Creative Commons License
Victorians Institute Journal Annex content in NINES is protected by a Creative Commons License.
Peer Reviewed

Jane's Inheritance

Jill Rappoport, Villanova University

This essay is excerpted from Giving Women: Alliance and Exchange in Victorian Culture, which is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.
When Jane Eyre inherits twenty thousand pounds and then immediately decides to share that inheritance evenly with her cousins, her newfound wealth resolves a previous generation’s family conflict and affords Jane independence, as Brontë critics have argued. This transaction also allows her to bypass a number of nineteenth-century restrictions on women’s property rights and suggests an alternative to popular readings of plain Jane’s progress—economic and otherwise—as a tale of individual development.@ By exploring the mechanisms by which she receives and redistributes such an immense gift, the motivations for her generosity, and the nature of the newly reconstituted family that she so richly endows, this paper will show how Jane transforms a patriarchal inheritance into a means of establishing and sustaining kinship outside of conventional marriage and closer than bloodlines or common law would otherwise dictate. @ Despite the initial silence with which she greets it, her inheritance is hardly a surprise. Jane first meditates on the possibility of being her uncle’s “legatee” when, “annoy[ed] and degrade[ed]” by Rochester’s insistence that she choose silks for her trousseau, she thinks that if she “had but a prospect of one day bringing Mr. Rochester an accession of fortune, [she] could better endure to be kept by him now” (229). Writing to Madeira that very day, she sets in motion the chain of events that will interrupt her wedding and eventually make her rich. This point has interested scholars for its hint that Jane’s anger plays a role in disrupting the bridal ceremony,@ but it is largely forgotten in discussions of the inheritance. Yet by informing her uncle of her welfare and whereabouts, she essentially lays claim to the legacy he once hoped to bequeath to her. Safely away from Thornfield and a bigamous marriage, she again makes herself known when, in “some moment of abstraction” (325), she writes her full name, rather than her alias, on a portrait-cover. Signing Eyre, she also reasserts herself as heir.@
Jane temporarily loses both her legacy and her groom when she learns about Bertha and flees Thornfield. The delayed gratification is significant, as is the order in which she reassumes both property and husband. Only by inheriting her fortune between weddings, when the prospect of marriage is dim, is Jane able to distribute her uncle’s wealth. As Mrs. Rochester, she would have no right to possess separate property.@ Of even greater importance here, Jane would have no right to divide that property, either during her life or after her death. During the eighteenth century and most of the nineteenth, legal transfers of property, either by gift or by will, required a husband’s consent, unless that property had previously been secured as a wife’s separate estate.@ Even engaged women could not give away property because, in the words of the Westminster Review, such a transaction “would be a fraud practised upon her intended husband.”@ The revelation of Jane’s identity only in her “moment of abstraction” hints at the difficulty that women faced in attempting to inherit or bequeath property independently. In common law, if not always in practice, wives notoriously lacked economic agency until the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882;@ Jane is able to act as a “feme sole” with respect to her inheritance only because her engagement and marriage are temporarily aborted.@ Thus the deferment of her wedding makes possible her fleeting possession of twenty thousand pounds and her immediate gift of fifteen thousand. It allows her to benefit her cousins and, simultaneously, to limit the wealth that her (future) husband will acquire.
These transactions are all emphatically couched in legal terms. Jane’s signature, “written down, fairly committed to black and white” and the words “Legacy, Bequest” that she broods over as she begins to “ponder business” (325) frame the gift as an expression of her legal agency even as she is acting against common legal practice. By separating Jane from Rochester, Brontë gives her temporary but sufficient access to the legal maneuvers, property rights, and “instruments of transfer” (331) that her marriage will officially take from her. These documents are obscured in the larger context of Jane’s more privileged, autobiographical authorship, just as the novel’s commercial circulation is obscured through the story’s emphasis on gift transactions and “dear” readers. But even as the novel deflects attention away from its own financial know-how, it enables Jane to turn her uncle’s property—the tainted legacy of colonialism and of his bitter quarrel with the Riverses’ father@— into an intimate transaction that allows her to determine her own alliances while single and maintain those relations when married.
By redistributing her fortune, Jane challenges the primacy of her uncle’s legal document and reverses his decision to amass family property for one heir.@ She also opposes the general cultural imperative to accumulate, rather than share, fortune during one’s life; “it is contrary to all custom,” notes a startled St. John (330). Through Jane’s gift, the novel also reverses the prevailing kinship patterns that Ruth Perry has observed throughout the early nineteenth century: the distribution of Jane’s inheritance to her cousins emphasizes blood ties over conjugal bonds. Husbands are at least momentarily absent from her financial plan. “‘Marry! I don’t want to marry’” (330). This reprioritization of kinship is something of a convenient fiction, of course. As recently as the previous chapter, Jane has dreamt of Rochester’s love and “the hope of passing a lifetime at his side” (312). By disavowing these lingering desires at the moment of inheritance, however, she keeps the focus squarely on blood. Through the inheritance Jane receives and the gifts she then makes of it, the novel creates an alternative to the marriage plot, one that privileges “kindred” over heterosexual union (330). When it turns out that she can have both relationships, and on her own terms, it is notable that she neglects to mention her division of fortune to Rochester.@ Telling him of her “accession of fortune, the discovery of [her] relations” (375), she condenses and even conceals this episode, simply informing him that her dead uncle “‘left [her] five thousand pounds’” (370).
Jane invests in three possible domestic arrangements before returning to the one she will share with Rochester. Instead of endowing her (future) husband with a fortune, she secures a “competency” for her cousins, allowing Mary and Diana to quit their positions as governesses, and subsidizing St. John’s future missionary work. The transaction makes amends for her uncle’s antagonism toward the Rivers family, as Mary Jean Corbett observes,@ but it also transforms the nature of their kinship. As soon as she learns what their blood relationship is, Jane changes it, clapping her hands for joy that she has “found a brother […] and two sisters” (328). “‘You […] cannot at all imagine the craving I have for fraternal and sisterly love,’” Jane insists, against St. John’s protest that she might regret dividing her wealth. “‘I never had brothers or sisters; I must and will have them now’” (330). And even though (for various reasons) St. John does not live up to his promise to treat her as a sister,@ Mary and Diana are willing and eager to embrace the new relationship. This sudden shift from cousin to sibling would not have been as surprising to a Victorian audience as it may be today.@ More striking is that, for Jane, the closer affiliation has everything to do with her ability to give them an inheritance. Jane scoffs at St. John’s promise to “‘be your brother—my sisters will be your sisters’” without sharing her fortune (330). “‘Brother? Yes; at the distance of a thousand leagues! Sisters? Yes, slaving amongst strangers! […] Close union! Intimate attachment!’” In her view, and in the relations that the novel bears out, the most intimate connections depend upon gift transactions that operate contrary to legal customs or social traditions.
Hearing that the Riverses are her “near kinswomen,” Jane instantly starts thinking about her money. No longer a “ponderous gift of gold” (328) or a “mere bequest of coin,—it [becomes] a legacy of life” (329) as soon as she can share it, as soon as it allows her to (re)construct kinship ties. Until she has the power to provide for her cousins, she remains the indebted object of their apparently weighty gifts, unable to return assistance to the friends who have offered her a home and livelihood. Jane stresses the importance of reciprocity: even more valuable to her than the immense fortune of twenty thousand pounds is “the delicious pleasure […] of repaying […] a mighty obligation, and winning […] life-long friends” (330). The “justice” of having equal shares in their uncle’s wealth loses out to the more pressing imperative that Jane balance her own accounts. From her earlier status as a dependant orphan, Jane becomes a giving subject here, capable of matching and exceeding her sponsors’ largesse.@ Her transaction even earns interest, settling her debt and then “winning” lifelong friends or “sisters,” as she will continue to describe her relationship with Diana and Mary. The kind of kinship that Jane hopes to secure requires reciprocal gift-giving, and suggests that if there is to be any slight imbalance, it should favor the new giving subject.
Through Jane’s shared inheritance, as we have seen, the novel renegotiates the terms of women’s property and kinship formation. Jane’s gift also allows the novel to stage a debate about other contemporary economic laws. By privatizing the dispersal of wealth, Jane Eyre takes a stand on nineteenth-century questions of taxation and the relative responsibilities of individual agents and public policies. Jane’s refusal to keep her full inheritance, her compulsion to use it to repay services and benefit a larger community, initially appears to conform to and even implicitly endorse the system of duties imposed upon legacies and transfers of property at that time. Between 1796-1815, dates which mirror the approximate action and retrospective narration of Jane Eyre,@ inheritance taxes came under scrutiny, as economic theorists and budget-pinched politicians sought to ensure that, legally speaking, there could be no free gifts. @
The new inheritance laws privileged direct, lineal descendants of the deceased, taxing distant connections at higher rates. Legally speaking, the Riverses would be under greater tax obligations as Jane’s cousins than they would be as her siblings, offering yet another possible reason for her kinship conversion, and another clue that Jane Eyre does not simply abide by nineteenth-century legal codes.@ In 1795, as these laws were being revised, Jeremy Bentham proposed a more dramatic way to limit the inheritance that distant relations could receive, arguing that, in the absence of “near relations,” all property should revert to the state. When relatives, including nephews and nieces, were not in direct line of the deceased, he believed the public was entitled to half of a testator’s property.@ Later, Bentham’s disciple John Stuart Mill agreed that large taxes should be levied upon inheritance, declaring “It is not the fortunes which are earned, but those which are unearned,” that should be limited for “the public good.”@ Mill’s proposal echoes Jane’s partial repudiation of “gold I never earned and do not merit!” (330) and her sentiment that fortune should promote the “public good” as well as one’s own private interest. Eager to “benefit” the kin community “who had saved [her] life” (328), and asserting that she is “not brutally selfish, blindly unjust, or fiendishly ungrateful” (329), she seems as ready as Bentham and Mill to limit her own bequest and thus fulfill an acknowledged duty toward a common good. Viewed in this way, Jane is hardly reveling in sacrifice when she redistributes her fortune, despite suggestions to the contrary (344, 379).@ Not only does she ultimately receive as much as she has ever “calculat[ed] on” (326) but the division of wealth becomes her part of the “equal sacrifice” that, according to Mill, was “demanded from all” to ensure the public good, not a one-sided offering but a reciprocal act of civic or social exchange.@
Despite the commitments it seems to share with Bentham and Mill, however, Brontë’s novel ensures that its heroine, not political theorists, will determine what constitutes the “public good” or “near” relations. “Public” has different meaning for them. Mill endorses Adam Smith’s notion that “[t]he subjects of every state ought to contribute to the support of the government” insofar as they receive its benefits.@ Jane, in contrast, credits her own local family network with the “protection” that Smith, Bentham, and Mill assign to the state.@ By making Jane’s division of wealth a function of personal choice rather than legal imperative, the novel allows private feelings of affection and reciprocal obligations to govern her prevailing sense of duty. It suggests that intimate alliances offer women greater benefits than those they receive through legal systems. And it gives those private relationships larger social significance by allowing a single, personal gift to reshape a woman’s experience of property, inheritance, and family.
The mid-nineteenth century Bildungsroman propels our heroine away from female kin toward marriage. Jane’s subsequent return to Rochester is typically seen as the novel’s capitulation to the Victorian marriage plot. Critics read his physical mutilation, like Jane’s wealth, as evidence of Brontë’s difficulty imagining female independence within marriage.@ But even this marriage shows the lingering appeal of the reciprocal transactions Jane favors through her inheritance.
Rochester’s loss appears to offer a startling contrast to Jane’s carefully balanced exchange. After all, the extreme, gratuitous, and unilateral destruction of his health and home is a spectacle of sacrifice, and sacrifice is not her preferred mode.@ Nor is it his. Though he compares himself to an “old lighting-struck chestnut tree” (378), he is unwilling to sacrifice the love of the woman he claims would be better off without him. And the novel doesn’t ask it of him. Despite the heroism of the action that precipitates it, he is “struck”; this sacrifice is not active choice but passive loss, set in motion by its author. This is an important distinction. Sacrifice, according to the Maussian tradition, “is an act of giving that is necessarily reciprocated.”@ Intentional acts of destruction become, in this view, powerful gestures that highlight a sacrificial agent’s status and construct relationships of extreme obligation. In place of this willing, heroic sacrifice, Brontë presents something more akin to sacrificial slaughter, to the involuntary condition that René Girard describes as a community’s violent scapegoating., or to the violent consumption that, according to Georges Bataille, severs a sacrificial object from “the world of profitable activity,” from “the real order.”@ Whereas sacrifice for Girard and Bataille serves primarily to purge or to dissipate an unwelcome element, the sacrifice of Rochester’s hand and vision violently counters the unbalanced patriarchal economy that has previously dominated the text and offers an economic substitute for it. With his “degrad[ing]” jewels and silks, Rochester once used gifts to create imbalanced power relations. By the narrative’s end, however, he is grateful for blessings he no longer feels he deserves; this debt offsets his earlier prestige. Retributive though it may be, his loss also provides the narrative with economic equilibrium, a way not simply to emasculate its hero but to allow him to enter into the more balanced economy that Jane embraces. Rather than reading Brontë as unable to imagine healthy men in egalitarian marriages, we might read against physical loss here@ in order to again how she imagines balanced gift exchange as the mechanism for creating new, diverse forms of kinship.
Rochester learns to be a recipient as well as a giver. Jane, now able to requite the gifts he had earlier pressed upon her, prefers this state to his former “proud independence, when you disdained every part but that of the giver and protector” (379). Converted to her model of reciprocity, Rochester admits that although “[h]itherto I have hated to be helped […] henceforth, I feel, I shall hate it no more” (379). Accepting her offers and recognizing that it is no longer always his prerogative to grant a return, he asks that “God bless and reward you” (379). He looks upward and outward for the first time, attributing his losses and gains alike to divine intervention and reminding us yet again that individualism is not the final word in this narrative. “My heart swells with gratitude to the beneficent God of this earth just now,” exclaims Rochester, noting also that “His chastisements are mighty” (380). Invoking gifts from his creator, he learns that gift economies can open out to involve more than the people immediately party to exchange. If his loss pays a larger debt, his gains might also be predicated on the larger system of economic balance favored by a more omniscient design—by God or, as it happens, by narrative plot. Such is the sacrificial economy discussed by Derrida, in which extreme offerings seemingly “beyond recompense” are reinscribed within the realm of economic calculation through the Judeo-Christian promise of heavenly rewards.@ Unlike the precisely balanced exchanges favored by Jane, sacrifice ruptures the symmetry of gift transactions, “breaking with exchange as a simple form of reciprocity” by substituting, on one end, “infinite, heavenly, incalculable, interior” returns.@ If, along these lines, we consider the narrative’s sacrifice as enacted not by Rochester but by authorial intervention, with both writer and God in the balance sheets, then despite the passivity of his loss, our hero’s invocation of and gratitude for divine gifts reinstates him within a larger gift economy that begins to resemble Jane’s more closely than it does his earlier, one-sided exchanges.
Although critics tend to emphasize the role of individualism in Jane Eyre, the balanced economies I have been describing suggest that Brontë is far more committed to community than this individualist approach acknowledges. The novel’s final interpersonal exchanges ensure that neither subjecthood nor married subjects conclude the narrative. “No woman was ever nearer to her mate than I am; ever more absolutely bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. […] I was then his vision, as I am still his right hand” (384). @ Blurring the bodily boundaries between his and hers, this moment privileges unity over self. At the same time, though, it counters coverture’s legal submersion of a wife in her husband, by allowing the wife’s gifts to create the union, by making a husband equally dependent upon his wife, and by showing how husband and wife alike are reshaped by the union. In this way, just as Jane shares her inheritance to radically underwrite an alliance with her cousins, even her marriage with Rochester creates nonconventional kinship out of balanced gift exchange.
Jill Rappoport is an assistant professor of English at Villanova University. Her book, Giving Women: Alliance and Exchange in Victorian Culture, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press, and she is coediting a volume on women and economics in nineteenth-century Britain.