Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre: Ch. 2

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Chapter II

I resisted all the way: a new thing for me, and a circumstance which greatly strengthened the bad opinion Bessie and Miss Abbot were disposed to entertain of me.  The fact is, I was a trifle beside myself; or rather out of myself,d as the French would say: I was conscious that a moment’s mutiny had already rendered me liable to strange penalties, and, like any other rebel slave,h I felt resolved, in my desperation, to go all lengths.

“Hold her arms, Miss Abbot: she’s like a mad cat.”

“For shame! for shame!” cried the lady’s-maid.  “What shocking conduct, Miss Eyre, to strike a young gentleman, your benefactress’s son!  Your young master.”

“Master!  How is he my master?  Am I a servant?”d

“No; you are less than a servant, for you do nothing for your keep.  There, sit down, and think over your wickedness.”

They had got me by this time into the apartment indicated by Mrs. Reed, and had thrust me upon a stool: my impulse was to rise from it like a spring; their two pair of hands arrested me instantly.

“If you don’t sit still, you must be tied down,” said Bessie.  “Miss Abbot,d lend me your garters; she would break mine directly.”

Miss Abbot turned to divest a stout leg of the necessary ligature.  This preparation for bonds, and the additional ignominyw it inferred, took a little of the excitement out of me.

“Don’t take them off,” I cried; “I will not stir.”

In guarantee whereof, I attached myself to my seat by my hands.

“Mind you don’t,” said Bessie; and when she had ascertained that I was really subsiding, she loosened her hold of me; then she and Miss Abbot stood with folded arms, looking darkly and doubtfully on my face, as incredulous of my sanity.d

“She never did so before,” at last said Bessie, turning to the Abigail.w

“But it was always in her,” was the reply.  “I’ve told Missis often my opinion about the child, and Missis agreed with me.  She’s an underhand little thing: I never saw a girl of her age with so much cover.”w

Bessie answered not; but ere long, addressing me, she said—“You ought to be aware, Miss, that you are under obligations to Mrs. Reed: she keeps you: if she were to turn you off,w you would have to go to the poorhouse.”h

I had nothing to say to these words: they were not new to me: my very first recollections of existence included hints of the same kind.  This reproach of my dependence had become a vague sing-song in my ear: very painful and crushing, but only half intelligible.  Miss Abbot joined in—

“And you ought not to think yourself on an equality with the Misses Reed and Master Reed, because Missis kindly allows you to be brought up with them.  They will have a great deal of money, and you will have none: it is your place to be humble, and to try to make yourself agreeable to them.”d

“What we tell you is for your good,” added Bessie, in no harsh voice, “you should try to be useful and pleasant, then, perhaps, you would have a home here; but if you become passionate and rude, Missis will send you away, I am sure.”

X [d] a trifle beside myself; or rather out of myse…

Mind

Literally, insane, or "alienation of mind" as it was sometimes spoken of then. An "alienist" specialized in the treatment of mental illness, or, as Jane says, being "out of myself," synonymous with having lost one's mind. 

X [h] like any other rebel slave,

Writing & Reading

Jane's place and role bewilder her. In a moment she will challenge the idea that she's even a "servant," no less a "slave." But just who and what is she in the household and by extension in society? So fundamental a question of what she is to be called remains indeterminate. What essential rights does she have? The answers to these questions constitute an existential quest that will dominate the novel as she progresses from house to house, in each of which her position is a challege.…

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X [d] “Master! How is he my master? Am I a servant?…

Class

To our egalitarian ears the immediately preceding "Your young master" is offensive, but to a Victorian's the words describe the hierarchy. John Reed is the young master. This is a patriarchy founded on male primogeniture. He will inherit a large landed estate and will have sovereign authority over the women of the household, including his mother and sisters, no less his cousin, Jane; he will be master to the servants and the tenants, and they even now refer to him as the young master. …

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X [d] Abbot,

Writing & Reading

This, along with Bessie's last name, Leaven, establishes early the novel's religious ambience, underscoring Jane Eyre's resemblance to Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress in being a spiritual journey through a topography of temptations.

X [w] ignominy

Dishonor; disgrace.

X [d] my sanity.

Mind

This is literal—the two women agree with Mrs. Reed in believing Jane insane, at least temporarily, for how else could one become in an instant a brutish fiend?

X [w] Abigail.

Lady's maid or female servant.

X [w] cover.”

Guilefulness.

X [h] poorhouse.”

Custom & Law

A dread prospect, for the poorhouse was the lowest point to which one could descend, paupers and criminals being more or less synonymous in the minds of many. (Dickens captures the situation in Oliver Twist.) The 19th c. English, but especially those in the century's first half, made workhouses and poor houses so degrading that many of the poor would prefer, as the taxpayers hoped, to die outside one rather than seek aid within. 

X [d] it is your place to be humble, and to try to …

Class

Bessie distills into a sentence the mores of the relationship between master and man/mistress that defined English life.

The 1840s, known as the Hungry '40s, were a period of dreadful suffering for the working classes. The Irish Famine drove some Irish to seek employment in England, which added to the competition for jobs and further lowered wages, though the price of wheat, kept a…

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