Illustrations by Nicole Xu
This article appears in our 2017 Summer issue, Invisibility. Subscribe today!
One of my friends, a white woman and fellow writer, once said, “Every woman writer remembers the first time she read Jane Eyre.” In truth, I don’t remember the first time I read Jane Eyre very well.
I was 11 when I picked up my elder sister’s copy, a paperback that was to become more conspicuously battered over the years. Like many young readers who read classics that overreach their level of natural comprehension, I have the distinct memory of reading the words but not the story.
I also remember being more drawn in by the beginning—Jane’s experiences of cruelty at the Reeds’ hands and in her time at the dreadful Lowood boarding school—than by the tale of romance that wouldn’t fully unfold until the flagging middle.
I would return to Jane Eyre several times over the years, prompted by different occasions. I reread it after reading The Princess Diaries, when Mia Thermopolis is told to read it by her grandmother, the Dowager Princess of Genovia. Grandmere’s lesson is that she shouldn’t give IT—her virginity, her identity, but more importantly disclosure of that selfhood—over to her boyfriend “too easily.” Mia found Mr. Rochester “totally dreamy,” which I doubted even at the age of 14. I was always more drawn to the self-effacing martyr Helen Burns, which in retrospect revealed my already latent tendencies toward both prudishness and queerness. Several years later, my consciousness newly raised as an undergraduate, I returned to the novel to find that the text had changed again.
The title character of Jane Eyre, and by extension the entire novel, was racist.
Many discussions of race in Jane Eyre tend to center on Bertha Mason, Rochester’s insane first wife, and with good reason. Bertha’s ethnicity as a Creole is directly connected to her insanity and the dissipated evil she allegedly possessed before going insane. The passages in which she is finally revealed to the reader are, perhaps, some of the cruelest in Jane Eyre:
What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight, tell: it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal: but it was covered with clothing, and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face.
Bertha is dehumanized when compared by Rochester to Jane, the very archetype of a sober Christian, civilized white woman: “And this is what I wished to have…this young girl, who stands so grave and quiet at the mouth of hell, looking collectedly at the gambols of a demon.” Bertha has received no lack of critical attention, as the madwoman in the attic is identified as a defining motif of Victorian literature. However, the racial implications of Bertha’s role are less examined, perhaps because critics do not view her character as saying anything particularly thoughtful or nonracist about Charlotte Brontë’s construction of female identity.
It’s worth mentioning that in response to the whiteness and the hidden violence of Jane Eyre, Jean Rhys wrote the important novel Wide Sargasso Sea, which humanized and developed Bertha Mason as a fully realized character, oppressed by colonialism and gendered stereotypes about mental illness. I mention this since nearly every white woman who has responded to my comments about Jane Eyre’s racism has asked me, “Have you read Wide Sargasso Sea?” (Yes, I have, and it flew above my head at the time, when I was 17.) As if that must somehow absolve Jane Eyre.
“Jane Eyre is pretty racist, isn’t it?” I observed on Twitter in 2012, and got this reply from a white woman who was quite a bit older than me: “Observing that a 19th-century novel is racist/colonialist is like observing that water is wet.” However rude or dismissive her reply may have been, it is also undeniably intellectually lazy. It seemed to me then, as now, that race and empire were critical elements of the title character’s identity formation as a genteel, poor, white woman in 19th-century England. To take the novel’s racism as a given of the period, as opposed to an element to scrutinize as critically as gender relations, seems as absurd as it is lethargic. I’ve discussed Bertha and the direct contrasts drawn between her and Jane, and how Brontë uses Bertha’s violence, reclusiveness, and mental illness to underscore Jane’s faculties of reason, passion, Christian faith, and self-actualization. In short, Jane is someone who, as a white woman, declares she has “as much soul as [Rochester]—and full as much heart,” and is therefore an equal to him. However, it’s not solely Bertha Mason who underscores Jane’s identity as genteel, poor, and white: Ideas and contrasts permeate the novel to define who and what Jane is and, more important, to delineate what she is not.
Halfway through Rochester’s bizarre and gaslighting courtship of Jane, he performs brownface, disguising himself as a gypsy fortune-teller to ask Jane how she really feels about him. Jane refuses to answer directly. Her thin-lipped responses may indicate discretion, wisdom, or arguably a disgust at the otherness of the fortune-teller. A governess who works to correct distinctly French “freedoms and trivialities” in Rochester’s child Adèle would be as willing to confide in a gypsy fortune-teller as she would in Adèle.
Otherness is more than a mark of inferiority in Jane Eyre. It also marks privilege and cosmopolitanism, so long as that otherness relates to the British Empire and those who have concerns within it. The archipelago of Madeira, of course, is an important reference point in the novel: Rochester has a history there, Jane has connections there, and it is the source of the revelation that Rochester already has a wife. Most important, Madeira is how Jane attains a measure of financial security and independence, and it is the direct source of her ability to claim material equality with Rochester. Although Mrs. Reed shows disdain for colonial manners, and colonial territories serve as the backdrop for Rochester’s sexual immorality, Brontë uses otherness as a mark of distinction when it surfaces in white, wealthy bodies. Brontë explicitly makes this point as Jane witnesses Rochester’s torturous flirtation with her perceived rival, Blanche Ingram, during a game of charades:
Mr. Rochester, costumed in shawls, with a turban on his head. His dark eyes and swarthy skin and Paynim features suited the costume exactly: he looked the very model of an Eastern emir, an agent or a victim of the bowstring. Presently advanced into view Miss Ingram. She, too, was attired in Oriental fashion.
Earlier, Blanche deems the governess Jane “too stupid” to play charades with them.
By placing Rochester among the rarefied company of his social equals, Brontë puts him at his greatest distance from Jane. She depicts Orientalism as fashionable indulgence, excess, and the enclave of the well-to-do. In participating with Rochester, Blanche becomes his logical social match. Only later does Brontë exonerate Jane, her spiritual compatibility with Rochester trumping social convention, her personhood the reason she’s “felt what it had to be loved.”
This is the triumph of Jane Eyre and the reason why the novel is seen as a vindication of female identity beyond convention and externality. Brontë based Jane’s identity as much on whiteness and Englishness as on womanhood, though the former is less visible in critical appraisals of the novel. Though we’re meant to identify with Jane’s feelings of alienation, at 19 and fresh from my first term at university in the U.K., I couldn’t help but hear through Jane the words and the very accent of the white girl who told me, “You speak very good English.” Writing about the racism in Jane Eyre is not like writing an essay about the wetness of water. Reading the novel at 19, the same age Jane is for much of the story, and seeing the racism was surprising. White feminists who champion Jane Eyre as a bastion of female self-actualization don’t talk about its racism or colonialism enough. You cannot satisfactorily and honestly champion the story or its author without drawing attention to the ways in which its feminism is exclusionary, cruel, and white.
“Every woman writer remembers the first time she read Jane Eyre.” That statement presupposes that every woman writer has read Jane Eyre, that it is somehow formative to her career or identity as a writer, or that the novel sticks in the mind of every woman who writes. It’s more meaningful to suggest readers endlessly re-create the texts that they read. White feminist readings of the novel have triumphed over a century and a half of literary criticism because Jane Eyre is about gender; Charlotte Brontë, a white woman living in Yorkshire through one of the largest and most brutal expansions of empire in human history, explicitly wrote it to be so. But it can never be just about gender. Readers drawn to Jane Eyre read with the understanding that it has a place in the Anglophone canon, malecentric as that canon has been. They are drawn from all over the world, as Jane Eyre has been translated into virtually every language and has been placed on the English literature syllabi of countries across the Commonwealth, that loose and diverse constellation of countries that only share colonization by the British, including Botswana, Bangladesh, Saint Lucia, and my home country, Singapore. (Madeira is not on the list, having been colonized by the Portuguese. To this day, it functions as an “autonomous region” of Portugal.) Using Jane Eyre may serve to induct students into Anglocentric standards of literary prestige and a familiarity with “the canon,” or help them to interrogate colonialist assumptions. These purposes are not mutually exclusive.
With that as a new starting point, and not the womanhood-is-universal locus of “Every woman writer remembers her first time,” it’s obvious that these flashpoints exist even within the “female” readership, for the simple reason that women have differing experiences of life and the broader world from each other that literature aims to describe. The reasons are overpowering and immutable: history, colonialism, slavery. The reason some female readers—voracious, feminist, critical—may fiercely love books written by some women is the same reason these canonical texts may puzzle and alienate others. The tendency of white feminists to speak of the construction of a “women’s canon” that is overwhelmingly white (Jane Austen, the Brontës, Virginia Woolf) is as questionable as the construction of an exclusively white male canon. Want to claim that men can’t understand women unless they consume art by women? White people can’t understand people of color unless they consume art created by people of color.
Even then, that’s done too little to dismantle the material structures on which the world’s injustices and exploitation turn. There is something perhaps self-centered and even cannibalistic about the drive to consume art by Others. Kevin Nguyen wrote about this phenomenon in 2016 in the online literary magazine The Millions:
With the election impending, this became the year of performative wokeness. When you see tweets of people praising The Sellout (“it’s funny!”) but not really saying anything about it of substance (“it’s about… race”), you start to wonder if people like the book or just want to be seen as the kind of person who would like Paul Beatty. Maybe it came from a place of white guilt or insecurity, but Book Twitter mostly looked like people saying, “There are bad white people, but I am a good white person because I have read Ta-Nehisi Coates.” When white people vocally identify themselves as Book People, they are assuring everyone around them that they are better than other whites who don’t read. How this declaration of allyship benefits people of color I have no idea, but I’m sure it makes a lot of Book Twitter feel better about itself.
I had a similar experience with a white woman I considered a good friend. She had messaged me to complain about a mutual acquaintance who had unfavorably compared The Girls by Emma Cline to Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler. This mutual acquaintance suggested Cline wrote a false and whitewashed construct of universal womanhood, whereas Danler did not. My friend, on the other hand, commented that Sweetbitter and The Girls were exactly the same in their depiction of white womanhood as universal. (Note: I haven’t read either novel, and I don’t have any firm plans to do so.) She then went on to decry our mutual acquaintance’s white reading taste and said, “Obviously I am guilty of this, too, but I feel like I am at least more aware of it…with the exception of James Baldwin, but she stole him off me.” This suggests some lessons for the person of color seeking to understand white literariness. First, “woke” reading taste is only another form of social capital to be accumulated by white Twitter users, who will dutifully read books by minority writers to be seen as antiracist. Second, self-awareness absolves a variety of sins, even if it doesn’t do shit. (In the words of the comedian Hari Kondabolu: “I’m a hypocrite, but I’m self-aware. That’s how liberalism works.”) Lastly, authors of color—famous literary geniuses, even—exist as tokens or possessions to be traded or “stolen” by white people seeking to shore up their woke literary capital.
Let me clarify. I’m entirely aware that I’ve mentioned three different white women throughout this piece, all in a relatively unflattering light. I hope that this essay won’t be read as another indictment of white women, as necessary as those might be—and as painful as women of color’s encounters with white supremacy, bound up in the disappointed expectation of universal sisterhood, might be. That would fall back into the fake and morally corrupt dichotomy between “good” white people and “bad” racists, a distinction that liberal whites are ever eager to wield to distinguish themselves from the kind of white people who support Donald Trump. That smacks of a form of white supremacy that exposes itself in the performance of “wokeness” and centers white people and their exceptional goodness. This white supremacy has been less interrogated since the election of Donald Trump. Does the self-conscious white consumption of literature, the acknowledgement of race where it’s convenient (and omission where it’s not) matter these days? I would say that yes, it matters. White supremacy in all its forms, including self-soothing delusions of goodness, matters.
The tendency to pose the white individual as the subject of an important question blurs into a kind of glimmering, insubstantial innocence, motivated by the assumption that we can be made good by saying or believing the right things. Speech is a necessary condition for goodness. Is it adequate to absolve whiteness of its role in the center of oppression and what Ta-Nehisi Coates terms “America’s compounding moral debt?” Everyone is complicit, and to participate in society is to participate in sin. I say this not to sink the reader into a quagmire of helplessness and inaction, but to be done once and for all with the illusion that the individual is the highest moral imperative.
Here is something I know to be true: Writers writing from the margins do not write to be consumed. They write to be read (a different thing) and, for many, to eke out a sphere of existence that had previously not existed in the literary imagination. Books, especially fiction with its ability to prompt an impulse of recognition, carve out an imaginary space that expands the limits of what was previously thought possible. This expansion lies behind the sense of awe, even sacredness, with which many readers greet Jane Eyre, by seeing in it a psychological depiction of white womanhood and agency previously unencountered.
And yes, I see where these readers are coming from. Jane Eyre has certainly stuck in my head. There’s an implicit assumption among book lovers that the love of a story is pure and unsullied, that it stands apart from the material mandates of history, that if real life unavoidably trades in violence that hammers and shatters and destroys, literature and art is healing, repair, catharsis. As a book lover, I hold an innate sympathy for that view. Something in me keens to recognize it as a singular truth.
But we also know that no singular truth in the world can be allowed to stand without being corrupted by the other claims of a plural and poisoned existence: that ego, self-righteousness, colonialism, and the voracious capitalism that drives consumption in a fraught media and publishing industry—which drives all industries—intervene to produce other meanings bound up in a much-beloved, tattered paperback. This truth brings with it another grief and a common reckoning of our best storytellers: No one can be clean, and pure, and free. Sin is everywhere.