Jane Eyre’s Critique of the 1%

Fritz Eichenberg, "Jane Eyre"

Fritz Eichenberg, “Jane Eyre”

It’s been strange experience this semester teaching a 19th century literature class while witnessing right wing assaults on America’s poor. The criticisms that William Blake, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Charles Dickens, and Charlotte Bronte leveled against the privileged classes of their time apply only too well to those millionaire politicians and right wing financiers attempting to cut unemployment insurance and food stamps and doing all they can to make sure that the 40 million Americans without health insurance don’t get it.

Most recently I have been teaching Jane Eyre and am struck by how the sanctimonious head of Jane’s boarding school (Brocklehurst) believes that the society will benefit from poor girls receiving scant rations and living in unheated living conditions. For instance, at one point he chastises the headmistress for ordering special rations for the students after their porridge has been burnt:

Madam, allow me an instant. You are aware that my plan in bringing up these girls is, not to accustom them to habits of luxury and indulgence, but to render them hardy, patient, self-denying. Should any little accidental disappointment of the appetite occur, such as the spoiling of a meal, the under or the over dressing of a dish, the incident ought not to be neutralised by replacing with something more delicate the comfort lost, thus pampering the body and obviating the aim of this institution; it ought to be improved to the spiritual edification of the pupils, by encouraging them to evince fortitude under temporary privation. A brief address on those occasions would not be mistimed, wherein a judicious instructor would take the opportunity of referring to the sufferings of the primitive Christians; to the torments of martyrs; to the exhortations of our blessed Lord Himself, calling upon His disciples to take up their cross and follow Him; to His warnings that man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God; to His divine consolations, “If ye suffer hunger or thirst for My sake, happy are ye.” Oh, madam, when you put bread and cheese, instead of burnt porridge, into these children’s mouths, you may indeed feed their vile bodies, but you little think how you starve their immortal souls!

Brocklehurt is an errant hypocrite since he decks out his own daughters in luxury. He reminds me of those GOP Congressmen who are demanding cuts to food stamps while raking in thousands on farm subidies, which they want increased. Or of the Koch brothers, who are financing attacks on Obamacare and other poverty programs even as they benefit from millions in oil subsidies and tax cuts. Here’s Brocklehurst again, this time demanding that the girls’ hair be cut:

“Madam,” he pursued, “I have a Master to serve whose kingdom is not of this world: my mission is to mortify in these girls the lusts of the flesh; to teach them to clothe themselves with shame-facedness and sobriety, not with braided hair and costly apparel; and each of the young persons before us has a string of hair twisted in plaits which vanity itself might have woven; these, I repeat, must be cut off; think of the time wasted, of–“

Mr. Brocklehurst was here interrupted: three other visitors, ladies, now entered the room. They ought to have come a little sooner to have heard his lecture on dress, for they were splendidly attired in velvet, silk, and furs. The two younger of the trio (fine girls of sixteen and seventeen) had grey beaver hats, then in fashion, shaded with ostrich plumes, and from under the brim of this graceful head-dress fell a profusion of light tresses, elaborately curled; the elder lady was enveloped in a costly velvet shawl, trimmed with ermine, and she wore a false front of French curls.

Bronte’s satiric attack was noticed by at least one reviewer of her time, who termed it communist (or, to be precise, chartist, the communism of the day). Here’s Elizabeth Rigby (later, Lady Eastlake) accusing Bronte of class warfare:

Altogether the autobiography of Jane Eyre is pre-eminently an anti-Christian composition. There is throughout it a murmuring against the comforts of the rich and against the privations of the poor, which, as far as each individual is concerned, is a murmuring against God’s appointment–there is a proud and perpetual assertion of the rights of man, for which we find no authority either in God’s word or in God’s providence–there is that pervading tone of ungodly discontent which is at once the most prominent and the most subtle evil which the law and the pulpit, which all civilized society in fact, has at the present day to contend with. We do not hesitate to say that the tone of mind and thought which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine abroad, and fostered Chartism and rebellion at home, is the same which has also written Jane Eyre.

Twenty years ago, I could not have predicted that today’s GOP would be controlled by people sounding like an aristocrat writing in 1848. How in the world have we gotten here?

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  • By chance, I recently reread Jane Eyre (I’d just read Villette and wanted to compare it to the earlier book I had read as a teenager) and never thought of the correlation to the GOP that you draw. How could I have missed it? It’s exactly the same thinking! Underlying the rich man’s anger against publics assistance is the essential belief that his wealth was earned, if not through his own hard work than through the entitlement of being born to it. The basic, unacceptable, unequal distribution of wealth in our world can only be rationalized by the insistence that the poor deserve to be poor. Thanks for the insight!

  • Robin Bates

    I think of people reading this book in 1848, Elizabeth, with revolutions breaking out all over Europe. Revolution and the rights of man (and woman) were in the air (or Eyre). And who knows, maybe we ourselves are due for a real progressivist push in the U.S. Check out this Bill Moyers article on a “Fix the Debt” group, made up of very rich people calling for “shared sacrifice”–by which they mean, social security cuts: billmoyers.com/2013/11/19/ceos-seeking-to-slash-social-security-stumble-over-their-own-hypocrisy/


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