Space and gender in Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice

books, Essays

Space as a concept has always been significant in literature and lends itself to large amounts of critical analysis and discussion particularly in regards to the idea of gendering spaces. It is through this lense that this essay will discuss the concept of a masculine and feminine space in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. The female authorship of both texts allows for a unique presentation of space, with both works using the country house setting to comment on the patriarchal world they inhabit whilst also using the natural world to give agency to their female protagonists. However, is it possible to have a space both genders can unite?

Rachel Fergus argues that through prominent primogeniture laws “houses became associated with patriarchy” in Austen’s era. Primogeniture laws meant aristocratic men and their estates became very much entwined, and Austen draws on this through Pride and Prejudice, so much so that the men and their houses become interchangeable. The country house became synonymous with male aristocratic identity, and this is most evident through Austen’s paring of Pemberley and Mr Darcy. As Michael Riffaterre notes “Darcy’s grounds and home symbolise their owner”. Austen’s repetition of adjectives such as “large”, “beautiful” and “handsome” (206) when describing Pemberley, is evidently also a description of Darcy. Whilst Riffaterre’s work focuses more on the idea of the repetition as a narrative device and truth prompting technique used to present Elizabeth’s true feelings, arguably it much more of an illustration of Darcy’s embodiment of Pemberley. Austen’s further descriptions of Pemberley again support this view. Notably, her description of the “stream of some natural importance… swelled into greater” (206), here the stream becomes an embodiment of Mr Darcy’s pride. However, its lack of “any artificial appearance” and false adornment, remind the reader that ultimately Darcy is a virtuous and modest hero. Moreover, Elizabeth tells Jane she has loved Mr Darcy since “my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley” (313), implying it is through Pemberley that Elizabeth falls in love with Mr Darcy. Here, Austen is suggesting that Pemberley and Mr Darcy are intertwined, with Pemberley allowing Elizabeth to see the real Mr Darcy.

Netherfield is also presented as synonymous with its owner. Mrs Bennet notes “you have a sweet room here, Mr Bingley, and a charming prospect over the gravel walk” (38). This line is an exact representation of Mr Bingley’s character; Austen’s use of “sweet” refers both to the room and also to his good nature. However, the use of “sweet” is an interesting description as it has connotations of simplicity and dullness, he is nothing exciting, and certainly not as “handsome” (206) and mysterious like Mr Darcy. In addition, “charming prospect” refers both literally to the view but also to his potential as a husband for one of Mrs Bennet’s daughters; he is financially viable and a gentleman in both status and character whilst also residing close to Longbourn, truly a “charming prospect” in Mrs Bennet’s eyes. Through the added description of a “gravel walk”, Austen is reminding us why Bingley is not her hero. He is dull and tamed; his decision to force civilisation on the garden through a “gravel walk” emphasises how he and Elizabeth, a character most at home in nature, could never be a romantic pairing. Interestingly, Sandra Macpherson argues it not only the physical representation of the house that links it with Bingley but purely his possession of the house in rent form. Macpherson argues that Austen presents renting as a comment on the “genialness of character” (9) of Mr Bingley. Although this is an interesting idea, ultimately it is through the physical representation of the houses that Austen links them with her male characters.

Similarly, Thornfield Hall is presented as synonymous with Mr Rochester through Brontë’s description of the hall as traditionally gothic. Jane’s description of the house as “imposing” with “its grey front stood out well from the back-ground of the rookery” (100) is particularly significant. Her comment she finds the house “imposing”, both reminds the reader of Jane’s unequal status whilst also is representative of Rochester’s character. Through describing the house as “grey” and placing it with a rookery, rooks being common in English folklore as having connotations of death, Brontë is creating a traditional gothic scene. Moreover, the description “array of mighty thorn trees, strong, knotty, and broad as oaks” (100), is reminisce of Austen’s description of Pemberley; it can be read as a direct description of Rochester, Brontë’s Byronic hero. In addition, the name “Thornfield” is particularly significant. Obviously, it creates dark and unpleasant imagery, as thorns suggest danger and pain. However, it could also be a comment on Rochester. Thorns are symbolic of Jesus on the cross with his crown of thorns. Through placing thorn in the name of the house, Brontë is implying that Thornfield Hall is Rochester’s own crown of thorns due to Bertha’s imprisonment in the attic.

Thornfield Hall acts as a physical barrier for Jane and Rochester’s relationship; it only when the house is destroyed that the two can be together. This is partly due to the destruction of the attic and creation of a ‘clean slate’, but also once the house is destroyed they are now equals. Whilst fire destroys Rochester’s hidden past it also breaks down the social structures keeping Jane and Rochester apart and allows for their marriage as they now financial equals. As Parama Roy reasons, the house is symbolic of the genteel structure and becomes the “locus of innumerable oppression” (719) not purely for Jane but also for Rochester. Thornfield Hall and the attic ties Rochester to his past and prevents him from being able to marry Jane. Clearly, the attic represents a hidden and suppressed element of Rochester; it represents his past and troubled character. Bertha’s “clamorous peal[s]” of laughter “echo in every lonely chamber” (108) allowing her to be a constant reminder for Rochester, and the reader, that his past is inescapable. The description “echo in every lonely chamber”, also suggests Rochester himself is lonely as due to Bertha’s existence he is unable to remarry. Brontë’s use of “every…chamber” reinforces the idea that Rochester’s past is constantly around him and every aspect of his life. Drawing on this, Roy suggests that Brontë is intentionally presenting the country house not as its traditional “symbol of stability and solidity” but as a “cradle of the unpredictable, the disruptive, and the terrifying” (718). Thornfield Hall varies greatly from the country houses presented in Pride and Prejudice, it’s an isolated, gothic hall where manic laughter pierces the silence. Through her creation of Thornfield Hall and Bertha, Brontë is commenting on the problems of the aristocratic and patriarchal society she lives in and the constant performance that surrounds it. Bertha’s entrapment in the attic reminds the reader of the secrets hidden and acts done by members of the aristocracy and patriarchy in order to keep their status.

John Sung Han suggests the attic “represents a liminal space that straddles a storied past and a progressive future” (537). Interestingly, although the attic symbolises Rochester’s hidden past, Bertha is also a manifestation of Jane. Roy agrees, noting “we would achieve a truer reading of the novel if we were to see Bertha as a double for both Jane and Rochester” (720). Brontë clearly creates parallels between Bertha and the attic and Jane and her life at Gateshead Hall, particularly the red room scene. Jane notes “since my illness she had drawn a more marked line of separation than ever between me and her own children” (27). Here, she is a direct parallel with Bertha, locked away and separated from the family for being considered different. Whilst, Sung Han argues that the attic is symbolic of the struggle between Brontë’s two protagonists and perhaps a unique combination of both feminine and masculine space, this essay would argue this is not the case. There are clear parallels between Jane and Bertha, and the fact Bertha is kept prisoner in this attic by Rochester evidently show that the attic is a purely a manifestation of another way men control women. Thus, it is obvious that Jane and Rochester cannot be together until the attic is destroyed that allows for further release of masculine control.

Conversely, it can be argued that both Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre present nature as a feminine domain. Austen’s description of Elizabeth walking to Netherfield as “crossing field after field… jumping over stiles”(30), clearly illustrates how the land is all divided up by men. Elizabeth’s ability to cross the land emphasises how she is now in control and able to transcend man’s division of land because it is a female domain. As Rachel Fergus argues Elizabeth views nature and escaping to the wilderness as “respite from the patriarchal society” and “just by walking alone, Elizabeth is claiming a right that is often only afforded to and associated with men”. Interestingly, modern adaptations, notably the television series and 2005 film adaption, draw on this idea and place Elizabeth Bennet in outdoor scenes and often with wilder surroundings than Austen would have imagined. Arguably, this modern presentation of Elizabeth owes much to feminist readings and a modern take on the romantic heroine as active, rather than passive. Notably, the 1995 television series sets Lady Catherine and Liz’s confrontation in the grounds of Longbourn, contrary to the novel where it is set inside. It particularly interestingly that director Simon Langton decided to change this aspect, placing two women in their own domain to allow them to fiercely argue. Elizabeth triumphs over Lady Catherine in the outdoors and Fergus argues this is because “Lady Catherine accepts and profits from her position and class in society, and thus does not have the wisdom to love wilderness that Elizabeth has”. This is an interesting concept that nature perhaps isn’t the domain for all women, only for those who are uncomfortable in the patriarchal world and aim to break free of its constraints.

Clearly, Jane feels trapped in Thornfield. This is evident through her continuous use of words such as “desired” and “longed” (110) which suggest a desperation. Jane is described as “restlessness” and paces the corridor of the third story “backwards and forwards”, creating imagery of a caged animal, trapped and desperate to escape. As Jane talks about telling trapped she places it with comments on gender inequality, noting “women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel” (110). Through placing this sociological observation with descriptions of Thornfield, Brontë is highlighting how the house is a man’s domain. Brontë is suggesting that Victorian women are metaphorically “locked up” in a man’s world, this is later symbolised by Bertha’s imprisonment. Roy agrees the house is purely a male domain, noting Jane is “distanced from it by being female” (721). Therefore, it only sensible that Jane is more comfortable in the outside. When first exploring Thornfield Hall Jane comments “I was yet enjoying the calm prospect and pleasant fresh air, yet listening with delight to the cawing rooks” (100), implying she feels “calm” and at peace in nature. Even the rooks do not disturb her, instead she “delight[s]” in their sound, suggesting she is more content with the natural world and animals than the oppressive domestic space and her fellow humans.

Furthermore, nature allows for the sexes to unite as it has an equalising effect. Both writers are aware the masculine domain extends far beyond the domestic space to encompass the world as a whole, however, both Austen and Brontë choose to present nature as the female domain. Thus, allowing women a space to have the same control as men and when the two sexes meet in nature they are equal. Austen writes “more than once did Elizabeth in her ramble within the Park unexpectedly meet Mr Darcy” (156). The use of “unexpectedly” suggests Mr Darcy surprises Elizabeth, implying he understands Elizabeth’s need for control and tries to meet her in a place where she is most comfortable. In addition, “unexpectedly” suggests Elizabeth is not used to men allowing women control. Moreover, Pemberley’s creates a place of co-existence between nature and the domestic, allowing Elizabeth to fall in love with Darcy. It is on “first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley” (313) that Elizabeth falls in love with Darcy. Austen implies this is because “she [Elizabeth] had never seen a place for which nature had done more; or where natural beauty had so little counteracted by an awkward taste” (206). The suggestion that “natural beauty has so little counteracted by an awkward taste” allows Elizabeth to realise that she will not be suppressed in Pemberley or Darcy. Instead, Pemberley’s presentation of the combination of nature and the domestic illustrate that through Darcy she has met someone who views her as his equal. As Fergus notes “at Pemberley, nature and a house are fully integrated – the wilderness and domestic are combined to create a place where Elizabeth can live and hold true to herself and her relationship with nature”. They are able to unite in nature and Pemberley because the control is equalised; unlike Jane or her other sisters, Elizabeth would never be happy being controlled by a man. Ultimately, nature plays a huge role in Darcy and Elizabeth’s relationship; it is when walking that Elizabeth accepts his marriage proposal because walking transcends the boundaries of gendered space.

Similarly, Jane and Rochester first meet in the outside and the two are equal in this first meeting. Jane is not frightened of Rochester, instead, she remarks “the frown, the roughness of the traveller set me at my ease” (113), suggesting a similarity between them in regards to their social behaviour. Through remarking “I retained my station when he waved to me to go”(113), suggesting Jane views herself as equal to Rochester in an outdoor setting, supporting the argument that nature acts as an equaliser. Throughout the novel, Jane and Rochester talk most openly when outside, indeed as in Pride and Prejudice, it is in the outdoors that Rochester first asks Jane to marry him. Again, similarly to Pride and Prejudice, Jane and Rochester can only unite in a place where nature and the domestic are equal, that being Ferndean. Brontë’s describes a house with “dank and green” walls which is “scare…. distinguishable from the trees”, “set heavy in the frame of the forest” with “no flowers, no garden-beds” (435). Ferndean is not grand or tamed, it is at one with the forest surrounding, it’s “dank and green” walls allowing it to be barely distinguishable. Jane is now finically equal to Rochester, and thus Ferndean, with its harmonious wedding of the natural and materialistic world is a place of complete equality for Jane and Rochester. Whilst, Brontë’s description of a “dank” house with “no flowers” may strongly contrast to the pleasant lands of Austen’s novel, it is the perfect home for a couple who once mistook each other for a ‘goblin’ (113) and a witch.

Overall, in both novels, the estate is presented an embodiment of its male owner and thus it is impossible for the protagonists to be together in that male domestic space. Both Brontë and Austen suggest through their work that in order to be happy in a relationship there needs to be equality between the sexes. In Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice, it is only in nature or where there is evidence of the co-existence of nature and domestic that the sexes are able to unite, and this is seen through Pemberley and Ferndean. Evidently, this is because both represent an equality between the sexes. Although both writers can be considered ahead of their time through their comment on the constraints of patriarchal society, illustrated in their novels the country house, Brontë goes further and through the attic and Thornfield Hall itself, she comments on society as a whole. Ultimately, it is obvious Austen and Brontë both view masculinity and femininity as conflicting concepts which are unable to unite in the constraints of the patriarchal world, and so are only able to successfully join together when they are both equal.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. 3rd ed., Wordsworth Editions, 2007.

Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. 12th ed., Oxford University Press, 1991.

Fergus, Rachel. “Houses, Nature, and Pemberley.” Rachel Fergus, 16 May 2018, rachelfergus.com/2018/05/houses-nature-and-pemberley/. Accessed 3 Nov. 2018.

Macpherson, Sandra. “Rent to Own; or, What’s Entailed in Pride and Prejudice.” Representations, vol. 82, no. 1, 2003, pp. 1-23.

Pride and Prejudice, Directed by Simon Langton, BBC1, 1995

Riffaterre, Michael. Fictional Truth. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Up, 1990.

Roy, Parama. “Unaccommodated Woman and the Poetics of Property in Jane Eyre.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 29, no. 4, Autumn 1989, pp. 713-27.

Sung Han, John. “A Lumber-Room of Her Own: Attics in Pamela and Jane Eyre.” Style, vol. 48, no. 4, 2014, pp. 529-42.

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