Shower Thoughts and Jane Eyre

Posted: October 13, 2012 in Books, General Musings
Tags: , , , , ,

Yesterday, I had a shower thought—you know, when you’re still sleepy and your thinking hasn’t settled into its normal structure, resulting in ideas that are often very weird but sometimes kind of amazing—and I discovered an answer to a question that has plagued me off and on for well over a decade: In the novel Jane Eyre, what is the relationship between Mr. Edward Fairfax Rochester (known as “Edward Fairfax Crazypants Rochester” to some) and his household manager, Mrs. Fairfax? Not so much, “How do they get on?” More like, “Why is Mr. Rochester’s middle name the same as Mrs. Fairfax’s married name?”

Short answer: She’s his aunt.

But let’s back this up. Because we know that Mrs. Fairfax is Rochester’s household manager, we can reasonably assume that her late husband, Mr. Fairfax, was Rochester’s steward (i.e., the person who keeps the books, collects rent, and otherwise manages his employer’s properties). Stewardships, like so many other ranks in England’s history, were (usually) inherited. The steward and his family (usually) enjoyed distinction and a comfortable living, but they were by no means considered gentlemen. They were strictly servants. So how did a servant’s family name come to be mingled with a gentleman’s name: “Fairfax Rochester”?

You could say that the Rochesters and Fairfaxes were close and wanted their children’s names to reflect this friendship. You’d probably be wrong. That’s not how naming conventions worked in 19th-century England. Names were for showing pedigree, especially if you had one to show like the Rochesters did. They were not for showing the parents’ creativity or nostalgia or affections for other people*. One common convention for showing pedigree on the mother’s side was to bestow her maiden name onto sons as a middle name (sometimes the first name, like Fitzwilliam Darcy in Pride and Prejudice). If we allow this convention to inform our extrapolations about Rochester’s origins, we can draw few other conclusions than that his mother was a Fairfax, a daughter of the Rochester family’s steward and therefore the sister of the late steward, Mrs. Fairfax’s husband.

THIS MEANS THAT ROCHESTER, SR., MARRIED AN EMPLOYEE, TOO! (Or, at least, the daughter of an employee. Same thing.)

You might think that this is a trivial point to make, but let’s take a look at some possible consequences of such a match:

  • Rochester’s mother knew what it was like to come from the servant class and would not likely want that life for her children, especially if they had access to a much better life.
  • Rochester, Sr., would be extra conscientious about his children sliding back down the social ladder and not climbing it.
  • Edward Rochester was the youngest son and therefore had little or no inheritance coming to him.
  • The fears of both parents were likely to be realized to some degree in Edward.
  • It’s suddenly a lot easier to understand why Rochester, Sr., would be so reckless and single-minded in choosing a very rich woman for his son to marry.
  • This reckless decision making results in Edward marrying a (so-called) crazy woman.

The rest is history, but another layer emerges when you consider how his parents’ socially reprehensible match might’ve affected Rochester’s worldview and behavior. Edward’s parents’ story and whatever social jabs and setbacks they suffered was likely a cautionary tale to him, but it was also likely an important piece of personal history that informed his eventual decision to accept his love for Jane and marry her (i.e., “Well, Mom and Dad did it, so why can’t I?”).

All of these conclusions are very cold-casey and fun to think about, but we should remember that Mr. Rochester and whatever family history he has are part of a Gothic novel. And Gothic novels were nothing if not socially conservative and didactic. So the question remains: What moral can we conclude from Rochester’s checkered family history? The answer is fairly obvious: All who upset the social order by marrying outside their social sphere will bring punishment on themselves and on their children.

The Rochester men’s penchant for marrying women well below their station—employees, no less!—has only ever resulted in pain and suffering. Edward’s marriage to a (so-called) crazy woman was the old Mr. Rochester’s punishment. Not only did he have to live with the knowledge of having ruined his son’s life, but he also had to know that he had ruined the chances for the continuation of his family’s name and legacy through Edward. If I remember correctly (it’s been a few years since I reread the novel), the old Mr. Rochester died before his older son did, but I don’t doubt that he would’ve been any less pained by the fact that his youngest son would have no progeny and that his legacy would be that much weaker. Then, of course, Edward gets his comeuppance when he gets caught in Thornfield while it burns the ground, which blinds and partially cripples him. We can easily read his disfiguring as a punishment for a number of more obvious sins, including adultery and attempted bigamy, but in the context of his family’s history, I believe his disregard for social custom by marrying down was also more than enough reason for the story’s universe to seek revenge on him.

Now, let’s consider the ending through the lens of a family history that continues even still to ignore social mores. Jane is understandably elated and happy just to be married to the man she loves; however, Jane is also a teenager and naïve. Strong willed and principled, but still naïve. Of course she would be happy in her love. But I wonder what Mr. Rochester thinks. Is he still defiant against God and man’s judgment? What does he plan for his son’s future marriage prospects? Would he manipulate him the same way his father did? Or would he step outside that cycle? Even if he does step outside that cycle, will the punishment for Edward’s sin of marrying below his station still be visited upon his son eventually? Will his son also seek love in the arms of someone well below his station?

If the story’s universe takes a steep toll on all those who upset the social order by marrying down, then the ending of Jane Eyre can be read as a failure to learn the right lesson and as the beginning of a new family that is doomed to more tragedy. Jane just doesn’t know it yet.

So, yeah. Jane Eyre’s ending was really a tragic one because Mrs. Fairfax is Edward Rochester’s aunt.

(Also, this tidbit means that Mrs. Fairfax is to Rochester what Mrs. Reed is to Jane! I don’t know what this parallel relationship means, but I think it’s probably important!)

*Fun Fact: In Vietnam, it is traditionally considered extremely rude and disrespectful to name your child after anyone you know, especially a family member or someone older than you. The assumption is that you will eventually scold your child and that while doing so, you’re also “scolding” the person they’re named after.

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