I mean the timorous or carping few

Category: Writing & Reading | Type: Discussion | Title: Jane Eyre (in Context) | Author: Charlotte Brontë | Ch: Preface

Only four months after writing this Preface Charlotte Brontë regretted doing so, telling her publisher that she had been too "enthusiastic," a word that then often had pejorative connotations. The Preface deserves a moment of attention, for she reveals something of what she intended in Jane Eyre

She defends the novel against "the timorous or carping few" who have criticized it, and done so anything but timorously. Three charges reappear: that her protagonists and some of her writing are vulgar; that the novel emits the rank odor of rebellion; and, most hurtful and bizarre, that the novel is hostile to Christianity. In the introductory annotation to the novel, that appended to the title, I say something by way of explaining why Brontë was accused of endorsing rebellion and displaying an anti-Christian attitude. Both judgments are wrong. There is hardly a more adamantly Christian novel of the time than Jane Eyre. This should be no surprise, for its loose model is Bunyan's great allegory of a spiritual journey beset by temptation, The Pilgrim's Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come (1678)

While the criticism is wrong, so too is the Preface's way of dealing with it. Instead of meeting the accusations directly, Brontë does so obliquely, using Thackeray's Vanity Fair as a stalking horse. Her tone is strident and hectoring, and she makes exorbitant claims for Thackeray and his novel. She misjudges Vanity Fair about as entirely as do the very critics of Jane Eyre she means to refute. She weights the Preface with a ballast of Biblical allusions in order, I presume, to intimidate and disarm any reader who questions her Christianity. She refers to the Pharisees, to whited sepulchres, the Crown of Thorns, the creed of Christ, the Hebrew prophets such as Micaiah and perhaps Isaiah and Jeremiah, Kings Ahab and Jehosephat, and Rimrod-Gilead. This is a learned distraction that proves nothing about her novel's Christianity.  

Her claims on behalf of Thackeray, whom she elevates into a Biblical prophet, lend fuel to her critics' charges of bad taste. He is courtly enough to thank her for the dedication of Jane Eyre but hardly requires her to harangue his critics for not recognizing Vanity Fair's greatness. In fact, they had and continued to. All that worried some was Thackeray's dark view of human nature beneath his brilliantly colorful portraits. Vanity Fair, a long, panoramic novel, details humanity's predispositiion for self-aggrandizement and selfishness, buoyantly invincible self-delusion, and a hapless blend of vanity and stupidity that leaves the herd prey to the evil-doers. These succeed because they are willing, even brave enough, to see themselves for who they are. Cynical, they are well-positioned to manipulate the rest. Thackeray subtitled his book A Novel without a Hero to underscore his point that the good are often victimized by their own foolish, induglent naivete.   

Yet despite Thackeray's own cynicism, Vanity Fair, both the novel and the place, is at once incisive and comic, never surrendering its urbanity to earnestness. This is not how Brontë sees it. She argues that Thackeray is "the first social regenerator of the day," an astounding claim at a time when Carlyle and Dickens are writing. But she wants to draft Jane Eyre off Thackeray and forestall the criticisms of her novel. To do so, she must create a Thackeray in her mould. Thus Vanity Fair dismantles in her image the whited sepulchres looming over English society, as Christ himself did. Those who see him as writing in the comic tradition of Fielding compare an "eagle" with a mere "vulture." (Brontë, Jane Eyre shows, is fond of bird imagery.)

That may be so, but Thackeray does not seek to reform so much as reveal through a witty delight in the endlessly bright and tawdry spectacle Vanity Fair affords. For Thackeray to have written a reforming satire would have been to succumb to the sentimental and finally dangerous illusion that human nature and institutions could be reformed. "Vanity, saith the preacher, all is vanity," a condition that has persisted through at least the last twenty-two centuries. The title comes from Ecclesiastes via Pilgrim's Progress. Thackeray takes only the exoskeleton—his title and some imagery from Bunyan. Brontë takes the core of Pilgrim's Progress and recreates it in Jane's perilous spiritual pilgrimage through an often alien landscape of perilous temptations and thorny paths.  

Jane Eyre's satire, unlike Thackeray's, curdles whatever humor might have been wrung from the situations and people the novel depicts. Brontë's portraits of the self-righteous and vain derive from Jeremiah and Bunyan. Thackeray's satire is far broader than Charlotte's and above all differs in its unflappable good humor, and if there is a precedent it is closer to Cervantes than Bunyan. Brontë says that Thackeray's "wit, humour, comic powers" are only a veneer, and for the reader to respond primarily to those demeans Thackeray by ignoring his "serious genius." In isolating a serious Thackeray, she means to elevate Jane Eyre, suggesting the two novels converge in their earnest indictments. Yet Thackeray's comedy is no veneer but the shape and substance of his serious genius. There are not two Thackerays, just one who has so integrated insight and comedy that we cannot tell where one ends and another begins.

When he read this Preface he must have cringed at Brontë's describing his "mien as dauntless and as daring" as perhaps the Hebrew prophet Micaiah's. Thankfully, there is nothing of the Hebrew prophet about Thackeray and nothing of Zeus's angry "denunciation" in "hurl[ing] the Greek fire of his sarcasm...." Brontë is much closer to describing herself in those images or to embodying what Matthew Arnold in Culture and Anarchy means by Hebraism, the polar opposite of Hellenism. 

Whatever indignation Thackeray feels at human venality, it is dissipated within his large and generous spirit. A boundless energy and inventiveness typify some of his characters, especially the self-serving ones, who include the indomitable and often wicked protagonist, Becky Sharp. Yet, however bad things become for her, she applies herself wholeheartedly to life, which she means to fit to her needs. Jane is good, and Becky is not. Jane is resentful, passive often, and reactive. Becky delights in the Fair called life, as does Thackeray himself. His disposition originates in another century, that of Pope, Addison, Steele, Sterne, Hume above all, and Fielding. Thackeray's natural habitat is the early 18th-c. coffee-house, a place of urbane levity that took for granted the dark and tragic underside and then lit it brilliantly and enjoyed its antics. Thackeray remarked that he'd have preferred to live in the period of Queen Anne, the early 18th c., a period also of resplendent satire. 

What distinguishes Thackeray is the absence of superciliousness. In its place is a deep sorrow for the denizens of Vanity Fair. They expend prodigious energies chasing tinsely baubles. Jane is offended by such people and things. Brontë's century is decidedly Victorian and is aflame with moral earnestness. But she is no more a social reformer than Thackeray. She is a trenchant critic, more passive-aggressive than reconstructive. Her satire does not mean to reform anyone but to demonstrate her heroine's intrinsic superiority to most of the women she encounters.   

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