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Tuesday, November 06, 2012

 

First sentences: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. 

Wide Sargasso Sea: the most famous of literary responses. Written with, as Rhys herself put it, 'profound apologies to Charlotte Bronte and a deep curtsey too'*, at a time when she was thinking of calling it The First Mrs Rochester: its very existence, like the apologies and curtsey to Bronte, speaks of passionate ambivalence towards its predecessor Jane Eyre.

There are books like that, often books by women, novels that inspire and bewitch their readers even while containing within themselves such profound and problematic assumptions that to read them is to be pulled into impossibility: this is a book that speaks to you but also of you, and when it speaks of you, it shows no mercy. It resonates with you, speaking directly to the same humanity that, in you, it simultaneously denies.

Jean Rhys, born in Dominca, child of a white Welsh father and Dominican Creole mother. Bertha Rochester, nee Bertha Antoinetta Mason: supposedly white and wealthy, but tainted in the blood by 'her mother, the Creole ... a madwoman and a drunkard', whose debauched animalism leaves Jane's true love Rochester refreshed only by a 'sweet wind from Europe,' seeking salvation in the form of a woman to be 'the antipodes of the Creole' (note the conflation of the moral and the geographical): 'an intellectual, faithful, loving woman' who can, through her purity, cleanse him of this tropical contagion.

What is this contagion? Jean Rhys had an answer.

'Creole' is a word that means different things in different places, so for the sake of clarity we should begin with a definition. In this context, a Creole is a white West Indian, someone born in the Caribbean islands who is ethnically but not culturally European - or rather, not quite European ... or, from the point of view of these books' inhabitants, not European enough. The Creole population of the Caribbean islands, or at least the wealthiest among them, were sugar planters who relied on slave labour; its abolition in 1838 left such planters financially ruined. The loss of emancipated workers was given a compensation rate of £19 per slave by the British government at a time when the 'market price' of such people was £35, and in addition, new laws established free trade in the sugar market, meaning that the value of their product fell just as they lost their workforce. Plantations fell into disrepair, often to be bought up cheap by new, non-Creole, European immigrants. Antoinette Cosway, as 'Bertha Rochester' begins her life in Wide Sargasso Sea, is the daughter of one such plantation, growing up post-slavery on a derelict estate, a 'white n*****' accepted neither by the wealthy whites nor the resentful freed slaves, inheritor of a dowry by her new, non-Creole stepfather, but traded herself in a marriage that passes the wealth entirely to her English husband.

In other words, Antionette is white, but not a full part of white culture. Rochester - unnamed in Wide Sargasso Sea, simply 'him' or 'her husband' - has no credible reason to believe her otherwise, but rumour, suspicion and paranoia possess him regarding his beautiful bride, who demonstrably has black half-siblings from her father's slave-owning days, and may, he believes, be contaminated by African heritage, incest, nameless eugenic horrors.

Lest this be seen as an over-reading of Jane Eyre, it should be pointed out that the nature of virtue is in Bronte's book is explicitly racialised. We can acknowledge this even while we, with Rhys, tip a deep curtsey to the book's marvellous literary excellence, and even while we fall under its suspenseful spell: the primary speaker against the 'Creole' corruption is Rochester, but Bertha Mason is, even by her visual description, half-goblin, half racial caricature:

'It was a discoloured face - it was a savage face. I wish I could forget the roll of the red eyes and the fearful blackened inflation of the lineaments!'
'Ghosts are usually pale, Jane.'
'This, sir, was purple: the lips were swelled and dark; the brow furrowed: the black eyebrows raised over the bloodshot eyes.'

The writing is poised, but the description is a crude cartoon: the rolling eyes and 'swelled' lips and dark, 'inflated' features, all could be found in any imperialist image of the stereotypical African. Madness hasn't just corrupted Bertha Rochester's mind: it's darkened her skin and rounded her features and filled out her lips and rendered her, quite literally, 'blackened.'

That's a Creole-descended woman. Like Jean Rhys.

It's worth quoting Rochester's 'sweet wind from Europe' speech at greater length, in fact, because it employs imagery that Rhys was to adopt and make play upon, the idea of tropical flora that Rochester abhors becoming his first wife's natural element, the lush red blooms, representative of her healthy selfhood, that he goes so far as to trample underfoot:

A wind fresh form Europe blew over the ocean and rushed through the open casement: the storm broke, streamed, thundered, blazed, and the air grew pure. I then framed and fixed a resolution. While I walked under the dripping orange trees of my wet garden, and amongst its drenched pomegranates and pineapples, and while the refulgent dawn of the tropics kindled round me - I reasoned thus, Jane - and now listen; for it was true Wisdom that consoled me in that hour, and showed me the right path to follow. 
The sweet wind from Europe was still whispering in the refreshed leaves, and the Atlantic was thundering in glorious liberty; my heart, dried up and scorched for a long time, swelled to the tone, and filled with living blood - my being longed for renewal - my soul thirsted for a pure draught. I saw hope revive - and felt regeneration possible. From a flowery arch at the bottom of my garden I gazed over the sea - bluer than the sky: the old world was beyond; clear prospects opened thus: -
'Go,' said Hope, 'and live again in Europe...' 

It's impossible for a sensitive reader to miss either the bone-deep insult and the yearning, seductive poetry of the language. Rhys missed neither ... and she responded to both.




The first sentence of Wide Sargasso Sea is one half of a balance, a set-up for the deep, fatalistic closure of the second. 'They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did,' says Antoinette. 'But we were not in their ranks.' Even in the first sentence, 'the white people' implicitly excludes the speaker: it would be grammatically possible, but stylistically inelegant, for 'the white people' to include the narrative voice, and stylistic inelegance is out of the question in this reflective, half-iambic cadence. But at the same time, it's a sentence that already implies the speaker is white, else why would it she be considering the 'close ranks' advice as if it applied to her? This is a sentence empty of the first person, or even of any individuals: 'they say' and 'the white people' are collective terms, groups to which the speaker evidently does not belong: Antoinette is outside her own beginning, even down to identifying herself.

Notable, too, is the atmospheric pressure that social customs are felt to apply - and the way that blame, or even causation, cannot quite be pinned down. 'Trouble comes', the concept arriving on its own with no human companion in the sentence. 'The white people' are nameless, generic, inextricably linked by their description - note the definite article, the white people, people who are spoken of by third parties as 'the white people' with their whiteness as their defining factor. Race shapes people here.

Who are the 'they' who say to close ranks, white people or black, or both? It can't be known - but the fact that some people are generically identified as the white ones implicitly shows up the presence of black people too: the white people are having trouble and obliged to close ranks, and therefore are not the majority. Closing ranks is the act of an embattled people, not an established nation. We are a long way from England here. Already, we are seeing a sense of cultural jumble. People are identified by race, but proverbial wisdom comes from an unclear source. Unclear, but followed: people do what 'they say', but can't quite identify who 'they' are. How can a sensitive hearer navigate such nebulous pressures? Tragically, Antoinette can't.

Jane Eyre begins with a definite statement: 'There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.' I've said elsewhere that that firm, unquestionable prohibition sets out the understanding that human rules are non-negotiable - it's Mrs Reed's decision that means no walk can be taken, but Mrs Reed's word is implacable - and Wide Sargasso Sea likewise begins with a gesture of resignation: human mores are as forceful here as in its predecessor. But what in Jane Eyre is solid - rule-makers like Mrs Reed and Mr Brocklehurst and St John Rivers have a powerful physical presence, 'heathenish' little Jane absorbs the Christian propriety that will shape her adulthood from Helen Burns and Miss Temple in a clear line of moral descent, individuals embody the morals they profess to an almost mythical degree - is, in Wide Sargasso Sea, a whisper on the wind. Things may be impossible, but you can't know in advance; you only find the impossibility when you dash yourself against it, and even then, it's not quite clear who's ultimately to blame. Who made the rules? 'They say': we don't know. Need they be followed? Not necessarily: 'and so the white people did' creates a separation between the making of the rule and the acting upon it. 'There was no possibility of taking a walk' renders the rule and the compliance in a single phrase, but splitting 'they say' and 'so [they] did' into two clauses makes a moment in which the mandate might not, in fact, have been followed. 'There was no possibility of taking a walk that day, but we took one nonetheless' doesn't work. 'They say when trouble comes close ranks, but the white people did not' would make just as much sense. Social pressure here is truly social, not the justice or injustice of particular people - people can be fought - but a pressure as irresistible and impersonal as the weather - or more appropriately, as the tides.

This is the pressure that will destroy Antoinette: the confusions and contradictions of a place built on exploitation, resentment, the hostility and incomprehension of cultures. Why 'Wide Sargasso Sea'? The Sargasso Sea is a sea without borders, bounded not by land but by ocean currents. Not by the tangible, but by irresistible forces. Into the Sargasso Sea, all the currents deposit the plants and refuse of their original sources; the water is clear and beautiful, but tangling sargassum seaweed throngs the surface. Or at least, mythically tangling: ships lost on the Sargasso are usually becalmed, not choked in seaweed. A place where you can drown in the clear depths, cluttered with the detritus of other places, bounded by powerful forces you can feel but cannot see. It's one of the most perfect titles in the history of literature.

And when one thinks of the fluidity of tides, it's worth considering the use of language and sound in this first sentence. 'They say when trouble comes close ranks,' Antoinette begins, the imperative slipped in commaless and unmounted. Grammatically correct? Of course - but English? Not entirely. Jane Eyre would say 'They say that when trouble comes one must close ranks,' or at the very least put some kind of punctuation between the 'say' and the 'comes'; Antoinette's voice smooths over the meaning, the alliterative 'c' and iambic rhythm making the sentence sound flowing rather than clipped, even as it quietly drops unnecessary words. This is a voice influenced by the accents she hears around her: her nurse Christophine's voice is quoted in the same paragraph, describing Antoinette's mother: 'she pretty like pretty self.' Not, 'she was pretty like prettiness itself': a voice that is, in the linguistic sense of the word, creolised. A voice that has no time for the extraneous, the fripperies, the verbal niceties of an invader's tongue. Antoinette's voice is whiter than Christophine's, but it is not quite the formal English of Jane Eyre's either. Her words are simple, no more than two syllables, only two clauses in the sentence, and while the placing of voices, never mind blame, is hazy and confused, the placing of events is clear and straightforward, a neat line of event following event. Antoinette can say what happened when; events themselves are vividly perceived. She just can't say who, ultimately, is the cause. And if you cannot say who is the cause - if you cannot say by whose hand 'trouble comes' - you cannot know until it is too late how to protect yourself.

Almost every world will have closed ranks against Antoinette by the end of her story. Most of the black characters have little reason to love a former slaver's impoverished girl; Christophine has no power to protect her; her family trade her; her disenchanted husband imprisons her in a foreign land. 'The white people' closed ranks, Antoinette tells us, finally closing ranks against her too ... and we hear in this first sentence the echo of her fall. For Antoinette, an outside observer to this closing of ranks, is culturally marooned: she will end with nothing left to do but reenact the erstwhile slave uprising that burned her first home, reenact it from the other side as the rebel slave, taking into herself at last the fury of her first enemies. What else can she do? We can hear it from the moment she begins to speak to us: trouble will come, and lost, isolated Antoinette has no ranks to close.


*From a letter quoted in the introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition, p viii.



Comments:
Wondering if you ever saw Patricia Rozema's 1999 film adaptation of Mansfield Park. Not in any way one of the more faithful treatments of Austen's work but one that I felt, quite notably, addressed the underlying twinning of racial issues, sexuality and class in the England at the time.

I was also struck by your explanation of how the opening sentence was able to suggest a different way of speaking without falling into a the "apostrophes suggesting accent" pattern that many authors use.
 
I did see Rozema's adaptation, yes, but I have to say I didn't rate it very highly. Its take on race was awfully crude - just in storytelling terms, having the patriarch keep around a lot of incriminating drawings is implausible in any story, never mind tonally disastrous in an Austen adaptation- but it also seemed like a rather sensationalistic take on the implications of race. I know critics like Edward Said have argued that an 'Antigua estate' would be run on slave labour, but there's no textual evidence I'm aware of to suggest that it's a sugar plantation, Fanny and Edmund appear to have the kind of Nonconformist consciences you'd expect to be strongly Abolitionist, and the only reference we hear directly is Fanny's question 'about the slave trade' to Sir Thomas.

Now, you could perfectly well interpret it as an Abolitionist foster daughter asking a question of a slaving mentor, but that would be strikingly inconsistent with Fanny's character, which is written throughout as retiring, diffident and particularly intimidated by Sir Thomas.

Add to that the portrait of Mrs Elton in Emma: born Augusta Hawkins, which is apparently a surname associated with a major slave trader, and hailing from Bristol, one of the major slave-trading cities in England, she's hastily defensive when Jane Fairfax draws a mild analogy between the slave trade and the governess trade, exclaiming, 'You quite shock me; if you mean a fling at the slave-trade, I assure you Mr Suckling [her brother-in-law, we note, not her father, who she never mentions while flaunting her antecedents] was always rather a friend to the abolition.'

All of which strongly suggests to me that Austen's sympathies were on the Abolitionist side. Which doesn't mean she didn't intend Sir Thomas to be portrayed negatively as a slaver, but if that were the case you'd think he'd be lashed with the same satire as Mrs Elton, and his faults are presented as much milder, more a case of excessive trust in the wrong people than greed and callousness - besides which, Edmund remarks apropos the slave question that 'It would have pleased your uncle to be inquired of further.' Fanny comments on a 'dead silence', but attributes it to her cousins not 'seeming at all interested in the subject' and not wanting to 'set myself off at their expense, by showing a curiosity and pleasure in his information which he must wish his own daughters to feel.' All of which makes Said's interpretation feel like rather a reach - it strongly implies that Fanny and Sir Thomas are in agreement about slavery, and it's very hard to picture Fanny as pro it - which tends to suggest the film's introduction of it is...
 

Well, is symptomatic of a broader trend as regards adaptations of Mansfield Park, which a complete refusal to accept it for what it is. Fanny Price's personality is unfashionable, and adapters always seem to feel the need to portray her as a rebel, as feisty, as something other than what she is, which is a traumatised, disempowered girl who exercises power over the only thing she can control, which is her own conscience. It could be done, and actually I'd really like to see someone try. It could work if you had an actress with an expressive and appealing face and a director who was prepared to tell stories in images rather than dialogue: Fanny sighing at the window while Edmund forgets the promised stargazing, Fanny sewing obediently despite her headache, Fanny and Mary Crawford's silent joust as Fanny struggles to identify which gold chain she should accept, Fanny sitting in quiet amusement on the bench while all the lovers race back and forth in front of her like a French farce... It could be done. But Fanny is an unpopular heroine, devoid of the confidence and sparkle of Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Wodehouse, and people seem unable to take the book on its own terms.

Which made me inclined to side-eye the Rozema adaptation. What does it actually have to say about slavery? That it's bad? What does that tell us about human nature or the modern condition? Very little. Its presence is introduced more to showcase the virtue of the white non-racist than to say anything real about black people, even while the white non-racist does pretty much nothing to improve the situation. To be honest, I found it kind of exploitative and self-congratulatory, included more to add some thrills to an unsexy story than for any real interest in the intersection of race and class. It struck me as using slavery as a shorthand for 'bad guy' in a way that had very little interest in what slavery meant to anybody who wasn't an aristocratic white English person, and I'm not inclined to favour that.

Wide Sargasso Sea is a different matter: race and class intersect on the page, it has actual black characters - who disagree with each other as well as the white characters, and who are living with the after-effects of slavery every bit as much as Antoinette - and race relations have an actual effect on the plot. That's a case of tackling the subject properly rather than using it as backdrop.

So, yeah, pretty cynical about the Rosema adaptation!


(An essay here on the subject of slavery in Austen might interest you:

http://www.newenglishreview.org/Ibn_Warraq/Jane_Austen_and_Slavery/

It's highly polemical - you have to question the motives of anyone who uses terms like 'pusillanimous' and 'prejudice against the West' - but the actual references are worth considering.)
 
Dropping in to clarify something (which I stated very badly.) I don't think Rozema addressed the various issues of class, race and gender well but that she at least (in the interviews I have heard) felt that those were issues that existed at the time Austen was writing. Further, they were issues that are generally ignored/papered over in adaptations.

What I found most interesting (in a distancing 'academic' sense) is exactly what you identified complete refusal to accept it for what it is. Fanny Price's personality is unfashionable, and adapters always seem to feel the need to portray her as a rebel, as feisty, as something other than what she is, which is a traumatised, disempowered girl who exercises power over the only thing she can control, which is her own conscience.

To draw our attention back to Rhys (though I would love a discussion about Mansfield Park at some point....as you say, Wide Sargasso Sea is a response to Jane Eyre...to what degree do you think that it is necessary to be well steeped in the latter book to appreciate the former?
 
Hm. Well, I'd say it works at different levels.

On the most basic level, you probably need to be aware of at least the basic plot of Jane Eyre to have a full understanding of the plot of Wide Sargasso Sea. You could read the latter as an isolated work - the theme of burning is well enough linked to the uprising against Antoinette's old home that it doesn't need Jane Eyre for the ending to make sense - but the last section in particular has a lot more context when placed next to Bronte.

I also think that the more 'steeped' you are in Jane Eyre, the more you understand Wide Sargasso Sea thematically. Many people remember the former primarily as a romance or as a feminist bildungsroman; if you don't have a precise memory of the terms in which Rochester excoriates his former wife, you can less appreciate the justice of Rhys's opposition. His language towards 'Bertha' is full of sexual horror: unchastity is a nightmare to him, which Rhys transmutes into self-disgust at a former sexual passion combined with a sense of violation at Antoinette's desperate attempt to win him back with a love potion. (You might say that in Rhys's version, he feels himself a victim of rape, but it's more complicated than that: his attraction to Antoinette is linked to the temptation to enter fully into the delights of her homeland, and it's as much his dismay at the thought of nearly having gone native as his feelings towards her that lead to the rejection.) So the intensity of his insistence that Bertha is 'unchaste' adds some context.


 
Rochester's descriptions of Bertha are also full of symbolic opposites, comparing Jane and Bertha as a lamb and a wolf - a white lamb, we may assume. He makes a great deal out of Jane's purity, and also out of the English landscape - 'I like that sky of steel; I like the sternness and stillness of the world under this frost. I like Thornfield: its antiquity; its retirement; its old crow-trees and thorn trees...' When he finally repents, it is of his behaviour towards Jane, his attempt to, as he comes to see it, despoil her purity by drawing her into an adulterous relationship; Bertha gets no regrets, and the regrets for Jane are based on his failure to value fully how opposite to Bertha she is. Now, Rochester doesn't speak for the narrative - Jane pretty consistently portrays him as somebody to be managed as well as loved - but the way in which he demonises one woman and worships another, demonises a Creole woman and worships an English flower with (like many Brontean heroines) deep romantic roots in her own cold soil, is something to understand when appreciating the lushness of Wide Sargasso Sea and its insistence on naturalising another land and climate.

So I'd say that the more closely you've observed Rochester's language in Jane Eyre, the more you're likely to feel that Wide Sargasso Sea is a justified interpretation.

At the same time, Wide Sargasso Sea is a book that takes flight from its antecedents; if you read it waiting for the points of correspondence, you'll miss the significance of all Antoinette's most formative moments. To be a genuine take on the Creole experience, it has to be more than a point-for-point rebuttal: it has to have a great deal in it that does not have to do with the white English side of things, otherwise Antoinette is merely Bertha in reverse, merely not-English - which would actually validate the racist assumption that there is nothing comprehensible and valid outside the English way of seeing. Part of its opposition to Jane Eyre is that it's more than an opposition to Jane Eyre: it doesn't just write about being not-English, but about being a different and equally rich self. It transcends the binary, and paradoxically, to understand how thorough a rebuttal of Bronte's take on 'the Creole' it is, you have to read it without reference to Bronte.

So I'd say that there are elements of Jane Eyre that you probably need to understand if you're going to understand the full force of Wide Sargasso Sea - but having understood them, you also need almost to forget them, or rather to suspend them while you listen to another voice. The plot correspondences are the crudest level, and the one on which a memory of Bronte is probably the most necessary; you need a more complex tension between the two when it comes to the subtler aspects - but it's on the subtler levels that Bronte is truly being fought.
 
I don't think Rozema addressed the various issues of class, race and gender well but that she at least (in the interviews I have heard) felt that those were issues that existed at the time Austen was writing. Further, they were issues that are generally ignored/papered over in adaptations.

As to that, I'm inclined to think that if this is an issue you want to explore, Austen isn't the best medium - certainly not in film form. Compressing all of an Austen plot into a couple of hours doesn't leave room to deal with the issues of race properly, especially one as long as Mansfield Park. If it's a subject one wants to tackle - well, for my money Emma is the better choice, because I think the links between the slave trade are actually clearer: you can make a straightforward case that selfish, snobbish Mr Elton first tries to obtain wealth from marrying Emma, then marries his Augusta, a case of a man seeing women primarily as a source of income and taking advantage of that, which is completely consistent with a man not caring about the plight of enslaved people. Likewise, Mrs Elton's pretensions can very easily be read as the overcompensation of a woman who has money, but from a disreputable source; the one time she mentions it, you could easily play up the way that privilege-blinded Emma doesn't pick up on the overtones where vulnerable Jane Fairfax does... and so on. You wouldn't have to lose any time in the story because it's quite consistent to make it an integral part of the story. It could work fine.

But beyond that ... well, if one wants to tell a story about Regency wealth being based on slavery, I'm inclined to say it'd work better to get an original script that can address it properly. In Mansfield Park it's inherently background at best, and the plot doesn't allow for any serious kind of resolution on the subject. Rozema's film just felt unfocused, as if it were trying to tell two stories at once, each of which required centre stage.
 
Although I do love JANE EYRE (both the book and the character), I cannot help but find it a peculiarly Christian book -- more so, a *Protestant* book, flavored by the stern conviction that not only are plainness, suffering, and deprivation ennobling; but that warmth, ease, comfort, beauty are more than suspect, they are *inherently* corrupting and evil: the wide smooth road that invitingly, inevitably, leads to Hell.

(Ugh. I am glad I do not have to diagram that last sentence!)

None of which is a particularly novel interpretation, of course, but I am ... bemused at the extent that Rhys seems to buy into the same paradigm in WIDE SARGASSO SEA. I've always had the impression that if Antoinette had been content to accept the humiliation and degredation in the aftermath of her family's ruin, her character and life might have been salvaged. It was her willingness to escape "just retribution" for her ancestral sins -- to roll in St. Benedict's thornbush, as it were -- that ultimately doomed her.

And so I found Rhys as equally moralizing as Bronte, and yet somehow less moral, if that makes any sense.
 
As is usually the case when Kit brings up a book (or books) my immediate response is to feel that I should go back and reread them. Bearing in mind that I haven't had the chance to do so....

Here is a question that I suspect Kit will find easy to answer but which I, as a teenager, struggled with when I first read Jane Eyre--"what exactly do we mean when we say that something is a romance?" I was actually sitting here struggling to articulate my responses to Jane Eyre until I read Hapax's comment and then I got a glimmer.

I remember reading Jane Eyre and not really "getting it." The type of "moralizing" and "conscious examination" that Jane undertakes not only didn't seem sympathetic or understandable to me at that time. Eyre's behaviour/attitudes made me think of the type of overinternalized "quest for perfection" that novice mistresses described as a form of self-pity and self aggrandizement.

So yes, I was reading the book from a profoundly Catholic outlook on sin, self examination, and moralism. And so, of course, it seemed "off" to me.
 
warmth, ease, comfort, beauty are more than suspect, they are *inherently* corrupting and evil

Hm. I find that hard to square with the later section of the book in which Jane lives with the Rivers family. Support from the text, maybe? :-)


I've always had the impression that if Antoinette had been content to accept the humiliation and degredation in the aftermath of her family's ruin, her character and life might have been salvaged.

Again, that surprises me; evidence from the text? :-)


The type of "moralizing" and "conscious examination" that Jane undertakes not only didn't seem sympathetic or understandable to me at that time. Eyre's behaviour/attitudes made me think of the type of overinternalized "quest for perfection" that novice mistresses described as a form of self-pity and self aggrandizement.

Can you give an example? It seems to me that Jane's 'conscious examination', at least once she reaches adulthood, is usually tied to some practical decision to be taken: whether to stay at Lowood after Miss Temple leaves, how to manage her attraction to an employer who appears to be courting another woman, whether to accept the invitation to be a mistress instead of a wife, whether to marry a man she doesn't love, what to do with an inheritance... All issues that, as the child of lapsed Catholics, didn't strike me as anything more than decisions that called for serious reflection.

Even in her childhood, the religious dimension to her friendship with Helen Burns is tied to human relationships: she refers to having a 'large organ of veneration' and hence revering Helen morally, but the story also sets up the fact that her love for Helen begins because Helen is the first pupil at Lowood who's kind to her in affliction, and because she's struck by Helen's superior fortitude in the face of mistreatment - which square with Jane's portrayal as a child both aggressive and hungry for affection.

So as I read the book, Jane does take religion seriously, but more because it's associated with people she loves than because she's instinctively religious herself. And more, because it's associated with women she loves: with Helen and Miss Temple, who between them provide a compensation for that loveless treatment she had from Mrs Reed. The first woman she knows doesn't give her love, which provokes her to 'pagan' grudge-bearing; she next encounters a girl and a woman who do give her love, and she struggles to take on their values - as I read it - almost in exchange for their kindness, as the only way she has of repaying them. Jane is much more homosocial than the 'romance' reputation would suggest; men are largely creatures who test her commitment to the principles she has learned from women, Rochester being the first and test of her resolution by inviting her to sin, and St John being the second by pressuring her to conform to the letter of the law rather than the spirit. Which, notably, his sister Diana, whom Jane again considers a teacher, considers 'Insupportable - unnatural - out of the question!', again speaking for the voice of female authority that seems to guide Jane more than the masculine Bible.

So I'd be interested to hear examples of what you mean, because I read it very different. To me, it seemed that Jane's guiding lights were generally a struggle to keep her own strong emotions within the bounds laid down by women milder and more religious than herself, more because she associates such women with love and safety than because she actually thinks like them.
 
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