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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 8 - 19th Century Prose Narrative 


Women's Voices in the Novel--
from Pamela to Jane Eyre

Cervantes' Don Quixote, which focuses on a man who seeks to right the wrongs of the world while pursuing his ideal woman, exemplifies the archetypal male narrative. The term "novel," however, was not often used to describe fiction derived, like Don Quixote, from the chivalric romances of the late Middle Ages (see Chapter 4 ). When the term became the accepted English name for an extended piece of prose fiction in the eighteenth century, "novel" usually denoted what might be called the archetypal female narrative, a minutely detailed social record of a young woman's progress toward marriage.

Many of the first great novelists were in fact women, notably the Japanese Lady Murasaki, who wrote The Tale of Genji in eleventh-century Japan, and Marie de La Vergne de La Fayette, who wrote La Princesse de Clèves in seventeenth-century France. However, most scholars agree that the English social novel begins with a man who wrote for women, Samuel Richardson. A printer by profession, Richardson composed conduct books that helped newly literate ladies' maids and aspiring women of the growing middle class learn how to behave in polite society. Since the prevailing mode of social communication in the eighteenth century was the letter, some booksellers asked Richardson to go beyond these general guides to good manners and publish a collection of form letters that would provide models for their women customers to copy and adapt for a number of social situations. In working on this project, Richardson suddenly realized that these exemplary letters could be arranged not only to demonstrate modes of letter-writing but also to tell a story.

This insight launched one of the most remarkable careers in novelistic history, for Richardson began a tradition of literary impersonation with his novel Pamela (1740), a story which evolves through letters supposedly written by a fictional young woman. While some prominent literary men laughed at this new format, other men--and women--loved it. The increased subtlety of Richardson's next epistolary novel, Clarissa (1747-48), led readers of both sexes to accept as authoritative accounts of intimate female experience filtered through a man's understanding.

The Richardsonian psychological novel as a genre frequently has been viewed with condescension, dismissed as the "sort of thing that women like." In fact, one of Richardson's greatest admirers, Jane Austen, has the narrator of her first novel, Northanger Abbey(1) give a spirited defense of her heroine's choice of reading matter, the novel. Remarking that most fictional protagonists scorn the literary form which gives them their being, Austen's narrator insists that the novel has "afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than . . . any other" mode of writing. Nevertheless, with a diffidence typical of women writers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Jane Austen chose never to have her name appear on the title page of any of her published works. Sense and Sensibility, published in 1811, was advertised as "By a Lady," and each of her subsequent works was "By the Author of" the previous novel. The three Brontë sisters, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, published as Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, purposely choosing ambiguous pseudonyms.

This fear of self-exposure resulted from the prevailing tendency to dismiss a woman's book with disdain as a woman's book combined with the idea that it was indelicate for a woman to seek public attention. The pressure that such creative spirits as Austen and the Brontes felt to disguise their productivity mirrors the pressures felt by their heroines, strong characters who also must be "good girls" and who generally end up submerging their own identities in marriage. Significantly, most of the early women novelists who did not use pseudonyms masked their real selves on their title pages anyway, as Mme. de La Fayette, Mrs. Radcliffe, Mrs. Gaskell, and so forth.

Apparently in this tradition of self-abnegation, Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre leads up to a famous sentence: "Reader, I married him." The heroine, however, exhibits considerable independence as she moves toward achieving her new name. Like so many nineteenth-century novels, Jane Eyre focuses on the growth and moral development of an orphaned, neglected, and mistreated leading character. Jane Eyre must work to support herself, and hires herself out to be a governess in the aptly named Thornfield Hall. Whatever their intellectual attainments, most governesses had few opportunities for self-expression. Instead, they lived lonely lives, excluded because of their indeterminate social class both by the domestic servants of the household and their privileged employers.

Brontë dramatizes Jane's eagerness to explore life by having her explore the various passageways of the mansion of Mr. Rochester, her enigmatic master. In a daring mood, Jane ascends to the top of his mysterious house and steps out onto the roof of Thornfield. This setting eventually will be the scene of death and destruction before she can become Mrs. Rochester and celebrate her marriage in a house called Ferndean. Here, fresh from school and inexperienced, Jane looks boldly out on the world of whose gifts she has been deprived.

Excerpt From Jane Eyre, Chapter XII

Anybody may blame me who likes when I add further that now and then, when I took a walk by myself in the grounds, when I went down to the gates and looked through them along the road, or when, while Adèle played with her nurse, and Mrs. Fairfax made jellies in the storeroom, I climbed the three staircases, raised the trap-door of the attic, and having reached the leads, looked out far over sequestered field and hill, and along dim sky-line -- that then I longed for a power of vision which might overpass that limit; which might reach the busy world, towns, regions full of life I had heard of but never seen: that then I desired more of practical experience than I possessed; more of intercourse with my kind, of acquaintance with variety of character, than was here within my reach. I valued what was good in Mrs. Fairfax, and what was good in Adèle; but I believed in the existence of other and more vivid kinds of goodness, and what I believed in I wished to behold.

Who blames me? Many, no doubt; and I shall be called discontented. I could not help it; the restlessness was in my nature; it agitated me to pain sometimes. Then my sole relief was to walk along the corridor of the third story, backwards and forwards, safe in the silence and solitude of the spot and allow my mind's eye to dwell on whatever bright visions rose before it -- and, certainly, they were many and glowing; to let my heart be heaved by the exultant movement, which, while it swelled it in trouble, expanded it with life; and, best of all, to open my inward ear to a tale that was never ended -- a tale my imagination created, and narrated continuously; quickened with all of incident, life, fire, feeling, that I desired and had not in my actual existence.

It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth. 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; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Jane Eyre was published in 1847, the year before a wave of revolutions swept across Europe. How does this passage reflect this political impulse?
  2. Why is Jane so sure that what she thinks and feels is blameworthy? Do you think young women today can understand her restlessness?
  3. What kind of symbolic significance does Charlotte Brontë seem to attach to the naming of houses in this novel? What does going out on the roof, as Jane does here, imply ?
  4. Jane asserts that "women feel just as men feel." Do they? How would anybody know? What is the irony of making "Currer Bell" the ostensible author of a passage such as this?
  5. Women have had more success as writers of novels than of any other literary genre; is there anything special about women's experience of life that may contribute to this success? How may economic concerns have influenced their decision to write novels?


(1) Completed by 1803 but not published until 1818, the year after Austen had died.