- "Charlotte Brontë and Disability Studies"
Jane Eyre (1847) famously offers the rags-to-riches tale of someone who is "poor, obscure, plain, and little" (Brontë 253) but nonetheless manages a meaningful life and a marriage to the man she passionately loves. In its insistence that such a powerless woman can triumph, the novel became a founding myth of Victorian culture, a kind of female version of another iconic mid-century book, Samuel Smiles's Self-Help (1859). Jane pronounces, "I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself" (317). This is the kind of independent, empowered character Nancy Armstrong describes when, in this special issue, she revisits her argument in Desire and Domestic Fiction.
Yet recently scholars have begun to tease out another aspect of Jane Eyre, one that seems diametrically opposed to this story of rampant autonomy: a history of mutual dependency. Interestingly, Charlotte Brontë has become a central figure in disability studies, partly because of the Brontës' consumptive deaths, partly because of the range and variety of impairments she depicts, and partly because of the way she imagines the social uses of caregiving.
Jane Eyre is a novel in which a truly remarkable number of characters experience disabling conditions: chronic illness, debilitating trauma, mental disability, nervous impairments, and blindness. Children suffer typhoid and consumption; an aunt has a stroke; a caretaker is alcoholic. Jane's life story is intimately connected with caregiving. From its famous opening paragraphs, concerned with "nipped fingers and toes" and a humbling consciousness of "physical inferiority" (7), to its ending lines prophesying St. John Rivers's imminent [End Page 265] death (452), this is a novel in which people suffer and in which a significant measure of the moral virtue of a person is how well she or he works to alleviate that suffering. Indeed, the greatest love Jane knows is intimately intermingled with nursing; to care for Rochester, in both senses, is the climax of her story.
Mr. Rochester, who has lost his sight and his right hand in a fire, is one of the two most visibly disabled characters, paralleled only by his wife Bertha (an equivalence nicely recognized by the title of a recent study, The Madwoman and the Blindman). Bertha's original disorder seems to consist mainly of being bad-tempered, "intemperate and unchaste" (306), qualities that her husband shares but that are pathologized only for her.1 Whether Bertha is originally sane or not, after years of imprisonment, her mental state has significantly deteriorated. She appears incapable of rational or verbal expression by the time Jane encounters her. Although she is depicted as animalistic, the signs of her dehumanization—her unkempt hair, her plain straight gown, her discoloured face—are really signs of her neglect. Grace Poole clearly does not care for her charge's cleanliness or grooming needs.
Jane herself suffers from both mental and physical complaints. In the first few pages, John Reed attacks her. "The cut bled, the pain was sharp" (11), and it is this pain that drives her to fight back, putting the story in motion. Her imprisonment in the red room creates lifelong "fearful pangs of mental suffering" (20). As a teenager, Jane is stunted from her years of malnourishment at Lowood and later collapses at Moor House after nearly starving to death. Julia Miele Rodas has argued that she is autistic. After all, she was "like nobody" at Gateshead, "an uncongenial alien" whom they could not love (Brontë 15–16). While this may be an anachronistic diagnosis of a fictional character, it also opens up the possibility of reading Jane Eyre as an inspirational early account of what it feels like to live on the spectrum.
Jane Eyre is also notable because of the extent to which it interrogates the best ways of caring for its impaired characters. The philosophy of "ethics of care" argues that we are not autonomous monads but interdependent beings, engaged in continual care relations. These are particularly visible in nurse-patient, teacher-student, or parent-child dyads. But care can go badly; the carer can be depleted, or the...