University of Minnesota-Duluth
Spring 2005, TTh 12:00-1:50, H458
Dr. Carolyn Sigler
A review of Vanity Fair and Jane Eyre
Critic: Elizabeth Rigby
Source: The London Quarterly Review, No. CLXVII, December, 1848, pp. 82-99.
[Jane Eyre: An Autobiography] as a work, and one of equal
popularity, is, in almost every respect, a total contrast to [Thackeray's]
`Vanity Fair.' The characters and events, though some of them masterly in
conception, are coined expressly for the purpose of bringing out great effects.
The hero and heroine are beings both so singularly unattractive that the reader
feels they can have no vocation in the novel but to be brought together; and
they do things which, though not impossible, lie utterly beyond the bounds
of probability.... Jane Eyre is merely another Pamela [from Richardson's `Pamela'],
who, by the force of her character and the strength of her principles, is
carried victoriously through great trials and tempations from the man she
loves. Nor is she even a Pamela adapted and refined to modern notions; for
though the story is conducted without those derelictions of decorum which
we are to believe had their excuse in the manners of Richardson's time, yet
it is stamped with a coarseness of language and laxity of tone which have
certainly no excuse in ours. It is a very remarkable book: we have no remembrance
of another combining such genuine power with such horrid taste. Both together
have equally assisted to gain the great popularity it has enjoyed; for in
these days of extravagant adoration of all that bears the stamp of novelty
and originality, sheer rudeness and vulgarity have come in for a most mistaken
worship. (p. 87)
[This is] a tale in which, combined with great materials for power and feeling, the reader may trace gross inconsistencies and improbabilities, and chief and foremost that highest moral offence a novel writer can commit, that of making an unworthy character interesting in the eyes of the reader.... Mr. Rochester's character is tolerably consistent. He is made as coarse and as brutal as can in all conscience be required to keep our sympathies at a distance. In point of literary consistency the hero is at all events impugnable, though we cannot say as much for the heroine.
As to Jane's character--there is none of that harmonious unity about it which made little Becky [in Vanity Fair] so grateful a subject of analysis--nor are the discrepancies of that kind which have their excuse and their response in our nature. The inconsistencies of Jane's character lie mainly not in her own imperfections, though of course she has her share, but in the author's. There is that confusion in the relations between cause and effect, which is not so much untrue to human nature as to human art. The error in Jane Eyre is, not that her character is this or that, but that she is made one thing in the eyes of her imaginary companions, and another in that of the actual reader. There is a perpetual disparity between the account she herself gives of the effect she produces, and the means shown us by which she brings that effect about. We hear nothing but self-eulogiums on the perfect tact and wondrous penetration with which she is gifted, and yet almost every word she utters offends us, not only with the absence of these qualities, but with the positive contrasts of them, in either her pedantry, stupidity, or gross vulgarity. She is one of those ladies who put us in the unpleasant predicament of undervaluing their very virtues for dislike of the person in whom they are represented. One feels provoked as Jane Eyre stands before us--for in the wonderful reality of her thoughts and descriptions, she seems accountable for all done in her name--with principles you must approve in the main, and yet with language and manners that offend you in every particular. Even in that chef-d'oeuvre of brilliant retrospective sketching, the description of her early life, it is the childhood and not the child that interests you. The little Jane, with her sharp eyes and dogmatic speeches, is a being you neither could fondle nor love. There is a hardness in her infantine earnestness, and a spiteful precocity in her reasoning, which repulses all our sympathy. One sees that she is of a nature to dwell upon and treasure up every slight and unkindness, real or fancied, and such natures we know are surer than any other to meet with plenty of this sort of thing. As the child, so also the woman--an uninteresting, sententious, pedantic thing; with no experience of the world, and yet with no simplicity of freshness in its stead. What are her first answers to Mr. Rochester but such as would have quenched all interest, even for a prettier woman, in any man of common knowledge of what was nature--and especially in a blasé monster like him? A more affected governessy effusion we never read. (pp. 89-90)
Jane Eyre is throughout [the book] the personification of an unregenerate and undisciplined spirit, the more dangerous to exhibit from that prestige of principle and self-control which is liable to dazzle the eye too much for it to observe the inefficient and unsound foundation on which it rests. It is true Jane does right, and exerts great moral strength, but it is the strength of a mere heathen mind which is a law unto itself. No Christian grace is perceptible upon her. She has inherited in fullest measure the worst sin of our fallen nature--the sin of pride. Jane Eyre is proud, and therefore she is ungrateful too. It pleased God to make her an orphan, friendless, and penniless--yet she thanks nobody, and least of all Him, for the food and raiment, the friends, companions, and instructors of her helpless youth--for the care and education vouchsafed to her till she was capable in mind as fitted in years to provide for herself. On the contrary, she looks upon all that has been done for her not only as her undoubted right, but as falling far short of it. The doctrine of humility is not more foreign to her mind than it is repudiated by her heart. It is by her own talents, virtues, and courage, that she is made to attain the summit of human happiness, and, as far as Jane Eyre's own statement is concerned, no one would think that she owed anything either to God above or to man below. She flees from Mr. Rochester, and has not a being to turn to.... Of course it suited the author's end to represent the heroine as utterly destitute of the common means of assistance, in order to exhibit both her trials and her powers of self-support--the whole book rests on this assumption--but it is one which, under the circumstances, is very unnatural and very unjust.
Altogether the autobiography of Jane Eyre is pre-eminently an anti-Christian composition. There is throughout it a murmuring against the comforts of the rich and against the privations of the poor, which, as far as each individual is concerned, is a murmuring against God's appointment--there is a proud and perpetual assertion of the rights of man, for which we find no authority either in God's word or in God's providence--there is that pervading tone of ungodly discontent which is at once the most prominent and the most subtle evil which the law and the pulpit, which all civilized society in fact, has at the present day to contend with. We do not hesitate to say that the tone of mind and thought which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine abroad, and fostered Chartism and rebellion at home, is the same which has also written Jane Eyre.
Still we say again this is a very remarkable book. We are painfully alive to the moral, religious, and literary deficiencies of the picture, and such passages of beauty and power as [are contained in Jane Eyre] cannot redeem it, but it is impossible not to be spellbound with the freedom of the touch. It would be mere hackneyed courtesy to call it `fine writing.' It bears no impress of being written at all, but is poured out rather in the heat and hurry of an instinct, which flows ungovernably on to its object, indifferent by what means it reaches it, and unconscious too. As regards the author's chief object, however, it is a failure--that, namely, of making a plain, odd woman, destitute of all the conventional features of feminine attraction, interesting in our sight. We deny that he has succeeded in this. Jane Eyre, in spite of some grand things about her, is a being totally uncongenial to our feelings from beginning to end. We acknowledge her firmness--we respect her determination--we feel for her struggles; but, for all that, and setting aside higher considerations, the impression she leaves on our mind is that of a decidedly vulgar-minded woman--one whom we should not care for as an acquaintance, whom we should not seek as a friend, whom we should not desire for a relation, and whom we should scrupulously avoid for a governess. (pp. 92-3)
[Whoever Currer Bell may be], it is a person who, with great mental powers, combines a total ignorance of the habits of society, a great coarseness of taste, and a heathenish doctrine of religion. And as these characteristics appear more or less in the writings of all three, Currer, Acton, and Ellis [Bell], alike, for their poems differ less in degree of power than in kind, we are ready to accept the fact of their identity or of their relationship with equal satisfaction.... [The question of authorship] can deserve a moment's curiosity only as far as `Jane Eyre' is concerned, and though we cannot pronounce that it appertains to a real Mr. Currer Bell and to no other, yet that it appertains to a man, and not, as meany assert, to a woman, we are strongly inclined to affirm. Without entering into the question whether the power of the writing be above her, or the vulgarity below her, there are, we believe, minutiae of circumstantial evidence which at once acquit the feminine hand. No woman--a lady friend, whom we are always happy to consult, assures us--makes mistakes in her own metier--no woman trusses game and garnishes dessert-dishes with the same hands, or talks of so doing in the same breath. Above all, no woman attires another in such fancy dresses as Jane's ladies assume--Miss Ingram coming down, irresistible, `in a morning robe of sky-blue crape, a gauze azure scarf twisted in her hair!!' No lady, we understand, when suddenly roused in the night, would think of hurrying on `a frock.' They have garments more convenient for such occasions, and more becoming too. This evidence seems incontrovertible. Even granting that these incongruities were purposely assumed, for the sake of disguising the female pen, there is nothing gained; for if we ascribe the book to a woman at all, we have no alternative but to ascribe it to one who has, for some sufficient reason, long forfeited the society of her own sex.
And if by no woman, it is certainly also by no artist.... There is not more disparity between the art of drawing Jane assumes and her evident total ignorance of its first principles, than between the report she gives of her own character and the conclusions we form for ourselves. Not but what, in another sense, the author may be classed as an artist of very high grade. Let him describe the simplest things in nature--a rainy landscape, a cloudy sky, or a bare moorside, and he shows the hand of a master; but the moment he talks of the art itself, it is obvious that he is a complete ignoramus.
We cannot help feeling that this work must be far from beneficial to that class of ladies whose cause it affects to advocate. Jane Eyre is not precisely the mouthpiece one would select to plead the cause of governesses, and it is therefore the greater pity that she has chosen it: for there is none we are convinced which, at the present time, more deserves and demands an earnest and judicious befriending. (pp. 93-4)
Source: Elizabeth Rigby, a review of "Vanity Fair" and "Jane Eyre," in The London Quarterly Review, No. CLXVII, December, 1848, pp. 82-99.* Reprinted in Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vol. 3.
Source Database: Literature Resource Center