- One or Several Jane Eyres?
Contrary to those late 1970s and '80s feminist critics who considered Victorian women victims of a culture that authorized men, I argued in Desire and Domestic Fiction (1987) that with the vaunted rise of the novel, women were granted considerable political power. This claim came with a caveat. In making it, I relied on the substantial number of novelists, from Jane Austen to Virginia Woolf, whose heroines were heroines by virtue of how well they exercised their authority as women rather than what they lacked in the way of political prerogatives that modern cultures reserved for men. Of the domestic novels that began to flood the market in the early decades of Victoria's reign, Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre is both a forthright demonstration of that authority and an uncompromising explanation of how the fiction that allowed that authority to rule the household must have served the political interests of a nation undergoing industrialization.
Brontë not only allows a generally unattractive and ill-tempered orphan to establish a home of her own, one that expresses her personal desires and prohibitions, but also refuses to let her heroine do so by means of rank, lineage, wealth, physical attractiveness, or any of the prerogatives traditionally enjoyed by men. To make it clear that Jane must secure a home by means of her resources as a woman, and to make sure we know what that means, at a point late in the novel, Brontë declares her heroine the unexpected beneficiary of her estranged uncle's estate, only to have her distribute that inheritance among her cousins. Presumably, Jane must give away with one hand what she has received with the other, simply because that potential power came to her from a male benefactor and she, as a woman, must bestow it on others. Her renunciation of inherited privilege is but one of a series of conditions that Jane has to meet before she is qualified to perform a role capable of punishing, if not annihilating, anyone who tries to dominate her. Her refusal to submit would seem to suggest that Jane's appeal to successive generations of readers, many of them self-identified feminists, rests on the novel's success in recoding in feminine terms (of succour and moral firmness) the qualities that make Brontë's heroine eligible to wield such power (of political conquest and control) over life and death. Why does the relatively intense identification that Jane continues to elicit from literary critics—indeed, from readers of all kinds—require them to disavow if not the political nature of the power she acquires then the political purpose it serves?
A similar disavowal characterized the initial reception of my claim that the Brontës' heroines exercise a form of disciplinary power that transforms and subjugates their male counterparts. The chorus of objections to my demonstration that Jane Eyre fiercely wielded such power soon died out, and a [End Page 215] new generation of literary critics seemed to warm to the idea that novels actually imagined empowering women. But such acceptance depended on their disavowing the other half of my argument, namely, that to acquire such authority, Jane enforced the very restrictions that had formerly victimized her as an orphan. With this disavowal in the back of my mind, I accepted the guest editors' invitation to reflect on the afterlife of my work in Victorian studies, and literary criticism more generally, as an opportunity to excavate the political dimension of my 1987 argument, which never enjoyed much of an afterlife. Feeling, as Jane did, that it is better to be attacked by one's critics than loved for all the wrong reasons, I shall devote the next few pages to a necessarily schematic explanation of how I now understand the pervasive disavowal of the political operations of "the family" on the part of novelists and literary critics alike. I shall then try to suggest a number of afterlives that Jane deserves to live by virtue of the very contradiction within British liberalism that she successfully negotiated. Let me begin by positing a few tenets that I have elsewhere spelled out at some length...