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.@ For Jane’s development in terms of anger and psychological doubles, see Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, 2nd ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984, 2000): 339, 360-1; Elaine Showalter, “Charlotte Brontë: Feminine Heroine,” New Casebooks: Jane Eyre, Ed. Heather Glen (Houndmills: Macmillan Press, 1997): 68-77, 68; Mary Poovey, Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988): 140-1. For her ambiguous class status, see Poovey 127, 137, Jina Politi, “Jane Eyre Class-ified,” New Casebooks: Jane Eyre. Ed. Heather Glen (Houndmills: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1997): 78-91, 79, and Susan Fraiman, Unbecoming Women: British Women Writers and the Novel of Development (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993): 96. The status of Rochester’s creole wife Bertha Mason is central to debates about the novel’s racial politics and often paired with Jane’s own references to harems and slaves. See Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism,” Critical Inquiry 12:1 (Autumn 1985): 243-61, 247-8; Jenny Sharpe, Allegories of Empire: The Figure of the Woman in the Colonial Context (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993): 28; Susan Meyer, Imperialism at Home: Race and Victorian Women’s Fiction (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996): 74, 86; and Carolyn Vellenga Berman, “Undomesticating the Domestic Novel: Creole Madness in Jane Eyre.” Genre: Forms of Discourse and Culture 32:4 (Winter, 1999): 267-96, 276. Many critics see Jane as complicit with conservative disciplinary systems of middle-class, patriarchal, and imperialist ideology. See Deirdre David, Rule Britannia: Women, Empire, and Victorian Writing (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995): 110; Politi 90; Joseph A. Dupras, “Tying the Knot in the Economic Warp of Jane Eyre.” Victorian Literature and Culture 26:2 (1998): 395-408, 399; and Elaine Freedgood, The Ideas in Things: Fugitive Meaning in the Victorian Novel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006): e.g. 32, 35, 50. 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. @ In contrast to Helena Michie, I find this episode in Jane’s life to be of utmost importance. See Sororophobia: Differences Among Women in Literature and Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992): 17. 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,@ See, for instance, Dianne F. Sadoff, “The Father, Castration, and Female Fantasy in Jane Eyre,” in Jane Eyre, ed. Beth Newman (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1996): 525-6. 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.@ For the colonialist significance of the “Indian ink” she uses, see Meyer 93-4. For Eyre as “heir” see Nina Schwartz, “No Place Like Home: The Logic of the Supplement in Jane Eyre,” in Jane Eyre, ed. Beth Newman (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1996): 551-2 and Janet Gezari, Charlotte Brontë and Defensive Conduct: The Author and the Body at Risk (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992): 61..
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.@ In theory, if not always in practice, the legal doctrine of coverture prevented wives from earning separate income or entering into contracts without their husbands’ consent. See Mary Lyndon Shanley, Feminism, Marriage, and the Law in Victorian England (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989): 8, 22. As Joanne Bailey and others have noted, however, “in practice coverture was often ignored or bypassed.” See “Favoured or Oppressed? Married Women, Property, and ‘Coverture’ in England, 1660-1800,” Continuity and Change 17:3 (2002): 351-372, 353, 366, 368; Margot Finn, “Women, Consumption and Coverture in England, c. 1760-1860,” The Historical Journal 39:3 (Sept., 1996): 703-722, 707. Courts of equity offered one exception for wealthy families (Shanley 25), but no evidence suggests that Jane’s uncle settled the money as her separate estate. See also Finn, “Women” 705-6. 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.@ The vast majority of women’s wills before the nineteenth century were made by widows and single women (Amy Louise Erickson, Women and Property in Early Modern England [London: Routledge, 1993]: 204). 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.”@ See “Capabilities and Disabilities of Women,” The Westminster and Foreign Quarterly Review (Jan. 1, 1857), 51. 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;@ See Shanley 103. Even the Act of 1882 did not give wives full contractual or testamentary powers (Shanley 127). Ruth Perry has recently suggested that women’s economic standing diminished over the past hundred years, as primogeniture increasingly cut them off from family land and wealth and made them more dependent on new, marital ties. Novel Relations: The Transformation of Kinship in English Literature and Culture 1748-1818 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004): 64, 4, 34, 40, 47, 212. For the way that common law diminished women’s claims to property, see also Susan Staves, Married Women’s Separate Property in England, 1660-1833 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990): e.g. 27-36, 129-30, 217. Other historians have argued, however, that this focus on common law obscures continuity and possible growth in women’s economic standing during this period. See Amanda Vickery, The Gentleman’s Daughter: Women’s Lives in Georgian England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998): 4; Vickery, “Golden Age to Separate Spheres? A Review of the Categories and Chronology of English Women’s History,” The Historical Journal 36:2 (June, 1993): 383-414, 405; Finn, “Women” 720. Jane is able to act as a “feme sole” with respect to her inheritance only because her engagement and marriage are temporarily aborted.@ Shanley 25-6. 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@ Meyer 93; Freedgood 34-5, 50; Mary Jean Corbett, Family Likeness: Sex, Marriage, and Incest from Jane Austen to Virginia Woolf (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008): 103, 108.— 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.@ Primogentiture is invoked throughout Jane Eyre; see John Reed’s claim that “all the house belongs to me, or will do” (8), Blanche Ingram’s motivation for fortune-hunting (136), and Rochester’s initial pursuit of Bertha’s wealth. Although other scholars have argued that women continued to receive more equitable divisions of family wealth (Erickson 63, 78), cases of intestacy favored eldest sons, and “[t]he wealthier a man was, the smaller the proportion of his estate left to his widow, and also to his daughters” (Erickson, 26, 19). Like coverture, however, primogeniture was never the only option for women, even if it was the one overwhelmingly prescribed by common law. Eliza Reed’s ability to “secure” her own fortune (200) against her brother’s gambling losses suggest that she, too, has separate and sufficient provisions, despite the consolidation of land in her brother’s hands (see Erickson 77). By similarly grounding Jane’s new wealth “in the English funds” (325) rather than in land, the novel supports Amanda Vickery’s observation that even women without “real” property might comfortably receive other, moveable goods instead. See Vickery, “Women and the World of Goods: A Lancashire Consumer and Her Possessions, 1751-81,” Consumption and the World of Goods, Eds. John Brewer and Roy Porter (London: Routledge, 1993): 294. 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.@ This is one of many secrets Jane keeps from Rochester. See Lisa Sternlieb, “Jane Eyre: ‘Hazarding Confidences,’” Nineteenth-Century Literature, 53:4 (March 1999): 473, 475, 477; Richard Menke, Telegraphic Realism: Victorian Fiction and Other Information Systems (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008): 85-6. 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,@ Corbett 108. 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,@ See 337, 339. The obvious explanation for St. John’s fraternal inadequacy is that he wants Jane as a wife, a relation that would secure him a helpmeet (and double his wealth). But it is also part of his larger mistrust of contentment in blood kinship, his desire for Jane to look “beyond [… ] sisterly society” (333). 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.@ Naomi Tadmor has shown how kinship names defied rigid classification in eighteenth-century England, and throughout the nineteenth century “sister” served as a flexible shorthand for affective, religious, professional, and erotic alliances, as well as for biological kinship. See Naomi Tadmor, Family and Friends in Eighteenth-Century England: Household, Kinship, and Patronage (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001): 152. According to Tadmor, individuals used kinship titles to “incorporate new members into his or her kinship group and announce their incorporation” (139); however, despite gesturing toward “much broader relationships of amity, sympathy, and fellowship” (159), Tadmor’s examples focus primarily on degrees of blood and marriage (144)—a different case from Jane’s transformation of cousins into siblings. Corbett notes, “kinship is and has always been a made thing, a human artifact, rather than (as some Victorian anthropologists would argue) a naturally occurring phenomenon based in blood” (60). For erotic uses of “sister,” see Martha Vicinus, Intimate Friends: Women who Loved Women, 1778-1928 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004): xxvii, 50. 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.@ “A gift that is not returned can become a debt […]; the only recognized power […] is obtained by giving” (Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice. Trans. Richard Nice [Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990]: 126). Linda Schlossberg notes the doubly-dependent status of nineteenth-century orphan children; see “ ‘The Low, Vague Hum of Numbers’: The Malthusian Economies of Jane Eyre,” Victorian Literature and Culture 29:2 (2001): 489-506, 497-8. Jane’s insistence on reciprocity is part of a larger pattern of exchange in the novel that recalls her earlier experiences under obligations to the Reeds and reminds us that she is not overwhelmingly eager to form close alliances with women in general—with Bertha, for instance, or with Adèle—if they have not previously benefited her. 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,@ The novel is most likely set between 1798-1808 and narrated a decade later. See Judith Raiskin, ed., Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999): 31 n.7. Scholars also date the novel through its references to publications such as Scott’s Marmion in 1808 or the second volume of Bewick’s The History of British Birds, in1804. inheritance taxes came under scrutiny, as economic theorists and budget-pinched politicians sought to ensure that, legally speaking, there could be no free gifts. @ During this time, new income taxes were also levied in order to create wartime revenue: Stephen Dowell, A History of Taxation and Taxes in England from the Earliest Times to the Year 1885, Vol. II: Taxation, From the Civil War to the Present Day. 2nd ed. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co. and New York: 15 East 16th Street, 1888): 230, 262, 325; Martin Daunton, Trusting Leviathan: The Politics of Taxation in Britain, 1799-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001): 32-3. “Inheritance” or “death” duties encompassed separate probate, legacy, and succession taxes until they were consolidated in a single Estate Account Duty in 1880-1 (Dowell Vol. 3:131; Daunton 225). Probate duty preceded distribution; legacy and succession duties were paid by the estate’s heirs. Max West, The Inheritance Tax in Studies in History Economics and Public Law, Vol. 4., Eds. The University Faculty of Political Science of Columbia College (New York: Columbia College, 1893-4): 171-310, 185. Although inheritance taxes were nothing new to England or to Europe, they had been studiously evaded for centuries, making them unreliable sources of income for a war-strapped nation. See West 181. British acts from 1694 through 1780 taxed only the documentation, and were frequently evaded through failures to record the transfer (West 207; Daunton 226). See also Jeremy Bentham, “Supply without Burden” (1795), The Works of Jeremy Bentham, Published under the Superintendence of his Executor, John Bowring, Vol. II. (Edinburgh: William Tait, and London: Simpkin, Marshall, & Co., 1843): 592. A more rigorous system was implemented in 1796. The new law taxed transfers of moveable property (not merely its documentation), at different rates depending on the relation of testator and heir. In 1805 the tax was extended to include direct descendants (Dowell, 3:134-5).
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.@ Nieces paid higher rates than daughters. The rate for cousins was even greater. (In 1796, a niece or sister would pay 2%, but a cousin would pay 3%. See Dowell, 3:133.) Jane lessens her cousins’ extra duty, if only rhetorically, by simultaneously shifting their degree of kinship and their tax bracket. By gifting her property during her life, she may have found a way for them to evade legacy taxes entirely. To prevent similar evasion through deathbed gifts, gifts of personal property made within a year of the donor’s death were also taxed. See West 209, also Dowell 3:131-3. Gifts in general were not taxed; several taxes on transfers of property were proposed but not passed in the first decades of the century (see Dowell 2: 218, 232, and 296-7). 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.@ Bentham 586. Bentham defines “near relations” as those “within the degrees termed prohibited with reference to marriage.” See Corbett (esp. ch. 3) for Victorian debates about those prohibited degrees. See also West 280-1. 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, Principles of Political Economy with Some of their Applications to Social Philosophy. Vol. II (1848). 5th Ed. (London: Parker, Son, and Bourn, 1862): 387 (Book 5, Chapter 2, Section 3). Mill favors inheritance tax over income tax, reinstated in 1842 after 26 years. See also Daunton 224, 229-232; West 290. 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).@ St. John, who cannot conceive of exchange among equals, associates Christian sacrifice with unrepayable debts. 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.@ Mill 5: 384.
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.@ Mill 380 (Book 5, Chapter 2, Section 1). Jane, in contrast, credits her own local family network with the “protection” that Smith, Bentham, and Mill assign to the state.@ Mill 380. 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.@ See Elaine Showalter, A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977): 152. Mary Wilson Carpenter discusses the common reading of Romney’s blinding as “a metaphor for feminist vengeance directed at masculinist power” (55) in “Blinding the Hero,” Differences 17:3 (Fall 2006): 52-68. For Fraiman as for others, the ending of Jane Eyre is ambivalent (116-8). 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.@ In answer to Rochester’s comment that she “delight[s] in sacrifice” (379), Jane protests that there is nothing unequal about their exchange. 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.”@ Marcel Mauss, The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. Trans. W.D. Hall (London: Routledge, 1990): 16; see also Jacques Derrida, Given Time: 1. Counterfeit Money, trans. Peggy Kamuf (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992): 138. 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.”@See René Girard, “Mimesis and Violence” in The Girard Reader, ed. James G. Williams (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1996): 11-2; Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share: An Essay on General Economy. Vol. 1: Consumption, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Zone Books, 1991): 58. 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@ See also Carpenter 64-5. 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.@ Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, trans. David Wills (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995): 96, 107. See also 97-109. 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.@ Derrida, Gift 101, 109. 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). @For this insight about the dissolution of selfhood in Jane Eyre, I am indebted to Gezari 82. 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.