Precarious Love : The Costs of Agency in Regency Literature
“Women are supposed to be very calm generally, but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer.” - Jane Eyre
For many women, the definition of personal power includes the ability to maintain autonomy and ownership over their life choices, their physicality, and their personal boundaries. Unlike centuries of women before us, we are legally capable of supporting ourselves in essentially any way we choose. First World women are no longer obligated to be dependent on the men in their lives for identity or security, a shift that has adjusted and balanced out the deep vulnerability and hazards inherent in being a woman.
Many of us take this level of agency for granted and read classic literature through this lens. We swoon over romances and love stories while forgetting that, for authors such as Jane Austen or the Brontë sisters, romance actually came second to economic and physical survival. The female protagonists of their novels are not just concerned about love but must gamble on their prospects of security and safety while navigating an unmistakable power imbalance, tipped distinctly in favor of the men. Classic literature written by women and about women often details the struggle to maintain personal autonomy in a world where women are entirely dependent on the good graces of men. These stories make an impact because their protagonists are portrayed fighting for their own dignity while having to navigate their survival through one of the only “respectable” avenues open to them — marriage.
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice touches on the risk of poverty the Bennet sisters face should they remain unmarried. That tension heightens the shock of Elizabeth’s turning down Darcy’s initial proposal. Darcy feels little need to accommodate Elizabeth’s own wants or desires because he instinctively knows she has very little choice in how her life plays out should she remain single. When she does reject him, she does so knowing her vulnerability to the whims of the generosity from extended family has increased exponentially. What Austen does not detail, however, is what those risks include. Her stories remain comfortably in upper society, and her women have the leeway to assert themselves without putting themselves too far in the way of direct harm.
Charlotte Brontë is different. Everyone who loves gothic romance knows the plot of Jane Eyre - feisty governess falls for brooding hero, sparks fly, tragic secret is revealed, despair sets in, followed by eventual reconciliation. What can easily slip through the cracks, however, is the precarious position Jane finds herself in as soon as that tragic secret is revealed. Jane Eyre stands next to Austen’s Elizabeth in her conviction that she matters, that her self respect is worthy; she lays claim to the right to be treated in accordance to that worth. But unlike Elizabeth, she is a working girl with no known living relatives, with limited life experience, no resources, and living in a house shared with her employer and former fiancé—a man whose past is littered with mistresses he discarded as soon as they no longer pleased him. When Elizabeth, as a decently high-status woman of reputation, initially turns Darcy down, she risks genteel poverty. When Jane, a lower class unknown, rejects the idea of bigamy or becoming Rochester’s mistress, she finds herself threatened with rape.
This is, I believe, the actual crux of the novel. When Darcy is confronted by Elizabeth’s self-respect, he is jolted into seeing her as a true equal and begins to adjust accordingly. In contrast, Brontë establishes this equality for Jane early on. Although Rochester has a history of pettiness, emotional manipulation, and self-absorption, Jane’s commitment to her own value, humanity and self-worth has already forced him to view her as his intellectual equal. By the climax of the novel, Jane has already resisted his efforts to reshape her into the colorful angel of his dreams, and, in a world where women were expected to acquiesce to their husbands without question, has insisted upon remaining herself even as his fiancee. “I will not be your English Celine Varens…. I will furnish my own wardrobe…and you shall give me nothing but your regard: and if I give you mine in return, that debt will be quit.” With his previous mistresses, Rochester amused himself with living distractions. With Jane, Rochester grows to love and respect an actual, fellow human being.
But unlike Elizabeth’s ability to hold her head high and send Darcy on his way, intellectual equality with Rochester does not change the fact that Jane is a lower class governess with few rights, something Rochester is keenly aware of. One of the most famous quotes of Jane Eyre, “I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself…. there I plant my foot,” is Jane’s internal response to Rochester’s attempts to blame and manipulate Jane into taking responsibility for his potential self-destruction should she persist in refusing his offers. Seeing her resolve nearly sends Rochester over the edge:
“Never,” said he, as he ground his teeth, “never was anything at once so frail and so indomitable…. I could bend her with my finger and thumb, and what good would it do if I bent, if I uptore, if I crushed her?.... Whatever I do to its cage, I cannot get at it…. If I tear, if I rend the slight prison, my outrage will only let the captive loose. Conqueror I might be of the house, but the inmate would escape to heaven before I could call myself possessor of its clay dwelling place. And it is you, spirit - with will and energy, and virtue and purity - that I want, not alone your brittle frame… seized against your will you will elude the grasp like an essence.”
No one would have come to Jane’s rescue had Rochester decided to take revenge for his disappointment. He knew it and Jane knew it. But Rochester also knows that although Jane is physically powerless, he cannot escape the fact she is far more than something to be used and tossed aside. He has seen her as an independent individual, and, because he has seen her deep humanity, he cannot go back. He lets her go, unharmed.
Once Jane and Rochester are reunited at the end of the novel, Jane has inherited enough wealth that she now has the ability to walk away from any situation she pleases without personal cost. Should she marry now, it will be entirely her own decision. She is no longer dependent on a husband or a deeply vulnerable governess position to support herself and can choose to live her life as she pleases. In this context, Rochester confesses that he absolutely did intend to rape her. “I did wrong: I would have sullied my innocent flower - breathed guilt on its purity.” He repents, she forgives, and, knowing she is now secure in both herself and in his genuine respect, she steps into his life as his wife. It is doubtful that Elizabeth shared cultural power with Darcy outside of the confines of their home, but Rochesters’s new blindness spares him the cultural shame that would have otherwise followed his sharing control and power with Jane. Brontë writes their story in a way that makes shared power in marriage palatable to an unfamiliar audience, and, potentially, eventually accepted as normal.
Jane Eyre is widely regarded as a masterpiece, showcasing female agency in a world where such things were relatively unknown, but often we find the happiness and satisfaction of the story in the triumphant, “Reader, I married him.” But this is not what Brontë is actually going for. The marriage plot was a commonly relatable, easily digestible storyline; Jane’s fierce independence throughout was not.
Changing cultural narratives takes years of careful work, framed in non-threatening ways, in subversive methods, easily misunderstood or overlooked. Brontë worked to change the culture in the only way she could: introducing a new concept into a known narrative, marriage, using a high-risk scenario, vulnerable governess and powerful master where abuse was essentially expected, and shifted that story instead into a marriage of intellectual equals. Brontë introduced England to a quietly subversive notion—women are human and deserve the same respect and regard as their male counterparts. Jane’s refusal to compromise exposed her to severe risk and harm, something well known to Brontë’s female peers, but also granted her something most could only dream about: a marriage of mutual regard, respect, and shared power. What a concept.