Another misunderstanding. I think this one came with my idea that the Brontës were quite patriarchal in their religious attitudes. Or maybe it is because her father was a clergyman and in my mind that turned into “strictly religious”. Prejudices all around, on my part.
But how could I ignore the religious themes in this book? Or, how could I have missed them before? In my first reading of Jane Eyre, I must have been too occupied with the love story and the gothic qualities of the book. Knowing the story, at least a little, reading it for the second and third time, I think I had more patience to look at the other aspects of this novel. And religion is a big aspect, or at least, it seemsd to be so to me. Maybe it is because I’m a religious studies student? But really, it is everywhere in Jane Eyre.
Intermixed with humor, when Mr. Rochester exclaims:
In the name of all the elves in Christendom, is that Jane Eyre?
Humor, but not mocking humor. No glaring disrespect for anyone who as a Christian still has a sense of these ideas. Later on, when Jane hears Rochester’s plea for her, through nature, or somehow, I could not help but wonder if part of this isn’t Brontë’s worldview as well. Or at least, she understands it enough to have Jane Eyre feel that way. And I was left wondering how this idea of religion back in the nineteenth-century works. Is it the influence of the Romantics? It is so easy to forget that there were other takes on religion, apart from the stricter line that came with the (re)awakening of pietism, the line I so often have to study.
There is prejudice as well. Catholicism is something that Jane Eyre, or is it Charlotte Brontë? (we’ve discussed this before), clearly does not respect. When her cousin explains that she will go into a convent, Jane says:
“You are not without sense, cousin Eliza; but what you have, I suppose, in another year will be walled up alive in a French convent.”
But when Protestantism is taken up, or rather, when Catholicism isn’t mentioned and there is talk of religion, I admit I’m fascinated. Since I study missionaries, the observations on St. John were very interesting to me. Somehow, I always assumed that people would be in awe of missionaries back then. These were people who were so convinced of their faith, of their calling, that they abandoned their home and went “into wild and unknown land” (that is not a quote from Jane Eyre, btw). And St. John is seen as a good man, a very Christian man, a man with a calling. And yet, through his righteousness he forgets to love the people that surround him, really love them, really feel. He only feels and loves his calling, so it seems. He is painted as an incomplete person. You could almost pity him. Almost, if he hadn’t suffocated Jane as he did.
And there’s Rochester’s redemption. Which is truly redemption, in a sense. He suffers, he loses his sight and his arm, and then when Jane returns to him, slowly, ever so slowly, he recovers his sight. When I read Jane Eyre for the first time in high school, I admit I couldn’t really deal with this. And in a way it still gets to me: why did he have to lose his arm and his sight? But I understand it better now, I understand the message. It might not be my worldview. I do not share it a 100%. But I do respect it for what it means to Jane Eyre, as a character. And that is such an important part of the story.
There is one more thing. In the preface to Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë defends her portrayal of a person who tries to commit bigamy, she defends her novel against those who feel that such works will always be sinful. If only for this, I feel for Charlotte Brontë, and respect her. I think I haven’t read something written in the 19th century before, by a woman, that is so forceful, so clear in its intentions, so much an opinion, on such a big topic as religion.
Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last. To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee, is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns.
These things and deeds are diametrically opposed: they are as distinct as is vice from virtue. Men too often confound them: they should not be confounded: appearance should not be mistaken for truth; narrow human doctrines, that only tend to elate and magnify a few, should not be substituted for the world-redeeming creed of Christ. There is – I repeat it – a difference; and it is a good, and not a bad action to mark broadly and clearly the line of separation between them.
There must be books written about the Brontës ideas on religion, right? If not, please, someone, write that book. I, for one, would love to read it.