A very English novel: Jane Eyre and empire

As an Aboriginal person, I spend much time bemusedly looking at the contradictions of settler society. For over twenty years I have researched the Hawkesbury’s frontier war, watching my thinking moving away from what happened to why it is not remembered. This took me into the fields of cognitive dissonance, suppression and repression. Terry Eagleton, reflecting upon his native Ireland, captures some of this in the observation that ‘Amnesia and nostalgia, the inability to remember and the incapacity to do anything else, are terrible twins. … All modernity … has stood in need of metaphysical traditions to legitimate itself, whatever its demythologising impulse.’

In the final weeks of cobbling a manuscript together, my mind began to firm in its desire to reread Jane Eyre, purely for recreation. Silly me, serendipity is no accident in the Aboriginal world.

In Culture and Imperialism (1994) Edward Said found a particular ‘structure of attitude and reference’ to empire in the nineteenth century British novel. Bertha, Rochester’s conveniently insane Creole wife, is identified as the most obvious signifier of this connection. But other than Bertha, the presence of empire in Jane Eyre is subtle. It is not, as Said puts it, ‘only marginally visible …’, but only marginally noticeable as an indicator of class. The Reed girls, Georgina and Eliza wore ‘thin muslin frocks’. Augusta and Theodore Brocklehurst wore ‘grey beaver hats, … shaded with ostrich plumes’, and these displays of exotic wealth are also signifiers of Imperial reach. Jane’s cousin Diana married a naval captain, her cousin St. John died a missionary in India (see chapters 4 and 7 of Jane Eyre).

While Jane Eyre demonstrably criticises patriarchy and evangelical Christianity, it very much belongs to that genre of nineteenth-century English novels that, as remarked by Edward Said in Culture and Imperialism, ‘stress the continuing existence (as opposed to revolutionary overturning) of England’. Only Jane’s inheritance grants her liberty. According to Said’s critique, in Austen’s Mansfield Park Mr Bertram’s absences in Antigua lead Fanny Price to accept that the ‘spatial moral order’ of Mansfield Park is founded upon slavery. While Jane Eyre also interrogates the economics of space, it critically differs in that Jane’s journey, while modelled on Christian’s in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, subverts that work and deviates from it. Brontë takes us into a more marginal, and arguably less settled moral territory, what Said calls the ‘outlying spaces of deviation and uncertainty’ of the nineteenth century English novel.

Some of the novel’s beauty is structural. The Bible is a constant source of reference. Arguably the pattern of its allusions mimics the typological relationship between the Old Testament to the New. These points have all been addressed by literary scholars. What I suspect has been less conspicuously emphasised is Brontë’s subversion of the philosophical distinction between the principles of nomos and physis. It’s probably a moot point whether this a conscious aesthetic decision or an unconscious intuition on Brontë’s part. As Said argues in Freud and the Non-European (2014), the work of extraordinary authors attends to the contradictions of its society, and can open avenues of critique of which the author may not be aware.


Nomos and physis are old concepts in western thought. Nomos, meaning custom, law, melody, or composition, encompasses social organisation, written and unwritten laws, social conventions. On the other hand, Physis, or ‘nature’ broadly refers to the natural world and the natural inherent characteristics of things. Plato’s Cratylus for instance, written in the fith century BC, explores whether things have a ‘natural’ name. Physis can also be extended to include chaos, the weird, fey, and the faerie. In Ephesians 2:3, Paul writes of those who by ‘fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath,’ ie were the subjects of God’s wrath. Jane Eyre is conventionally read in terms of nomos and physis as a narrative of female struggle for liberty against repressive and pharisaic patriarchal conventions. Significantly, I suspect, the respective markers of nomos and physis appear in a form of entanglement rather than a strict binary, both concealing and revealing old metaphysical traditions.

At the simplest level, we can see this in Brontë’s typology: Gatehead, Lowood, Thornfield Hall, Whitcross, Morton, Moor House and Ferndean are the stations on Jane’s pilgrimage, and in the sense that they all draw on markers of settlement they are indicative of nomos, of order, or its decay. The names of many of the characters in Jane Eyre are allegorical, according with an aspect of their nature. Miss Temple, who mentors Jane at Lowood, is appropriately named for a site of refuge. Eyre is a homophone for air. The surnames Reed, River, Poole and Rochester all relate to natural objects appropriate to their character. Helen Burn’s surname indicates her zeal and the short life she is destined for. The overweight teacher who snores, Miss Gryce, draws her name from a north-country word for pig. Brontë uses the archaic word ‘abigail’, which alludes to a handmaiden mentioned in 1 Samuel 25. In Old English, Mr Brocklehurst’s surname denotes a badger’s den on a wooded hill, and his son’s name, Broughton has similarly badgerly connotations in Saxon. As far as I can see, the only characters without metonymic names are Eliza and Georgina Reed. Eliza is the gardener, not Georgina, whose name comes from a Greek word for a tiller of the soil.

It has been frequently noted that Charlotte Brontë describes her characters phrenologically. Science took a great leap backwards when German physicians Franz Joseph Gall and Johann Spurzheim attempted to link character with the size, shape, and contours of human skulls. Phrenology was popular in Britain because it naturalised colonialism and slavery.

Jane Eyre also extensively draws on the pseudoscience of physiognomy. Aristotle was probably the first scholar to contemplate the attempt to link facial appearance with intellect and character. Johann Caspar Lavater, a Swiss theologian, renewed interest in physiognomy with hundreds of illustrations in Essays on Physiognomy, published in 1775. Physiognomy rapidly evolved from the study of individuals to that of groups, and skin colour became a signifier of aesthetics, intellect and morality. This is the context for Brontë’s ascription of dark skin colour to Mrs Reed, Mr Brocklehurst, the Ingrams, and other flawed characters.

To these long-outdated ideas of race we must add the constant colonial spectre of racial degeneration. Interestingly enough, the direct opposite of this paranoia seems to have occurred in colonial Sydney, where Watkin Tench, Margaret Catchpole and Commissioner Bigge all reported their surprise at the increased fertility of the convict women, and the rude health of their children, colloquially known as ‘cornstalks’ in the Hawkesbury during the 1830s.

In this context of spurious racial humbuggery and pious evangelism, the challenge for Brontë is to redeem Rochester. His name, his phrenology, his physiognomy, his haughty spirit, his sins all doom him to a fall. It was the realisation that Brontë draws upon both Christianity and much older folk traditions to guide him to redemption that seized my Aboriginal attention. Rochester’s fall on the icy causeway was not an accident. It was an omen, presaged in Psalm 16:18. That is a very Aboriginal thing, just as the symbol-rich chestnut tree was split by the storm, just as Jane dreamt of Thornfield as a burnt ruin. It is from Rochester’s perspective of Jane as a changeling that we get the sense that her presence under moonlight was also predestined.

Jane Eyre is written within the motif of the lost husband, an old theme that can be traced back to Greece and Mesopotamia. The moon as a goddess is a constant companion to Jane. It was the moon that spoke to Jane as ‘daughter’ telling her to leave Thornfield. Rochester’s telepathic call to Jane, was not just for him, but also for Jane, whose moonlit existence was threatened by St John’s vision of Revelation.

Jane Eyre remains for many reasons a very English novel. While the force of its critique of patriarchal structures estranges and unsettles the axioms of its context, its political imagination cannot help but remain bordered by Whiteness. However, its complex entanglements of pseudo-science, religion, the supernatural and the plain pagan are easily lost in the rush of its passion. Brontë offers the reader a slantly vision easily lost in modernity.


Barry Corr

Barry Corr lives in the Hawkesbury and writes about the ways in which the Hawkesbury’s Frontier War is remembered, or not remembered. His writings on Aboriginal perspectives of settler-coloniality have been published in Meanjin, Overland and Honi Soit. His essay “Knowing Even as We Are Known” is published in Against Disappearance: Essays on Memory.

More by Barry Corr ›

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  1. The warp and the weft of this piece – its strands creatively selected and juxtaposed in the cloth of its thesis – engage our emotions as well as our minds. So much of the post-invasion history of this land has been woven from an ‘inability to remember and the incapacity to do anything else’. Thanks to this creatively-researched article by Corr and the ever-growing number of companion pieces, the tawdry convenience of that colonial narrative is shown to be the sham that it has always been.

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