves as a vehicle for the visceral rage that was too much to put on Jane. Mosse asks why we see her as mad rather than angry. She does after all have excellent grounds for anger – she has been taken to a foreign land, given a different name, and locked in an attic. Is this society’s inability to accept a woman who did not fit Victorian ideals? The idea of rage is continued through the discussion of Jane, who speaks of rebellions beyond political ones – the anger bubbling under the surface of everyday life. This they believe Charlotte saw as an illness of the whole of society.
Focusing deeper on Jane’s character and the revolutionary nature of the novel discussion turned to Jane as feminist figure. Mangan points to the strength of her convictions, that she will not bend from what she believes to be right. It is not only her headstrong beliefs that mark her out but also her desire for equality in her relationship with Rochester. In what is known as the idyllic period in the middle of the novel when Rochester encourages her to choose fancy dresses she will only accept demure outfits. Further to this she wishes to earn the money and pay him back, knowing that until then she will feel degraded – an opinion that would have been quite alien to contemporary readers.
Mangan believes that the novel can be read as a warning against bending to convention, of not following your heart. Harman points out that although it is common to draw autobiographic detail from Charlotte’s writing, she did in reality write a letter claiming that one shouldn’t fall in love until at least six months of marriage. Although satirical, Harman believes this not to be entirely devoid of her true feelings. She argues that none of the sisters were particularly concerned with marriage. It may come as some surprise that Charlotte’s short but content marriage did not come from a great romance but out of practicality and sympathy. Harman speaks of how broken Charlotte was after the death of her siblings and that her marriage could be seen as a sort of suicide for one who would never commit the physical act.
Discussions could happily have gone for hours but alas our time was up. I left with a renewed sense of the importance and revolutionary nature of the novel, and as ever, a great respect for the author.