Tag Archives: primogeniture

Dear Charlotte Brontë,

Let me add my feminist yawp to the melodious chorus of readers grateful for Jane Eyre. I first met your small, plain, and bookish orphan girl over a hundred years after you wrote her into existence. I was in high school in the fifties, not my best decade. Like Jane, I was skinny, plain, and bookish, but our similarities ended there. For Jane is brave and I’ve always been fearful. I knew I could never survive the many physical hardships she did, but I figured I could follow Jane’s example and hang onto my virginity until, like her, I married my true love. So I guarded the temple through high school and just said no  in college until I graduated in1962 when, on schedule, a wedding band joined the engagement ring on my finger. In the century since you published Jane’s story, little had changed vis á vis the options available to young women.

But that was just before Women’s Liberation. In the early seventies in a grad school course on the 19th century novel, I read Jane Eyre again. Jane had not changed, but the way I read her had. I’d been married ten years and had a little girl. My bra was in ashes, my armpits tufted, and I was teaching English to community college students. These factors plus my male professor’s determination to paint Jane as an early feminist helped me to see her that way too. This prof taught us about male preference primogeniture, the English system of inheritance decreeing that property went to the oldest male heir leaving his sisters to either marry or find work as servants, clerks, or governesses and his brothers to become clergymen or lawyers or find some other vocation. I’d not come across this patriarchy- preserving piece of legislation before, and learning about it changed the way I read your novel.

 Suddenly I understood why you didn’t allow Jane to participate, however  unknowingly, in an illegal marriage to the already married Rochester. Such a union would have offered her no protection and her status would remain unchanged. Before the fire that killed the first Mrs. Rochester, you depicted Rochester himself as extremely powerful. Physically strong with dark eyes and hair, he rode a demonic black stallion and owned a fierce black dog. Together this testosterone-heavy threesome roamed the wild moors, which suited Rochester’s stormy temperament. He also had money, a time-tested virility enhancer. He was powerful. In contrast, Jane is physically weak, fair, virginal, and penniless. But after the fire, Rochester is blind and has lost the use of one arm, a not so subtle phallic reference. The ruins of his mansion  show his decreased finances. However thanks to an unexpected inheritance, Jane is finally financially independent. They are equal. It is only then that you allow them to marry and live happily ever after. Only then can he literally see the world through her eyes and literally follow her lead. Bravo!

So for me Jane Eyre became a highly readable primer on how the personal and the political overlap in the lives of women. Jane helped inspire Aliza Rudinsk, the diarist of my novel The Bones and the Book. Aliza is a gutsy but poor and orphaned Jewish immigrant struggling to work and love in a world where she has pride but little power and monetary  inheritance to allow a happy ending to her story. Thanks for creating a memorable character, one who still moves me to think and write about how hard life is for women when the boys have all the money and clout.  

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under Coming of age story, feminist fiction