Monday, January 22, 2007

Jane Eyre and early Victorian England

Watched Masterpiece Theatre's production of Jane Eyre last night and it was magnificent . . . definitely worthy of the PBS costume drama tradition. Isn't it amazing that 160+ years later these novels - as well as those by late-Georgian/Regency era Jane Austen - continue to fascinate and garner the attention of film producers? Obviously they form the foundation for the English literary canon . . . altho' I suspect they're likely considered the bane of many high school or college lit students.

It's hard to explain, but this early Victorian period is particularly appealing to me. Sure, as a historian I studied the U.S. experience during this period ad nauseum. And even in an American context, this is an exciting era, punctuated by industrial revolution, intellectual ferment, political maturation, and a growing evangelical/reformist impulse. Yet there's something peculiarly attractive about the world as depicted in the Bronte works.

Although when she wrote Jane Eyre England was already well into its own Industrial Revolution, the world Charlotte Bronte portrays still seems pre-industrial and comfortably agrarian. Isambard Kingdom Brunel, railroads, workhouses, textile mills and the spoils of empire seem hazily distant. It's a literary world obviously borne of the Romantic impulse and relatively free of the appalling conditions detailed by Dickens just a few years later. And like Austen's characters, these are country people, inhabiting a society in which London is a distant, otherworldly place rarely, if ever, glimpsed.

Yes, I'm a fan of the Romantic writers! Yes, I'm ignoring the socio-economic inequities which defined English society during this period. Yes, I find novels of this ilk wonderfully escapist fare. (My wife jokes that one of the reasons I like this period and the projection of its manners and mores in novels is that women were obviously subordinated to the power - economic and political - of men. And absolutely . . . that's the reality of life in Victorian England. But I always remind her that when I read Bronte or Austen and their contemporaries, it's the strong women whom I adore. I'm always a sucker for Elizabeth Bennett, for example. And like Rochester, I would have been far more attracted to Jane than the shallow vessels who inhabit the world of his house party.) As a student of 19th century history I'm well aware of the brutal realities that defined life at every level of society. Even in the world of Bronte and Austen, death is a regular house guest. Sometimes, however, it's nice to step away from that reality and embrace the purely romantic, with all of the angst, family conflict, plot twists and histrionics these authors can throw at us. We can always come back to the Corn Laws, Great Reform Bill and Parliamentary shenanigans later.

1 comment:

One Wink at a Time said...

Like you, I get lost in the romanticism of this period. I could easily imagine myself in the roles that women played then, even to the point of subservience to the men, that's part of the romance to me. But I'm satisfied to "visit" there in my head, as I'm not sure I could adhere to societal rules of the period. I'm way too, um, adventurous ;-)