Decorative Initial J

ust as Jane has not knowingly agreed to a bigamous marriage, neither Lucy nor Bertha can avoid their dangerous sexuality. They are still, however seen as morally responsible, since they pose a real temptation and threat to the men around them. Attempts to confine them — Jane in her room after discovering Bertha's existence, Bertha in her den, Lucy in her garlic filled bedroom and tomb — are insufficient to contain the danger. Jane's innate morality forces her to leave and Lucy is saved from eternal damnation by symbolic masculine dominance - a stake through her body — but Bertha dies unredeemed in a sheet of flame reminiscent of Hell.

All the novels I have chosen to look at reinforce the restrictive sexual values aspired to by a small but influential strata of Victorian society. Fanny Price is a positive role model for the patient and self abnegating ideal described by Mill. She suffers emotional mistreatment without complaint and is assertive only when making moral choices in the face of pressure or disapproval from others. In contrast Lucy Westenra is overcome by her own sensuality, which once aroused can only be subdued by gruesome and dramatic measures. Although the vampire is a fictional creation, and the New Woman was unlikely to come to exactly this end, the message is clear — the rejection of a proper woman's role (represented by Lucy's planned marriage to Arthur) is a dangerous undertaking.

Jane Eyre is not so obviously traditional, and Jane, struggling between her love of God and her passionate nature, has the potential to become either a Fanny Price or a Bertha Mason. Jane Eyre has been called a feminist novel, in particular Jane's speech including the words:

Do you think because I am poor, obscure, plain and little I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! — I have as much soul as you and fully as much heart

but, as R. B. Martin points out, this is not a plea for equality on anything but an emotional level. Jane never questions her limited career choices or her subservient role, and although she believes in self determination she is not New Woman enough to reject conventional morality.

I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principals received by me when I was sane, not mad as I am now … They have a worth - so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now it is because I am insane - quite insane: with my veins running fire and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs.

Like St John Rivers, she is not immune to sexual feeling but recognises it for the temptation it is. The reference to sexuality as insanity is a clear link to Bertha Mason but Jane rejects it where Bertha did (or could) not and, shorn of her excessive passions, is awarded a happy, contented and conventional future as Rochester's wife/nurse and the mother of his children.

Though characters like Jane are fictional, the situations they face and the motivations with which they act are given to them by real authors who must be influenced by their own societies. The morality I have identified in these books was a phenomenon of the nineteenth-century middle class, not evident in earlier novels like Moll Flanders, nor in later ones such as those by D. H. Lawrence. However, while it lasted it was extremely powerful and those who, like Hardy, tried to portray an alternative faced widespread condemnation. Eventually the recognition of the hypocrisy within Victorian society and the death in 1901 of the Queen with whom the moral regime had been associated brought about its overthrow. In a sense the threat to society which the Victorians saw in liberated sexuality was a real one. The sex roles and class distinctions of the nineteenth century no longer exist; society is less structured and more informal. Perhaps this is one reason their recognition of the threat is of such interest to the twentieth-century reader.

Last modified 25 November 2004