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Jane Eyre : texte, contexte, ur-texte

Caught Up In Between Doublets: Neo-Victorian (Trans)Positions of Victorian Femininities and Masculinities in Jane Eyre and Rebecca

Entre les doublets : (trans)positions néo-victoriennes des figures victoriennes de la féminité et de la masculinité dans Jane Eyre et Rebecca
Marta Miquel-Baldellou
p. 87-104


En se départissant de la dichotomie victorienne manichéenne de l’ange du foyer et de la femme déchue pour éclairer les personnages de Jane et Bertha dans leur ouvrage pionnier The Madwoman in the Attic, Sandra Gilbert et Susan Gubar étudièrent la première épouse de Rochester, folle, comme le double subversif de Jane, faisant ainsi de Jane et de Bertha les facettes d’un seul et même personnage. Malgré le rejet moderniste des excès supposés de l’ère victorienne, Rebecca de Daphne du Maurier exploite une intrigue triangulaire similaire qui réinterprète et recrée Rochester, Bertha et Jane à travers Maxime de Winter, Rebecca et Mrs de Winter. Les conceptions victoriennes des féminités doubles, des doublets féminins pour ainsi dire, sont perpétuées et réactualisées à travers les textualités néo-victoriennes. Néanmoins, peut-on vraiment voir dans Bertha un personnage que Rochester tente d’assagir par l’entremise de la figure de l’ange du foyer, plutôt qu’un archétype de la femme déchue ? Jane n’est-elle pas destinée à découvrir le secret de Rochester avant de l’épouser ? Mrs de Winter a-t-elle à ce point le sens du sacré qu’elle ne cherche pas à entrer en concurrence avec Rebecca ? Rebecca est-elle à ce point élégante et infaillible qu’elle parvient à ne pas s’attirer le mépris de Maxime ? Cet article se propose d’examiner comment les héroïnes sont investies en termes de rôles sexuels dans l’écriture néo-victorienne – comment les rôles de l’ange du foyer et de la femme déchue dans Jane Eyre sont perpétués et subvertis à travers Rebecca en tant que texte moderne – et d’identifier et d’étudier les perceptions masculines victoriennes et néo-victoriennes.

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1Early contemporary reviews of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre condemned the novel for its resounding unfemininity and unwomanliness. From our present-day perspective, these initial reactions may appear rather surprising but it should be borne in mind that Jane Eyre was first interpreted as belonging to Victorian domestic fiction, or as a 19th century gothic romance. It was only subsequently that feminist readings began to identify meaningful interpretations as regards gender and the women’s question in Brontë’s novel. Within the Victorian context, however, the heroine definitely defied assumed conventions of gender due to such indicators as her behaviour, her education and her ultimate economic independence as a single woman. Indeed, in most aspects of her life, she is caught in between childhood and maturity, convention and rebellion, and between femininity and masculinity. Moreover, early reviews focused their attention on Jane while disregarding Rochester’s first wife, Bertha Mason, who is only rarely as present in the novel and is never granted any relevant centrality.

2Thus, at the beginning, Jane and Bertha were regarded as virtually divergent, with Jane as the main female character demanding most of the reader’s attention, while Bertha was considered a minor figure. Later, feminist readings, through psychoanalytic theories, began to draw attention to Bertha as a character in her own right, as was the case with Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s seminal volume The Madwoman in the Attic. They argued that Bertha was Jane’s dark double and thus they underlined her importance for the female protagonist’s own development as a woman, recognising both her passionate and dispassionate nature. Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea marked a further step in Bertha’s rehabilitation, granting her heightened status both as the protagonist of a postcolonial reading of Charlotte Brontë’s novel and as a victim at the mercy of her husband rather than the animalised and despicable being Rochester presents to Jane at Thornfield. Significantly, a marginalised Jane remains virtually absent from this novel. Later still, through postmodern and neo-Victorian interpretations of Brontë’s novel, the necessary link between Jane and Bertha has been extended to other characters who act as Jane’s doubles accompanying her through the process of learning the ways of womanhood and attaining maturity.

  • 1 Lewis Caroll invented doublets, a word game in which one word is transformed into another by changi (...)

3Nowadays, neo-Victorian texts deconstruct Victorian writings, selecting issues that are either questioned or idealised from a contemporary perspective, but even before new historicist and postmodern ideas were introduced into literary theory, some modernist texts looked back to the Victorian and Edwardian periods, to evaluate an era that had already come to an end. In the inter-war years, domestic fiction was revived through romance and romantic novels, harking back to an epoch of security and domesticity which had already long vanished, but which appeared as a rose-tinted mirror in which citizens and readers alike found it agreeable to behold themselves. Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, originally published in 1938, should be highlighted as one of the first manifestations of these neo-Victorian texts which would culminate in works such as John Fowles’ postmodernist and historical novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Rebecca can justifiably be regarded as a neo-Victorian adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre because of the striking resemblances of plot, characters and thematic components. Moreover, a parallel analysis of the two novels may shed light on the chronological evolution the critical readings of both Bertha and Jane have undergone. I would further argue that all of the main characters in Brontë’s novel are dual, even contradictory figures in themselves without any need to resort to comparison with others. The purpose of this article thus lies in outlining the interpretative evolution of the main characters in Brontë’s novel, as well as establishing doublets1 among the main characters in both Jane Eyre and Rebecca, in an attempt to study the evolution from Victorian to neo-Victorian characters through the original novel and a modernist adaptation.

  • 2  P. Macpherson, Reflecting on Jane Eyre, London and New York: Routledge, 1989.

4In Jane Eyre, Bertha’s latent presence accounts for the reader’s involvement in the novel’s plot. Even though she is scarcely seen, she is frequently sensed, running against the current of the attraction between Rochester and Jane even before the two meet. According to Pat Macpherson2, it is precisely at the stage when Jane is released from Mrs Reed and enters Lowood that Bertha is already lurking somewhere in Jane’s attic, that is in Jane’s unconscious. It is during her stay at Lowood that Jane first learns the need to exert some sort of self-control over her own persona, acquiring and accepting the ways of behaving in society, and refusing the temptation to give free vent to her instincts. Jane’s self-restraint inevitably implies the existence of some latent feelings waiting to be reawakened but once her passions are unleashed, some opposing force arises to counteract their effect. Although Jane remains unaware of Bertha, there is a charge of psychic symbolism that is being shaped between the two, for, in addition to her role regarding Jane’s repressed passions, Bertha has often been considered as a powerful figure from a feminist perspective, especially as far as the discourse about marriage versus spinsterhood is concerned. Bertha personifies all the uncanny that Jane needs to face in her quest to understand the mysteries of womanhood, romance and marriage. Moreover, Jane’s situation as a governess presents remarkable common points with Bertha’s as a wife as she is also disinherited, dependent and domesticated. Thus, by juxtaposing the two characters, Brontë creates subliminal comparisons and connections between them.

5Both women raise the question of female fates in relation to potential male protectors, and, yet, there is a contrast between the two that is meant to be educative as Jane is made to learn through Bertha’s experience. Bertha becomes the puzzle that Jane must identify and unravel so as to understand the nature of marriage and approach Rochester on more equal terms, although she remains ignorant of Bertha’s actual existence before Rochester is forced to explain it. Up until that moment, Jane had only been able to hear Bertha through echoes, unable to locate the entity from which these echoes came and refusing herself this self-knowledge. Jane is perplexed by Bertha’s sexual and thus adult symbolism. She feels unwilling to accept Bertha’s unwomanly qualities which stand for a forbidden kind of knowledge that she still needs to discover so as to reach adulthood, beyond the Victorian femininity in body and mind instilled at Gateshead and Lowood. Bertha’s lurking echoes defy conventional femininity and even evoke borderlines with androgyny.

6Thus Bertha remains a figure of gender transgression for Jane who is still unable to identify what she is after having been subjugated to gender conventions. Actually, some of the early criticism of the novel centred on the gender transgression it contained, for reviewers in Victorian periodicals often categorised characters according to the extent to which they conformed to gender idealisations, that is, sentiment, refinement and tact for women, and power, learning and experience for men. Pat Macpherson argues that, in relation to gender, Brontë’s novel basically addresses the discontent with the woman’s lot, the provocative power of fiction-making and the desiring female nature. In her view, both Bertha and Jane share these three unfeminine deviances.

  • 3 Ibid., 19.

7Nonetheless, despite the fact that later criticism has been concerned with establishing a close link between the two female characters, the narrator and, by extension, contemporary society of the time, separate them. Jane and Bertha are not on speaking terms: the “pure” Jane must stop her ears to the siren song of the “fallen” Bertha3. Even if one is unwilling to accept the clear-cut division between the domestic Jane and the fallen Bertha, especially in the light of Jane’s defiant nature in childhood and Bertha’s reduced condition as a demented wife, the characters may be interpreted as personified feminist manifests of very different kinds. Jane is a rational arguer for women’s rights, while Bertha represents the irrational and unspeakable faction of proto-feminism. But Jane’s “rationality” necessarily reflects the ethics of the time, and thus is more willing to conform to the Victorian discourse of domesticity, while presenting clear feminist vindications. In this sense, Jane always leaves Bertha locked away in her own attic, for as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar argue, Bertha represents the archetypal feminist rebel against patriarchy, seeking female power and desire detached from any male protector. In addition to the danger of unfettered female desire, Bertha also represents a threat to the Victorian assumption that women are only fulfilled in marriage. Therefore, for Jane, Bertha suggests the possibility of an alternative to marrying Rochester, thus confirming the existence of unsanctioned desire, beyond the constraints of the social establishment.

  • 4 H. Small, Love’s Madness: Medicine, the Novel, and Female Insanity. 1800-1865, Oxford: Clarendon, 1 (...)

8Despite their apparent separateness and even antagonism, Bertha’s presence is therefore absolutely essential for Jane’s process of maturing. On the one hand, Bertha may have often been interpreted as Jane’s demonic alter ego, which paradoxically makes her a rather reactionary figure, as an agent of domestic and social control, for, as Helen Small contends, Bertha represents, in Freudian terms, the return of the repressed4, a figure left-over from 18th century gothic novels, an agent of fear and terror, a living example of what may happen to Jane if she neglects her duties as a virtuous young lady. However, as Jane becomes more and more attached to Rochester, and consequently more dependent on him, to the extent that she feels in danger of merging her identity with his, and thus identifying with a male figure rather than a female one, Bertha remains an alternative double for Jane until her union to Rochester can be fulfilled on more equal terms.

  • 5  P. Grudin, “Jane and the Other Mrs. Rochester: Excess and Restraint in Jane Eyre”, NOVEL: A Forum (...)

9Thus, once Jane has gained insight into other models of femininity, even dubious ones, she may be allowed to become acquainted with men, having avoided the danger of total dependence on Rochester, and of developing female desire without having been granted the opportunity to even guess its existence. Therefore, it is through Bertha that Jane is enabled to stare female desire in the eye and learn that female passion has no place in Victorian marriage. Thus, the presence of Bertha may ultimately achieve didactic goals. As Peter Grudin contends, Jane Eyre advocates the subordination of the values of passion to those of restraint5. The fact that Bertha is enclosed in a separate chamber implies that she needs to be incarcerated so that she will be prevented from exerting any influence on young females such as Jane. And yet, in narrative and psychological terms, their meeting is totally inevitable both because Bertha escapes from her cell and because Jane is willing to behold the presence by which she has been constantly haunted. Jane wavers between a dual interpretation of Bertha, as an embodiment of undue female desire, and as a necessary illustration of the presence of alternative models of womanhood. She grants Jane acquaintance with the darkest aspects of life, although we must be mindful of potential exaggeration as any description of Bertha is filtered through Rochester’s male discourse which constantly emphasises her association with evil and sin.

10Bertha’s presence becomes noticeable through three main events. Jane firstly overhears her laughter and screams as echoes reverberating in both Thornfield and her mind, evoking repressed memories of her childhood and awakening her defiant nature which has lain dormant so long. Moreover, Bertha’s existence is indicated when she escapes and sets fire to Rochester’s bed, an action through which Rochester and Jane are brought close together in his room at night. Thus, Bertha awakens Jane’s passion and desire and compels her to remember her latent natural instincts. Finally, Jane encounters Bertha’s real figure. Jane stares at Bertha in a face-to-face mirror confrontation, thus becoming her double according to many psychoanalytic feminist readings such as those Gubar and Gilbert defend. It is meaningful that Jane confronts Bertha’s real figure for the first time on the eve of her marriage, implying that she will take over Bertha’s role as Rochester’s wife. This incident conveys both recognition and warning. Jane beholds herself as Bertha while their images are merged in the mirror, and yet Jane is unable to read between the lines, as she is still incapable of discovering the meaning Bertha represents which she will only understand when she hears Rochester’s explanation. Jane needs the male confirmation of the existence of female desire.

11Once the marriage ceremony is halted by the solicitor’s evocation of the insuperable impediment of bigamy, Jane is allowed to behold Bertha, who is no longer the familiar face she observed in the mirror the night before. Now Bertha has become an alien figure through Rochester’s words and explanations which both women hear in silence. Neither Bertha nor Jane share Rochester’s language at this stage, as they are unable to address issues of desire as he does. Bertha has been animalised by male prescription to the extent that she is no longer perceived as human, for having defied the social conventions of womanhood. Bertha represents female desire gone wrong, either through overuse or through neglect and, indeed, Victorian convention established a close link between madness and sexuality in women. Rochester uses this argument to suggest that Bertha was already mad when they got married, and that her condition may have grown more acute as a result of her reclusion and consequent inability to give vent to a passion which has transgressed gender boundaries, for female passion must depend on male desire. Bertha never speaks, and never acts according to womanly standards. Her voice and strength are too potent to be canalised through regular means. Thus, it is implied that she has gained her character as a fallen woman through marriage, that is, through contact with men without any shared experience as regards sexuality and desire. Bertha is therefore speechless, the voiceless embodiment of female desire unattached to male desire.

  • 6  J. King, Jane Eyre, Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1986, 75.

12As regards Jane, once she has heard this demonstration of the power of male discourse, she locks herself in her room to reflect on her own. Her situation differs from Bertha’s now: she is able to make a decision, she cannot succumb to a fate of domestication or a fate of unfettered female desire. She has come to learn that uncontrolled passionate feelings are unacceptable in young women and must be held in check by duty and conscience6. She therefore decides to desert Rochester, Helen Small contends, because of the inequality his deception has forced upon her. Marriage to Rochester is a legal impossibility and according to Victorian standards, she cannot remain a surrogate Bertha figure to Rochester, that is passionate and powerless. Thus, Jane departs to find an alternative way to exert control over her femininity and her sexuality. She can no longer be totally devoted to Rochester once she has discovered his secret, but she cannot follow Bertha’s example either. She needs to undergo a process of self-appraisal before she can return to Rochester, but is fortunate in that her own education and position as a governess have granted her some independence outside the commonly-established social spheres planned for women. Her choice is guided through ethics and renunciation, and it becomes a plausible and finally a second-best sanctioned model of femininity when the novel reaches its end.

13In this way, the novel is constructed through a series of tensions between passion and dispassion, dominion and submission, fire and cold, desire and reason, the flesh and the spirit. R. E. Hughes describes these as the meeting ground between two massive conflicting forces, Dionysus, the frenzied and demonic, and Apollo, the disciplined and rational. The discourse of morality and religion also plays an important part, through the divergent figures of Mr Brocklehurst and St. John Rivers. The tension is physically represented through the places Jane moves to during her process of development, thus giving shape to the basic structure of the Bildungsroman plot. External surroundings easily merge into psychological states which echo Jane’s transformation through the text, just as a surface structure echoes the deep structure of the novel.

14Throughout her development, while Jane is coming of age, she is faced with a range of different roles that were assigned to women in the Victorian period, although obviously rejecting the deviant or dubious models that would make her a fallen woman, or moral and social outcast like Bertha. Jane becomes a governess due to her long stay at Lowood under Miss Temple’s influence, but is considered neither a servant nor a member of Rochester’s family at Thornfield, finding herself caught in between again, striving to fulfil a role and unable to fit in an assigned and appropriate place according to Victorian standards. Rochester’s marriage proposal seems to grant her a privileged position as a wife, and potentially, a mother, but Rochester’s unexpected revelation puts an end to this moment of bliss, and leads her to achieve maturity and adulthood on her own terms.

15The approaches to femininity represent a constant theme in her process of self-discovery. With Mrs Reed and her daughters at Gateshead, Jane becomes acquainted with the cultivation of the female body, and concern with her appearance and manners, and yet she rather enjoys herself keeping apart from others, secluded in her room, reading travel books and engaging in escapist fantasies of exotic places, an early prefiguration of Bertha’s origins and subsequent presence. Her inability to subvert her natural instincts leads to Mrs Reed’s observation of Jane’s lack of child-like disposition, that is, her lack of femininity in that she is unwilling to succumb to her subordinate status and acknowledge her dependent situation. At Lowood, Jane learns to cultivate her mind and renounce her body, for although she becomes acquainted with femininity through her close friend Helen Burns and, in a rather harsher way, through Mr Brocklehurst, Miss Temple’s teachings show Jane the way to become independent on her own.

16At Thornfield, she learns the ways to femininity through social events and in contact with Miss Ingram, while coming to terms with ways to channel her passion and approach potential future motherhood through Adele. Miss Ingram is an opposing character, or doublet, to Bertha. If Bertha is the embodiment of natural instincts, Miss Ingram becomes the personification of social standards, and Jane needs to move between the two models to identify her own femininity. Then, at Ferndean, she is taught the religious ethics of femininity, and yet she is ultimately on her own, earning a living which grants her economic independence, and even inheriting a fortune which grants her economic power for life. Thus, Jane is constantly presented with models of femininity which endorse the conventions of womanhood of the time, and models of femininity that depart from them. Jane’s process of development lies in her need to choose those models she would like to resemble in order to become a character of her own.

  • 7  M. Allott (ed.), Charlotte Brontë: Jane Eyre and Villette, London: Macmillan, 1987.

17 Jeannette King goes as far as to imply that Jane learns by example from other characters who are rather extensions of her own psyche. Similarly, Jane also gains insight into different models of masculinity, such as St. John Rivers, who mainly represents rectitude and ethics deprived of male desire, and Rochester, who embodies uncontrolled desire and passion. As David Lodge has noted, the different models of masculinity are represented through different imagery: the love between Rochester and Jane is often couched in terms of fire, while metaphors of earth and water are usually introduced to describe the relationship between Jane and St. John Rivers. Thus Jane is compelled to make a choice as to the kind of manhood to which she would like to relate. Rochester’s call through telepathic endeavours is not so entirely different from Bertha’s echoes at Thornfield, and Jane’s response to them implies that even though she is taught to repress her desire, her underlying passion can be suggested through imagery and the mention of apparently preternatural events, such as Rochester’s ghostly apparition on his horse and Bertha’s gothic figure as a madwoman, enduring features of 18th century gothic novels7. Thus, Brontë’s novel directly addresses the question of women through Jane’s pilgrimage from Victorian standards of femininity to womanhood gone wrong and ultimately to her own personal way of understanding gender principles. Extremely feminine characters and unfeminine figures are kept at a distance so that Jane is enabled to define her own womanhood through her relation to the different models of femininity and masculinity she encounters in her process of growing up female.

18The outstanding event in which Jane learns about female desire, sexuality and femininity takes place when Rochester is compelled to admit his first marriage, and thus Bertha’s existence. Jane infers that Rochester, as a male Victorian surveyor of gender standards, rejects wild womanhood, unfettered autonomy and the inability in women to exert control over their passionate natures. Caught between these two extremes of womanhood, uncontrolled passion and total submission to feminine standards, Jane decides to define her own womanhood through moral principles that depart from Rochester’s double standards as well as from his male need to establish a clear difference between the angel of the house and the fallen woman. Jane deserts Rochester so that she can learn her own way of understanding womanhood, once she has been exposed to his way of thinking. As Jane undergoes a process of learning and coming to terms with her womanhood, Rochester must also confront his understanding his own manhood.

  • 8  As Helen Small observes, “will” was often synonymous with “mind” at the time (H. Small, Love’s Mad (...)

19The outcome of both characters’ coming to terms with their own understanding of gender will establish the standards for their future relationship. Jane’s desertion of Rochester confronts him with the need to assume his past. It is subtly intimated that he played an important role in Bertha’s fall as a woman, thus Jane is attempting to teach him the right rules of love. Male dominion over female submission is no longer a plausible option for Jane. Her education and her will have enlightened her concerning the true situation of women, but she feels in the need to show Rochester the companionship required in marriage in order to establish an equal balance of power and gender relations. In a way, Rochester must face his feminine side, his dependence, his submission and his decline, while Jane is away. As Pat Macpherson points out, having gathered different experiences and teachings as a result of her process of growing up female in Victorian times, Jane’s final arbiter is individual conscience. It is as a result of both processes of learning, through sacrifice and redemption, that any attempt at a final union is possible. Jane’s feminist triumph over Rochester’s male standards has to do with Jane’s high principles of morality, as well as her self-conscience as a woman due to the strength of her will8.

20In the final encounter, Rochester is able to detect Jane’s active, and thus masculine, will and energy, while Jane beholds Rochester’s declining state, dependent and at her mercy. Thus, Jane exerts some power over Rochester due to his precarious condition, and yet she gladly assumes the ethics of Victorian womanhood, as she devotes her life to taking care of him and her family, abandoning her job as a governess. Brontë, in this way, is pointing to the fact that this is the only way for women to survive at the time. If it is supposed that man’s sexual desire is inevitably entangled with his manhood, female passion needs to be hidden or even negated as it is not becoming according to Victorian standards of womanhood. Rochester is punished for his ill-treatment of Bertha and is obliged to come to terms with his own vulnerability as a man, while Jane needs to forget her vision of female desire and learn the ways to redeem both herself and Rochester. Thus, Jane ensures the victory of middle-class women’s higher morality over the dubious moral standards attached to men.

21 As Jeannette King asserts, Jane now presents herself as the agent of her own destiny. The final union between Rochester and Jane implies a symbiotic relationship of emotional interdependency, which the basis of middle-class patriarchy usually justified through the myth of romantic love. Actually, Jane learns the way to self-respect but also to obedience to social and cultural standards so that she resorts both to the morality of the times and to her own self-respect so as to seek an equal relationship with Rochester. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar argue that the couple’s union and withdrawal from society imply spiritual isolation in a world where egalitarian marriages are rare, if not impossible. Thus, as Jane constantly struggles through a double nature, the end of the novel can also have two different interpretations, either regarding the final union as a conformist outcome or rather considering marriage as an entanglement based on equality.

22All in all, Jane Eyre is envisioned as an autobiographical narrative of growing up female. Thus, the adult narrator recalls the processes whereby she attained maturity through the filter of time and also through her own subjectivity. The text is an attempt at self-representation, challenging the reader to discern the possibility of self-deception. Thus, Jane, as a grown-up adult, has also been influenced by the Victorian standards of womanhood, and has learnt the ways of proper femininity, rejecting all those models that departed from the pious and patriarchal standards either though excess (Miss Ingram) or defect (Bertha). One may wonder whether Jane’s final acceptance of her domestic reality is a result of her process of growth, that is, a consequence of her own self-will, or rather an inevitabilityin view of the role a Victorian woman was expected to fulfil. Her constant direct addresses to the reader in the last pages of the novel imply that she is presenting her testimony to other women so that they may learn from her experience. Thus, Brontë’s novel outlines different models of femininity through characters that are presented as types for Jane to decode in order to discern the correct examples to follow. As a result of her learning process, she incorporates different traits from different characters.

23Her writing itself is another way of defying and defining standards. Thus, Jane becomes a dual figuredue to her own intricate and complex character, both accepting and disregarding the Victorian ethics of true womanhood, as well as the feminist excesses of achieving economic independence and social status. Nevertheless, the apparently happy ending of the novel and the sense of satisfying closure of an autobiographical text should not prevent us from noticing Jane’s final sense of claustrophobia, for autobiographical texts often aimed at creating the illusions of patterns of moral progress and development. Some critics like Annette Tromly have gone so far as to suggest that, instead of beginning her life, Jane may be living her death, that is acquiescing in the loss of her independence. By defining herself through autobiography Jane is limiting her scope and herself. By contrast, other critics like Tony Tanner argue that it is through language that Jane creates her own self, and consequently an identity of her own that she would not otherwise be allowed to achieve. Amongst other things, Brontë’s novel is the story of Jane’s quest for self-definition.

  • 9  Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca, London: Arrow, 1992, 9.

24As in Jane Eyre, in Du Maurier’s novel, the narrator also relates her story from an adult perspective. This Mrs de Winter has also undergone a period of development as she asserts through her autobiographical writings. As she herself admits at the very beginning of the novel, “I believe there is a theory that men and women emerge finer and stronger after suffering”9. Thus, like Jane and Rochester, who undergo a process of submission through suffering, Mrs de Winter is also made to dwell on the darker aspects of human nature to attain happiness in her marriage according to the myth of romantic love, that is, that there is no true love without suffering. The young Mrs de Winter is presented rather as Jane’s opposite in the sense she is meek and innocent, absolutely overwhelmed by Mrs Van Hopper’s demands and queries. And yet, as a mature adult, she already acknowledges the change she has undergone as she contends she has ultimately become confident due to her husband’s dependence on her.

25We know little of Mrs de Winter’s childhood, but she defines herself as a rather clumsy and shy girl. As opposed to Jane who dares trespass the limits of acceptability as a child, the single Mrs de Winter has already accepted the roles of femininity, and consequently must undergo a process of womanism rather than of feminisation. Through these opposite processes the two wives seem to accomplish the same aim, of being united to their respective husbands on more equal terms. Jane learns to control her rebellious nature, whereas the naively virginal second Mrs de Winter comes to learn of the wicked aspects of life through discovery and suffering. In both cases, Bertha and Rebecca, their alternative personae, play a major role in educating the women in the realities of life so that they ultimately are brought within the ethics of Victorian or neo-Victorian femininity as a result of their choice and experiences.

26Victorian Manichean dichotomies between Jane and Bertha are questioned by feminist critics, as well as by literary and cinematic adaptations and neo-Victorian rewritings of the original text such as Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea. In Du Maurier’s Rebecca, there is no contact between the two Mrs de Winters, yet the interpretation of both characters develops and changes throughout the text. In the two retrospective novels, Jane Eyre follows chronology fairly faithfully from Jane’s childhood to her final encounter with Rochester. We accompany Jane at each stage in her process of growth and witness her development through each experience she undergoes. Beginning with a flashback, the narrator in Rebecca introduces the action from a present perspective and from a safely established position as a woman who observes her coming to maturity and recalls events with nostalgia. In this respect, the process is not linear and evolutionary as in Jane Eyre, but rather circular, which changes our perspective and interpretations of gender constructions, for, although both the narrative techniques of the novels and their ultimate conclusions are similar, female and male characters undergo a different transformations with divergent consequences as a result. Thus, the Victorian Jane Eyre and the modernist Rebecca present differing discourses of femininity and masculinity, and they quite ostensibly differ in their degree of faithfulness to reactionary patriarchal and androcentric assumptions. In this sense, Jane Eyre is more defiant than Rebecca, especially taking into consideration the periods when both novels were produced.

27Jane unconsciously foresees Bertha’s presence at Thornfield while Mrs de Winter notices Rebecca’s overwhelming presence through several episodes. She hears Mrs Van Hopper’s explanations about Rebecca, she stares at Rebecca’s initial inscribed on the cover of Maxim’s book, she listens to Mrs Danvers’ disturbing manifestations of worship of her late mistress, and she even overhears Frank’s statement that Rebecca was one of the most beautiful creatures he had ever set eyes on. In any case, Mrs de Winter is physically confronted with Rebecca’s memory once Mrs Danvers shows her her late mistress’s room and enshrines her on a pedestal her successor will never be able to reach. Although Jane remains ignorant of Bertha’s identity, for she is incapable of suspecting Rochester has locked his first wife in the attic, Mrs de Winter cannot but be aware of Rebecca’s enduring presence at Manderley. Bertha is first suggested as a ghost before the discovery of her real entity, while Rebecca is an omnipresent entity haunting Manderley, but is ultimately defied by Maxim’s evocation of her real nature, thus remaining a ghost that will never trouble the couple again.

28In any case, if both Jane and Mrs de Winter are sufficiently haunted by other women, by social and cultural expectations, by their feelings towards the men in their lives and by their unconscious need to act according to gender standards. Many gender-transgressive or gender-worshipping ghosts confront both Mrs de Winter and Jane before they encounter their real doubles, Rebecca and Bertha. Jane has been conditioned by Mrs Reed and even Mrs Fairfax at Thornfield, the latter warning her of the dangers of her prospective marriage to Rochester. Mrs de Winter has been metaphorically schooled by Mrs Van Hopper while working as her companion, and above all by Mrs Danvers once she arrives at Manderley. In turn, both men are attracted by their future wives’ deferential behaviour. Rochester appreciates Jane’s obedience and devotion to duty. Mrs de Winter, aptly unnamed until she marries Maxim, attracts Manderley’s heir due to her meekness and innocence.

  • 10  Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca, op. cit., 58.

29The marriage proposals themselves are revealing. Neither Rochester nor Maxim make any reference to love in their proposals and Maxim seems to understand his future union as a social convenience, rather than as a matter of affection, let alone passion. The women’s reactions are equally significant for the light shed on their respective inner natures. When Rochester mentions he has decided to get married, Jane immediately assumes Miss Ingram is going to become his wife, thus betraying her lack of aspirations despite her inevitable attraction towards him. Similarly, the future Mrs de Winter misunderstands Maxim’s proposal of marriage, thinking he is intending to offer her a new job at Manderley. Actually, since he simply states, “your duties will be exactly the same”10 (as when she worked as Mrs Van Hopper’s companion), it is no wonder that his intentions should be misconstrued. In both cases, having been subjected to social convention, both women clearly recognise that their marriages to wealthy men will conflict with the norms of class and status. Both situations are reminiscent of fairy-tales as much as romantic novels, and yet both works transgress the limits of these genres, as they question gender issues which are not usually tackled in these kinds of texts. The fact that neither Jane nor Mrs de Winter celebrate a proper wedding, implies that their real union will not be made effective until they fulfil their corresponding process of learning.

30If Jane’s contemplation of Bertha has often been interpreted as the transcendental episode through which she beholds her own sexuality, in Du Maurier’s novel Mrs de Winter (un)consciously becomes Rebecca’s double by following Mrs Danvers’ malicious advice and wearing the same dress Rebecca once wore at a ball. Maxim promptly banishes his new wife from his presence for she has been induced to pursue a model of fallen femininity which Maxim wants to prevent her from imitating. Maxim feels unable to behold his second wife as Rebecca’s double, just as Rochester prevents Jane from beholding his first wife. In this respect, both women are confronted to opposing, and arguably false manifestations of femininity, the angel of the house and the fallen woman, models that cannot possibly merge according to Victorian Manichean standards. However, both Jane and Mrs de Winter need to understand their alter egos so as to become aware of the examples they should definitely reject. It is through the awareness of the existence of these alternative, and prohibited, models of womanhood that they grow up and establish a more egalitarian relationship with their respective husbands.

31Nonetheless, comparisons between these alter agos are tenuous. In due time, Bertha has come to be considered a victim while remaining an essential in ensuring the egalitarian union between Rochester and Jane. The case of Rebecca is ostensibly more complex within the novel itself. Highly praised by those who knew her for her beauty and impeccable manners and remained blissfully unaware of her wicked inner nature as an adulteress who finally tricks her husband into killing her, Rebecca destabilises Mrs de Winter’s integrity and Maxim’s sanity. Maxim’s confession reveals Rebecca as the fallen woman, leaving the second Mrs de Winter free to become the angel of the house, albeit with Alice in Wonderland undertones. Maxim’s need to preserve his status and to conform to social conventions entails murdering a wife, who, with her passionate nature, short hair-cut and independence of mind, is presented as gender-transgressive. As a consequence, in an echo of Victorian times, Rebecca now identified as a fallen woman, suffers a similar fate to Rochester’s Bertha.

32The interpretative evolution of the female characters Jane-Bertha and Mrs de Winter-Rebecca, seems to respond to an evolving distinction between double, dual, and doublets. In early feminist and psychoanalytic readings of Jane Eyre, Jane and Bertha were perceived as the same character although Victorian standards required their double natures to remain separate. Gradually, postmodern interpretations argued that each character individually presented a dual nature. Thus, Jane was defiant and obedient at the same time, while Bertha was both a fallen woman and a victim of her own circumstances. Now, through intertextual dialogues and exchanges between Victorian and post-Victorian texts, we may establish doublets between characters in different novels of different periods. Consequently, Jane and Mrs de Winter, Bertha and Rebecca, and Rochester and Maxim, can arise as doublets that share some basic presumptions on gender but are subtly transformed and reincorporated in modern and contemporary texts.

33Brontë’s Jane Eyre was first perceived as an example of Victorian domestic fiction, before it was hailed by feminist critics as one of the first works to address the women’s question directly. Du Maurier’s novel was also initially perceived as a romantic novel, and yet, the development of its plot proves activist as far as its protagonist is concerned, blurring the distinction between the angel of the house, Mrs de Winter, and the fallen woman, Rebecca. After all, Du Maurier’s novel is Mrs de Winter’s subjective testimony, her own autobiography, and her conformity to a domestic discourse compels her to establish a division between Rebecca and herself. The narrator gladly depicts Rebecca’s fall from her pedestal, where she was an elegant goddess of beauty, to the status of a flirtatious and diseased woman. Meanwhile, her successor acquires the strength and confidence that will enable her to become Maxim’s equal companion. While Rochester is punished through his physical vulnerability, Maxim escapes arrest even though he was directly responsible for his first wife’s death. In this respect, Du Maurier’s novel, although published many decades after Brontë’s novel, resorts to a more reactionary discourse. From a contemporary and postmodern perspective, however, Rebecca must be viewed on its own terms and within its inter-war context. In both novels, Rochester and Jane, and Maxim and Mrs de Winter are enabled to fulfil their marriage on more equal terms, once both Jane and Mrs de Winter have gained some knowledge about love and sexuality and the proper way of displaying their womanhood, and once Rochester and Maxim have confessed their sins, betraying their vulnerability, and thus bringing themselves closer to their respective wives.

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ALLOTT Miriam (ed.), Charlotte Brontë: Jane Eyre and Villette, London: Macmillan, 1987.

BRONTË Charlotte, Jane Eyre, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

CAROLL Lewis, Doublets: A Word-Puzzle, London: Macmillan, 1879.

DU MAURIER Daphne, Rebecca, London: Arrow, 1992.

GILBERT Sandra M. & Susan GUBAR, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984.

GILBERT Sandra M., “Jane Eyre and the Secrets of Furious Lovemaking”, NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, vol. 31, n° 3, Summer 1998, 351-372.

GRUDIN Peter, “Jane and the Other Mrs. Rochester: Excess and Restraint in Jane Eyre”, NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, 10: 2, Winter 1977, 145-157.

HUGHES R. E., “The Unbaptized Dionysos”, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, vol. 18, n° 4, March 1964, 347-364.

KAPLAN Cora, Victoriana: Histories, Fictions, Criticism, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007.

KING Jeannette, Jane Eyre, Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1986.

MACPHERSON Pat, Reflecting on Jane Eyre, London and New York: Routledge, 1989.

RHYS Jean, Wide Sargasso Sea, Judith L. Raiskin (ed.), London and New York: Norton, 1999.

SMALL Helen, Love’s Madness: Medicine, the Novel, and Female Insanity, 1800-1865, Oxford: Clarendon, 1996.

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1 Lewis Caroll invented doublets, a word game in which one word is transformed into another by changing one letter at each step. It became a popular game through contemporary magazines such as Vanity Fair. See L. Caroll, Doublets: A Word-Puzzle, London: Macmillan, 1879.

2  P. Macpherson, Reflecting on Jane Eyre, London and New York: Routledge, 1989.

3 Ibid., 19.

4 H. Small, Love’s Madness: Medicine, the Novel, and Female Insanity. 1800-1865, Oxford: Clarendon, 1996, 141.

5  P. Grudin, “Jane and the Other Mrs. Rochester: Excess and Restraint in Jane Eyre”, NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, 10: 2, Winter 1977, 145.

6  J. King, Jane Eyre, Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1986, 75.

7  M. Allott (ed.), Charlotte Brontë: Jane Eyre and Villette, London: Macmillan, 1987.

8  As Helen Small observes, “will” was often synonymous with “mind” at the time (H. Small, Love’s Madness: Medicine, the Novel, and Female Insanity. 1800-1865, op. cit., 164).

9  Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca, London: Arrow, 1992, 9.

10  Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca, op. cit., 58.

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Marta Miquel-Baldellou, « Caught Up In Between Doublets: Neo-Victorian (Trans)Positions of Victorian Femininities and Masculinities in Jane Eyre and Rebecca »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. VII – n°4 | 2009, 87-104.

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Marta Miquel-Baldellou, « Caught Up In Between Doublets: Neo-Victorian (Trans)Positions of Victorian Femininities and Masculinities in Jane Eyre and Rebecca »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. VII – n°4 | 2009, mis en ligne le 28 juillet 2009, consulté le 01 mars 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Marta Miquel-Baldellou

Marta Miquel-Baldellou is a government-scholarship holder, assistant instructor at the Department of English and Linguistics of the University of Lleida, and member of the research group DEDAL-LIT which specializes in the conceptualisations of ageing in the literatures of the English-speaking countries. Her field of research focuses on gender and national differences in the coming-of-age of female and male characters in English and American Victorian literature. She obtained her DEA (Diploma Estudios Avanzados) with the dissertation “A Nineteenth-Century Transatlantic Encounter: Towards the Anglo-American Victorian Ethics of the Coming-of-Age in Sir Edward George Bulwer-Lytton’s TheCaxtons and Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales”. Her forthcoming PhD thesis is entitled “Transatlantic Modalities of Victorian Ageing in the Works of Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton and Edgar Allan Poe”. She has presented papers and published articles on the topics of transatlanticism, ageing, gender and Victorian literature. She has recently been granted use of the facilities at the Victorian Studies Centre, at the University of Leicester, United Kingdom.

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