Monday, June 16, 2008

Imperialism, Reform, and the Making of Englishness in Jane Eyre - a review

Our thanks to Palgrave Macmillan for sending us a review copy of this book.

Imperialism, Reform, and the Making of Englishness in Jane Eyre
Sue Thomas

Publisher : Palgrave Macmillan
216x138 mm
9780230554252
30 Apr 2008
184 Pages
£45.00

Sue Thomas’s new book continues and broadens her previous works on decolonizing literatures and particularly Jean Rhys’s works. This new work adds up to several other post-colonial approaches to Jane Eyre that have been a favourite of critical studies in the lasts decades. Imperialism, Reform… is a fellow traveller of other contributions: Carl Plasa’s Charlotte Brontë (2004), Jenny Sharpe’s Allegories of Empire: The Figure of Woman in the Colonial Text (1993), Susan Meyer’s Imperialism at Home: Race and Victorian Women Fiction (1996) or the pioneering works of Gayatri C. Spivak (1).

Nevertheless, Sue Thomas’s approach, although plainly inserted in the post-colonial side, introduces several details which tend to compensate some of the more evident extremisms of her other predecessors: I resist the critical will to allegory, paying close attention, though, to the heterogeneity and historical contingency of the processes to which she draws attention. Her critical tool is the concept of worlding. In her own words: Worlding is a research, reading and analytical strategy which connects texts to their ‘local’ and ‘particular’ historical contexts’. (…) My worlding of Jane Eyre restores a range of these [historical] specificities”(2).

A historically accurate recontextualization of the imperial and colonial readings of Jane Eyre seems particularly useful, putting some order in the much stormy sea of the critical approaches to Charlotte Brontë’s works. Sue Thomas succeeds partially in our opinion because a great deal of the raison d’être of this book seems to be based on a careful dating of the novel that, though consistent, is not so convincing as the blurb of the book seems to suggest: In this groundbreaking study, Sue Thomas convincingly dates the action and setting of the novel.

Sue Thomas's dating respects the internal chronology of the novel and moves the traditionally established temporal frame of the Thornfield events (around 1808) to 1833. This temporal reframing is not capricious. Basically both datings develop around one particular event in the novel. St. John's gift to Jane of a copy of Walter Scott's Marmion, described in the novel as a 'new publication'. Walter Scott's book was published in 1808, hence the first (traditional) dating. Sue Thomas suggests that 'new publication' doesn't mean per se a newly-published poem since a re-issue of Walter Scott's poem would also fit in the publication definition. The poem appeared again in 1833 and Sue Thomas reads new details on Jane's defence of Scott that indicates convincingly that the edition which Jane is talking about is the 1833 one. The 'advantage' of this new dating is that the novel now expands over a particularly interesting period of the English and West Indies colonial history and crucial dates of the novel are fascinatingly related to crucial historical events(3).

Nevertheless, as convincing as all of this sounds(4) it's difficult to conciliate the image of a novel like Jane Eyre with such a careful programmatic reading. As it is well known, Charlotte Brontë was an avid political reader and we rather think that the social and historical debates transpirate rather naturally into the novel. At this point it is useful to quote Margaret Smith's words when she refers to the practical difficulties of dating Jane Eyre:
But such matters are not important. In fact it is clear that the action is set thirty of forty years before publication, and that further precision is no part of Charlotte Brontë's purpose. (Jack, Jane and Smith, Margaret, 'The Chronology of Jane Eyre', Jane Eyre. By Charlotte Brontë. Ed. Jane Jack and Margaret Smith. Oxford: Clarendon, 1969, 610-14).
We don't agree with the first part of the quote. Such matters are important, but we rather agree with the second part, we don't think that Charlotte Brontë's purpose was a careful dating. But that doesn't necessarily mean that the surrounding historic and social issues don't somehow impregnate the novel. And Sue Thomas, applying her worlding technique aptly and eloquently, resurfaces some of the most evident and not so evident.(5)

The book is divided in six chapters. The first four are the main core of the book - Chapter 1 examining gender and racialized meanings of slavery and Christianity in the novel, Chapter 2 is devoted to historically explore the meanings of Creole, West Indies, Englishness and primogeniture as related to the narrativity of Jane Eyre, Chapter 3 follows Jane Eyre and St. John's relationship as related to the missionary work in India and the concept of Englishness. Finally Chapter 4, tries to link together the historical moment in which Jane Eyre says her famous lines: Women feel like just as men feel... In Sue Thomas's dating, this corresponds to 1832. The author also illustrates her point with a particularly fitting new reading of Elizabeth Rigby's famous attack on the novel.

The last two chapters are more disconnected from the rest of the book and are concerned with two Jane Eyre derivatives: John Courtney's 1848 stage melodrama(6) and Henrietta Camilla Jenkin's 1859 novel Stella, set on the Caribbean and probably more an extension of the world of Wide Sargasso Sea than that of Jane Eyre.

Sue Thomas's book is certainly an important addition to the critical approaches to Jane Eyre, almost a genre in itself. Even if some of her assumptions are not altogether convincing, her extensive research(7) and her obsession with consistently framing together the socio-historical context with the narrative gives new fresh air (no pun intended) to the post-colonial approaches which were tending perilously to an autistic obsession with allegorical meanings.

Notes:

(1) Three Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism, Critical Inquiry, 12 (1985/86) 243-61 is the original paper but it is probably best known as a reworking for her book A Critique of Post-colonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. Cambridge, MA and London, Harvard UP, 1999.
(2) As the author notes, Sue Thomas is not alone in this: Poovey, Mary Uneved Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England (1989), Sally Shuttleworth's Charlotte Brontë and Victorian Psychology (1996), Heather Glen's Charlotte Brontë: The Imagination in History (2002), etc...
(3) The Timeline that the book includes in its Appendix 1 is particularly useful and thought-provoking.
(4) The new dating is not exempt of some anachronisms, as the author herself admits:
The most glaring anachronism of Brontë in my dating is Bessie Lee's singing of Edwin Ransford's song 'In the days when we went gipsying', a song published in 1839.
(5) One of the most interesting re-interpretations that Thomas suggests refers to is the use by Jane of the word charter in a key conversation with Rochester (vol 2, ch. 9). Editors traditionally have interpreted charter as a reference to the Chartist Movement whereas Thomas suggests that charters were also legal instruments of imperial governance and refits the reference into the colonial context.
(6) Since Patsy Stoneman "re-discovered" this play, John Courtney's melodrama has been the subject of considerable interest. A Marxist reading (by Elke Mettinger-Schartmann) was published in the recent A Breath of Fresh Eyre, where Sue Thomas, by the way, was also a contributor. Perhaps a bit too much scholar interest in such a mediocre piece?
(7) But alas! only on the literary criticism side. Sometimes it seems that the biographical scholars and the literary critics don't interact at all. There's no mention in the book to Mellaney Hayne, friend of Charlotte's at Cowan Bridge who has some intriguing West Indies connections (not least that her sister married a West Indian widower) which were explored in an article by Sarah Fermi in Brontë Studies (2002, Volume 27 (3) 185).


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