Academic journal article Consciousness, Literature & the Arts

Chapter Three: Isolating Consciousness: Secrets, Silencing and Insanity in Victorian Novels

Academic journal article Consciousness, Literature & the Arts

Chapter Three: Isolating Consciousness: Secrets, Silencing and Insanity in Victorian Novels

Article excerpt

Three generations of women writers predominate the nineteenth century, the first being the "Golden age" of the Brontes, Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot. The second generation includes Margaret Oliphant and the third the later Victorian "sensationalist" novelists, the most famous being Mary Elizabeth Braddon (Showalter 1977: 19). Whether writing from social protest or from the need for "sisterly" connection with other women, all these novelists were to contribute to the examination of women's psyche, to the role of women and society, and to the psycho-bodily needs of woman in terms of intellectual, physical and spiritual fulfilment. This chapter examines works from all three generations to elucidate the development of women's interests while also highlighting how some themes and concerns pertaining to the relationship of material and mental worlds persist in their literature.

Jane Eyre: a journey through modes of consciousness

While Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights demonstrates the wild excesses of social conduct at its extreme edges of acceptable behaviour and emotion, and the triumph of passion over patriarchal convention, then her sister Charlotte's Jane Eyre demonstrates a different kind of journey into consciousness. This journey is both spiritual and intellectual, an exploration of modes of consciousness: it engages all the most pertinent and dynamic questions of what makes a person fulfilled or unfulfilled in their human potential. Jane Eyre can be regarded as a female Bildungsroman-charting the development of the female self to higher, expanded, states of consciousness-framed within the narrative of early feminist rhetoric. At a time when the nature of women and female consciousness were under intense exploration, female Victorian novels were both rebels and reinforcers of the conventional stereotypes of femininity. In 1849 Charlotte Bronte wrote: "I cannot, when I write, think of myself and what is elegant and charming in femininity; it is not on these terms, or with such ideas, that I ever took pen in hand" (Shorter 1908: 80).

Like the hero of Pilgrim 's Progress, a work frequently alluded to in Jane Eyre, Jane's quest is a journey of the soul, in which she must struggle with both internal and external conflicts in order to reach a state of happiness based upon her own definition of female integrity. Her spiritual growth is juxtaposed to the powerful sexuality latent within her and lurking around her in the shape of Mr Rochester and his wife Bertha. The Rochesters as a married couple together epitomise unrestrained physical desire and its corrupting mental, spiritual and ethical consequences. Jane, of course, rejects the extremes of pure physicality (offered by Rochester) and the austere spirituality (offered by St John Rivers). Her ultimate triumph is perhaps not the fact that "Reader, I married him", so much as her ability to marry or reconcile the passionate and the spiritual aspects of her personality-to find a middle way, much as Forster urged in his plea that the only valid emotional life is to connect "the passion and the prose". Her ultimate fulfilment is thus emotional, physical, intellectual, as well as moral. Jane at her most glorious is a rebel, as revealed in her outspoken outburst to Rochester:

"Do you think I am an automaton?-a machine without feeling? And can bear to have my morsel of food snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!-I have as much soul as you,-and full as much heart. [...] I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, or even of mortal flesh:-it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if we had both passed through the grave, and we stood at God's feet, equal-as we are!" (255)

Jane cries out with impassioned reasoning for sexual equality-of the fact that at its core, the being of a human is beyond gender-yet Jane's final positioning is to settle within a traditional female role, as wife and mother; "wherever you are is my home-my only home" she tells Rochester (248). …

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