[Part II of "Rochester vs. St. John Rivers: or why Jane Eyre preferred a cynical sinner to a religious zealot." All page and chapter references are to the Penguin Classic edition of the novel which contains an introduction and notes by Michael Mason.]
he key to the vital dates in Jane Eyre are to be found in a totally different type of book, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. It is a book almost completely forgotten in contemporary England. It is extremely difficult for modern generations to comprehend just how vital a role was given to the Book of Common Prayer within the English, Protestant homogenous state. That is not to say the United Kingdom was entirely English or even Anglican at the time Jane Eyre was published in 1847, but it was overwhelmingly an Established Church state. Entry into the professions, university, parliament, the armed forces and civil service — indeed any position of authority, political or otherwise — depended upon allegiance to the established order. The established order meant a way of life as formulated in the Holy Bible and translated into the Prayer Book, written and revised by Anglican Church canons. This was the world into which Brontë was born.
Moreover, as the daughter of a Church of England curate, it was a world to which she was, as a duty, expected to conform. Scenes from a Clerical Life by George Eliot, a contemporary of Brontë, wonderfully conveys the environment in which Jane was expected to survive. George Eliot, or Mary Ann Evans, came from a very similar background to Brontë. There are grounds for thinking her pen name was borrowed from the novel Jane Eyre. Mary Ann"s lover was a proof reader of Jane Eyre for the publishers.
To mid nineteenth century families of the nascent middle classes, the Bible and the Prayer Book were not just for guidance, they were for obedience. The Bible gave God"s word and the Prayer Book contained the instructions as to how that work should be carried into everyday life. The Prayer Book gives instructions for births, marriages and deaths, even when at sea. It is both a church calendar and an Instruction book. There are prayers for preparation before battle and for victory afterwards, and for God to endow the nation"s leaders with wisdom. It also contains instructions for visiting of the sick, the form of thanks to be given by a woman after childbirth, and instructions for the preparation of children for acceptance into the Church. The Prayer Book set out the Articles of Faith: failure to accept the Articles meant debarrment from public office of any kind. It also contained a list of the Book of Homilies to be read to the congregation at "suitable" and "frequent" intervals throughout the year. The Homilies are a set of principles by which the general public were expected to conduct their affairs, both public and private. The nations leaders lived by them: the Queens subjects were expected to follow. Every aspect of the general governance of the English nation had advice or instruction with the Prayer Book pages. Clear advise on how to deal with one's enemies after surrender was used by Cromwell with devastating effect in Ireland in the seventeen century. Such actions were clearly stipulated in the Prayer Book to be followed according to passages in Deuteronomy, a book of the Old Testament.
Cromwell could, and did, cite Prayer Book and Biblical authority for razing Drogheda. The Prayer Book contains a chapter entitled "A Connination" or "Denouncing of God"s Anger and Judgements Against Sinners". The instructions are given as this of "God"s cursing" in chapters 7 and 20 of Deuteronomy. Cromwell stated this authority on several occasions, the most famous being his "January Declaration to the Irish Bishops" when he stated, "You are part of Anti-Christ, whose Kingdom the Scripture so expressly speaks should be laid in blood..." [See F. Harrison, Oliver Cromwell, 1912, p.145]. English life based upon a monarch, a parliament and a common law carried into the rest of the United Kingdom, and was formed by and rested upon the principles laid down in the Book of Common Prayer.
Every day in the Brontë household, prayers would be said and Lessons read according to the "Calendar with Table of Lessons" contained with the Book of Common Prayer for the information of the Minister of the parish. The Minister for the Brontë household was, of course, the Reverend Patrick Brontë. He was supported, after the early death of his wife, by her sister Elizabeth Bramwell, a staunch God-fearing disciple of John Wesley. Having briefly outlined the influence of the Book of Common Prayer in nineteenth century English life and in the Brontë household itself, I shall now turn to its significance in the text of Jane Eyre.
Other Portions of This Essay
- Specific dates: the link between Jane Eyre, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Bible
- Indicated Dates in Jane Eyre: the Link between the Novel, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Bible
- The Biblical characters and the Book of Homilies in Jane Eyre
- Conclusion: Why did Jane Eyre choose Saul of Tarsus rather than St. John the Divine?
Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, Penguin, 1996.
The actual full title of the novel's manuscript was Jane Eyre: An Autobiography, edited by Currer Bell. The gender of the author was deliberately left ambivalent. The reason may become apparent during the reading of this article.
Last modified 19 January 1999