“I resisted all the way: a new thing for me, and a circumstance which greatly strengthened the bad opinion Bessie and Miss Abbot were disposed to entertain of me. The fact is, I was a trifle beside myself; or rather out of myself, as the French would say: I was conscious that a moment’s mutiny had already rendered me liable to strange penalties, and, like any other rebel slave, I felt resolved, in my desperation, to go all lengths.”
The second chapter of Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre is not for the faint-hearted. Jane is dragged away, locked in the Red Room overnight, and after that ordeal, sent to a harsh, punitive school for girls. She was aware of the costs of her rebellion — others did think worse of her, she did incur strange penalties, and like the rebel slave of the 1840s, she only managed to tighten her bonds.
And she learned her place — her lowly place as a girl, as a poor child, as a servant.
Fritz Eichenberg’s 1943 cover shows the intersection — the horrible confluence — of Brontë’s depiction of the subjugation of Jane with the methodical dehumanization of people by the Nazis. Eichenberg, a Jew, was born and raised in Cologne, Germany, and he was in his 30s when Hitler rose to power. He left Germany with his children and wife, settled in the U.S., and built a successful career as an illustrator and professor. The cover, then, was created at the height (or depths) of World War II when the Nazis’ genocide of Jews was well-known and recognized.
At the school, the girls are subjugated by dress — as Jane says, upon arrival she is confused, barely able to make sense of her surroundings. But she knows what she is in for, when she sees the large school room for the first time. “Seen by the dim light of the dips, their number to me appeared countless, though not in reality exceeding eighty; they were uniformly dressed in brown stuff frocks of quaint fashion, and long holland pinafores.” This dress — ugly, ill-fitting dresses of the cheapest brown cloth, long white pinafores, often stained and drab — was intended to erase individuality, to force the girls to function invisibly, to simply exist in service to others. And Jane slowly learned to accept this dressing, this cloak of muted existence.
Like the Handmaids in Margaret Atwoods’ novel, Jane and her fellow girls — soon to be women — are in servitude, held tight not only by rules and punishment but by their own very real helplessness. But…. there is always this other thing.
When Jane rebelled against her circumstances as a young girl — John Reed, her 14-year old sadistic cousin, physically and emotionally abused her; her aunt neglected her; her cousins Eliza and Georgiana knew their fate was to be “above her” — her material life worsened. And when her employer, helplessly in love with her, can not break past her hard-won reserve, he pounces on her, teasing her with the dire consequences of his marrying another. And once again, for the second time in her life, a male provokes her to stating her self-worth.
“I tell you I must go!” I retorted, roused to something like passion. “Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you? Do you think I am an automaton?—a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread 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! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh;—it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal,—as we are!”
Charlotte Brontë’s dress, Brontë Parsonage Museum
Oh my. The drab little gal in her black gown, with a neat little ribbon tied at the collar, is a person — a full-fledged living, breathing, thinking, independent person. Rochester understood he had to force her to declare herself — not declare herself as loving him — but declare herself.
Portrait, Charlotte Brontë (not from life)
Under those bonnets, within those drab dresses and cloaked bodies, are individuals, not only with rights but aware of their rights to exist, to act in the world. Charlotte Brontë was in many ways a deeply conservative woman but… her sense of self, her outrage of the ways she and her sisters were forced into lives of servitude, her anger — her palpable anger at having to always cloak her intellect — animated her deeply liberal portrayal of her orphan girl, Jane Eyre. Jane walks away from her beloved Mr. Rochester (and his money and power) when she can’t live with him on her own terms; she returns to him on her own terms. In the end, the dress meant nothing at all.