Charlotte Brontë’s Governessy Effusion

Joan Fontaine as Jane Eyre

Joan Fontaine as Jane Eyre

Charlotte Brontë’s Governessy Effusion

Duke Maskell contemplates class and circumlocution

Good English is a class language, and that is its fatal defect. The English writer is a gentleman first and a writer second. (Raymond Chandler)

Or, if he is a writer first, what he only too often writes is a literary English, that is, language with no conceivable use outside a book. (Anon.)

Is it possible that a novel so long thought a classic as Jane Eyre should just be – tosh? A superior sort of tosh but tosh all the same? Could it possibly be true that Charlotte Brontë … can’t write?

The Quarterly Review’s first reviewer thought it might be. He calls Jane’s speech, “sententious, pedantic … A more affected governessy effusion we have never read,” and quotes the following in illustration (Rochester has asked Jane what she thinks of presents):

I should be obliged to take time, Sir, before I could give you an answer worthy of your acceptance: a present has many faces to it, has it not? and one should consider all before pronouncing an opinion as to its nature.

There’s no disputing the reviewer’s judgement, is there? It could be Mary Bennet, Jane Austen’s pedant in Pride and Prejudice. But what the reviewer doesn’t go on to say is whether or not he thinks Charlotte Brontë means him to judge Jane’s style as he does. Jane Austen leaves us in no doubt what to think of the way Mary Bennet talks, partly through the contrast between her style and that of others (including Jane Austen’s own), partly through the things other people say about it. Mary’s father is cruelly sarcastic: “you are a young lady of deep reflection I know, and read great books, and make extracts”; and Jane Austen herself feels sorry for those in Mary’s company for having to listen to “new observations of thread-bare morality”.

But if we think Jane Eyre’s style good only for mockery too, do we do so because that’s how the book shows it to us or despite the book? Rochester and St John Rivers are both supposed to be really clever. Rochester’s mind is a treasure, original, vigorous, expanded. St John Rivers has a first-rate brain, is truly able and a profound scholar. So surely, either, or both, might be expected to detect the affectation and pedantry in the young governess, which The Quarterly Review does. But neither do. Or perhaps Jane herself, who, we are to understand, is narrating the story ten years after its events are over and who, evidently, knows a good mind when she sees one, might, as an older, and wiser, woman, be expected to detect pedantry in her younger self. But she doesn’t. Her style as narrator could differ from her style as the younger character (and in a better book by a better writer would). But it doesn’t. All the characters, and the narrator, have the one, same, sententious, pedantic, affected, governessy style. It’s a left-over from the eighteenth century; it’s the only style Charlotte Brontë can do, and she doesn’t know it for what it is.

It is how the bullying Reverend Brocklehurst speaks, of course:

…decisions are perfectly judicious … grateful for the inestimable privilege of her election … obviating the aim of this institution … improved to the spiritual edification of the pupils … evince fortitude under the temporary privation. … wherein a judicious instructor would take the opportunity of referring to … etc., etc.

But it’s just how Jane herself speaks too, as both character and narrator:

…a building of considerable antiquity, moderate size, and no architectural pretentions … in consequence of its ineligible and insalubrious site … dismissed the chaise and driver with the double remuneration I had promised … contrived to reserve a moiety of this bounteous repast … I accorded it, deeming that I did well in showing pliability … judgement untempered by feeling is too bitter and husky a morsel for human deglutition … afford a vent to unusual ebullition of the sensations … organ of veneration expanding at every sounding line … the etymology of the mansion’s designation … striving vainly to overcome the effluvia of mortality … the sun is far declined from its meridian … attesting the hour of eventide … etc., etc.

And her grammar matches this abstract and pompous vocabulary. It’s complex but complex in a particular way, one unit diagrammatically or schematically paralleling or balancing another. Her characteristic sentence structures might have been produced by a real transformational-generative grammar machine, making complex sentences by regularly expanding simple ones. The following are typical (again all Jane’s own):

He was naturally a man of better tendencies, higher principles and purer tastes than such as circumstances had developed, education instilled or destiny encouraged.

A lamb-like submission and turtle-dove sensibility, while fostering his despotism more, would have pleased his judgement, satisfied his common-sense, and even suited his taste less.

He seemed to use them rather as instruments to search other people’s thoughts, than as agents to reveal his own: the which combination of keenness and reserve was considerably more calculated to embarrass than to encourage.

It’s a bookish prose, an eighteenth-century style not so much decayed as petrified; and going with it, equally petrified and equally bookish, a would-be poetic prose that combines what’s worst from the eighteenth century with what’s worst in the nineteenth:

Jane Eyre, who had been an ardent, expectant woman—almost a bride, was a cold, solitary girl again: her life was pale; her prospects were desolate. A Christmas frost had come at midsummer; a white December storm had whirled over June; ice glazed the ripe apples, drifts crushed the blowing roses; on hayfield and cornfield lay a frozen shroud: lanes which last night blushed full of flowers, to-day were pathless with untrodden snow; and the woods, which twelve hours since waved leafy and fragrant as groves between the tropics, now spread, waste, wild, and white as pine-forests in wintry Norway.

It is a style so bookish and so genteel that it’s not just next-door to simple, straightforward snobbery but pulls snobbery in:

I found estimable characters amongst them—characters desirous of information and disposed for improvement – with whom I passed many a pleasant evening hour in their own homes. Their parents then (the farmer and his wife) loaded me with attentions. There was an enjoyment in accepting their simple kindness, and in repaying it by a consideration—a scrupulous regard to their feelings – to which they were not, perhaps, at all times accustomed, and which both charmed and benefited them; because, while it elevated them in their own eyes, it made them emulous to merit the deferential treatment they received.

I felt I became a favourite in the neighbourhood. Whenever I went out, I heard on all sides cordial salutations, and was welcomed with friendly smiles. To live amidst general regard, though it be but the regard of working people, is like “sitting in sunshine, calm and sweet;” serene inward feelings bud and bloom under the ray.

And, as the style is not just Jane Eyre’s but Charlotte Brontë’s, so is the snobbery that flourishes in it.[1]

I think that the Nelly-Lockwood-Linton side of her sister’s Wuthering Heights must be a parody of Charlotte’s writing:[2] all that “not inconvenienced you by my perseverance in soliciting the occupation of Thrushcross Grange” and “no desire to aggravate his impatience previous to inspecting the penetralium” sort of thing, native to Lockwood and the Lintons, and picked up by Nelly Dean. But whereas Emily Brontë gives it to particular characters as the mark of … well, what it obviously is the mark of, in Jane Eyre it is everywhere, as the mark of … well, nothing in particular. It’s just the regular stuff of the author’s own style, nineteenth century soap-opera.

[1] It’s a style that must have been very widespread in the nineteenth century, a style that is also a social character. It is the style and character of that reviewer himself. His “governessy effusion”, as well as having truth in it, has snobbery too; and his remarks about Charlotte Brontë’s “total ignorance of the habits of society” have in them nothing but snobbery: “They talked together by her account like parvenues trying to show off. They discuss the subject of governesses before her very face, in what Jane affects to consider the exact tone of fashionable contempt. They bully the servants in language no lady would dream of using to her own – far less to those of her host and entertainer – though certainly the ‘Sam’ of Jane Eyre’s is not precisely the head servant one is accustomed to meet with in houses of the Thornfield class.”
[2] See “Charlotte Brontë: Her Sister’s Interpreter:”, Brian Crick, The New Compass, Issue 2, December 2003, p. 107

DUKE MASKELL is the joint author of The New Idea of a University (2002)

This entry was posted in Cultural Matters, QR Home and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.