Preferred Citation: Litvak, Joseph. Caught in the Act: Theatricality in the Nineteenth-Century English Novel. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  1992.

The Governess as Actress

2. The Governess as Actress

The Inscription of Theatricality in Jane Eyre

Why do you like Miss Austen so very much? I am puzzled on that point. What induced you to say that you would have rather written Pride and Prejudice or Tom Jones, than any of the Waverley Novels?

I had not seen Pride and Prejudice till I read that sentence of yours, and then I got the book. And what did I find? An accurate daguerreotyped portrait of a commonplace face; a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright, vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses. These observations will probably irritate you, but I shall run the risk.

“Elegant but confined”:[1] Brontë’s formula epitomizes a certain way of dismissing Jane Austen’s work. Had Brontë read Mansfield Park rather than Pride and Prejudice, moreover, her assessment might have been even less charitable, for while “elegance” serves in Pride and Prejudice as a kind of atmospheric compensation for confinement, the demystifying narrative of Mansfield Park makes “elegance” the very mode of confinement. As we saw in the last chapter, the demystification enacted in that novel requires a distinctly inhospitable domestication, whereby the glamor or subversive éclat of a free-wheeling, insouciant theatricality is replaced by an “elegance” or decorum that, far from softening the disciplinary standard upheld by the forbidding Fanny Price, efficiently enforces it, “keep[ing] every body in their place.” So dampening is the effect of this demystification that we are grateful when, at the end of the novel, the narrator uncannily impersonates the bustling Mrs. Norris, permitting an almost grotesque officiousness to unsettle the smooth surface of her prose. Once we could enjoy the rakish seductions of Mary and Henry Crawford; now that a rigorous “elegance” is the order of the day, we find ourselves oddly cheered by mere intimations of comic meddlesomeness. Yet this vulgar travesty of the powers that be is more than just a consolation prize: it reminds us forcibly of the energies that had to be repressed or contained in order for the reign of decorum to be secured, and it thereby compels us to recognize the shakiness of this dispensation. As the curtain descends on the happy household of Edmund and Fanny Bertram, we are allowed to glimpse the outlines of a sequel that begs to be written, in which, say, The Return of Mary Crawford overtakes the scrupulous disenchantments effected by Part One.

Although Charlotte Brontë is clearly impatient with Austenian confinement, it would seem rather inappropriate to characterize any of her novels as a “carnivalesque” rewriting of Austen such as that described above. In differing from Austen, Brontë hardly seems interested in taking her cue from the ways in which Austen differs from herself. A powerful polemicist, Brontë instead establishes the terms not only for a certain confinement of Austen herself but also, as a result, for her own liberating entry into the history of the novel. Asserting the superiority of “open country” and “fresh air” (fresh Eyre?) to her predecessor’s “carefully fenced, highly cultivated gardens,” Brontë prescribes the distinction that would take hold in more or less canonical accounts of the development of the English novel.[2] Raymond Williams, for example, though by no means a canonical critic, seems to endorse Brontë’s version of literary history when he writes:

A certain worldliness, readily understandable in earlier periods (though never, I think, as persuasive as is made out), made for the qualification of love; found its value as social exchange and respect, as most coolly in Jane Austen…. What was directly expressed in Blake and in Keats and in different ways in Shelley and Byron seems to have gone underground, before the 1840s, in fiction and even in drama; indeed is literally underground in the dark images of the Gothic and in the produced straining extravagances of melodrama. The achievement of the Brontë sisters, before we say anything else, is that in different ways they remade the novel so that this kind of passion could be directly communicated.[3]

Williams articulates a widespread, commonsensical understanding of what happens to the English novel around the time of, indeed through the intervention of, Charlotte Brontë and her sisters: their novels breathe “passion” and “love” into what has seemed a rather “coolly” restrictive tradition of “worldliness.” Yet it is not hard to see how Williams complicates his account by tracing the latent or “underground” Romantic impulses liberated by the Brontës not only to the “dark images of the Gothic” but also to the “produced straining extravagances of melodrama.” In other words, although it is tempting to honor Brontë by describing her difference from Austen as an escape from the constricting elegance associated with the tyranny of “manners”—from the various forms of “social exchange” and compulsory indirection that come under the heading of “theatricality”—her “remaking” of the novel involves the rehabilitation of elements that have themselves had, as it were, a theatrical career, and that may continue, even after their recovery, to bear the marks of that history. Indeed, one of the charges Brontë had to answer in her defense of Jane Eyre (1847) was that of being too “melodramatic.”[4] Admittedly, the “produced straining extravagances of melodrama” represent a different theatricality from either Mary and Henry Crawford’s libertine glamor, the ultimate elegance of the Bertrams’ cool (not to say chilly) regime, or even Mrs. Norris’s noisy managerial style. Moreover, we should not simply assimilate the theatrical implications of Brontë’s first-person narratives to those of Austen’s third-person narrative. I want to argue, however, that the expressive openness and “directness” of Brontë’s novels is significantly bound up, after all, not only with melodramatic extravagance but also with the other embarrassing kinds of theatricality she and many of her critics discern in Austen. Brontë’s “achievement” owes at least as much to these forces of “qualification” as to its sources in Blake, Shelley, Keats, and Byron.

Theatricality and its subsidiary metaphors have enjoyed considerable prominence in a number of recent, skeptically driven critical projects. Derrida’s delineation of “the scene of writing” and Foucault’s work on the (ostensibly nonspectacular) stagecraft of modern power are perhaps the most obvious examples of and models for the deployment of “theatricality” as a trope of demystification, whereby the apparently immediate and unproblematic can be resisted or preemptively framed on the grounds of its factitiousness or its unsuspected ideological complicity. In proposing to read Brontë’s fiction in the light of theatricality, I am not, however, merely seeking to add yet another supposedly invulnerable repository of truth and presence to the ever-growing list of compromised masterpieces. Not merely, since, if one hopes to do more than just repeat a by now familiar and even respectable critical gesture, one cannot simply dispense with it, as though supplementation equaled transcendence. If Jane Eyre and Villette are in some sense founding texts in the tradition of the novel, this is not for the reasons Williams and others adduce, but because they embody so graphically two apparently antithetical yet interdependent functions of the novel in modern culture: on the one hand, they represent a potent identification of novel-writing and novel-reading with the creation, consolidation, and safeguarding of an autonomous subjectivity; on the other hand, they situate that subjectivity in an inescapable, ever-menacing context of surveillance, suspicion, circumvention, and unmasking.[5] That is, they dramatize the inevitability—for the author, for the protagonist, and, perhaps less saliently but no less crucially, for the critic—of a certain will to demystify: demystification is not what happens to the novel (although the critic may feel as if he or she were exercising that prerogative) but what happens in and through the novel. In her preface to the second edition of Jane Eyre, for example, Brontë admits that one of her aims has been “to pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee,” “to scrutinize and expose, to raise the gilding and show base metal under it.”[6] And if it still seems somewhat surprising that she should have seen Thackeray, of all contemporary novelists, as a kindred spirit (signaling her admiration by dedicating this edition to him), this improbable affinity points up the central imperative of truth-telling, satirical or otherwise, in Brontë’s fiction. More powerfully than Thackeray’s works, however, or than the somewhat later instances of the sensation novel and the detective novel, Brontë’s texts epitomize the contagious dialectic of evasion and exposure that will henceforth loom large in the novel, even (or especially) when it is less overtly “psychological” or “Romantic.”

For where the narrative of sensation or detection typically enacts a linear movement toward transparency and closure, the plots of Brontë’s novels notoriously refuse the comforts of linearity, intensifying the demand for demystification precisely by frustrating it.[7] For all their vaunted commitment to direct communication, and despite their author’s reputation as one who “pours forth her feelings…without premeditation,”[8] these novels virtually institutionalize the obstacles to unmediated and unpremeditated expression and understanding. If they stand out as emblematic demonstrations of the will to unveil, they do so because they install opacity as a permanent fixture of the novelistic world. In the veritable theater of self-fashioning that they constitute, theatricality-as-display and theatricality-as-deception articulate the conflictual masquerade of the modern novel, which seems, in its cult of interiority, to have left its theatrical prehistory far behind. Brontë’s novels stand as memorials to the process whereby the novel as cultural production absorbs and covers over the traces of its historically and politically supplementary relation to the theater, of its genealogy as repetition-in-difference. “The inscription of theatricality” denotes the ambiguity of this process: to inscribe theatricality is at once to replicate it and to displace it, incorporating this generic other and at the same time disguising it. In the nineteenth century, the novel becomes a crypt in which theatricality lies concealed, but only half-concealed, since this very encrypting bespeaks an intrinsically theatrical subterfuge.

But though one cannot, therefore, choose not to reenact the ritual of demystification, there is another, more interesting reason why I hope “not merely” to deconstruct Brontëan subjectivity. Mansfield Park shows that demystification, far from being a neutral cognitive process, in fact serves a highly coercive ideological purpose, however unpredictably or unreliably. For their part, Brontë’s novels extend this insight, by unfolding a multiplicity of dramas in which demystification turns out to have a specific, though often overdetermined, political and erotic agenda of its own. It is important to point out that this discovery does not necessarily discredit the diverse acts of unveiling at work in—or in response to—the text. What it does is to open up a range of performative possibilites behind a series of cognitive scenes, to present them as scenes, rather than as so many disinterested projects of reception taking place passively and invisibly out, as it were, in the audience.[9]

Though the question of theatricality figures importantly in all of Brontë’s novels, I will be concerned here with only two—the most famous and the one most deadeningly pasteurized and homogenized for absorption into the collective unconscious, Jane Eyre, and the last and the one most bristlingly “textual” and “complex,” Villette (1853). Of these two, the latter would appear to be the logical place to begin showing how theatricality, as in Mansfield Park, spreads from the assigned locus of the literal stage to encompass not only spectators but participants in transactions—for example, reading, writing, teaching, lovemaking—supposedly untainted by theatrical obliquity. Villette, after all, thematizes theatrical issues overtly and recurrently, and, with its cosmopolitan, or at least Continental, setting, seems more likely than Jane Eyre to illustrate a suitably corrosive confrontation between the domestic, the private, and the inward—the world, in short, of “the governess”—and the foreign, the public, and the centrifugal—the world, in short, of “the actress.” But I want to discuss Jane Eyre first, not only in deference to chronology but also because this less obviously theatrical text has concomitantly more power to illustrate the ways in which theatricality gets camouflaged, in which the novelistic space denies its theatrical structure by internalizing it. In Villette, as we will see, the governess—a role that Brontë herself had of course played in real life—in fact turns into an actress; and if that progression, from one Victorian female paradigm to its apparent opposite, is not quite as definitive or as thematically coherent as it is in, say, Vanity Fair, its greater conspicuousness in relation to the economy of roles in Jane Eyre suggests that we may have more to learn, at least initially, from the governess whose acting is never even momentarily literal, but always furtively and disingenuously figurative—that is, highly characteristic of theatricality in the nineteenth-century novel.

Brontë may have disliked Austen—and she may not even have begun to read her until after Jane Eyre was published—but in one sense her novels seem oddly reminiscent of Mansfield Park: Fanny Price might well be seen as the precursor of Brontë’s “undelightful” heroines.[10] Where Fanny insists, “No, indeed, I cannot act,” Jane Eyre rebuffs Rochester’s attempt to objectify her by warning him, “I will not be your English Céline Varens” (p. 298). Céline Varens, of course, is the French opera dancer with whom Rochester had the liaison that, to the dismay of many Victorian readers, he has recounted to Jane, and that, his rather half-hearted denials notwithstanding, has apparently resulted in the birth of little Adèle, Jane’s pupil at Thornfield Hall. And as in Mansfield Park, the use of theatrical themes and imagery in Jane Eyre seems mainly homeopathic. For, though Rochester’s theatrical escapade plays a paradoxically crucial role in the narrative insofar as it motivates Jane’s presence at Thornfield, and though one could argue that, as the “miniature” (p. 170) of her mother, Adèle introduces the “French” disease of theatricality into the domestic interior of the novel, Rochester provides more reassuring terms for the metaphorical recuperation of theatricality: “I…took the poor thing out of the slime and mud of Paris, and transplanted it here, to grow up clean in the wholesome soil of an English country garden” (p. 176). As everyone knows, the climate of the house itself can hardly be called “wholesome”; but the force of passages such as this one is to suggest that whatever dangers are lurking nearby have nothing to do with the French connection: it is rather the much more fiery Spanish or Creole presence of Bertha Mason that should give us pause. This transplant or graft provides an exemplary graph of how a certain potentially hazardous foreign substance may be subsumed safely within a domestic order. Most references to theatricality in the novel have a similarly diminishing effect, as in the “miniaturization” of Adèle whereby we are invited to dismiss her, as Blanche Ingram does when she greets her with the exclamation, “Oh, what a little puppet!” (p. 202).

Unlike Mansfield Park, however, where the reduction of theatricality to convention becomes the normative, if covert, gesture of the novel itself, here the novel defines itself over and against that reduction. At the beginning of the novel, for example, when Mrs. Reed refuses to release Jane from the red-room, the heroine explains, “I was a precocious actress in her eyes” (p. 49); the implication is that Jane’s oppressor is too brutishly enslaved by commonplace assumptions about artifice and sincerity to understand her. Or when, in a more metacritical register, the narrator writes that “a new chapter in a novel is something like a new scene in a play” (p. 125), the perfunctory, merely approximate character of that “something like” effectively empties the analogy of any disruptive potential. Indeed, the subsequent stage directions that tell us what to imagine in this “scene” underscore not the distractions of decor but the prevailing intimacy that obtains in the relationship between narrator and reader.[11] The rhetorical parallel becomes a hygienic bar separating the novelistic from the theatrical. Thus, if a certain theatrical infection does take hold in Mansfield Park, Jane Eyre would appear to inoculate itself more consequentially: a conventionalizing rhetoric would render the text immune from that very conventionality, making this novelistic world safe for authenticity, freedom, and direct communication.

That a legitimate domain has been secured for the founding of a unitary, autonomous self is the enabling assumption of the most influential feminist reading of Jane Eyre. In the chapter that serves as the iconic centerpiece of The Madwoman in the Attic, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar rechristen the narrative as “Plain Jane’s Progress,” as a “pilgrimage toward selfhood,” culminating in Jane’s exorcism of her “truest and darkest double,” the demonic Bertha Mason.[12] But while the animalistic Bertha figures so centrally in this psychoanalytic allegory, any minatory allure that might attach to such culpably social female characters as Céline, Adèle, and Blanche gets minimized here: functioning merely as so many “important negative ‘role-models’ for Jane,” these characters “suggest problems she must overcome before she can reach the independent maturity which is the goal of her pilgrimage” (p. 350). The teleology of this interpretation privileges Jane’s “unseduceable independence in a world of self-marketing Célines and Blanches” (p. 353). Whatever their importance as “negative ‘role-models,’ ” these sexually commodified women never exceed the thematic determination of problems-to-be-overcome, and therefore never loom much larger than the puppet-like Adèle. Characterizing the latter, along with her mother and Blanche, as “denizen[s] of Vanity Fair” (p. 350), Gilbert and Gubar ask, “May not Adèle, the daughter of a ‘fallen woman,’ be the model female in a world of prostitutes?” (p. 350), but they see little likelihood of Jane’s taking this model seriously. If, on the one hand, these characters—to whose numbers we may add Jane’s frivolous, “stylish” cousin Georgiana, who is at one point compared to “waxwork” (p. 257); the hypocritically fashionable Brocklehurst women; and even the “coquettish” (p. 394) Rosamond Oliver—typify a certain proverbial construction of female sexuality in terms of both acting and prostitution,[13] on the other, heavier hand, the very brittleness or blankness (Blanche-ness?) of the stereotype guarantees, as in the novel itself, that the woman who “sings and dances for her supper” will never turn into anything more subversive than “a clockwork temptress invented by E. T. A. Hoffmann” (p. 350). Insofar as Jane’s developmental drama is seen to center on her confrontation with the Madwoman in the Attic, not with the Dancer in the Boudoir or the Coquette in the Parlor, there is little reason to doubt her when she says, “I will not be your English Céline Varens.” Not only will Jane Eyre never turn into Becky Sharp, something of a “clockwork temptress” herself; more important, she is saved from the contemptible world of “social exchange” in which Jane Austen’s “elegant but confined” female characters are doomed to circulate.

But Brontë’s novel betrays a remarkable fascination with the very world and worldliness that she would soon patronize in Austen. Admittedly, Brontë seems to set up the “lady” merely to have Jane unmask her as already disreputably masked—to have Jane debunk her, that is, as her ostensible opposite, the “prostitute.” Yet if, in “plucking the mask,” Jane reveals not naked truth but another mask, however “base,” then the project of debunking—of “scrutinizing” and “exposing”—cannot be described as simply antitheatrical: it may in fact be impelled surreptitiously by something like a desire for theatricality. Precisely by encouraging us, for instance, to concur with Jane in her decision that Blanche Ingram is “beneath jealousy” (p. 215) because, though “very showy,” she is “not genuine” (p. 215), the narrative also compels us to join Jane in emulating the “ceaseless surveillance” (p. 215) to which Rochester subjects Blanche; and, as we discover, the act of surveillance seems almost inevitably to precipitate the would-be demystifier into a volatile state of both “ceaseless excitation and ruthless restraint” (p. 216). Just as Fanny Price’s refusal to participate in the theatricals at Mansfield Park fails to exempt her from the theatrical dis-ease of mingled “longing and dreading,” so too does Jane discover the instability of the binary opposition between spectator and spectacle. Jane’s longish dramatization of her surveillance is all the more worth quoting because of its appropriately turbid logic.

“Why can she not influence [Rochester] more, when she is privileged to draw so near him?” I asked myself. “Surely she cannot truly like him, or not like him with true affection! If she did, she need not coin her smiles so lavishly, flash her glances so unremittingly, manufacture airs so elaborate, graces so multitudinous. It seems to me that she might, by merely sitting quietly at his side saying little and looking less, get nigher his heart. I have seen in his face a far different expression from that which hardens it now while she is so vivaciously accosting him; but then it came of itself: it was not elicited by meretricious arts and calculated manoeuvres; and one had but to accept it—to answer what he asked without pretension, to address him when needful without grimace—and it increased and grew kinder and more genial, and warmed one like a fostering sunbeam. How will she manage to please him when they are married? I do not think they will manage it; and yet it might be managed; and his wife might, I verily believe, be the very happiest woman the sun shines on.”

If it is not “jealousy” that troubles Jane, neither is it exactly altruistic sorrow on behalf of Rochester, destined though he appears to be for a loveless marriage. Instead, one gathers that Jane’s anxiety stems from the fact that only she seems to have recognized the disparity between her own superior “genuineness” on the one hand and Blanche’s “meretricious arts and calculated manoeuvres” on the other. But though she knows that Blanche would do better by “merely sitting quietly at his side,” Jane is soon agitating herself by imagining how she might “manage” as Rochester’s wife. Indeed, the previous paragraph shows Jane vacillating between visions of out-Blancheing Blanche and of adopting an even subtler, more “pacifistic” strategy:

When she failed, I saw how she might have succeeded. Arrows that continually glanced off from Mr. Rochester’s breast and fell harmless at his feet, might, I knew, if shot by a surer hand, have quivered keen in his proud heart—have called love into his stern eye, and softness into his sardonic face; or, better still, without weapons a silent conquest might have been won.

These passages suggest that it is not enough merely to write Blanche off as a bad or insufficiently inspired actress, although—more accurately, because—the spectacle of her failure is gratifying indeed. As she keeps missing her target here, she exemplifies better than she knows the novel’s insistent formulation of theatricality as an endless, dizzying dialectic of power and subservience, whereby to act is to be simultaneously empowered and vulnerable. Commanding Rochester to sing for her, she adds, “If you don’t please me, I will shame you by showing you how such things should be done” (p. 208). Or again: “Both her words and her air seemed intended to excite not only the admiration, but the amazement of her auditors: she was evidently bent on striking them as something very dashing and daring indeed” (p. 208; emphasis added).

Blanche’s performance, of course, “excites” something other than “admiration” and “amazement”: its (unintended) effect is precisely the drama of “ceaseless excitation” traversing Jane Eyre, which excitation, merged with “ruthless restraint,” constitutes both an internalization and an intensification of the agonistic theatricality already demonstrated by Blanche. As we can see from the long passages in which Jane criticizes Blanche’s histrionic technique, Blanche’s punitive, self-aggrandizing, but also oddly self-abasing agenda in fact gets appropriated and enacted in the consciousness of her silent observer, the governess hiding “behind the window-curtain” (p. 205). Blanche boasts of how, as a child, she “took care to turn the tables” on such “nuisance[s]” (p. 206), but here it is rather Jane Eyre who turns the tables on her, for the ruthlessness of Jane’s self-restraint enables the ruthlessness of her rhetorical triumph over the hapless Blanche.

Indeed, the “ceaseless excitation and ruthless restraint” that Blanche’s egregiously miscalculated assault on Rochester triggers in Jane represents a complicated, “striking” play not only of self-pity and envy (if not “jealousy”) but also of self-congratulation, disdain, and a vindictiveness whose voyeuristic pleasure is only barely moralized. Satirical demystification—the adversarial uncovering of Blanche’s inept theatrical “calculations” as such—emerges here as an ardent vicariousness that does not so much undermine as upstage it.[14] The novel offers many such scenes of overdetermined spectatorship on Jane’s part, scenes that, far from constituting mere detours in her “pilgrimage toward selfhood,” both articulate that trajectory and provide the measure for the weight, volume, and density that define the “selfhood” in question. If the product of this narrative—the elaborated subjectivity named “Jane Eyre”—is in fact ultimately theatrical, that theatricality entails far more than the protagonist’s arriving at a proper stance toward the various “role models” placed in her way. To be sure, Jane Eyre’s selfhood is formed against the relatively flat backdrop composed by more conventionally theatrical characters like Blanche, Céline, and Adèle. This does not mean, however, that Jane is the “opposite” of those characters; rather, they serve as pretexts or contexts, enticingly pregnant blanks, in relation to which her “surveillance” manifests itself as a self-charging (“exciting”), at once sadistically and masochistically “ruthless,” performance in its own right. Nor does this performance occur only when Blanche, Céline, Adèle, or any other “merely” stylish woman is on stage. That, before her marriage to Rochester, Bertha Mason was “a fine woman, in the style of Blanche Ingram” (p. 332), should point to an important link between Jane’s “truest and darkest double” and those blanched or whitened female characters whose worldly falseness and vacuity come laden with a paradoxical power to induce in the heroine extravagant spectacles of self-construction.[15] The latter may be puppets, but, like their counterparts in Vanity Fair, they are all “magnified puppets” (p. 217), as Jane describes two other characters, and therefore “provoking puppet[s]” (p. 302) as well, as Rochester provokingly calls Jane herself. In appreciating Brontë’s impressive revision of the novel as a genre, we should not underestimate the role played in that revision by a vigorously magnified and repeatedly projected meretriciousness, saliently but not exclusively embodied in non-English women,[16] and invested with a provocative (i.e., at once energizing and irritating) glamor and even pathos by virtue of its very contemptibility. The worse the acting—and, in Jane Eyre, almost all acting promises to be delectably “bad”—the better the show. Nothing succeeds (for Jane) like failure (on the part of her showy, worldly Others).

Much as we should acknowledge the extent to which Jane is constructed in and by these complicated power-plays, we must also take into account the considerable rhetorical effort involved in occluding this entire process. In other words, if I have been emphasizing thus far the “excitation” and even the empowerment that attends Jane’s surveillance, I want now to focus on the “restraint” that turns that ex-citation back in upon itself, that makes expansiveness look like inwardness, so that Brontëan exteriority (the outdoorsiness of “open country,” “fresh air,” etc.) becomes indistinguishable from Brontëan interiority. It is as though Brontë were fending off Austen even before having read her: where mere introversion might recall Austen at her most oppressively “confined,” unchecked extroversion might suggest Austen at her most culpably social. Brontë avoids both of these pitfalls by means of a certain invagination. In a brilliant recent study of repression in Victorian fiction, John Kucich has written:

The most striking thing about expressions of passion in Brontë’s fiction is that they are most often histrionic—the performance of a mask that conceals, rather than reveals, an interior condition of desire. For Charlotte Brontë, passion implies the existence of an aroused, hypersensitive self that it simultaneously withholds. In her Byronically passionate male characters—and also in her female protagonists, though in more ephemeral ways—passion is a means of distancing others in order to preserve a desirable state of inward tension. By marking an inward instability, an eccentricity of the self to itself, passionate expression actually defeats any knowledge of its nature by others, and marks itself in opposition to them, rather than as a fusional impulse.…[P]assionate expression is a mark of estrangement and distance, of self-elaboration in isolation, which brings it very close to the Brontëan repression we usually think of as its adversary.[17]

Kucich’s account of the virtual interchangeability of “passion” and “repression” in Brontë’s fiction as a whole confirms my own sense of the inextricable entanglement of “excitation” and “restraint” in Jane Eyre’s many acts of surveillance: as Kucich would suggest, the “inward tension” that defines Jane’s spectatorship arises not from a war of polar opposites but rather from the repeated collapsing of an opposition. Yet my argument differs from Kucich’s in two respects. First, I want to claim that, although the complicity of “excitation” or “passion” and “restraint” or “repression” seems to establish the solipsistic isolation that Kucich identifies as Brontë’s most distinctive effect, the “inward instability” of Jane Eyre at any rate is more social and more political than Kucich will allow, not so much an escape from Foucauldian relations of power as a heightened reinscription of them. Second, while I obviously agree that Brontëan passion is mainly histrionic, I want to look at the ways in which the histrionic, which Kucich rightly associates with the “mask that conceals,” is itself masked by Brontë. These two points may seem to contradict each other, the one claiming greater sociality in Brontë, the other arguing for greater reticence. But in fact I will also argue that Brontë is most responsive to social pressures precisely when she herself restrains and dissembles the dramas that her heroine at the same time rehearses so excitedly.

The persistence of a certain critical tradition begun by Brontë herself would indeed persuade us that the ruthless restraint that is an integral component of Brontëan theatricality functions instead as a guarantee against theatricality, that the dropping of a curtain in front of these dramas succeeds nonetheless in not looking like a theatrical effect at all: it seems instead to consecrate “the depth” (p. 46) or the “visionary hollow” (p. 46) that the cagey heroine first sights during her imprisonment in the red-room, and whose mapping and furnishing will be the program of the ensuing narrative. Protestations of antitheatricality thus proliferate unsurprisingly throughout the book, although they reach a kind of crescendo during the period immediately before the aborted wedding, when Jane is at pains to keep rejecting the “stage-trappings” (p. 288) of courtship. (And when, soon after that non-ceremony, Jane famously leaves Thornfield, she does so to avoid the implicitly theatricalizing fate of becoming the latest in Rochester’s series of mistresses.) Perhaps the oddest of all Jane’s deflections is her impatient observation that Rochester, who wants to deck her out in prenuptial finery, “would yet see me glittering like a parterre” (p. 296). While the immediate reference seems to be to the sense of “parterre” as an ornamental (or “Austenian”) arrangement of flower beds, one cannot help noticing, in this context of disavowal, the more specifically theatrical reference as well. Though prepared, even eager, to cast herself as the spectator par excellence—Mrs. Reed, for example, could never tolerate her niece’s “continual, unnatural watchings of one’s movements” (p. 260)—the heroine would evade any interpretation of her spectatorship as a spectacle in itself, meticulously effacing (or covering up) any hints of “glitter” in her ceaselessly vigilant prose.[18]

Accordingly, the narrative must obey a stringent logic of decor—and of decorum—in converting the shining plane of the red-room mirror, or the showy plain of an ostentatious audience, into a semimatte surface that will reflect only the visionary recessiveness (and “depth”) of an unimpeachably plain Jane. The lineaments, as well as the risks, of this logic may be glimpsed in a letter Brontë wrote describing how, during a rare trip to London, she and her sister Anne visited the opera in the company of their publishers:

We attired ourselves in the plain, high-made country garments we possessed, and went with [George Smith and his sisters] to their carriage, where we found Mr. Williams. They must have thought us queer, quizzical-looking beings, especially me with my spectacles. I smiled inwardly at the contrast, which must have been apparent, between me and Mr. Smith as I walked with him up the crimson-carpeted staircase of the Opera House and stood amongst a brilliant throng at the box door, which was not yet open. Fine ladies and gentlemen glanced at us with a slight, graceful superciliousness quite warranted by the circumstances. Still, I felt pleasantly excited in spite of headache and sickness and conscious clownishness, and I saw Anne was calm and gentle, which she always is.[19]

Here, in an uncanny blurring of the distinction between fiction and reality, the author reenacts the role performed by her newly celebrated fictional surrogate, inheriting Jane’s excitement and reliving her restraint as headache, sickness, and embarrassment. Like Jane’s response to Blanche, Brontë’s internal drama masters and exceeds, in complexity, interest, and above all, emotional seriousness, the external scene that occasions it. In this edgy encounter with the London beau monde, the brilliance of the throng becomes a foil for the transcendent display of the provincial author’s (self)consciousness. What is remarkable in this account is its delicate balance between a scrupulously half-shamefaced exhibitionism and the tremulous yet invincible inwardness it nonetheless affirms. Where the gaze of her publishers and the “elegant young ladies”[20] who accompany them threatens to turn Brontë into a spectacle, she transforms her own conveniently deglamorizing “spectacles” not only into a powerful instrument of vision but also into a protective barrier behind which a private drama of contemplation may take place unobserved. Thus shielded, she is free to “fe[el] pleasantly excited” but, more important, to “smile…inwardly,” quietly appropriating much of the “superciliousness” she ascribes to her sophisticated, but only superficially perceptive, beholders. By means of an ingenious reversal, not unlike that practiced by Jane Eyre in her surveillance of Blanche Ingram, the mere snobbery associated with “fine ladies and gentlemen” gets introjected and refined as the “genuine” (paradoxical, spiritual, virtually inexpressible) loftiness of the “high-made” “country spinster,” as Brontë calls herself elsewhere.[21] Even the possibility of humiliation risked by the acknowledgment of “clownishness” gets preempted, thanks to Brontë’s absorptive emphasis on her “consciousness” of it.[22]

This biographical vignette recalls still another scene from the novel that Brontë had just published. In this scene, a similar recuperation is performed, but with a telling difference. Soon after her arrival at Lowood, Jane, having dropped and broken her “slate,” is first “exposed to general view on a pedestal of infamy” (p. 99) but then, like her model of self-abasement, Helen Burns, “completely cleared from every imputation” (p. 106) of guilt. In a typically Brontëan pattern, humiliation only serves to establish the victim’s unfathomable depth of receptivity, which “no language can describe” (p. 99): the degradations of the outside ironically reaffirm the inviolability of the inside.[23] Yet, despite the well-known autobiographical nature of her fiction, as well as the crafty literariness of her autobiographical writings, Charlotte Brontë will take chances in her private correspondence that she spares the central character in her more public work as a novelist. For Brontë’s drama of appropriation and reversal unfolds in a literal theater, too palpably social a place, whereas Jane Eyre enacts this scenario under the aegis of displacement: all of her “theatergoing” and all of her “acting” occur either within the overtly disciplinary space of the schoolroom or within the covertly disciplinary space of (someone else’s) home. Where Charlotte Brontë hides behind her spectacles in an actual site of spectacles, her fictional creation hides behind surfaces in settings less apt to invest them homonymically with a compromising glitter.[24]

The “treacherous slate” (p. 97) that Jane accidentally breaks is only one of many such surfaces, although its fracture and symbolic reconstitution prove exemplary: hoping to “escape notice” (p. 97) by using it to “conceal [her] face” (p. 97), the heroine finds herself betrayed by the very object that should have protected her; but instead of branding her as a “liar” (p. 98), as Brocklehurst would have it, her “obtrusive” (p. 97) exposure and consequent shaming produce the opposite effect of wiping the slate clean, restoring to Jane the medium on which she may hence inscribe the indescribable signs of her integrity. And since the slate—a surface whose associations with pedagogical compulsion, happily enough, clear it from any suspicion of borrowed glamor—is both what one writes on and what one hides behind, self-inscription is identified with self-effacement, thereby allowing the autobiographer to elude any “imputation” of theatricality. Writing, we are asked to believe, even writing about oneself, is not like acting: it is what one does instead of acting. The form of “restraint” typically adopted in Jane Eyre, then, appears less voluntary, and less ambiguous, than that imposed in the passage about the “spectacles,” just as writing forgoes its associations with the social luster of professional authorship—especially successful professional authorship—to assume instead the protective covering of (home)work. If less ambiguous, however, this strategy is nothing if not paradoxical, for while the relative abjection of Jane Eyre seems to bar her from “society” in the seductive, specialized sense of a pleasure-seeking elite, it would also have the enabling effect of exempting her from society as a whole.

In order to examine more closely the process thanks to which Jane can say, equivocally, “I appeared a disciplined and subdued character” (p. 116), let us return to Jane’s surveillance of Blanche, paying particular attention to the way Brontë frames and thus, oddly enough, detheatricalizes it. It is important to recognize that, by placing Jane “behind the window-curtain”—by having her “shr[i]nk…into the shade” (p. 205), like Fanny Price—Brontë discreetly draws a veil in front of the heroine’s performance, occulting its rivalrous histrionics and offering it instead as further evidence of an otherwise inarticulable inwardness. Indeed, if the entire episode of the Ingrams’ visit threatens to become an Austenian comedy of manners, Brontë neutralizes that danger through an equally Austenian countermeasure, according to which the heroine, furtively but avidly consuming the all-too-glittering spectacle of aristocratic role-playing, thereby demonstrates the vast, even inestimable capacity of her own consciousness.[25] (It is this kind of gourmandise, one suspects, that has earned Brontë her reputation for what Matthew Arnold, albeit disgustedly, called “hunger, rebellion, and rage.”[26] Throughout this episode, whenever Jane might seem to be standing in front of a curtain (whether “literally” or “figuratively”), the narrative recontextualizes her so that she ends up standing behind one. As the Ingrams and their party approach the house, Jane watches them from the window, “taking care to stand on one side, so that, screened by the curtain, I could see without being seen” (p. 195). When she comes downstairs to introduce Adèle to the guests, Jane is relieved to be screened once again:

Fortunately, there was another entrance to the drawing-room than that through the saloon where they were all seated at dinner.…The crimson curtain hung before the arch: slight as was the separation this drapery formed from the party in the adjoining saloon, they spoke in so low a key that nothing of their conversation could be distinguished beyond a soothing murmur.

Yet Jane’s inability to overhear their conversation actually has the same effect as her unimpeded visual consumption: in both cases, what is ultimately secured for her is a saving opacity. And that her opacity is both the antithesis and the double of their meretricious brilliance becomes clear a few paragraphs later:

A soft sound of rising now became audible; the curtain was swept back from the arch; through it appeared the dining-room, with its lit lustre pouring down light on the silver and glass of a magnificent dessert-service covering a long table; a band of ladies stood in the opening; they entered, and the curtain fell behind them.

As soon as this “band of ladies,” having made a lavishly lit entrance, stands in front of the curtain, that curtain looks very much like a curtain on a stage, and the ladies appear bathed in all the culpable “lustre” of the will to dazzle: for a brief but resonant moment, the decorative match between the “crimson-carpeted staircase” of the opera house and the crimson curtain of the private home hints at the larger and more problematic resemblance between public theater and an unstably “domesticated” theatricality. As long as it is Jane, however, who stands in the same spot, both she and the backdrop look quite different: far from setting her off, as a foil does a jewel, the curtain sets her apart, marking her distance from and inaccessibility to the resplendent company on the other side. Like Charlotte Brontë’s spectacles and the young Jane Eyre’s slate—like a whole series of Brontëan surfaces, for that matter—the curtain validates the self not by revealing it but by obscuring it. Always a consumer (rather than an object to be consumed), Jane will not perform the “ladylike” function of being served up like some temptingly unwholesome “dessert.” Even though she and the “band of ladies” occupy the same position in front of the curtain, Brontë manipulates this “screen” so that, in the space of a single page, it serves—or appears to serve—two radically incompatible purposes. By virtue of the author’s scenic legerdemain, an anamorphic illusion splits the screen-as-enhancing-backdrop from the screen-as-protective-cover, thereby disrupting any visible continuity between the “ladies” who stand flamboyantly before the former and the governess who stands meekly before—which is to say, behind—the latter.[27]

This is by no means the only place in the novel where Brontë stages as a distinction, even as an opposition, what might easily look like a similarity. In the novel’s crucial opening scene, Jane is punished for her want of a properly “sociable and childlike disposition, a more attractive and sprightly manner” (p. 39), by her exclusion from the Reeds’ family circle:

A small breakfast-room adjoined the drawing-room, I slipped in there. It contained a bookcase; I soon possessed myself of a volume, taking care that it should be one stored with pictures. I mounted into the window-seat: gathering up my feet, I sat cross-legged, like a Turk; and, having drawn the red moreen curtain nearly close, I was shrined in double retirement.

If not crimson, this curtain is at least red, and its power to induce a corresponding blush of embarrassment in the would-be “unsociable” text has not gone unexploited. In a recent reading of Jane Eyre, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak performs an adroit deconstruction of this scene, uncovering it as precisely a theatricalization of selfhood: grounded in this “scene of the marginalization and privatization of the protagonist,” the subsequent narrative may proceed to naturalize “[t]he battle for female individualism” as it “plays itself out within the larger theater of the establishment of meritocratic individualism, indexed in the aesthetic field by the ideology of ‘the creative imagination.’ ”[28] Rather like Jane Austen when she surfaces as the disruptively parodic Mrs. Norris, Spivak unpacks that ideology by deploying the theatrical metaphor in a frankly deidealizing way.

Nor are she and Kucich, who also emphasizes Brontë’s histrionics, the only critics to have insisted on pulling back the curtain that Brontë draws in front of her protagonist. Terry Eagleton, in his demythifying book on the Brontës, also seeks, in the aggressively noisy manner of the finale of Mansfield Park, to show theatricality writ large in a work that endeavors tirelessly to write it small. Eagleton anticipates my questioning of the heavily advertised contrast between Jane Eyre and a character like Blanche Ingram:

Jane, who shares Blanche’s liking for “devilish” men, knows better than she does how they are to be handled—when to exert her piquant will and when to be cajolingly submissive. .…Jane moves deftly between male and female roles in her courtship of Rochester; unlike Blanche, who is tall, dark, and dominating like Rochester himself, she settles astutely for a vicarious expression of her own competitive maleness through him. She preserves the proprieties while turning them constantly to her advantage, manipulating convention for both self-protection and self-advancement.[29]

While they have very different critical styles and even different political agendas—one traditionally “Marxist,” the other more ambitiously “Marxist-feminist”—both Eagleton and Spivak direct the corrosive trope of “theatricality” against what they see as a certain (petit-)bourgeois success story. Instead of joining Gilbert and Gubar in celebration of “plain Jane’s progress,” these two critics read that narrative as an allegory of the brilliant career of bourgeois or bourgeois-feminist ideology in general, a career whose success has depended in large part on its ability to mask or dull its very brilliance. Both, therefore, take us behind the scenes of this exemplary tale, exposing Brontë’s painstakingly achieved antitheatrical illusion so as to reveal what goes on behind the scenes—on the far side of the curtain—as an elaborate, highly tendentious scene in itself.

It should be clear by now that my own approach to the novel is closer to the demystifying school of Brontë criticism than to the celebratory one. But my aim in acknowledging and describing these prior interpretations has not been merely to take my place in line, a place that all too easily becomes a hiding place, a place behind. If it is important not to “cover up for” Charlotte Brontë by covering up theatricality along with her, it is equally important not to cover oneself in the prestigious mantle woven and worn by previous unmaskers. As we have seen, a certain unmasking is already dramatized in the novel itself: but what is most instructive about Jane’s desire to “pluck the mask” from Blanche, just as Brontë would “raise the gilding” (p. 36) from her own miniaturized Vanity Fair, is that the ensuing act of demystification, precisely because of the “excitation” it induces in the demystifier, has to subject itself to “ruthless restraint.” As we have also seen, the ruthlessness of this restraint affects both the object and the subject of demystification, although we have devoted more attention to the latter, since potentially violent self-discipline continues to seem somewhat anomalous in a novelist who invokes images of “open country” and “fresh air” to advertise her art.

As for the literary critic, it ought not to surprise us that his or her “ruthlessness” should find an external object, whether in the canonical text, in its author, in its protagonist, or in some composite scapegoat: as popular usage implies, “criticism” has a certain reputation for being mean. In its relentlessly prosecutorial style, Eagleton’s reading, for one, epitomizes this destructive tendency—a tendency perhaps less obvious to academic critics than to those outside the profession. For though many of us are intermittently or vaguely aware of the aggressivity that informs our work in general, we may ignore not only the ceaselessness of its ruthless excitations but also the professional deformation whereby we restrain or repress them, to say nothing of the ruthlessness with which we do so. Indeed, our very ignorance of that deformation betokens the thing it both “actively” disregards and “passively” fails to know.[30] If these quotation marks would blur the hierarchical distinction between a deliberate act of ignoring and an involuntary state of unknowing, this is because I want to bring contemporary demystifying critics—who, in their apparent self-possession, might recall the reserved but savvy, ironic, and newly empowered Charlotte Brontë we glimpsed at the opera—a little closer to that even less glamorous and even more carefully guarded avatar of “the writer,” the governess named Jane Eyre. For if Jane represents the writer disciplined, it is hard to tell whether that discipline is self-discipline or rather the effect of certain imperious external constraints, whether it is administered willingly or unwillingly, consciously or unconsciously. Indeed, as we have seen, Brontë’s disciplining of the self that writes has the peculiar consequence of transforming what ought to look like a subjection to social control into what looks instead like a savingly asocial or at least antisocial condition. Likewise, those of us who practice a deidealizing literary criticism most eloquently attest our embeddedness in the social precisely when, “accepting” the restraints of our discipline, we discreetly withdraw from the scene of our own readings.

Critics’ techniques of withdrawal can be as sophisticated as those practiced by, or upon, Brontë’s heroine. Eagleton’s reading may itself be a study in the “competitive maleness” he identifies in Jane, yet its deftly self-distancing effect of analytic mise en abîme at the same time renders it an impressive exercise in the art of “vicarious expression” he attributes to her as well. Spivak, for her part, thematizes the veiling of her own authorial performance as a pragmatic refusal to theatricalize the “author” of the novel along with its protagonist: she chooses “rather strategically to take shelter in an essentialism which, not wishing to lose the important advantages won by U.S. mainstream feminism, will continue to honor the suspect binary oppositions—book and author, individual and history.”[31] And it is no doubt clear that my dilation upon other critics’ defenses has served a dilatory and defensive purpose in its own right. One might argue, moreover, that this chapter’s relative generality or even diffidence thus far with respect to the specific social—for example, sexual and class—determinants of Jane’s behavior has served as a not-so-reliable screen for certain rather undelightful social aggressivities of my own. Yet I hope that it will not seem merely defensive if I suggest, first, that this diffidence is in large part a temporary response to the necessity for a preliminary analysis of Brontë’s own evasion of social specification, and, second, that the interpretive ruthlessness it would occlude is itself a response to my fear that, as a teacher who writes, as a disciplined subject, far from being safely superior to Brontë’s literary governess, I am in fact insufficiently differentiated from her.

In the next section of this chapter, I will attempt to specify the social role that, precisely by virtue of its Brontëan “unsociability,” the demystifying school of literary criticism has in common with the “disciplined…character” known as Jane Eyre.[32] It might be objected that, even if this analogy demonstrates a structural affinity, it may seem to overlook the obvious difference between the overwhelming “subjectivity-effect” of Brontëan discourse and the constitutive facelessness of most academic criticism. Yet I hope that what follows will be justified by its delineation of a performative dimension that academic “objectivity” might share, surprisingly enough, with Brontëan “subjectivity.” For if we can see what it is that effects that “subjectivity,” we may be able to see not only how effectively it responds to social pressures, but also how closely the decorum of criticism maintains an active repression not unlike Jane Eyre’s. If, in our more or less ruthless unmasking of that unmasker in the text, a certain transferential logic apparently compels us to repeat the double gesture whereby Jane catches others in the act of theatricality while at the same time concealing the traces of her own theatrical implication, we can at least attempt to analyze that logic, to interrogate the motives that sustain us in this productive inconsistency. We can ask, that is, not only how a curtain gets drawn in front of a certain drama of reading, but also why and on whose account it may be useful, as Spivak suggests, thus partially “to ignore the lessons of deconstruction.”[33] Obviously, not all dramas of reading are the same, and the annals of recent criticism would no doubt show that there are many ways of “ignoring” deconstruction while seeming to honor it. The point is not to totalize diverse readings of Brontë’s novel, much less to collapse those readings into the equally spurious totality of the different readings performed in the novel. Rather, I hope to consider some of the strategies that governesses who write may share with other teachers who, in different ways, take up the pen to inscribe theatricality in the novel.

In the middle of the Ingrams’ stay at Thornfield, the theatricality that suffuses the episode finds its most “direct expression” in the charades that the company performs. “They spoke of ‘playing charades,’ ” Jane tells us, “but in my ignorance I did not understand the term” (p. 211). As is the case with Jane’s other professions of “ignorance,” and with the professional “ignorance” or self-effacing “restraint” commonly assumed by professors of literature in their role as writers of criticism, we are confronted not with the inertness of a mere lack or negation but with a powerfully signifying opacity. Positing a gap at the level of cognition, this assertion of “ignorance” comes heavily charged with performative potential. Though Jane’s “ignorance” excuses her from participating in the charades, as Rochester invites her to do, it provides her with the leading role in a far more important, if more covert, play.

A few pages before Jane recounts the stages of her “ceaseless surveillance,” we join her in a less obviously anxious phase of her spectatorship, watching the charades along with her. What is most striking about this lengthy and thematically pregnant passage is not Jane’s response to it but rather her apparent neutrality: the narrative here consists primarily of description, forgoing the evaluative and meditative exfoliations that characterize so many other passages in the novel. This relative neutrality indicates, of course, that Jane’s countertheatrical screen is already in place. But the obscurity thus procured for her—an obscurity that Jane would rather have us read as obtuseness—has an uncanny analogue in the obscurity generically inherent in the charades themselves: spectator and spectacle are linked in a complicity that Brontë manages artfully to dissemble, mainly by diverting our gaze from the narrator and fixing it instead on the tableaux vivants executed in front of her. So subtle is this distraction that, unless the reader pays particular attention to architectural details that the critical eye is trained merely to scan as so much stage direction, he or she will not notice that the stage for this performance is nothing other than the drawing-room in which Jane has been stationed so as to seem quintessentially nontheatrical. “The drawing-room, as I have before observed, was raised two steps above the dining room” (p. 212); we have probably not observed, however, that it was Jane, before it was the dazzling band of ladies, who loomed on such a platform, and that it was she, not they, who thus stood poised for unveiling within the confines of the room’s implicitly dramatic arch. At any rate, when the curtain rises, now enlisted in an avowedly (if amateurishly) theatrical enterprise, it discloses three consecutive, elaborately mounted tableaux: the first representing “the pantomime of a marriage” (p. 212) between Rochester and Blanche; the second, a small triumph of orientalist mise en scène, depicting the same two characters as “Eliezer and Rebecca” (p. 213) beside a well; the third displaying a “begrimed” (p. 213) Rochester in a prison cell. At the end of this sequence, the members of the audience solve the charade, whose three scenes denote “Bridewell Prison.” As if to proffer further evidence of her “ignorance,” however, Jane does not pause to underscore the semantic implications of this signifier; instead, when the other spectators ascend the stage to perform their own charade, she continues to watch Rochester and Blanche, who, though now spectators themselves, remain spectacularized as a result of Jane’s increasingly excited and ruthless—but at the same time supposedly naïve and out-of-it—vigilance.

Indeed, a generalized interchangeability of spectator and spectacle seems by now to be one of the defining features of both Brontëan and Austenian theatricality. Yet, we have also seen how much of Brontë’s (and, to a somewhat lesser extent, of Austen’s) energy goes into the masking of the heroine’s participation in these reversals. In the passage in question, it is precisely Jane’s muteness with respect to the charade’s meaning that deflects attention from any similarity between that nonresponse and the “dumb show” (p. 212) enacted before our eyes, or between her inscrutability as an observer and the “darkness” (cosmetically as well as hermeneutically guaranteed) of the charade itself. The rules of the game require that the “diviners” (p. 214) become actors in their turn, but Jane appears exempt from this otherwise obligatory transformation of cognition into performance. Just as Brontë severs the connection between opacity and the blinding glitter that might resemble it too closely for comfort, so she forestalls any recognition of the symmetrical relationship between Jane’s illegibility and that of the enigmatic tableaux: whereas the latter are made to suggest a potentially uncontrollable excess (of meaning), the former is manipulated so as to look like an antithetical and merely static lack (of interpretation). The danger readily illustrated for Jane is that she might end up like the interpreters in the audience, forced into excessive performance herself: “interpretation,” after all, is also another name for “acting.”

In playing dumb, however, Jane in fact does something quite specific, albeit without appearing to do anything at all. What Jane’s “ignorance” does is nothing less than to articulate the rhetorical and social topography of the novel. For this “ignorance” is itself articulated or internally divided. On the one hand, it functions as an index of class inferiority, marking Jane’s distance from the “showy” aristocrats in whose sophisticated games she must not participate. On the other hand, insofar as she chooses not to participate, it may be inferred that Jane’s “ignorance” affords her a certain privilege as well. If “ignorance” stands out as one of the novel’s favorite signifiers for social repression or restraint, it also belongs to an apparently antithetical set of valuations, in which negativity turns into a virtue, in which privation gets cathected as a positive force. That is, the very minimalness of Jane’s social literacy, and the attendant exiguity of her social surface, become the ground for her rhetorical authority, an authority signaled early in the novel when, with a kind of grudging admiration, another character says of the young heroine, “I never saw a girl of her age with so much cover” (p. 44). Figured as “so much cover,” Jane’s density, which we have identified as a certain obtuseness, can be transvalued as a kind of protopoetic compaction analogous to the Freudian dream-work, with its “complex” effects of condensation, displacement, and overdetermination.

“You can’t judge a book by its cover”: Jane’s “ignorance” renders her both unknowing and, more honorifically, unknowable; it can associate her both with unconsciousness—construed rather flatly as a lack of information or experience—and with the unconscious—construed much more generously as an active, if occulted, source of meaning and energy. Jane’s bookish cover adumbrates the subversive potential that lies hidden within the socially and psychologically repressed, a potential all the greater for being “linguistic” rather than “real.” Emblematically, when Rochester calls Jane “inexplicable” and “uncanny” (p. 289), the prestigious resonance of these epithets cancels out the negativity of their prefixes. Invested with an aura of textuality that befits a titular heroine, Jane Eyre challenges us to penetrate her cover, to join Rochester in thinking, “An unusual—to me—a perfectly new character, I suspected was yours: I desired to search it deeper and know it better” (p. 340). And when, under such (implicitly violent) hermeneutic pressure, Jane proudly proclaims, “But I have a veil—it is down” (p. 272), she is trading on the conventional wisdom that detects in victimhood and repression a blessing in disguise.

Because of its cunning mobilization of “ignorance,” Jane Eyre is indeed one of the major sites of the convention—central to modern ideology, political and literary—that dissociates rhetorical (and ontological) power from social power, producing a chiasmus in which the inferiority of oppressed or marginalized groups virtually guarantees their latent, but all the more disruptive, eloquence, while the politically and economically powerful, trading eloquence for elegance, surrender their linguistic hegemony and assume a corrupt idiom that is itself “merely” conventional. Under this chiastic dispensation, the episode of the charades, for example, can never become an effective locus of what a “subversive” literary criticism might wish to see as Derridean free play. However seductively “textual” it may seem, this potentially disseminative interlude is reduced to the status of a trivial pursuit: textuality has been dissociated from theatricality, the former imbued, oddly enough, with an almost logocentric inexpressibility and depth—as in, “I desired to search it deeper”—and the latter deflated, rendered superficial and frivolous. Like the private theatricals in Mansfield Park, the charades end up signifying nothing more subversive than the fabled vacuity and/or promiscuity of the upper classes, who represent “social exchange” at its most mindless. In contrast, Jane’s wise “ignorance” at once saves her from this linguistic fate and affiliates her with the mystifyingly exalted community of those who, could they speak, would utter the parole pleine of truth and authenticity. For if Jane is flanked on one side by Vanity Fair—by “a world of self-marketing Célines and Blanches”—she adjoins on the other side the more figurative but therefore more formidable community of the dispossessed and the incarcerated—the world most aptly symbolized by Jane’s “truest and darkest double,” The Madwoman in the Attic. As Gilbert and Gubar’s canonizing title implies, Bertha is indeed the internalized—the interned—character par excellence; and when, in the famous, ominous scene of her nocturnal visit to Jane’s room, she throws Jane’s bridal veil over her face, the first Mrs. Rochester reminds her successor of the considerable mystique that attaches to those who know how to remain under cover, even when, as in this instance, they are on the loose.

I am suggesting that Jane’s inwardness, far from constituting an end in itself, performs a specific kind of cultural work. To say that Jane functions as an ideological placeholder would exaggerate, but not misstate, her representational role. By cultivating an inaccessible interiority, Jane ultimately and crucially protects not herself but the larger chiastic rewriting of power relations that her “ignorance” makes possible. That the demand for this intermediacy issues not only from within the novel but, perhaps more importunately, from extratextual sources may become clear if we consider a contemporary review of Jane Eyre, a review that is also a telling discussion of the lot of the Victorian governess. The reviewer, Elizabeth Rigby, writes:

The line which severs the governess from her employers is not one which will take care of itself, as in the case of a servant. If she sits at table she does not shock you—if she opens her mouth she does not distress you—her appearance and manners are likely to be as good as your own—her education rather better; there is nothing upon the face of the thing to stamp her as having been called to a different state of life from that in which it has pleased God to place you; and therefore the distinction has to be kept up by a fictitious barrier which presses with cruel weight upon the mental strength or constitutional vanity of a woman.[34]

As we will see when we turn to Rigby’s specific remarks on Brontë’s governess, her compassion does not preclude the most stringently prescriptive attitude toward its objects. For though she laments the “cruel weight” resulting from the very groundlessness or arbitrariness of “the line which severs the governess from her employers,” what concerns Rigby about this “fictitious” distinction is less the suffering its peremptoriness imposes upon the former than the danger to which its tenuity exposes the latter. “The distinction has to be kept up”: otherwise, the “employer” addressed both as the destinataire (“you”) and as the real subject of this discourse might find himself—and more important, the “ladies” of his social class—uncomfortably close to the marketplace from which the governess has emerged. As M. Jeanne Peterson, Mary Poovey, and Nancy Armstrong have shown, the Victorian governess virtually embodied the deconstructibility of her culture’s opposition between “lady” and “prostitute.” An irremediably vexing symptom of tensions within middle-class life, “[s]he was educated to be a ‘nosegay’ to adorn her ‘papa’s drawing room,’ and as a governess she had sold herself as an ornament to display her employer’s prestige.”[35] What makes the governess so unwelcome a presence within the middle-class home is her accentuation not of the pathetic disparity between her intended fate and her real one, but rather of the more painful affinity between “nosegay” and “ornament” as tropes of quasi-theatrical ostentation.

Constantly threatening to uncover the precariousness of the polarization of idealized female domesticity on the one hand and dreaded female commerce on the other, the governess always already plays an intermediate role—a disturbingly intermediate role as deconstructive thorn-in-the-side—that necessitates her ideological refashioning in a more reassuringly intermediate role as emblem of interiority. Almost intrinsically a site of “social exchange”—a figure for the transgressive circulation of social meanings—the governess must be reconceived in a way that re-covers her and that thereby covers up her exacerbating potential. If she cannot help occupying a liminal position in the class and gender system of Victorian culture, then perhaps that position can be buttressed or hypostatized so as to separate the identities it might otherwise conjoin. Thus, Rigby’s apparently empathetic discourse, regretting the “fictitious barrier which presses with cruel weight upon the mental strength or constitutional vanity of a woman,” simultaneously constitutes both that barrier and the woman whose task is henceforth to “keep it up.” And if, in bearing, internalizing, and so eventually becoming this ruthless restraint, the disciplined governess must repress the “vanity” of her theatrical (i.e., female) nature, the compensation for this pressing upkeep is a ceaseless excitation of her “mental strength,” which impresses upon her the profundity of the subjectifying (i.e., female) work she performs, and brings comfort to the “employers” whose homes she thereby defends.

Admittedly, it might appear rather odd to view Jane Eyre’s pivotal “ignorance” as consistent with the kind of disciplinary fiction dictated by Rigby. After all, the product of the former—a triptych with Bertha on one side, Céline, Adèle, and Blanche on the other side, and Jane in the middle—does not seem ideally congruent with the aim of the latter—a hierarchy with the “lady” on top, the “prostitute” on the bottom, and the long-suffering governess in the middle. The two models appear to have nothing more in common than the same medial figure. Rigby in fact disliked Jane Eyre, denouncing its heroine as “the personification of an unregenerate and undisciplined spirit” (emphasis added).[36] Nor is it particularly difficult to understand this hostility: in unmasking Blanche as a “bad” actress—as a more respectable, home-grown version of Céline—Brontë’s heroine inscribes the very confusion that Rigby would prohibit. But before we decide that Brontë’s deconstructive unmaskings are automatically “subversive,” let us consider—as Rigby does not—the way in which they might actually promote Rigby’s project.

I would argue that, while one might want to read it as a gesture of defiance, Brontë’s fictional work goes a long way toward constructing the fictitious barrier Rigby prescribes; the novel’s debunking of certain binary oppositions may thus serve as a kind of alibi. Indeed, Brontë’s defensive strategy is even shrewder than Rigby’s. For where Rigby, though reinforcing the boundary that barely differentiates the governess from her employer, would thereby merely hold the line between the still more unsettlingly similar categories of (domestically theatrical) “nosegay” and (commercially theatrical) “ornament,” Brontë redraws the social map by superimposing on the vulnerable opposition between home and marketplace what looks like a more radical opposition between an interior now defined as “psychological” and an exterior now defined as “social.” That is, since Blanche Ingram (the “lady”) already bears too great a resemblance to Céline Varens (the “prostitute”), Brontë deconstructs both of them into the same inferior category, and provides, on the far side of the governess, the heavy ballast of the id-like Bertha. That Bertha is “demonic” rather than “ladylike,” moreover, hardly detracts from her stabilizing power: her very extremity testifies to the vastness of the psychic space capable of containing her. And contain her is just what Jane Eyre does, constituting, by virtue of her own “depth,” a barrier behind which the Madwoman lurks as the internalized or repressed “truth” of the redomesticated female subject. Rigby would defend upper-middle-class and would-be upper-middle-class women on the basis of social privilege alone, a privilege she knows to be threatened by its beneficiaries’ lack of any corresponding physical, intellectual, or psychological distinction: she admits that, in “appearance,” “manners,” and “education,” the governess is likely to be equal if not superior to her employers. Brontë, however, places her governess at the frontier of a brave new world of female subjectivity, a world that can include not only the demonic Bertha, at its furthest limit, but also, in its great normative middle distance, the same women Rigby protects, though less effectually, without benefit of Brontë’s empowering cover of redefined and expanded “privacy.”[37]

Brontë’s governess, then, figures not an alternative to confinement but a better form of confinement, one that offers both shelter and a semblance of liberation. A novel that seems to organize itself into a series of rooms and houses, Jane Eyre may be said to comprise three main symbolic spaces, which we can call “Gothic,” “Brontëan,” and “Austenian,” to give a more authoritative sound to the madwoman/governess/prostitute triad. And if the Brontëan enclosure, characterized by the dense psychic layering that makes it a barrier as well, nonetheless seems compatible with effects of “open country” and “fresh air,” this is because Brontë positions her heroine strategically between the unspeakably “dark” recesses inhabited and personified by Bertha Mason, and the discreditably “glittering” exteriority inhabited and personified by Blanche, Céline, Adèle and company.[38] Polarizing two distinct sets of literary conventions—on the one hand, “the dark images of the Gothic,” in Raymond Williams’s phrase; on the other, the “worldliness” epitomized by Jane Austen—the Brontëan heroine is thus also confined and implicitly conventionalized by them, if only through metonymic contact. And yet, the structure so produced persists in looking like an escape from structures and conventions and constraints—in short, from the sorts of alterity that usually count, in modern critical parlance anyway, as “the social.” To be sure, the intermediate space that Brontë maps out seems to exhibit a distinct antigravitational tendency toward the Gothic attic. But Brontë’s psychologizing appropriation of that place and of the literary tradition it emblematizes, an appropriation that critics have recognized for some time now, is “novel” only in the sense that a novel, as Mansfield Park has shown us, is itself a conventional structure in which a theater lies concealed. The Brontëan middle, and the disjunction it signifies, are as socially determined, and as socially performative, as both the Gothic upstairs and the more overtly stagy Austenian downstairs.

Nowhere is Brontë more effective in her public relations, of course, than when she persuades even her most socially sensitive critics that her fiction furnishes an essentially private site in which, as if for the first time, “passion” can be either “directly expressed” (Williams again), or, as Kucich would have it, indirectly expressed but with an even more antisocial result. As I have been suggesting, Jane Eyre can perform its ideological duty only if it disguises that performance. Early in Jane’s relationship with Rochester—who incarnates social power in this novel and who also, it turns out, is himself a master of disguise—that imperious employer gives her a lesson both in the task she will be expected to carry out and in the proper means of domesticating or effacing it. In this virtually primal scene of instruction, Rochester tells Jane the story of how Adèle came to be “transplanted” from France to England. It is this narration, as we have noted, that particularly scandalized Victorian readers. Rigby, for example, complains of how Rochester “pours into [Jane’s] ears disgraceful tales of his past life, connected with the birth of Adèle.”[39] But just as the transplant in question intends a homeopathic effect, supposedly defending the world of the novel against the theatricality that Adèle represents, so this narrative-within-a-narrative goes out of its way to declare its innocuousness. Rochester, in fact, pauses in the middle of his story to reassure Jane of her immunity from it: “I know what sort of mind I have placed in communication with my own: I know it is one not liable to take infection” (p. 174). Always a quick learner, Jane echoes her teacher’s “knowledge” when, musing on his story, she remarks that “there was probably nothing at all extraordinary in the substance of the narrative itself” (p. 177). If Rochester has greater faith in Jane’s “mental strength” than Rigby has, his disciplinary procedure requires that premise as fundamentally as Rigby’s ideological fiction needs the support that it too presses into service; and while the placidity of Rochester’s pupil and the tremulousness of Rigby’s governed governess may seem incommensurate, Jane, as we have seen, is indeed capable of the agitation—what Rochester in fact forecasts for her here as “whirl and tumult, foam and noise” (p. 173)—that, in complementing her outward calm, proves her interiority to be so usefully receptive.

The “substance” of Rochester’s narrative is his affair with Céline Varens. Rochester tells Jane of how Céline betrayed him and abandoned Adèle, whom he subsequently rescued from “the slime and mud of Paris.” In narrating his discovery of Céline’s faithlessness, Rochester stages his spectatorship in a way that seems to anticipate Jane’s equally vengeful acts of consumption. Waiting for his “opera inamorata” (p. 173) one night on the “balcony” (p. 172) outside her boudoir, he sees her returning to her hotel with another man. “Prepar[ing] an ambush,” he “dr[aws] the curtain” (p. 175) in front of the balcony window, through an aperture of which he may thus, like Jane, “see without being seen.” But that Rochester is in fact demonstrating the necessary difference between himself and Jane is signaled by the conspicuous absence from his surveillance of any of the voyeuristic titillation that animates hers. For whatever “excitation” he may have been feeling subsides at the very point where he would seem most susceptible to it—as soon, that is, as he begins to witness the spectacle of his betrayal and ridicule: “They [Céline and her lover] began to talk; their conversation eased me completely: frivolous, mercenary, heartless, and senseless, it was rather calculated to weary than enrage a listener” (p. 175). And if the frivolity of the scene is matched by the boredom of the spectator—if Rochester refuses to get excited—he exempts himself equally from the rigors of restraint. For he responds to this potentially enraging experience not only by coming out into the open, but then by concluding this particular charade with a brisk finesse all the more pointed for the bad acting that serves as its foil:

Opening the window, I walked in upon them; liberated Céline from my protection; gave her notice to vacate her hotel; offered her a purse for immediate exigencies; disregarded screams, hysterics, prayers, protestations, convulsions; made an appointment with the vicomte for a meeting at the Bois de Boulogne. Next morning I had the pleasure of encountering him; left a bullet in one of his poor etiolated arms, feeble as the wing of a chicken in the pip, and then thought I had done with the whole crew.

It turns out, of course, that Rochester cannot quite dismiss “the whole crew”: instead, he is forced to transplant the noxiously Parisian Adèle into what he (rather misleadingly) calls “the wholesome soil of an English country garden” (p. 176). Yet insofar as Rochester persists in denying that he is Adèle’s father, this transplant neatly figures appropriation as disavowal, and inscription as erasure. And if the graft in question thus has a dismissive effect after all, that effect derives not so much from the aristocratic insouciance of Rochester’s irony as from the domesticating receptivity of Jane’s “mind,” whose capacity for assimilation his didactic narrative has been seeking to establish. For in this lesson, Rochester has implicitly but forcefully been impressing upon the governess the need for her governance, not just of her “protégée” (p. 176), Adèle, but also of the mind he has posited in her, and therefore of the potential promiscuity of social exchange—of the social in the most dangerously inclusive sense—that his own Byronic circulation appears to signify. Jane dutifully notes of this and other “conferences” (p. 177):

I, indeed, talked comparatively little, but I heard him talk with relish. It was his nature to be communicative; he liked to open to a mind unacquainted with the world, glimpses of its scenes and ways (I do not mean its corrupt scenes and wicked ways, but such as derived their interest from the great scale on which they were acted, the strange novelty by which they were characterized); and I had a keen delight in receiving the new ideas he offered, in imagining the new pictures he portrayed, and following him in thought through the new regions he disclosed, never startled or troubled by one noxious allusion.

As an upper-class man, Rochester obviously has greater mobility—and less anxiety about it—than does, say, an upper-class woman. Not so differently from a writer like Rigby, however, Rochester still insists on the necessity of a fictitious barrier to hold “the world” in place, to regulate the flow of social meanings. What better barrier than his newly employed governess, who, equipped with a disciplined, densely structured mind, positively “delight[s] in receiving,” and absorbing, all the “tumult” that the narratives of his Byronic theatricality can “open to” her. Indeed, Jane sees herself not as a captive audience but as an expansive consciousness privileged to capture the “novelty” that informs Rochester’s “scenes.” Subsuming these scenes “in thought,” containing these tableaux by “imagining” them, Jane affirms the psychological novel’s ability to suppress the “corrupt” and “noxious” associations of the material it incorporates.

For though Jane denies even the corrupt content of Rochester’s stories (to say nothing of their corrupting influence), we may prefer to view that denial as part of a cover-up, in whose distinctive methods Rochester himself has been giving her careful on-the-job training. In narrating for Jane the “frivolous” but admittedly “slimy” scene of Céline’s unmasking, for instance, he has also allegorized for her edification, and thus for the strengthening of the social order itself, the appropriately antiseptic, antitheatrical—one might even say “novelizing”—response to it. As if to drive home the lesson he has been teaching, moreover, Rochester, in the middle of recounting this meretricious French melodrama (or is it a farce?), “portrays” what thus becomes a kind of scene within a scene; and the embedded scene not only has the same infectious potential as the foreign affair, but indeed strikes dangerously close to home:

He ground his teeth and was silent: he arrested his step and struck his boot against the hard ground. Some hated thought seemed to have him in its grip, and to hold him so tightly that he could not advance—

We were ascending the avenue when he thus paused; the hall was before us. Lifting his eyes to its battlements, he cast over them a glare, such as I never saw before or since. Pain, shame, ire—impatience, disgust, detestation—seemed momentarily to hold a quivering conflict in the large pupil dilating under his ebon eyebrow. Wild was the wrestle which should be paramount; but another feeling rose and triumphed: something hard and cynical; self-willed and resolute: it settled his passion and petrified his countenance: he went on—

“During the moment I was silent, Miss Eyre, I was arranging a point with my destiny. She stood there by that beech trunk—a hag like one of those who appeared to Macbeth on the heath at Forres. ‘You like Thornfield?’ she said, lifting her finger; and then she wrote in the air a memento, which ran in lurid hieroglyphics all along the house front, between the upper and lower row of windows, ‘Like it if you can! Like it if you dare!’ ”

An inscription of the novel’s Gothic subtext, this passage also records the theatrical implications of that subtext, which the novel frames more often as its buried, repressed, incarcerated “truth,” as a signified so private and internal as to transcend theatricality, intimating instead a realm of peculiarly logocentric écriture, of unspeakable textuality. Indeed, if—to borrow Gilbert and Gubar’s admirable pun—Bertha Mason has to be shut up, this is because the novel cannot risk the contradiction of too obvious or too frequent a staging of its deepest and “darkest” secret; and if the witch of Thornfield nonetheless manages the occasional escape, what these sorties display more crucially, as we have seen, is Jane’s ability—far greater than Grace Poole’s—to front for and thereby recontain her. As Rochester’s pupil and narratee, Jane is in fact being trained in this recuperative function. What completes the lesson, however, is not so much Rochester’s Macbeth-like exchange with his “destiny” as Adèle’s interruption of it, or rather the exemplary use to which Rochester puts that interruption:

Adèle here ran before him with her shuttlecock.

“Away!” he cried harshly; “keep at a distance, child; or go in to Sophie!” Continuing then to pursue his walk in silence, I ventured to recall him to the point whence he had abruptly diverged—

“Did you leave the balcony, sir,” I asked, “when Mdlle Varens entered?”

I almost expected a rebuff for this hardly well-timed question: but, on the contrary, waking out of his scowling abstraction, he turned his eyes towards me, and the shade seemed to clear off his brow.

A certain “abruptness” indeed renders the passage itself oddly resistant to naturalistic interpretation. Paternal (or, as Rochester insists, nonpaternal) resentment is not enough to account for the “harshness” with which he “rebuffs” Adèle. Adèle’s sudden appearance, moreover, seems as unmotivated as the verbal violence that greets it. I would argue that her interruption acts, in its own almost comically contingent way, as a kind of shuttlecock in its own right, providing an accidental though no less unwelcome link between the inscription of Céline on the one hand and the inscription of (and by) the “hag” on the other. Intruding on Rochester’s quasi-Shakespearean scene, and issuing from the tonally and thematically disparate story of the actress-prostitute who is her mother, Adèle figures the threat of a relay between the very rhetorical registers the novel strives to segregate. As a result of such a relay, it might become difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between the Gothic and the Austenian, between the psychological and the social, between the internal and the external, between the unconscious and the “calculating,” between the uncanny and the frivolous, between the demonic and the merely “mercenary.”

For despite their respective excesses, it is not so much any intrinsic content that makes both the story of Céline and the dialogue with the hag so potentially harmful; rather, the real danger lies in the possibility that they will infect each other. Hence Rochester’s command: “Keep at a distance, child; or go in to Sophie!” In ordering Adèle to go in, he prepares her for the domesticating discipline he is busy teaching her teacher. That the object of his anger is female should not come as a surprise, since the object of his instruction is female as well. Rochester makes an example of Adèle, repelling her for having enacted the very boundary-crossing that her governess, as formed by his pedagogy, must prevent, precisely by upholding the fictitious barrier of her own inwardness. And the arbitrariness of that weighty charge is merely hinted at by the apparent arbitrariness with which Rochester treats Adèle.

Again, though, Jane learns her lesson well. “Recalling” Rochester from his Gothic-Shakespearean seizure to the story of Céline, she need not fear the same treatment Adèle has just received, since the very recalling re-marks—rather than compromises—the boundary in question. Jane has understood the responsibilities of her “post” (p. 176)—or, more specifically, her responsibilities as post, as both support and marker. Indeed, the pupil’s progress is registered immediately and gratifyingly on the teacher’s face, as “the shade seemed to clear off his brow.” Through this clearing, Jane’s readiness for her appointed work finds its index on her master’s closely watched, heavily meaning-laden countenance. I would suggest, moreover, that the precondition for—or the necessary counterweight to—the novel’s insistent and intensive representational heightening of the worldly, if world-weary, Rochester is precisely the heaviness and density of Jane’s internalizing discourse. The point is not just the obvious one that Rochester is on display only because Jane’s first-person narrative has produced him; rather, I am arguing almost the opposite case, that the social power for which Rochester stands has in a sense produced or called forth the narrative in or on which he stands. Jane Eyre is thus a kind of command performance that, rigorously veiling its performative exigencies and efficacies, militates not only against a possible slippage of class boundaries within the division of female symbolic labor, but also against an inordinate confusion or extravagance of meanings within a certain world of male social exchange as well.

In other words, the theatrical glamorization of a wealthy and powerful man like Rochester depends upon the antitheatrical subordination of a poor and powerless woman like Jane Eyre. For example, if Rochester’s fantasm of “lurid hieroglyphics” already threatens a parodic or hyperbolic collapse of Gothic inscription into the “hysterics” of the bad boulevard drama that frames it, and if that framing itself sets the stage for contamination, Rochester can indulge with impunity in these deconstructive flirtations, because, after all, he has trained the governess to keep up the very distinctions that, as his class and gender entitle him to do, he plays at breaking down.[40] It is he who owns the shuttlecock, and who determines both its frolicsome appearance and its abrupt disappearance. He knows, that is, that after the scene of Jane’s instruction, she will know how to separate—how to mark the incongruity between—the less clearly disciplinary scenes that he has been combining in an almost “carnivalesque” way. We have already noted the docility of the words with which she begins this cleanup operation:

As he had said, there was probably nothing at all extraordinary in the substance of the narrative itself: a wealthy Englishman’s passion for a French dancer, and her treachery to him, were everyday matters enough, no doubt, in society; but there was something decidedly strange in the paroxysm of emotion which had suddenly seized him when he was in the act of expressing the present contentment of his mood, and his newly revived pleasure in the old hall and its environs. I meditated wonderingly on this incident.

“Meditat[ing] wonderingly,” Jane thereby in effect reinstates the basis for Rochester’s “newly revived” domestic “contentment,” a sense of security located narratively, and regrounded discursively, in the space between scenes.

It is tempting, of course, to relieve Jane of this socially useful but unglamorous work of interposition, so that the novel’s apparently “carnivalesque” theatrics may be imagined as extending not only to her but—as if through her—to “the reader” as well. Helena Michie, for instance, writes:

Reading Jane Eyre is a veritable masquerade in which neither the reader nor the character can consistently tell the difference between mask and reality. Throughout the novel both Jane and Rochester try on a series of disguises and personae that grow more and more complex at the point of apparent unveiling. Jane’s “discovery” that Rochester is the gypsy, for instance, only complicates matters and generates new questions about their respective roles. For Jane, even more than Rochester, the novel is a series of costume fittings that focus on the central contradictions between heroine and dependent.[41]

Though, as I began by suggesting, Brontë’s novels are indeed far more theatrical than either she or some of her most influential critics would have us believe, I have been arguing for most of this chapter that Jane Eyre, at any rate, has to restrain or to conceal its heroine’s theatricality. And if Jane’s consequent subjectification provides a cover for the women of the employers’ class—women whose domesticity might otherwise seem perilously close to the conditions of social exchange from which it would signify an escape—this subjectification also works to neutralize the more expansive and promiscuous social exchange mythically enacted by upper-class men, whose circulation constitutes not one side of the social map but rather an incessant movement back and forth across it.

What this means in terms of Michie’s argument is that Rochester may be seen to “try on a series of disguises and personae” to the precise extent that Jane may not. Rochester may play the gypsy, but Jane must play the spectator. In that showy set-piece of a scene, he is free to transform his body into a site of contradictions, where the maleness of his scrutinizing gaze collides with the femaleness of his “masquerade,” or where the temporary “darkness” of his gypsy persona underscores the permanent “darkness” of both his person and his character, and thus seems to deconstruct the opposition between the psychic “darkness” of Gothic repression (Bertha) and the much less scary hermeneutic “darkness” of the charades (Blanche). But the reason these intimations of heteroglossia seem neither threatening nor particularly liberating is that Jane can be counted upon to resist them: “I believe you have been trying to draw me out—or in; you have been talking nonsense to make me talk nonsense” (p. 231). Such obdurate perspicacity keeps the focus of the narrative away from Jane’s “costume fittings” and from the “central contradictions between heroine and dependent,” ostentatiously investing Rochester alone with the authority to embody social contradictions yet thereby debunking such contradictions as so much “nonsense.” For if the festive destabilizing of sexual, racial, and generic categories comes oddly to seem the exclusive right of the powerful, the tendentious casting of the “aristocracy” in that role makes “subversion” look even more archaic and innocuous, especially in light of what Gilbert and Gubar call Jane’s “unseduceable independence.”[42]

To maintain the illusion of this independence from an ultimately inconsequential world of profligate social exchange, Brontë usually avoids the analogy between reading and masquerade. The numerous scenes in the novel that center on the more or less aggressive or painful analysis of others employ textual rather than theatrical metaphors.[43] Significantly, the art form with which the heroine is associated is not acting but painting, which is associated in turn with both writing and “discipline” (p. 191).[44] And when Jane—under theatricalizing pressure—leaves Thornfield, she assumes not a mask but an “alias” (p. 363). Indeed, one could interpret each of her successive displacements in the course of the novel—from Gateshead Hall to Lowood School to Thornfield Hall to Moor House to Ferndean—as a way of extricating her from a situation in which her antitheatrical cover is in danger of being blown. When, for example, she escapes from St. John Rivers to return to Rochester, she is escaping not just lovelessness and authoritarianism, but an increasingly specular power-play, in which the histrionics of the play threaten to surpass the intensities of the power. Breaking away with the declaration, “My powers were in play and in force” (p. 445), she marshals the near-redundancy of “power…in force” to put “play” in its place, and to prefigure her final absorption into the asocial utopia of Ferndean.

By means of such strategies of absorption and displacement—strategies similar to those we have discussed in Mansfield Park—Brontë inscribes an even more sophisticated and elaborate technology of the self than Austen does. Yet the fantasy that Michie articulates, whereby, as in Austen’s parodic curtain call as Mrs. Norris, that technology may be undone and the novel may be reconceived—and, even better, experienced—as a masquerade, finds an unlikely source of encouragement in Rigby’s exuberantly punitive review of the novel. I have said that Rigby thought the character of Jane Eyre “undisciplined,” inadequate for the task of keeping up the fictitious barrier in front of a problematic domesticity. Not surprisingly, this inadequacy manifests itself as a certain theatricality: Brontë’s governess might sometimes look like “a noble, high-souled woman,” but Rigby—perhaps getting back at Brontë for having theatricalized the “lady”—exposes Jane as a “flippant, fifth-rate, plebeian actress.”[45]

Against my claim that Brontë’s discipline of the governess constitutes an even sturdier barrier than the one Rigby demands, Rigby would insist on the failure of that fiction. And, much as one would censure the appalling class animus that informs Rigby’s attack, one must admit that she may have a point. For there is often a sense in which Jane’s inwardness borders on—indeed, collapses into—the very staginess or bad acting from which it would distinguish itself. (Presumably, if Jane’s acting were better than “fifth-rate,” one would not notice it as acting, but would see only the noble, high-souled woman she now strains to impersonate.) “One” somehow knows what Rigby means when she writes, “One feels provoked as Jane Eyre stands before us.”[46] Impelled by an unmistakable ardor of discreditation, Rigby of course adduces her own examples; more decorously and discreetly, we might point to some of the “soliloquies” Jane delivers in the course of the book.[47] Yet, if the “failure” implicit in Blanche Ingram’s bad acting proves inseparable from Jane’s “success” as a heroine, perhaps we should pause to consider the possible virtues of Jane’s own bad acting, before lining up behind Rigby to take potshots at the would-be impostor.

We have already noted the Brontëan invagination whereby openness becomes inwardness, but we placed that process under the heading of “restraint.” When Rigby remarks that “governesses are said to be sly…but Jane out-governesses them all,” she identifies a reversal of that process—a turning outward of the inside—and she indicts it as precisely a refusal of restraint: “little Becky”—Becky Sharp of course, 1847’s other famous governess-turned-actress—“would have blushed for her.”[48] It is not always easy, however, to tell whether Jane is outside-in, or inside-out.[49] When Jane resists Rochester’s pseudocarnivalesque efforts “to draw [her] out—or in,” the obstinacy of her “self”-disciplinary in-folding overmasters the prepositional equivocation. But in other scenes, such as the humiliation or the unmasking of Blanche, where Jane’s excitation tends not to seem fully complicit with her restraint, a certain effect of “out-governessing” suggests that Brontë may be playing a game of fort/da with the disciplinary techniques that her work generally enforces.

Without going so far as to call that effect “subversive” or “carnivalesque,” we can at least differentiate it from the sort of deconstruction or demystification that ruthlessly restrains or ignores its own performance. There is of course no guarantee that demystification-as-masquerade will not be reenfolded within the disciplinary apparatus. Yet it may be useful to recall another one of our clusters of metaphors, and to remember that, precisely as a central figure in the chiastic redrawing of the social map, Jane Eyre’s compulsory “ignorance” already carries within itself an unpredictable potential for the very social exchange that it works ostensibly to segregate as “prostitution” or to trivialize as “aristocratic” errancy. Chiasmus, after all, is the rhetorical schematization of exchange. The intermediary can be both a protective barrier and a dangerously effective conductor of “antithetical” meanings. Like Jane Eyre, contemporary deconstructive teacher-critics, especially those who profess “strategically” “to ignore the lessons of deconstruction,” are positioned, just as “strategically,” between what is idealized as a transcendent (though not exactly “Gothic”) realm of truth and authority, to which we are thought to have privileged access—one has only to recall recent right-wing defenses of “the canon” and of “the Western tradition”—and what is projected—by left and right alike—as a degrading (though not exactly “Austenian”) marketplace. Because our intermediate space is both as necessary to the culture and as potentially deconstructive of it as is the intermediate space demarcated and maintained by Jane Eyre, we might learn from her a certain “sly,” if not “flippant,” way of occupying it.

I am implying not that deconstructive literary critics should simply become more theatrical—whatever that would mean—but that, by recognizing certain parallels between our own cultural instrumentality and that of a Victorian teacher-writer-unmasker like Jane Eyre, we might also recognize certain opportunities—under the very cover of our discipline—to be more socially and politically “provoking” than we sometimes think we are. In its very latency as a critical option, deconstruction-as-performance may have greater power to disturb than does deconstruction-as-cognition. In her dazzling essay on Freud’s case history of Dora, Jane Gallop suggests that “for psychoanalysis to be a site of radical contestation, Freud must assume his identification with the governess.”[50] For the governess, unlike the phallic mother (or, for that matter, the madwoman), is not only a troublesome source of sexual demystification, but in herself a demystifying emblem of social, and sexual, exchange. Criticism—especially deidealizing criticism—is often depicted as a stripping away of masks, but the critic—at least the academic critic—also wears a mask: the mask of the governess. Not by penetrating or—only somewhat less abusively—by lifting Jane Eyre’s cover, but by turning it inside-out so that it becomes visible as a mask, “the reader”—more often than not an alias for the professor of literature—expresses, covertly, his or her desire to “out-governess them all”: not merely to act out his or her role in the social script, but to act it badly, so as to transform a barrier and a surveillance post into a site, if not of radical contestation, then of an excitation that is not inevitably its own restraint.


1. Quoted in Clement Shorter, ed., The Brontës: Life and Letters, 2 vols. (1908; rpt. New York: Haskell House Publishers, 1969), 1:387.

2. On the Austen-Brontë dichotomy in Victorian criticism, see Elaine Showalter, A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), pp. 102–05.

3. Raymond Williams, The English Novel: From Dickens to Lawrence (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 61.

4. Shorter, ed., The Brontës: Life and Letters, 1:386.

5. This characterization of the cultural role of the novel is derived from a series of essays by D. A. Miller, collected in The Novel and the Police (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).

6. Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, ed. Q. D. Leavis (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966), pp. 35, 36. All quotations from the novel are taken from this edition. Subsequent page numbers will be included parenthetically in the text.

7. For a provocative discussion of the nonlinearity of Brontë’s plots in terms of the dynamics of Brontëan desire, see John Kucich, Repression in Victorian Fiction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), pp. 60–68.

8. From the Westminster Review’s 1860 review of Mill on the Floss; cited in Showalter, A Literature of Their Own, p. 104. On passionate expression in Brontë as a mode of opacity, see Kucich, Repression in Victorian Fiction, pp. 40–51.

9. An interesting context for Brontë is suggested by Edward Said, The World, The Text, and the Critic (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983). In “many modern novels,” writes Said, “The very problematic of textuality is neither eluded nor elided, but made into an explicit intentional and constitutive aspect of the narrative. Sterne comes to mind immediately, but so do Cervantes, Proust, Conrad, and many others. The point is that these motifs, which are the very ones in a sense constructed by Derrida’s criticism, already exist in narrative not as a hidden (hence inadvertent) element but as a principal one. Such texts cannot therefore be deconstructed, since their deconstruction has already been begun self-consciously by the novelist and by the novel. Thus this aspect of narrative poses the challenge, as yet not taken up, of what there is to be done after deconstruction is well under way, after the idea of deconstruction no longer represents elaborate intellectual audacity” (p. 193).

10. Matthew Arnold, The Letters of Matthew Arnold to Arthur Hugh Clough, ed. Howard Foster Lowry (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1932), p. 132.

11. In The English Novel, Williams observes: “What matters throughout is this private confidence, this mode of confession: the account given to a journal, a private journal, and then the act of writing includes—as it were involuntarily, yet it is very deliberate and conscious art—the awareness of the friend, the close one, the unknown but in this way intimate reader: the reader as the writer, while the urgent voice lasts” (p. 70). Williams is aware that what also matters here is the dissimulation of the act of writing as act, of the performance of the reader as performance.

12. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), pp. 367, 360. Subsequent references to this work will appear parenthetically in the text.

13. As we will see when we turn to Daniel Deronda, this construction has figured prominently in recent feminist criticism of George Eliot. For discussions that contextualize the stereotype(s) more generally, see Nina Auerbach, Woman and the Demon: The Life of a Victorian Myth (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982); Jonas Barish, The Antitheatrical Prejudice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981); Joan Rivière, “Womanliness as a Masquerade,” International Journal of Psychoanalysis 10 (1929): 303–13.

14. Jane’s performance here might lend itself to discussion in terms of what René Girard, in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure, trans. Yvonne Freccero (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972), calls “mimetic desire.” For a feminist and antihomophobic reframing of Girard’s model, see Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), esp. pp. 21–27. The important, complicated question of lesbian (and/or female homosocial) desire and identification in Brontë’s novels requires careful analysis; unfortunately, such analysis is somewhat beyond the scope of the present study.

15. Although it does not touch directly on Jane Eyre, Nina Auerbach’s “Alluring Vacancies in the Victorian Character,” Kenyon Review 8 (1986), 36–48, might be consulted in this regard.

16. Other examples in Brontë’s fiction include Zoraïde Reuter in The Professor, and Ginevra Fanshawe, Pauline Home, and Zélie St. Pierre in Villette; Alfred de Hamal in Villette is a significant male version of this usually female type.

17. Kucich, Repression in Victorian Fiction, pp. 40–41.

18. Williams writes, “People still have to fight past the governess to get to the Brontë sisters. I mean fight past the image, the depressing image, that is still taken for granted.…Seen from the middle-class way round, and especially from the male middle-class way, the governess as a figure is repressive, unfeminine, dowdy.…I don’t know how much I now need to insist on breaking the image: that deforming image which obscures—and is meant to obscure—a particular and general repression” (The English Novel, pp. 62–63).

19. Shorter, ed., The Brontës: Life and Letters 1:437.

20. Ibid.

21. Ibid., 443.

22. I allude here to Michael Fried’s Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980). In Fried’s work, “absorption” comprises a range of aesthetic techniques aimed at counteracting or dissembling theatricality, which, as I understand it—particularly with the help of the polemical essay, “Art and Objecthood,” in Gregory Battcock, ed., Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1968)—characterizes an inferior kind of art.

23. The paradigmatic scene in this regard would be that in which Helen Burns, having been found guilty of untidiness, is transformed into an exemplary text: “Next morning Miss Scatcherd wrote in conspicuous characters on a piece of pasteboard the word ‘Slattern,’ and bound it like a phylactery round Helen’s large, mild, intelligent, and benign-looking forehead. She wore it till evening, patient, unresentful, regarding it as a deserved punishment” (p. 105).

24. In “Film and the Masquerade: Theorising the Female Spectator,” Screen 23 (September–October 1982): 83, Mary Ann Doane has shown how, in the mainstream cinema, women’s “spectacles” are a dangerous signifier: “Glasses worn by a woman in the cinema do not generally signify a deficiency in seeing but an active looking, or even simply the fact of seeing as opposed to being seen. The intellectual woman looks and analyses, and in usurping the gaze she poses a threat to the entire system of representation. It is as if the woman had forcefully moved to the other side of the specular.” Hence the necessity, Doane argues, of the moment in films when the bespectacled woman removes her glasses, and is thereby almost magically “transformed into spectacle, the very object of desire” (p. 83). Yet the danger flirted with in Brontë’s letter is more ambiguous, since Brontë’s glasses threaten not only the dominant system of representation but also, given the potentially contaminating context, Brontë herself: she does not need to take off her spectacles to risk becoming a spectacle. Doane calls the cinematic cliché of “girls who wear glasses” a “heavily loaded moment of signification, a social knot of meaning” (p. 83). By keeping Jane Eyre out of the social spaces that she herself dares to enter, Brontë tends to disguise the ways in which the heroine is caught up in such social knots.

25. Robert B. Heilman has written: “The introduction of comedy as a palliative of straight Gothic occurs on a large scale when almost seventy-five pages are given to the visit of the Ingram-Eshton party to mysterious Thornfield; here Charlotte, as often in her novels, falls into the manner of the Jane Austen whom she despised.” “Charlotte Brontë’s ‘New Gothic,’ ” in The Brontës: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Ian Gregor (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970), p. 98.

26. Matthew Arnold, Letters of Matthew Arnold, ed. George W. E. Russell (New York: Macmillan, 1896) 1:34.

27. Brontë’s investment in this distinction is suggested in this passage from a letter she wrote to her publisher, William Smith Williams, after her visit to London:

An existence of absolute seclusion and unvarying monotony, such as we have long—I may say, indeed, ever—been habituated to, tends, I fear, to unfit the mind for lively and exciting scenes, to destroy the capacity for social enjoyment.

The only glimpses of society I have ever had were obtained in my vocation of governess, and some of the most miserable moments I can recall were passed in drawing-rooms full of strange faces. At such times, my animal spirits would ebb gradually till they sank quite away, and when I could endure the sense of exhaustion and solitude no longer, I used to steal off, too glad to find any corner where I could really be alone. Still, I know very well, that though the experiment of seeing the world might give acute pain for the time, it would do good afterwards; and as I have never, that I remember, gained any important good without incurring proportionate suffering, I mean to try to take your advice some day, in part at least—to put off, if possible, that troublesome egotism which is always judging and blaming itself, and to try, country spinster as I am, to get a view of some sphere where civilised humanity is to be contemplated.

28. Gayatri Chakvravorty Spivak, “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism,” Critical Inquiry 12 (Autumn 1985): 244.

29. Terry Eagleton, Myths of Power: A Marxist Study of the Brontës (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1975), pp. 30–31.

30. In this chapter’s concerns with interpretive vicariousness, compulsory self-masking, and Schadenfreude, the reader may discern the influence of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s recent work on “the epistemology of the closet.” Especially pertinent here are her discussion of the performative effects of ignorance in “Privilege of Unknowing,” Genders 1 (Spring 1988): 102–24, and her analysis of the connections in Proust between the closet as spectacle and the closet as viewpoint in “Epistemology of the Closet (I),” Raritan 7 (Spring 1988): 39–69, and “Epistemology of the Closet (II),” Raritan 8 (Summer 1988): 102–30. Consideration of this influence could open out into consideration of the question of the relationship between gay and antihomophobic strategies of interpretation, on the one hand, and novels that are (apparently) about female heterosexual desire, on the other hand. Since the question is a large and complicated one, I can only broach it here. I hope in some future project to discuss the links between “the closet,” a figure for the construction of gay and lesbian knowledge and identity, and “the attic,” which Gilbert and Gubar have established as a figure for feminist knowledge and identity.

31. Spivak, “Three Women’s Texts,” p. 244.

32. Undoubtedly, the analogy I am proposing invites what D. A. Miller, in The Novel and the Police, p. 193, has called the “mortifying charges (sentimentality, self-indulgence, narcissism) which our culture is prepared to bring against anyone who dwells in subjectivity longer or more intensely than is necessary to his proper functioning as the agent of socially useful work.” Instead of trying to answer those charges, I refer the reader to the source of this quotation, Miller’s essay on David Copperfield, 192–220, where they are shrewdly problematized as functions of the culture of the “open secret.” In its argument—although not, perhaps, in its performance—that essay is less sanguine than the present chapter about the destabilizing effects of deconstructive practice.

33. Spivak, “Three Women’s Texts,” p. 244.

34. Elizabeth Rigby, “Vanity Fair—and Jane Eyre,Quarterly Review 84 (December 1848): 177.

35. M. Jeanne Peterson, “The Victorian Governess: Status Incongruence in Family and Society,” in Martha Vicinus, ed., Suffer and Be Still: Women in the Victorian Age (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1972), p. 11. Mary Poovey’s Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988) contains a chapter on the governess and Jane Eyre that builds upon Peterson’s research in ways similar to my own, although Poovey does not explicitly address the questions of the governess’s theatricality and of her significance for contemporary writer-teachers. I regret that Poovey’s fine book was published after I had written most of this chapter, and that I was therefore unable to incorporate into it a sustained dialogue with her reading of the novel. Also see Nancy Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 78–79, on the transgressive potential of the governess.

36. Rigby, “Vanity Fair,” p. 173.

37. My account of Brontë’s construction of “subjectivity,” and of the madwoman’s ideological usefulness within that construction, owes much to Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction, esp. pp. 186–213.

38. One thinks here of Austen’s (rather apprehensive) description of her own mode—or at least that of Pride and Prejudice—as “light and bright and sparkling.”

39. Rigby, “Vanity Fair,” p. 164.

40. A rather different, though oddly pertinent, discourse on the relations among hieroglyphics, theater, and cruelty is to be found in the writings of Antonin Artaud, and in their interpretation by Jacques Derrida. See Artaud, The Theater and Its Double, trans. Mary Caroline Richards (New York: Grove Press, 1958), and Derrida, “The Theater of Cruelty and the Closure of Representation,” in Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), pp. 232–50.

41. Helena Michie, The Flesh Made Word: Female Figures and Women’s Bodies (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 49.

42. Although Terry Castle’s Masquerade and Civilization: The Carnivalesque in Eighteenth-Century English Culture and Fiction (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1986) advances an excessively celebratory interpretation of its subject, overemphasizing the “subversive” powers of masquerade, see pp. 90–92 for a lucid discussion of the generally conservative effects of “ ‘downward’ travesty” or “the imitation of the powerless by the powerful.”

43. For examples, see pp. 283, 380, and 407.

44. For a fascinating analysis of the painting-drawing-writing-theatricality-pain nexus, but in relation to a textual and tonal milieu as distinct from Brontë’s as that of Artaud, see Michael Fried, “Realism, Writing, and Disfiguration in Thomas Eakins’s Gross Clinic,Representations 9 (Winter 1985): 33–104.

45. Rigby, “Vanity Fair,” p. 171.

46. Ibid., p. 167.

47. The one most vulnerable to ridicule is the one on pp. 117–19, on how to find a job as a governess. What makes it so embarrassing to the academic critic, at any rate, is its all-too-specific staging of “careerism.”

48. Rigby, “Vanity Fair,” p. 169.

49. I am tempted here to amend a (notorious) remark of Freud’s in his case history of Dora, and to suggest that the question of whether a governess is outside-in or inside-out can naturally not be a matter of indifference. See Sigmund Freud, Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, ed. Philip Rieff (New York: Collier, 1963), p. 84.

50. Jane Gallop, “Keys to Dora,” in In Dora’s Case: Freud-Hysteria-Feminism, ed. Charles Bernheimer and Clare Kahane (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), p. 215.

The Governess as Actress

Preferred Citation: Litvak, Joseph. Caught in the Act: Theatricality in the Nineteenth-Century English Novel. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  1992.