12 May 2005

Conventional morality

In a recent column, Anne Applebaum pulled Jane Eyre into a discussion of the recent "runaway bride" fiasco:
To the British reading public of the mid-19th century, the story was a shocking one: A woman left her fiancé standing at the altar after an unexpected revelation, ran away without a penny, threw herself on the mercy of strangers -- and then ultimately returned. Some found this tale deeply moving; others did not.

"We feel for her struggles," wrote one literary critic, "but for all that, the impression she leaves on our mind is that of a decidedly vulgar-minded woman -- one whom we should not care for as an acquaintance, whom we should not seek as a friend."

The woman was, of course, Jane Eyre, the fictional creation of the writer Charlotte Brontë. She was not a real-life runaway bride, as is Jennifer Wilbanks, the woman who sent cable news stations into a frenzy last week when she disappeared a few days before her wedding, and then turned up in Albuquerque, confessing to cold feet.

But in her own time, Jane Eyre was no less widely discussed. What made her bravery or "vulgarity" so fascinating was her defiance of conventional morality: her frank passion for the errant Mr. Rochester, her refusal to observe social niceties, her blunt speech. And to some, her behavior seemed every bit as tacky and attention-seeking as does the behavior of Wilbanks today.
Hm. When I see "defiance of conventional morality" right next to "frank passion," a woman who leaves the man she loves because she refuses to become his mistress isn't the first thing that comes to mind.

Applebaum's gloss may not be intentionally misleading, but it certainly gives an inaccurate impression to followers of sensationalist news items. Jane wasn't considered "vulgar" for shunning morality, but for her frank honesty. As Lucasta Miller points out in The Brontë Myth, the vitality of Jane's character is that she is both rebellious and devout, free-thinking and full of personal integrity. Victorian society had a difficult time coming to grips with the idea that these features are not mutually exclusive. She defies "her era's conventional morality" precisely by taking what it stood for seriously.

As Charlotte Brontë wrote in the preface,
Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last. To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee, is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns.

These things and deeds are diametrically opposed: they are as distinct as is vice from virtue. Men too often confound them: they should not be confounded: appearance should not be mistaken for truth; narrow human doctrines, that only tend to elate and magnify a few, should not be substituted for the world-redeeming creed of Christ. There is--I repeat it--a difference; and it is a good, and not a bad action to mark broadly and clearly the line of separation between them.

The world may not like to see these ideas dissevered, for it has been accustomed to blend them; finding it convenient to make external show pass for sterling worth--to let white-washed walls vouch for clean shrines. It may hate him who dares to scrutinise and expose--to rase the gilding, and show base metal under it--to penetrate the sepulchre, and reveal charnel relics: but hate as it will, it is indebted to him.
Oh, and by the way--Libby Purves is right. (Via The Literary Saloon)

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