Charlotte Bronte's Religion: Faith, Feminism, and Jane Eyre

Article excerpt

Modern literary criticism has long recognized Charlotte Brontes Jane Eyre (1847) as a pivotal text for feminists. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's ground-breaking study The Madwoman in the Attic locates the enduring appeal of this novel in its emancipatory narrative strategies whereby the author both conceals and reveals social and psychological truths about women's lives, for example, their anger at being treated as sexual objects in the marriage market, and, paradoxically, their overwhelming desire to love and be loved by men with whom they can never be equal. Gilbert and Gubar's thesis is that female authors in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have written "palimpsestic" novels "whose surface designs conceal or obscure deeper, less accessible (and less socially acceptable) levels of meaning" (73). Like Brontes "madwoman" these inaccessible meanings are locked up, as it were, in the "attic" of the text. Other feminist critics who dominated Bronte studies in the 1970s and 1980s include Elaine Showalter, Ellen Moers, and Adrienne Rich. Rereading Jane Eyre in her twenties, thirties, and forties, Rich captures the lasting attraction of this Victorian classic for its mostly women readers: "I have never lost the sense that it contains, through and beyond the force of its creator's imagination, some nourishment I needed and still need today" (142). Still widely read by women in the twenty-first century, Jane Eyre has now gone global as postcolonial feminists challenge Bronte's apparent blindness to the ways her novels seem to sanction racism and aspects of western imperialism deemed oppressive for women. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's "Three Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism" (1985) and Susan Meyer's "Colonialism and the Figurative Strategy in Jane Eyre" (1990) are well known for this approach. While much has been written about Brontes treatment of women's issues and concerns in the novel, including women's education, the plight of the governess, and equality in marriage, what has been missing until recently is a feminist approach that takes seriously the religious dimensions of Brontes life and makes this background central to understanding women's religious experience in the novel.

As we learn from many letters like this one written to her friend Ellen Nussey in 1837 when she was a teacher at Roe Head, Charlotte Bronte was deeply concerned about religious and spiritual matters.

   If I could always live with you, and "daily" read the [B]ible with
   you, if your lips and mine could at the same time, drink the same
   draught from the same pure fountain of Mercy--I hope, I trust, I
   might one day become better, far better, than my evil wandering
   thoughts, my corrupt heart, cold to the spirit, and warm to the
   flesh will now permit me to be. (Smith 1:156)

Like many Victorians, Bronte was obsessed over the state of her own soul, not just in her youth prior to confirmation in the Anglican Church, but during her twenties when this letter was written, and on into her thirties when she wrote Jane Eyre, the novel for which she is most famous. Unlike some Victorian novelists, for example, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, and George Eliot, Bronte did not lose, reject, or deny her faith or the message of the Christian gospel. But this does not tell the full story. What do we really know about the religion of Charlotte Bronte? If she was a believer, as many of her letters and the themes in her novels lead me to conclude, how should we understand her spirituality, that is, her relationship to God and the way she expressed and lived out her faith in public and private? Was she affected by the evangelical movement that was such a distinctive feature of her time and culture? To what extent does Christianity inform her feminism, and what difference, if any, does this make to her depiction of Christianity in her writing? In particular, to what extent is Brontes own spirituality, her desire to live a godly life without denying her feminist impulses or her unique gifts as a woman writer, reflected in the development of her most popular heroine Jane Eyre? …