When Jane Eyre was first presented to the public, many critics were outraged at the perceived heathenism of the novel. It is easy for the modern scholar to dismiss these early charges as the reaction of a bastion of Victorian religious purists. But one need not read far into the novel to discover a clearly observable basis for charges of “heathenism” and even “anti-Christianity.” It is apparent that Charlotte Bronte was strongly influenced by the nineteenth-century Spiritualist movement in England. This essay briefly explores the possible reasons for this movement’s popularity, particularly among women; Charlotte Bronte’s personal experiences with it; and, some of the many examples of Spiritualism in her novel Jane Eyre.
Jane Eyre was first published in December of 1847. In 1848, the critic Elizabeth Rigby wrote the following lines in a literary review:
Altogether the tale of Jane Eyre is preeminently an anti-Christian composition. There is throughout it a murmuring against the comforts of the rich and against the privations of the poor, which, as far as each individual is concerned, is a murmuring against God’s appointment – there is a proud and perpetual assertion of the rights of man, for which we find no authority either in God’s words or in God’s providence – there is that pervading tone of ungodly discontent which is at once the most prominent and the most subtle evil which the law and the pulpit, which all civilized society in fact, has at the present day to contend with. We do not hesitate to say that the tone of mind and thought which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine abroad, and fostered Charitism and rebellion at home, is the same which has also written Jane Eyre (Rigby 45).
The modern American reader of these comments may wonder at the disapprobation of the ideology of “the rights of man,” a value now held sacred. But, to many Victorian men and women the concept was radical and anti-Christian; it was immoral and unfeminine to rail against the lot that God granted. Furthermore, the Spiritualist movement was a catalyst for the promotion of the revolutionary concept of human rights for men and equal rights for women.
As the nineteenth-century world moved into an ever-growing period of industry, mechanical wonders, new scientific discoveries and scientific ways of thinking, women were more than before excluded. They were a class of “others,” excluded from participating in the material world as scientists, doctors or thinkers, longed for some power and solace in their isolated domesticity. As Vanessa D. Dickerson writes in Victorian Ghosts in the Noontide, “Robbed of place, of space, of substance in a society that, after Carlyle, defined work as harmony, nobility, sacredness, self-knowledge, and life, the Victorian woman paled in the real, the material, the business world (4).” In fact, she was very much like a ghost herself. “The act of writing a ghost story was for the popular woman writer the creation of a public discourse for voicing feminine concerns (6).” Dickerson says:
In the séance room, at the mesmeric session, but particularly in the ghost story, woman could more freely and safely examine the possibilities and limitations of her mythical role as the angel in the house, and she could, if she chose, release those not so angelic impulses, feelings, and desires that the age publicly denied her. Victorian women’s participation in the revival of supernaturalism, whether as mesmeric subjects, as mediums, or as writers of ghost stories, constituted both expression and exploration of their own spirituality and their ambiguous status as the “other” living in a state of in-betweenness: between the walls of the house, between animal and man, between angel and demon (8).
To understand the real importance of various forms of Spiritualism to women, one must realize that women were also excluded from participation in mainstream religion. Women’s attraction to Spiritualism stems from a desire to find their own god (or goddess) and a form or religion in which they can participate. Women who have been ostracized and powerless, turn to whatever avenues are available to them to try to gain some measure of control over their own lives. Because “powerlessness” characterized the lives of most Victorian women, Spiritualism was a popular alternative.
Mesmerism and phrenology are two popular components of nineteenth century Spiritualism familiar to the author of Jane Eyre. Charlotte Bronte makes several references to these subjects throughout the course of the novel. Mesmerism and phrenology were both considered sciences. The principles of Mesmerism include the communication of spirits and the exertion of one’s will over that of another. Phrenology is primarily concerned with reading the shape and size of various parts of the body to determine character. Each of these possessed a scientific explanation as believable in the nineteenth century as explanations for other new scientific discoveries such as the telephone or telegraph.
Dickerson says, that Charlotte Bronte neither believed nor disbelieved in Mesmerism but she “underwent a personal experiment” with a Mesmerist (50). And, according to Margot Peters in her Bronte biography entitled Unquiet Soul, in 1851 Charlotte Bronte, using an assumed name, consulted a phrenologist named Dr. Brown in London, “who told her among other things, that her head revealed remarkable intellectual powers and strong and enduring affections (334).” Of these two sciences, phrenology attained a greater respectability. It later incurred disreputable associations with nineteenth-century race theory, but is nevertheless surreptitiously used by police agencies today to determine criminal profiles. Both practices are firmly rooted in the occult and are contrary to the precepts of traditional religion. Belief in the occult signifies a movement away from the belief in the sovereignty of God which leads to “the tone of mind and thought which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divide abroad,” as stated by the early critic Rigby above.
Of course, Jane Eyre is not really a story of the occult; but it does exhibit the author’s preoccupation with such matters as apparitions, clairvoyance, clairaudience, Mesmerism, fairy tales, dreams and the like. The author wove this into her tale for more than just the amusement of her audience. It is possible she was exploring her own belief in these matters, contrary though it was to her Calvinistic/Evangelistic upbringing, which may account for the regression into Christian precepts at the very end. As Dickerson suggests, nineteenth century women were very much like ghosts themselves and assertive women could even be seen as demonic. Charlotte Bronte used Spiritualism to convey the otherworldliness and alienation of Jane Eyre, the “strange, almost unearthly thing (Bronte 261).”
Jane’s first experience as something “other” occurs at the home of Mrs. Reed. Terrified Jane is locked into the red room. She is warned that “if you don’t repent, something bad might be permitted to come down the chimney and fetch you away (15).” Mr. Reed died in that room, and Mrs. Reed, “from a sense of dreary consecration had guarded it from frequent intrusion (16).” This line may suggest that Mrs. Reed does not altogether dismiss the idea of spirits, either. Jane sees her face in the looking glass, it “had the effect of a real spirit: I thought it like one of the tiny phantoms, half fairy, half imp (16.” After looking into the mirror, she says, “Superstition was with me at that moment.” It maybe suggested that looking into a mirror in the way described above is a form of scrying. It is similar to looking into a crystal ball for purposes of channeling, divination or simply to see into the non-material reality of a situation. What Jane saw might have been her own soul. She may have inadvertently opened a door to the world of spirits. The passages that follow this incident in the book suggest that Jane was visited by the spirit of her uncle who had entrusted her to the care of Mrs. Reed and is displeased with Mrs. Reed’s conduct. Mrs. Reed’s reaction at Jane’s outcry, “What would Uncle Reed say to you, if he were alive, ” was more than just shock at the un-Victorian behavior of the little girl. It was genuine fear. Jane spoke the words “as if my tongue pronounced words without my will.” She spoke as if demonically possessed. Mrs. Reed looks as if she doesn’t know if Jane is “child or fiend (23-30).” Children are believed to more receptive to the energies of the other world. In this story, the visitation of spirits is not the result of trauma; rather the trauma results in Jane’s spiritual experience. Little Jane has inadvertently opened the portal to a spiritual power that remains with her throughout the course of the novel.
Charlotte Bronte exhibits a belief in, or at least makes extensive use of, the principles of phrenology throughout the story. There are numerous references to characters’ physiognomy. A study of the use of phrenology in Jane Eyre might show that the author employed phrenological precepts to design some of her characters. The founders of phrenology, Drs..Johann Spurzheim and Franz Joseph Gall, formulated a system involving subdivisions, or organs, of the brain, each of which they believed governed certain human characteristics. Charlotte Bronte mentions “my organ of Veneration” in Chapter 8, to describe her growing admiration and respect for Helen Burns and Miss Temple (76). In Chapter 23, Mr. Rochester makes use of phrenology to penetrate Jane’s thoughts: He says, “You must have become in some degree attached to the house, – you who have an eye for natural beauties, and a good deal of the organ of Adhesiveness (252)?” In Chapter 13, Jane is examining Mr. Rochester’s physiognomy very closely. The narrator says, “He lifted up the sable waves of hair which lay horizontally over his brow, and showed a solid enough mass of intellectual organs, but an abrupt deficiency where the suave sign of benevolence should have risen (134).” By using phrenology as a method of analysis the author is able to tell us a great deal about Mr. Rochester very quickly. In fact, knowledge of phrenology gives the inexperienced Jane otherwise inexplicable insight into the natures of other characters.
St. John Rivers makes use of both phrenology and Mesmerism. In Chapter 30, before he offers Jane a teaching post, he examines Jane’s face. The narrator says, “He looked at me before he proceeded: indeed, he seemed leisurely to read my face, as if its features and lines were characters on a page (356).” St. John also makes use of considerable powers of mind control. Dickerson describes his power over Jane as follows:
It is only during her sojourn at Moor House that Jane, like a typical mesmeric subject, feels herself powerless as she stands before a male controller. “I felt,” says Jane, recalling a conversation with St. John, “as if an awful charm was framing around and gathering over me: I trembled to hear some fatal word spoken which would at once declare and rivet the spell.” Time and time again Jane feels the force of St. John’s mesmeric hold: “I shuddered as he spoke: I felt his influence in my marrow – his hold on my limbs.” St. Josh, Jane admits, “acquired a certain influence over me that took away my liberty of mind… I could no longer talk or laugh freely when he was by… I fell under a freezing spell.” The fact that he has an uncanny ability to immobilize Jane, no matter how temporarily, to freeze her will for a spell, is indicative not only of the psychic energies flowing between Jane and her kinsman but also of how morally, not sexually, seductive and spiritually oppressive St. John could ultimately prove, if Jane should consent to marry him. Not even Rochester, whom Jane loves, has been able to hold her so completely with the gaze of his eagle eye… (Dickerson 53).
The power that St. John exercises over Jane is otherwise inexplicable. True, he is handsome, she comments on his “Greek face,” which represents an ideal of masculine beauty to her, but clearly it is his power over her will that threatens to subordinate her. Jane eventually returns to Mr. Rochester because she clairaudiently “hears” his cry from miles away, which seems to have the effect of breaking the spell St. John casts upon her. The latter is another example of Mesmerism.
We see from these examples, and there are so many of them in the text, that Spiritualism in Jane Eyre is not just a Romantic device; it is an integral part of the story. It helps the author describe herself and her world. We see the real selves of Mr. Rochester and Jane upon their first meeting when Jane fears the approach of a mythical being and Mr. Rochester wonders if Jane has “bewitched” his horse. It is fair to say that Jane, as a woman, is the embodiment of Spiritualism. As a Victorian woman she is, as Dickerson suggests, a ghost; and, as a believer in Spiritualism, a “capricious witch (273).” Spiritualism is natural to her; it is her domain. Her reality lies in the looking glass and lucid dreams. She is practicing women’s religion, called “witchcraft” in previous centuries.
And so we see that the early critics like Rigby were not incorrect in their evaluation of Jane Eyre at all. The modern scholar need not be surprised by Rigby’s defensiveness because she is right about the “tone of mind” of the novel. The institutions of the time were, indeed, under siege by spiritual “sciences.” Whether for good for evil, much of the Victorian tradition has faded away, the belief in the equal rights of women and men prevails. Christianity is more open to interpretation than ever before and Spiritualism is popular under a new name, “The New Age.” Charlotte Bronte and her critics would surely not recognize the civilization of their descendants.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Buccaneer Books, Inc., 1976.
Dickerson, Vanessa D. Victorian Ghosts in the Noontide: Women Writers and the Supernatural. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1996.
Rigby, Elizabeth. Nineteenth Century Literature Criticism, Vol. 3, edited by Marie Lazzari. Gale Research Co., 1995.
Peters, Margot. Unquiet Soul. New York: Doubleday and Co., 1975.