The enigma of St John Rivers
Some ten years ago, Laurence Lerner undertook to remind people with an interest in Jane Eyre that the madwoman in the attic is not in fact a major character in Charlotte Brontë's novel. In a piece of suave polemics, he pointed out that nobody who insists on having someone play the role of Jane Eyre's double will be short of candidates. Lerner's review of the options includes the following possibility:
Is not Rivers a double for Jane? More insidiously and more dangerously than Helen [Burns], he represents the urge toward duty from which she needs to free herself in order to act out of pure love. Rivers quite consciously represses his sexuality, knowing his love for Rosamund Oliver, and putting it aside in order to be a missionary and demand a wife toward whom he feels no sexual attraction. Jane similarly repressed her own sexuality in placing duty before her love for Rochester. 1
While this tongue-in-cheek suggestion does not look very promising, it should be pointed out that St John Rivers, unlike Bertha Rochester, plays a literally dominant role throughout a sizeable part of the novel. It is surprising that generations of readers have found St John so 'unmemorable', to quote a recent writer on Charlotte Brontë. 2 Adapters of the novel for film or television have obviously not thought him particularly interesting either, and yet he is arguably the most important person in the story after Jane and Rochester: he saves Jane's life, provides her with the affectionate blood relatives she always longed for, nearly persuades her to marry him (in consequence of which action she would probably have lost her life for real relatively soon) – and anticipation of his demise concludes the novel.
St John's functions as a counterpart to Brocklehurst and Rochester were observed from the first. For instance, Mary Taylor pronounced 'I do not believe in Mr Rivers. There are no good men of the Brocklehurst species' and told Charlotte she had met a nincompoop who felt that