“Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, to absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags.” This is a quote from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre relating to gender relations, a recurring theme in the novel. Jane Eyre, a bildungsroman, tells the story of a an orphan as she grows up and enters adulthood. Set in nineteenth-century England, beliefs and customs from the Victorian Era greatly affect the novel. But what if the novel had been set in modern day England? Societal views on marriage and gender relations would certainly differ which would cause Jane and Rochester’s relationship to not be complicated by the same obstacles as in the nineteenth century.
In nineteenth-century England, four social classes were identified: Nobility, Middle Class, Upper Working Class, and Lower Working Class. People were expected to remain within their class. The role of women in each class was generally the same. Their duty was to raise their children and keep their husband happy. Domesticity and motherhood were considered by society to be sufficient life fulfilment for all women. It was also assumed that women wanted to be married. Although, being too forward was not acceptable as it suggested sexual desire. Once married, Victorian wives became their husbands property. More freedom was given to men than to women in society. The Victorian ideals greatly influence Jane’s journey throughout the novel. Bronte challenges these ideals through Jane as she strives for independence and equality.
One of the obstacles complicating Jane and Rochester’s relationship is social class. Today class differences would most likely not be a profound obstacle that would stand in the way of Jane and Rochester’s relationship due to a change in societal views on social hierarchy. While Jane is working at Thornfield as a governess she falls in love with Rochester who is of a higher class than her. They have a master-servant relationship and in the Victorian era it would not have been considered appropriate for them to marry. Marrying outside of your own class is not as taboo today as in Bronte’s time. Due to the progression of society, a person’s socioeconomic background is not as evident in modern day. Therefore, conforming to social class expectations most likely would not be a conflict for the characters in the novel.
Financial status also put Jane and Rochester at odds in the novel. In the Victorian era, the only legitimate position for a woman was a governess. Jane faces economic hardship at certain points in the novel and Bronte suggests that if she were a man she would be able to actively attempt to earn her own fortune. However since she is a woman she cannot venture out into the world like the male characters in the novel. For example, St. John who departs to India for missionary work. If the novel had been set in modern day Jane would not be restricted in this way as due to modern feminist movements the notion that women and men should be able to do the same job is more or less evident in modern day England. Women are able to earn their own money. Jane fears potential economic dependency on Rochester. She values her independence and refuses to marry him partly because she wants to be Rochester’s financial equal in the marriage. Before 1870, married women were forced to give up all property and earning to their husbands. This gave women the same legal status as a mentally insane or criminal person. If the novel was set in modern day the conflict of financial status would not be as evident in Jane and Rochester’s relationship. This is because women and men would have equal rights entering the marriage and, as a woman, Jane would also be able to venture out into the world and make her own fortune. Both partners would also be able have a separate bank account.
Divorce was a major social taboo in the Victorian era, this is another social obstacle to stand in the way of Jane and Rochester’s relationship. During Jane and Rochester’s wedding ceremony it is uncovered that Rochester is already married to Bertha Mason. This conflict would have never occurred had the novel been set in modern day England as Rochester would have been able to divorce Bertha. An internal struggle Jane experiences at this instance occurs when Rochester asks Jane to go away with him and live as husband and wife after their failed wedding ceremony. Jane feels that becoming his mistress would ruin her in the eyes of the law and God. She refuses to go against her principles and leaves Thornfield. Had the novel been set in modern times Jane’s internal struggle here would not be as profound as Rochester would have been able to get a divorce. This means that Rochester’s planned bigamy would not be a relevant conflict.
In conclusion, due to the time the novel is set in certain social obstacles hinder Jane and Rochester’s relationship. Nineteenth century beliefs and values seep through the text in Bronte’s novel. If it were set in modern day England, instead of during the Victorian era, it would differ as the same conflicts would not stand in the way of the main character’s relationship. The conflicts that impede Jane and Rochester’s relationship in the novel are a sign of the times and therefore they would differ if the novel were set in a different time period. Views on marriage and gender today are not the same as in nineteenth century England due to society evolving.