Credit: Image courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.
When Charlotte Brontë set out to write the novel Jane Eyre, she was determined to create a main character who challenged the notion of the ideal Victorian woman, or as Brontë was once quoted: "a heroine as plain and as small as myself" (Gaskell, Chapter XV). Brontë's determination to portray a plain yet passionate young woman who defied the stereotype of the docile and domestic Victorian feminine ideal most likely developed from her own dissatisfaction with domestic duties and a Victorian culture that discouraged women from having literary aspirations. Through the following activities, students can learn the expectations and limitations placed on Victorian women. Contemplating Brontë's position and desire for literary achievement in that context, students will consider why she felt compelled to write Jane Eyre and then to publish it under the male pseudonym Currer Bell.
At the end of this lesson students will be able to
During an era when etiquette guides circulated freely, empire waists gave way to tiny-waisted corsets, and tea parties grew in popularity, it might seem incongruous that realistic novels would set the Victorian literary trend. Perhaps the socially conscious novel may have been a result of the belief of the rising middle class of Victorian England in the possibility for change, since they had witnessed such economic changes in their lifetimes. Works such as Charles Dickens' Hard Times, George Eliot's Middlemarch and Charlotte's Brontë's own sister Emily's Wuthering Heights featured female characters that represented trapped and repressed Victorian women marrying for the wrong reasons, disillusioned with family life, and relying on their physical beauty as a means to gain attention and advancement.
And then, along came the character Jane Eyre: physically uninteresting yet passionate and intense in her desire to express her emotions and thoughts. It is no wonder that Currer Bell's (Charlotte Brontë's pseudonym) novel was considered groundbreaking and bold. Jane is a heroine battling the same societal limitations as her literary counterparts, but her raw narrative voice never fails to expose her Romantic sensibilities, psychological depth, and her adamant desire to stay true to herself.
Browse the "Biography" section of the Charlotte Brontë page of the EDSITEment-reviewed Victorian Web website to find additional biographical information on Charlotte Brontë. Victorian Web also has a wealth of resources related to Victorian social history, including the brief The Position of Middle-class Women, which provides some context for Jane's status as a governess. A general overview of the Victorian Age is also available.
Have students freewrite for a few minutes in response to the prompt, "How can a magazine reflect a particular time and culture? Use an example in your response." Have student volunteers share their responses and examples before beginning a brief discussion of how current magazines target different populations and therefore have different content. For example, Seventeen magazine targets teenage girls interested in the latest fashions while Working Mother targets women trying to juggle their careers and motherhood.
Direct students to the March 1850 issue of Godey's Lady's Book, which is available via the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library. Explain to students that Victorian women in America did not have a diverse selection of magazines from which to choose, and Godey's Lady's Book was the one popular periodical to which women could turn for fashion, literature, and even moral guidance. While this is an American publication, the themes in the articles contained do have similar concerns as those in British society. It should be read, however, within the context of the material presented in the remainder of the lesson plan.
Have students form small groups to explore the March 1850 issue of Godey's by clicking on different pages of the text and skimming some of the text and images. Have them discuss the following questions:
Direct students to read the Godey's entry "The Sphere of Woman" by Goethe and to examine its accompanying illustration.
Ask students, "Based on your interpretations of this issue of Godey's Lady's Book, how would you describe the ideal Victorian woman?" After briefly discussing how students envision the ideal Victorian woman, have them read the section "The ideal Victorian women" from Dr. Lynn Abrams article "Ideals of womanhood in Victorian Britain," via EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library.
In order to synthesize the content of the Godey's issue and the article, have partners write from the point of view of a candidate competing for the title "Ideal Victorian Woman" (a Victorian version of the Miss America pageant if you will). You might ask them the following questions:
Have students play the "Victorian Women's Rights" game for the year 1840, via the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library, the same time period when Charlotte Brontë was embarking on her career as a writer. In this game, students literally "knock on the doors of Victorian opportunity" to discover the job-related, academic, economic, and civic opportunities available (or rather not available) to women during this time period.
After students have played the "Victorian Women's Rights" game for the year 1840, organize the class into small groups to summarize what they learned about a woman's rights in early Victorian England. Then, have these small groups focus on the information they learned behind the "job" and "study" doors. Ask groups to brainstorm about how a young single woman in Victorian England may have been able to support herself economically.
Additionally, have students visit as a class or individually A Brief Summary in Plain Language of the Most Important Laws Concerning Women (1854), available at the EDSITEment reviewed Victorian Women Writer's Project. This summary details in direct language many of the laws that governed women in Victorian England, some of which would likely strike students today as quite odd and contrary to today's beliefs, such as
Of particular interest to the later part of the story are the following (which teachers might share with or remind students of later, so as not to ruin the ending):
For students, the concise articulation of British law as it pertains to both single and married women presents in stark relief some of the striking differences between the time of Charlotte Brontë and their own.
Explain that Charlotte Brontë was a young single woman during this time period in Victorian England and that Chapter VIII of Elizabeth Gaskell's 1857 biography The Life of Charlotte Brontë, available via the EDSITEment-reviewed Victorian Web, describes among other things how Charlotte turned to teaching and working as a governess in order to make a living. Chapter VIII also includes correspondence between Brontë and the Poet Laureate Robert Southey, in which Brontë turns to Southey for his assessment of her literary talent.
Have students read the letters between Brontë and Southey by scrolling down to the paragraph in Chapter VIII that begins with Southey's letter ("It is not my advice that you have asked as to the direction of your talents …). Students should read Southey's letter, Brontë's response to Southey's letter, Southey's second letter, and the two short paragraphs that follow Southey's second letter.) Ask students to consider the following questions:
Read aloud the following quotation from Gaskell's biography of Charlotte Brontë (chapter XV):
She (Brontë) once told her sisters that they were wrong—even morally wrong—in making their heroines beautiful as a matter of course. They replied that it was impossible to make a heroine interesting on any other terms. Her answer was, 'I will prove to you that you are wrong; I will show you a heroine as plain and as small as myself, who shall be as interesting as any of yours.'"
Ask students what this quotation reveals about Brontë's intentions for the character Jane Eyre. How did she wish to create a heroine that stood out among other Victorian literary characters?
Did Charlotte Brontë realize her goal? Explain that although Jane Eyre was a huge success when it was initially published, there were some critics who felt it was morally offensive. Share with students the words of one such critic, Elizabeth Rigby, who in the 1848 issue of The Quarterly Review (via Internet Public Library), claimed that Currer Bell committed the "highest moral offence a novel writer can commit, that of making an unworthy character interesting in the eyes of a reader."
Have students read an excerpt from Rigby's review that pinpoints the character trait that Jane possesses that makes her an "unworthy" character in Rigby's eyes. Students should scroll down the document about two-thirds and read the two paragraphs beginning with the line "We have said that this was the picture of a natural heart" (or use Edit —> Find to search the page for this paragraph).
Ask students to consider the following questions:
Read the first three paragraphs of Chapter 1 in Jane Eyre aloud and ask students with what words does Jane (as the first person narrator) assert from the beginning that she is considered "unworthy" in the Reed household. Elicit quotes from students from the first three paragraphs that support the idea of Jane's "unworthiness." Write these quotes on the board (e.g., "the chidings of Bessie," "my physical inferiority," "Me, she had dispensed from joining the group," "keeping me at a distance," "she really must exclude me," etc.).
Explain to students that they will be reading Chapters 1-4 looking for evidence to support and refute Rigby's claims about Jane. Depending on time, students might begin the exercise in class, and continue it in their reading at home. Divide the class into small groups and assign half the groups the task of gathering evidence to support Rigby's criticism of Jane and the other groups the task of finding textual evidence to defend Jane's character in the face of Rigby's criticism. At the end of their reading, each group should collectively write a persuasive argument to present that incorporates the textual evidence they found during their reading. Alternatively, have the student groups debate the issue in class, insisting that their arguments be bolstered by textual evidence.
If time permits, have students read their persuasive arguments and discuss how Brontë develops the readers' sympathy and interest toward Jane by having her tell her story through first person narration and by portraying the Reed family members and Mr. Brocklehurst as cruel and insensitive. Jane is portrayed as precocious and tough, alluding to Roman history and standing up to the bully "Master John." In what other ways does Brontë have the reader, by the end of Chapter 4 (or even Chapter 1), "rooting for the underdog Jane?"
Remind students of the following sentence in Brontë's letter responding to Southey: "I trust I shall never more feel ambitious to see my name in print; if the wish should rise I'll look at Southey's letter, and suppress it." Despite Southey's discouraging advice, Brontë did eventually pursue a literary career and ultimately published the novel Jane Eyre under the male pseudonym Currer Bell. Have students write a final letter in the voice of Charlotte Brontë to Southey explaining why she felt compelled to pursue her writing—and specifically Jane Eyre as a character—but to publish it under a male pseudonym. Students may want to read "The Brontë Pseudonyms: A Woman's Image—The Writer and Her Public" by Marianne Thormahlen, University of Lund, Sweden, available via Victorian Web, in preparation for writing their letters. Students should draw on evidence from the various primary and secondary resources available in this lesson plan to articulate Brontë's vision of Jane's character. As an alternative, students might write an essay instead of a letter.
Ask students to keep a reading log throughout their reading of Jane Eyre in which they document examples of how Jane's role as a heroine evolves in the novel. Students can keep Brontë's intentions for the character Jane and Rigby's criticisms of Jane in mind as they read and reflect on her development. Writing log entries will help students clarify their assessment of Jane's character. Encourage students to provide textual support when they agree with Jane's actions and attitudes, or when they agree with Rigby's assessment of Jane. Finally, in what ways does Jane conform to Victorian ideals and in what ways does she not conform?
This lesson also may serve as an appropriate introduction to any number of other Victorian novels, including those by Brontë's siblings. Additionally, teach other Victorian writers, such as Robert Browning, who is featured in the EDSITEment lesson plan Browning's "My Last Duchess" and Dramatic Monologue.
3-4 class periods