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Sue Thomas. Imperialism, Reform, and the Making of Englishness in Jane Eyre. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. ISBN: 9780230554252. Price: US$80.00/£50.00

  • Patricia McKee

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  • Patricia McKee
    Dartmouth College

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Sue Thomas’s Imperialism, Reform, and the Making of Englishness in Jane Eyre makes a strong case for the need to read the novel in the context of contemporary debates about slavery, empire, and Englishness. Thomas aims at “worlding” Brontë’s novel, a practice she identifies with Edward W. Said’s concept of worldly criticism. “Worlding draws out the worldliness of texts in their originary historical moments” (2), she argues. Brontë’s novel becomes a participant in history, given a particular location within debates occurring in Britain on such issues as the role of Christianity in empire. The debates referenced here occur both among Brontë’s contemporaries and among Thomas’s own contemporaries, as she is concerned to clarify her differences from other readers of the novel.

Thomas’s commitment to elucidating “signs of empire in the novel and their historical enmeshing with British reform politics and contestation of English identities” (4) has led her to construct a valuable archive. It is fascinating to read the variety of sources she cites and to recognize the subtlety and complexity of the debates that appear here. Thomas draws from various writings to articulate contested identities of race and gender, for example, in her chapter on the “tropical” identifications of Bertha Mason. She cites encyclopedias, contemporary historians of the Caribbean, accounts of voyages from Europe to South America, and twentieth-century historians to argue that Brontë identifies Bertha Mason and her brother as “white Creoles.” Rather than positioning Bertha as “a figure of the rebel slave” (50), as many critics have done, Thomas insists that historical accuracy requires her to be seen as white, and particularly as one of the morally degenerate women whom Brontë’s contemporaries identified among whites living in the Caribbean: “the ineducable despot, who creates domestic terror . . . and, in the larger body politic, open revolt” (52).

In her chapter on conceptions of martyrdom in India, Thomas focuses on Jane’s decision not to join St. John Rivers as a missionary. Here Thomas cites multiple contemporary sources to clarify that Jane does not see such sacrifice as sati, as other critics have argued, but instead in terms of Christian martyrdom (55). With citations of Thomas Babington Macaulay; of Belby Porteus, the Bishop of London; of the Reverend James Hough; of Priscilla Chapman; of writings about Miss M. A. Cooke, who founded schools for girls in Calcutta, as well as other participants in “contemporary governmental, pedagogical, and missionary discourses about India” (64-66), Thomas indicates how concepts of Englishness were constructed through discussions of England’s Christian role in India.

Such discussions are revealing and compelling for readers of Brontë. They clarify how many concerns of Brontë’s narrative reflect debates occurring among her contemporaries. Yet the principle of selection for the figures included is not clear. Why does Thomas cite these particular writers, and how are the debates framed by these choices? Thomas aims to contest meanings that have often been assumed to be stable, and in studies of race and national identities such projects have had important political effects. Moreover, she brings into consideration some of Jane Eyre’s concerns that have not been given enough attention. But she gives little attention to the contestability of her own assertions.

The greatest difficulty with Thomas’s discussion of the novel, at certain points at any rate, is her suggestion that careful study of the historical context she provides can end debate: “Bertha is a figure not of the rebel slave, as Meyer and Plasa argue, but of the ineducable despot” (52). The most valuable aspect of such assertions is that they provide new historical contexts in which to read the novel, and Thomas’s book is valuable for the ways that she opens new views of Brontë’s text rather than for providing definitive answers to debated issues.

In two later chapters, Thomas turns to adaptations of the novel, one an 1848 theatrical production, Jane Eyre or The Secrets of Thornfield Manor, by John Courtney, “for a working-class audience” (5); the other a “parallel text” by Henrietta Camilla Jenkin published in 1859, Cousin Stella; or Conflict (104). Thomas recounts revisions of Brontë’s novel made in these adaptations. Courtney’s play adds to Brontë’s story a “comic sub-plot involving servants” (96) and its alterations “implicitly point to some of the limits of the social imaginary of Brontë’s Jane Eyre” (98). Jenkin’s version, a “Caribbean Perspective” (104), clarifies such limits, too, “highlighting overgeneralization about Creole people, xenophobia, class snobberies, and complacent Englishness” (125); but this novel offers a comparatively “vapid manifesto for the rights of women and is more reservedly anti-slavery” (126).

It is not clear why, if these reworkings of Jane Eyre are to be read with respect to the historical and cultural differences they represent, the interpretations of twentieth and twenty-first century critics are treated as incorrect. Of readings of the novel that interpret as sati the martyrdom Jane would incur if she went to India, Thomas writes, “such arguments empty Jane’s and St. John’s language of sacrifice and martyrdom of meanings within Christian traditions” (55).

I am wondering here about Walter Benjamin’s contention that history is revealed not as it was but in pieces. History appears in particular constellations of moments in the past together with the moment in the present when the historian looks at the past. I don’t mean that Benjamin must be followed here, but rather that I miss in Thomas’s study some sense of how history must change in the reading of it.

For Said, too, as I read him, worlding entails not only recognizing historical evidence in order to expose the political value of contradictions, evasions, and silences in texts. The critical reading is also part of the text’s dynamic history. Near the end of The World, the Text, and the Critic he writes: “Rather than being defined by the silent past, commanded by it to speak in the present, criticism, no less than any text, is the present in the course of its articulation, its struggles for definition” (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), 51). It would add much to the consideration of the worldliness of Jane Eyre to move beyond specific questions about the text in order to consider not only the stakes of different readings of the novel, but also how Thomas’s work is also located within contemporary debates about Englishness.

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