Socio-Economic Structures of Victorian England: A Study of Jane Eyre

Neema Chaurasiya, Independent Researcher

The Victorian period is known for bringing about dramatic changes across the British society. Britain expanded into a global empire which brought massive amount of wealth from the colonies. With the Industrial Revolution brewing in the country, the middle class found lucrative opportunities and a new labor class surfaced which struggled for job security and living conditions. Novelists such as Charlotte Bronte (1816-1855) explored the crisis and progress of such a society and the reforms it led to. The uprisings, revolts, strikes, riots as well as the representation of these in literary works, and the awareness they generated, slowly caused the well established aristocratic framework to dissolve and gave way to a new flexible social and economic order. This dissolving of the feudal system and the resultant effects on the class hierarchy also led to a number of changes in the laws. These reforms find a subtle manifestation in the novels of the period. The novelist’s views of the socio-economic relations extended considerably beyond those of the political economists, who refused to acknowledge the area of unpaid work, including much housework and care of dependants, or widespread but illegitimate work, such as prostitution. Fiction with great psychological depth like Charlotte Brontë’s Villette (1853) or Jane Eyre (1847) find economic relations constitutive of the psyche — as the governess or teacher, whether Lucy Snowe or Jane Eyre, is confined by class as in an iron cage. The focus of this paper shall be on how Charlotte Brontë weaves the change in economic and social structures of the Victorian England, into her novel Jane Eyre.

The recurrent problems in the area of class hierarchies can be traced in Jane Eyre. The novelist is far-sighted enough to foresee what the end of the century was about to witness based on observation of the society around her and the transformation that it was going through. The idea that class boundaries are not rigid and can be broken was an idea that permeated in the Victorian society and led to the breakdown of the aristocracy based on feudalism. This idea is explored in the novel.

On the surface Jane Eyre seems like a romance which explores a Victorian dilemma- an intelligent young woman’s right to love and be loved, and yet retain her independent spirit; once the surface is scratched, we notice that as the protagonist, strives for economic and personal independence she touches on the issues of class hierarchies, economic structures, and gender roles that affected Britain at large. From her birth, till Miss Eyre gains social position and economic stability of a lady and an heiress respectively, she moves between economic classes and drifts among the lower, middle and upper classes of Victorian England. Through her story she is able to hint at legal, social and economic issues which haunted the era; being the daughter of a clergyman and a lady, Jane’s class status at birth is ambivalent. Her mother was disowned by her family for marrying out of class and Jane’s circumstances at Gateshead Hall are no better, in spite of living a life amongst genteel people, she is an outsider. Due to her efforts at Lowood School, she becomes a governess and is aptly recognized by Bessie as “a lady”; still she isn’t content with the circumstance, though it offers respectability. The next status she rises to is the school mistress at Morton but she feels degraded as the pupils are rustic. Finally after inheriting her Uncle John’s wealth and marrying Rochester she is able to secure the status and economic autonomy. Not only the protagonist but several women characters of the novel such as Rochester’s illegitimate daughter Adele, his mad wife Bertha, the River sisters, the Reed sisters, Rosamond Oliver and Mrs. Fairfax have ambivalent statuses. Some of them have social class and respectability but no money to support them, while others have money but not class, whereas certain others are devoid of both. In spite of the flexibility allowed by Brontë to her heroine to move between classes, the novelist does not envision a class-less society through her work; she depicts realities of the era, there is acute awareness of class hierarchies when other characters judge Jane based on her class.

The class rules for the men too were not very rosy, for instance the younger son’s fortune and employment did not correspond to the grandeur of their birth and education due to the unjust law of inheritance. Rochester’s unfortunate marital contract with Bertha Mason in the novel was based on this very tragic issue that the family fortune was not to be divided and the eldest son inherited the property. Like Jane, Charlotte again gives a rare twist to the male protagonist’s circumstance, when the elder brother and the father die, the first wife goes mad and hence Rochester is left to lead life as he pleases, a life neither bound by the economic deprivations being a younger son, nor tied down by a wife whom he married for money. In real life, the conditions were of course different and difficult especially for the women till the reforms took place. Few of these reforms such as- better political representation, working conditions and education had immediate effects for women, who earlier had very limited status in Victorian society.

Both Charlotte and her sister Emily Brontë “turned to literature because they found their work as governess and teacher unendurable.” (Long, 514) It offered a lonely and sad existence and they sought relief in the world of imagination through writing, but it was the cause of initiation not an end in itself. Charlotte aimed to make her novel a realistic picture of society. Her novels are not “products of immense solitude, of the imagination turned inwards upon itself, and of ignorance of world outside Haworth and literature” (Allen 187) but a portrayal of the society that she was living and breathing in. In spite of spending much of their life at the Haworth parsonage, Charlotte and her sisters along with thousands of other women were victims of the characteristic 19th Century dilemma – too poor to live without working, yet they were also ladies, a fact that severely limited what decent society would allow them to do without the loss of caste. Luckily for them “in the Victorian age, publicly at any rate, the law for man and for women became the same law” (Allen 143)

But still, for the women who inherited no property almost all lady -like employments were ill-paid, stressful and humiliating. Due to the lack of respectable professions many educated but poor gentlewomen earned pitiful salary by teaching in charity schools, (as Jane Eyre does), they must often have felt “degraded” and “dismayed” like Jane Eyre did. Even the fates of those favored by fortune were not guaranteed as they were sought after for marriage based on their inheritance rather than for love. Charlotte presents a horrific example of this in the novel, the marriage between Bertha Mason and Mr. Rochester, where the intention is not love, or even affection, but her inherited wealth. It culminates in Bertha’s madness due to an unequal and suffocating marriage and Rochester’s misery. Such unmatched matches were often made in the period where marriage was an economic instrument. Although, legal reforms and changes in public attitude would transform marriage by the end of the century, no significant legal reforms had taken place when Jane Eyre was written. On the other hand to marry out of class was considered unacceptable, even for Jane its literally the stuff of fantasy as Mrs. Fairfax remarks- “Gentlemen in his (Rochester’s) station are not accustomed to marry their governesses” (Brontë 233).

Women of class, who had no inheritance, too sought an escape through marriage. Blanche Ingram courts Rochester for this, and as soon as the news reaches her that his fortune is not even half of what it is believed to be, she immediately turns away her glances and advances. Although all marriages were no longer ‘arranged’ by families, most were negotiated with at least half an eye on practicalities. It was one of the few ways by which a poor gentlewoman could escape the trap of poverty and degradation. But marriage had severe drawbacks for a woman of independent spirit, whether impoverished or not. A husband became the master of her person and also of her property and income- a situation only remedied by Married Women’s Property Act from 1870 onwards. A wife was expected to submit to her husband’s will, adopt his opinions and run the household in such a way that he remained free from the worries, therefore Rochester’s famous dialogue- “. . . I mean shortly to claim you- your thoughts, conversation, and company- for life.” (Brontë 234). In fact, Charlotte Brontë herself, already a famous writer when she married, allowed Arthur Bell Nicholls to interfere even in her correspondence with Ellen Nussey ( her school friend) , and in the last few months of her life spent more time on her husband’s parish duties than in her creative writing. Thus, poor gentlewomen might have had chances if she was prepared to ignore personal inclination. Once when Charlotte Brontë received a proposal from Henry Nussey, a curate, he told her plainly that he was about to take in pupils and needed a wife to look after them. Similarly, in the novel when St John Rivers proposes to Jane, when he wants a loyal helper in his missionary work. Both the fictional and the real offers were refused, but there were plenty of girls who were more down to earth in their expectations.

In theory, gentility and wealth went hand in hand, but in reality there were many women who were obviously genteel and yet lacked means to support their class or a man to maintain them. For example- Mrs. Fairfax in the novel who is the housekeeper at Thornfield, in spite of being a lady of class (she is a distant relative of Mr. Rochester) she has no means of livelihood and thus is a dependent. Often ladies came down in the world because the family fortune collapsed in the still-unstable circumstances of early Victorian enterprise, characterized by alternating speculative manias and bank failures, booms and slumps. The children of paid professionals, with no family wealth had uncertain prospects in the event of death of the breadwinner, a circumstance which would have haunted the Bronte sisters with their clergyman father. If Mr. Bronte died, the parsonage would be taken over by another man and the sisters would face destitution, a circumstance reflected in the novel through the River sisters – Diana and Mary, who after the death of Mr. Rivers have to leave Moor House and take up work as governesses.

In reality, it must have been clear at an early stage that Charlotte’s drunken brother, Branwell Brontë, would never be able to support any of his sisters. John Reed can be seen as a representative depiction of Branwell Brontë and of other erratic individuals who wasted the limited family resources and caused ruin and destruction. While one of his sisters Eliza opts to live in a nunnery, Georgiana takes up residence with her relatives in London. Living with relatives was one obvious option for the impoverished gentlewoman. Sometimes she was welcome and wanted, but the impoverished single relative might also become as family drudge, made humiliatingly aware of her dependency, as little Jane is by her bullying cousin John Reed: “You are a dependant, Mamma says, you have no money; your father left you none; you ought to beg, and not live here with gentlemen’s children like us.” (Brontë 6) Even if the dependent managed to secure some skill as Jane does, the society did not offer many options for women. Genteel work outside home was almost non-existent: public office, the professions and the universities were all closed for them, while commerce and manual labor were simply not respectable. The working class women were often much worse off materially than even the impoverished gentlewoman. They worked for lower wages than the men, having only the fellowship of other women as their solace.

‘The female sphere’- a woman’s proper place- was at home, whether she ruled as its mistress or labored in it as a servant. The profession of dressmaking though considered ‘genteel’ offered meagre pay. Apart from being monotonous and dreadful, the employment was unstable as well. The hardship and penury-contrasted with the often glamorous contacts the dressmakers made- quite often they led to seduction, followed by rapid descent into prostitution. If reduced ladies driven to obtain maintenance wished to retain their gentility, they had to do women’s work in a setting as domestic as possible. Of employments now thought of as ‘traditionally’ feminine and respectable, even nursing was out of the question then; nurses were working-class women with bad reputations until Florence Nightingale’s Reforms took effect in the 1860s. Before that, young ladies were expected to play the piano and sketch prettily. Jane can also play “like any other English School girl” (Brontë 108) but, as Rochester recognizes, she is an artist of rare talent. Yet neither Jane nor any other lady could respectably exploit her talent- the best she could hope for was to teach. Teaching too offered no solace, life for the governess was often intensely lonely, and she lived in a limbo between master and servants, excluded from the friendship of both. Jane’s experience at Thornfield Hall is typical- the governess hears all the fun, but cannot join in, “. . . light steps ascended the stairs; and there was tripping through the gallery, and soft cheerful laughs, and opening and closing doors and, for a time, hush” (Brontë 145). The portrayal of Jane Eyre and of Lucy Snowe in Villette, as governess was extremely realistic as they were modeled upon the novelist’s own experiences. Although Bronte eventually joined the ranks of the famous- and potentially rich- her early work experience was identical to that of most other impoverished gentlewomen, she was engaged as a governess.

Governesses then included what we now call teachers; women who worked for boarding or charity schools, standards of these institutions varied greatly as depicted in the novel in the form of Lowood School. Charlotte herself taught at Yorkshire schools in the mid 1830s, but her work was virtually slave labor, she was offered a post at a Large Manchester boarding school later for the magnificent sum of £100 per annum but because of her father’s ill health, she was unable to take up the job. Unlike her novel Villette where the protagonist establishes a school of her own and becomes independent, the reality was grim. The work of governess was underpaid and overworked. She suffered from contradictions inherent in her position, she was a lady, admitted to the drawing and the dining room when her employers wanted to show her off, and too good to eat or associate with even the upper class servants. She had to make herself unobtrusive so that her mistress should not feel rivaled. A circumstance which does appear in the novel as Rochester’s wife is mad and confined in the attic. But we still get a glimpse of the same when Jane asks Rochester to guarantee Adele and she herself would be out of the way before he marries Blanche Ingram. Charlotte Bronte’s resentment of the slight she endured as a governess is also reflected in the novel, when Mr. Rochester’s beautiful fiancée’ Blanche Ingram recounts the cruel fun that she and her brother had at their governess’ expense. The governess’s life was singularly isolated and stressful. The low salaries received by them ensured that those who outlived their usefulness would save little or nothing, and end their days in the work house.

However, Victorian novels and reports did encourage public concern and as a result, in 1843, the Governess’ Benevolent Institution was founded. It set up a home for those in temporary difficulties, awarded annuities to aged governesses, and kept a register of available employment. But more importantly the Queen’s College was founded in London, with the intention of giving governesses proper training for their profession. With this institution and the wider job opportunities provided by social change and intelligent agitation began the transformation of impoverished gentlewoman into educated, efficient women.

Apart from teaching, literary writing offered the possibility of an extraordinary advance in affluence and status, if only for the lucky and talented few. Not all men approved of women taking up writing as an occupation but women had long been accepted as novelists, partly because the novel itself was originally regarded as a light weight literary form, requiring no great knowledge or talent. Writing continued to be a respectable profession for ladies, partly because it could be carried out at home, though by the 19th Century, great restrictions had been placed on the language and subject matter permitted to writers, especially women which forced novelists like Brontë to take up pseudonyms so that their work was judged on its own merits and not prejudged as the work of a women.

The readers of the Victorian novel did want to be entertained, and in a sense they wanted to escape the drudgeries and monotony brought about by the Industrial Revolution, but they wanted to be entertained with a minimum of literary convention, a minimum “esthetic distance” (Daiches 1049). They wanted to be close to what they were reading about; to have as “little suspension of disbelief” as possible. Brontë provides exactly what the readers wanted- Jane Eyre “derives as much from literature as from life. . .” (Allen 1890). The same is true of Charlotte’s other novel Shirley (1849). Set in Yorkshire, during the Luddite machine breaking riots, this is perhaps her most socially aware novel. The riots which occurred in the north of England in 1811-13, were popularly supported- the labor intensive wool industry was in decline and industrialization was threatening jobs and driving the dispossessed to desperation. Charlotte had heard about the stories of anti machine riots in her youth and hence Shirley was an attempt “to write a novel that should give a picture of a certain society at a certain time” (Allen 190). Through the character of Shirley Keeldar, Brontë gave subtle hints that “industrial reform and legislations to curb the worst excesses of the factory system were often first prompted by mill-owners themselves, who had not made the industrial system so much as inherited it.”(Allen 144).

Shirley and Jane both are independent and spirited heroines who write their destinies themselves. The difference being- Shirley is an heiress, a mill owner while Jane inherits her uncle’s wealth. Nonetheless, economic independence was a crucial necessity for social status and the liberty to make one’s own decision, especially in the case of women. As Jane remarks- “I am independent, sir, as well as rich: I am my own mistress,”(Bronte 385).

Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is no doubt a romance but unlike other romantic novels, for instance, her sister Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, it is not just a love story based in a private world of imaginary passion which has no connection or relation to the outside world. Jane Eyre is based on the society in which the novelist lived, and provides us glimpses of the same. The rapid transition in the economy and society which Britain witnessed in the Victorian era are intricately woven within the fabric of the novel. It hints at the fact that economic classes and social classes were not as concrete as certain people wanted them to be and that economic relations constituted an important part of the psyche of the people and the society as a whole. Hence it presents a realistic picture of the changing dynamics of the class structures in Victorian England.


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Having completed her graduation and post graduation in English Literature from the University of Delhi, Neema Chaurasiya is currently an independent researcher working in the field of teaching of English language and literature. She holds a Master’s degree in Education as well, and has taught in one of the constituent colleges of the University of Delhi for a year. When not glued to her books, she spends her time travelling, reading blogs and clicking around with her camera.