Faculty Interview: Rebecca Ariel Porte on Jane Eyre

First published in 1847, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre immediately drew controversy and debate for its portrayal of passion and sentiment in the rapidly changing world of Victorian England. As we celebrate the 200th year of Brontë’s birth, BISR Associate Director Abby Kluchin and Core Faculty Rebecca Ariel Porte sat down to chat about Jane Eyre, passion, Brontë’s relationship to Jane Austen, the pleasure of reading, and the novel’s continued relevance in advance of Rebecca’s upcoming class Jane Eyre: Gender and Affect.

Abby Kluchin: Why should a person read Jane Eyre? What does Jane Eyre, and Charlotte Brontë more broadly speaking, have to say to us in 2017?

Rebecca Ariel Porte: Given that the number of Jane Eyres and Charlotte Bröntes in existence is equivalent to the accumulated, historical sum of their readers–as is true of any novel, any author–I can only speak in partialities. For me, the question of why one should read Jane Eyre is intimately connected to the question of why people have read Jane Eyre in the past. The novel’s critical endurance lies partly with its potential for symptomatic reading: as a proto-feminist document about the options open (and closed) to women in the early Victorian era, as Bildungsroman, as the Gothic image of the return of the repressed in the forms of both barely bridled feminine rage and the ravages of colonialism (which always threaten to crack the veneer of European civilities), and, too, as a significant text for theories about what novels are and what fiction does. The syllabus for this course explores these pressing questions in some detail (we’ll read Foucault and Gilbert and Gubar and Jenny Sharpe and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Jean Rhys alongside Brontë herself). And, a hair past the bicentennial of Brontë’s birth, these inquires into gendered labor, the nature of personhood, and the myriad shapes of that old chimera power, have never been more pressing.

George Richmond, Portrait of Charlotte Brontë, 1850

But I’d be remiss if I claimed that these were the only reasons to read Jane Eyre or Brontë. My original sub-title for this class was “Pictures of Passion,” an attempt to gesture at the rich problems of a novel in which passion always seems to overflow its casing, whether that casing is the bodies of women, the strictures of the social, the play of the elements, or the boundaries of the text–and also to reach in a fumbling way towards the nearly addictive qualities of the novel itself, which aren’t reducible to story or plot or prose or style or anything like that. But passion, here, might also refer (as in the older senses) both to an umbrella concept for the emotional faculties and to suffering–or even to pleasure and pain commingled–and this opens up some crucial metaliterary questions. What is the nature of readerly passion? And what does that passion do to texts? What is literature, that it should invoke this unruly feeling? As the recent wrangling over the identity of Elena Ferrante intimates, passion for persons, author-functions, and texts are hardly exclusive or solitary but, rather, a complicated brew with a decidedly social bent. (And it’s worth noting that Brontë, who first published Jane Eyre under the male pseudonym Currer Bell, was often annoyed, once unmasked, by a readership bent on conflating the author with her heroine.) Jane Eyre is a novel that is, in many ways, uniquely suited for interrogating formations of passion.

A.K.: It seems to me that Jane Eyre is a deeply polarizing book even among people who love reading fiction – not unlike Pride and Prejudice in that regard, although I’d argue the two are otherwise almost nothing alike. Why do you think the novel provokes such strong reactions from readers?

R.A.P.: It’s fascinating that you mark this resemblance–and these degrees of difference–between Austen and Brontë and their readers–this seems right in both regards. I often hear people describe themselves either as Brontë fans or as Austen fans and usually, if they’re the former, on grounds that resemble Brontë’s own dismissal of Austen in a letter to the critic G.H. Lewes, later companion to the novelist George Eliot. Of Pride and Prejudice, Brontë writes that it is “[a]n accurate daguerreotyped portrait of a commonplace face; a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright, vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hills, no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses . . . Now I understand the admiration of George Sand . . she is sagacious and profound; Miss Austen is only shrewd and observant.” Elsewhere, Brontë damns Austen’s Emma with faint praise, employing language that strongly evokes Austen’s assessment of her own canvas as “the little bit (two inches wide) of Ivory on which I work.” Brontë describes Austen’s attitude towards the “energetic,” the “poignant,” and the “heart-felt” as a “well-bred sneer.” There is, Brontë goes on to say, a “Chinese fidelity, a miniature delicacy in the painting. She ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound. The passions are perfectly unknown to her; she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy sisterhood.” There’s much to say, not all of it complimentary, about the opposition of delicacy and “Chinese” fidelity to the stormy sisterhood of the passions–and that’s a matter I very much hope we’ll take up in the class.

To have contempt for Austen in Brontë’s mode is to believe the former’s love of restraint and limited scope a denial of the passions, often unlovely, that Brontë sees as the animating principles of human behavior. To have contempt for Brontë out of wounded outrage on Austen’s behalf often means painting Brontë’s writing as “mere” melodrama, a word frequently used as a slur, though I don’t think it should be. (cf. Lauren Berlant’s very fine work.) Virginia Woolf, for example, praised the genius of Charlotte Brontë in qualified terms. Even as Woolf saw in both Charlotte and Emily Brontë a mode of writing that rushed towards “some more powerful symbol of the vast and slumbering passions in human nature than words or actions can convey,” she found their fiction limited (for Woolf, Emily was the greater poet). “Of [the] power[] of . . . speculative curiosity,” Woolf writes, “Charlotte Brontë has no trace. She does not attempt to solve the problems of human life; she is even unaware that such problems exist; all her force, and it is the more tremendous for being constricted, goes into the assertion, “I love”, “I hate”, “I suffer.” ” Even in her long afterlife, Charlotte Brontë and her most famous protagonist register most strongly as avatars of passion obstructed. But anyone who thinks Brontë is all swollen, self-serious sentiment hasn’t read Villette or Shirley, both of which make strong institutional critiques by satirical means, and certainly hasn’t read Jane Eyre very well.

My sense is that it’s Brontë’s embrace of–call it melodrama, call it the profounder passions–that sometimes repels readers, even as I think that it’s Austen’s precise, satirical eye that elicits accusations of bloodlessness and cruelty from her detractors. And yet I think that both these views miss something about the authors in question. (One doesn’t, after all, ask that an episode of Twin Peaks reach for the same effects as one of High Maintenance.) Brontë’s forms of passion would look ridiculous and simply–a great sin of the Georgian period–tasteless in the context of an Austen novel forged out of the materials of sentimental fiction, Augustan satire, and Austen’s own genius for transmuting literary convention–and, in fact, they do. (See Austen’s Northanger Abbey, which sends up the Gothic tropes that would later inform the writing of Jane Eyre.) But, in Austen, repression is the explicit mechanism by which powerful affects are able even to enter the game of human relation as it stood in the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth- centuries. Meanwhile, Brontë, who had the questionable historical benefit of several more decades of the Romantic imagination and its demonstrable failures, could imagine out of that world of Byronic Sturm und Drang a form of passionate expression that stressed, sometimes by consonance, sometimes by dissonance, the material conditions of a quickly industrializing, imperializing Victorian world in which the question of who and what makes a subject was being negotiated in very different ways, in which assertions of (as Woolf writes) “I love,” “I hate,” “I suffer,” meant something they couldn’t have meant even ten years before and for different reasons and for slightly different stakes. Worth noting that Jane Eyre is first published in 1847, ten years into Victoria’s long reign and a year before the revolutions, mostly failed, of 1848…


The Railway Station, Engraving by Francis Holl after William Powell Frith, 1866

I don’t, however, mean to suggest that Jane Eyre didn’t shock Brontë’s contemporaries. Despite Charlotte’s tiresome Toryism, the novel’s readers found reasons to link Jane Eyre, through its preoccupations with poverty and labor, to the burgeoning Chartism, a working class movement to instantiate a People’s Charter that would guarantee (to men, of course) the vote, secret ballots, and an abolishment of the property requirement for those who wished to become members of Parliament, among other demands. (In one of the novel’s crucial scene, Jane famously describes herself as, “poor, obscure, plain, and little”–emphasis mine–and it’s not incidental that “poor” is the determinative beginning of that list.) It’s fair, I think, to say that regardless of Brontë’s own avowed politics, the novel knows more than it admits of radicalism. But it was also the book’s perceived lasciviousness, which is not unrelated to its politics, that offended Victorian mores. One vociferous reviewer, a woman by the name of Anne Mozley, fairly blazes with disgust. “Never was there a better hater,” she writes of the novel’s author. “Every page burns with moral Jacobinism.” Mozley concluded that the author, then anonymous, must not only be a woman but a dangerously subversive one, not least because of the novel’s treatment of sexual passion: “The love-scenes,” Mozley says censoriously, “glow with a fire as fierce as that of Sappho, and somewhat more fuliginous!” Fuliginous! A word meaning “redolent of soot,” so that the residue of the chimney of industry and the factory begin–and Mozley isn’t wrong about this–to coat the walls of the Gothic bedroom. A novel of fires, Jane Eyre often incites its critics to, quite literally, fiery language.

(It is, by the by, my modest ambition to incur, someday, charges of Sapphic fierceness, fuliginosity, moral Jacobinism, and being the best hater, preferably in conjunction.)

But to return to your question, Abby, as polarizing as they can be, singly and together, Brontë and Austen share, I think, an intensity of vision that manifests in radically different stylistic commitments. And, speculatively, I’d say that part of that intensity of vision has to do with the work of inventing new forms of relation, not least of which is a particular kind of companionate marriage ideal, hopelessly heterosexual in many respects, but fascinating not only for our own thinking about how marriages begin, endure, end, and ring changes in the social webs around them, but also for considerations of the marriage plot as an element of the novel form. (And those who are the best haters of both Brontë and Austen may also be those readers who are most suspicious of the functions of the marriage plot. My own feelings about the ideal of companionate marriage and its narrative operations–are, to say the least, complex, but I digress.) For myself, I’ll say I should be loathe to forego either Brontë or Austen. This is, perhaps, a principled contentment with half-knowledge or–it’s possible–merely a perverse attachment to fine, isolated verisimilitudes caught from the penetralium of mystery: an irresponsible devotion to both/and over either/or. At any rate, it’s the kind of choice I’m most likely to reject because its premises are misaligned with my readerly and scholarly practices.

A.K.: Your course is subtitled Gender and Affect. Can you tell us a bit about how you see these two categories as crucial for understanding Brontë’s work? In particular, can you speak to Brontë’s depictions of her female protagonists and what is distinctive about them?

R.A.P: I touched a little on gender and affect in my answers to your first two questions, I think, but there are facets of those words about which I could say a lot more, and will, in session! (Turn the gem another quarter inch.) I’ll limit myself to a couple observations here about the connections that obtain between the terms.

1) Among canonical authors, Brontë’s work (like Austen’s) is coded feminine. And her readers, at least these days, are almost always coded as female. This is partly because her work is primarily interested in feminine experience and partly because of patriarchal assumptions about if and how men read–and read about–women.

2) Affects are highly gendered both in how they manifest and how we tend to think about them–and arguably, the gender of affect itself is feminine–think, to cite an example that comes up in Jane Eyre, about the differences in the construction and expression of feminine anger and the construction and expression of masculine anger. Obviously, the gender spectrum is much wider and stranger than that, but that’s exactly the point: representations of affect can open a window onto the curious history of gender’s operations, the trap we all have to work.

Portrait of a woman in the late Victorian era

And Jane Eyre is an incredibly rich vein of ore when it comes to these questions. It’s a novel that wants us to ask on what terms women might be angry, sexual, deviant–and also on what terms they might be thinking, judging beings, possessed of free will they can exert to stay or to leave. It considers the conditions under which women can be workers, friends, lovers, or wives. And it pursues, too, the problem of how much happiness matters–and how much independence–and whether one has anything to do with the other. And the subtext of these investigations is, of course, the horror of British colonial expansion, which keeps leaping out at the reader like an imaginary jump scare with a real hatchet at the ready. Is the resolution to the gendered quandaries of Jane Eyre the elevation of women to an inscribed liberal subjectivity or does the novel frame the issue on thornier grounds? When we discussed titles for the course, gender and affect seemed like they spoke to these queries in their widest theoretical register.

In a way, I think this interest in women’s interiority gestures towards what was so startling about Brontë’s work to audiences in her own time. By our own standards, Jane, the eponymous protagonist of Jane Eyre, might seem forbiddingly sure of her moral code. But Victorian readers responded differently and debates about whether Jane herself was a passionate degenerate or an unlucky but conscientious (if peculiarly socialized) young woman were rife in the wake of the novel’s publication. If there’s a singular quality to Brontë’s protagonists, I’d say it’s this streak of invisible steel–not always endearing–combined with an almost adversarial acuity of perception (cf. the secretive Lucy Snowe, narrator of Villette). Jane’s circumstances court pathos–orphaned young, abused by her relatives, farmed off to a boarding school that seems, by turns, to be either vindictively strict, drowning in fatal disease vectors, or a wholesome source of simplicity and discipline. But Jane herself can’t seem to adapt to the conventions of sentiment that surround her, inspiring nothing like love in her relatives and, until her arrival at Thornfield, claiming only one friend. Brontë’s protagonists are all studies, in some sense, in what it is like to be out of step with surrounding codes of feeling, judging, and thinking about other people–the juxtaposition of internal richness and exterior impoverishment is only one instance of the price this asymmetry exacts.

A.K.: Roland Barthes famously wrote about the “pleasure of the text.” What would you say is the specific pleasure that accompanies the experience of reading Jane Eyre?

R.A.P.: May I say how much I love this question? I do. By way of answer, let’s begin with a list:

The book of birds and the desperate confinements of the red room and the attic, the scratched, famished, holland-cloth sadisms of poverty, imperial brutality, children dead in one another’s arms, watercolors of shipwrecks, arctic snowscapes, strange colossi adorned with stars, mists and violent outbursts, women maddened to vampires, trees riven by lightning, burning beds (avec or sans occupants), disembodied voices traveling the moors, and houses charred beyond habitability…

My Jane Eyre is, I think, primarily a record of passions and their meanings, broadly conceived, those mottled passions that, in the structural sense and in the senses of character and situation, refuse to resolve into pure pleasures or pains. When I recall the book after not having read it for a while, it’s these vibrant, flickering images–these figures in the carpet–that linger longest and most powerfully. Your reference to Barthes’s pleasure of the text is doubly apt in that it summons up the immersive pleasures of the novel (which might lie in the work of images–as above–the textures of the prose, the elaborate coincidences of the plot, the squalor of life at Lowood School, the compulsive allure of the Rochester relationship, or merely in the fine, violent delineations of Jane’s feelings and observations of character) and also the novel’s participation in what Barthes might call a readerly tradition of novel-writing. What Barthes meant by pleasure was a kind of collision between the conventions of literary form and our own creative work as readers, a meeting only possible with the right context and the right text, a text that is interested in taking down any barriers to absorption, a readerly text. For Barthes, the pleasure of the text is “that moment when my body pursues its own ideas–for my body does not have the same ideas I do.” Good, so pleasure gets us to the strangeness of the reading body and the body reading, which knows reasons reason knows not of, or knows only slant. Meanwhile, Barthes defines, in opposition to the subjectively affirming readerly text, a writerly text, a text that breaks with convention, literary and otherwise, in order to inspire a literally unspeakable bliss that promises to interrupt and reshape the nature of the subject. For Barthes, pleasure is sayable, bliss mute; pleasure easy; bliss hard. Moreover, these two concepts–his metaphor is parallel lines–are not communicate but incommunicate. The text of bliss, Barthes tells us, “rises out of [history] like a scandal.” Even though I know I’m not supposed to, I see glimmers of that difficult bliss, that writerly quality, in among the (arguably) easier pleasures of Jane Eyre. And if it’s a question of the unspeakable, I’ll cheerfully contend that Brontë, risen, in her own right, out of history like a scandal, knows how to load and bless.

Nonetheless, obsessed as I am by the novel’s labyrinthine constructions of affect, as a reader–and as a teacher–one wants to remain negatively capable–able to sustain contradiction–to acknowledge that your Jane Eyre may be nothing like mine and that there are good, new readings, readings both faithful to the text (whatever that is) and adequate to the moment, readings which will come into being in ways that neither I nor anyone else can predict, anymore than we can, with any degree of fineness, tell the future how we will become historical. (It’s that–predisposition may be the right word–that makes me so excited to teach the book!) This ultimate blindness is, perhaps, precisely the point. In an odd way, Jane Eyre is (at least peripherally) a novel about how to navigate at least seven varieties of uncompromising darkness.

If you want to learn more about Jane Eyre, please join us for Rebecca’s upcoming class Jane Eyre: Gender and Affect which will begin on Tuesday, January 31st at Unnameable Books.

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