Old books have their own history. Reading them, I cannot help but wonder what other people reading the book before me thought of it, how they interpreted the book according to their own time period, and what their life was like. Old books can be like travelling through time.
I bought this 1927 edition of Jane Eyre (written by Charlotte Bronte and first published in 1847) at a second-hand bookshop in Cornwall. I had read the novel, and already have a paperback copy at home, but felt compelled to add this one to my collection.
What particularly intrigued me was the inscription on the inside page: written in now-faded ink is a woman’s name, Olive (I am not sure if her last name is Bolt or Bott), and Vale of Newlands, 1931.
Jane Eyre is, of course, a fictional character but she is interesting in the historical context of women in Victorian England. Jane is a strong woman, who knows her own mind. By refusing to be the mistress of Mr Rochester when their impending marriage is revealed to be bigamous, and declining St John Rivers’ proposal because she did not love him she showed she was unwilling to be led or influenced. There is a happy ending: Jane and Mr Rochester are reunited and, dear reader, she married him.
As a feminist (and I define that as females and males having equal opportunities), I found thinking about the lives of Charlotte/Jane in the 1840s, Olive in the 1930s, and me (a woman in my late ’30s, with a career, and in a long-term relationship; my only child sadly died last year) in 2015 fascinating.
What has changed for women – and has anything stayed the same?
Presumably, Olive read this copy of Jane Eyre in 1931; less than a century after the book was first published. We can speculate about Olive’s age, and all aspects of her life, but it’s difficult to know. I did a Google search of women named Olive Bott or Bolt of around that time, but with no further information to go on it was impossible to find out anything else.
Like her author sisters Emily and Anne, Charlotte originally published her novel under a pseudonym (they were Acton, Ellis, and Currer Bell respectively), fearing readers would be prejudiced against female writers.
Eighty years later, when Olive may have read the book things had changed a bit, but not significantly. Despite the Sex Disqualification Act of 1919, (which said that women should not be excluded from a profession or public office because of their sex) women still had limited opportunities.
Jane Eyre was a governess while at Thornfield Hall, and later a teacher at a small village school. Various education acts in the last decades of the nineteenth century made education free and compulsory for young children, helping improve the nation’s literacy and numeracy levels. However, sexism in higher education prevailed: in 1931 women were permitted to attend most universities, but some would not allow women to take a degree. Many of the Oxford and Cambridge colleges would not admit women at all. Today, an obstacle to obtaining university education is likely to be due to extortionate tuition fees rather than gender bias.
That said, in Olive’s time career opportunities were limited to all but the most determined women. Never mind a glass ceiling – despite the 1919 Act, women were discouraged from entering many professions and experienced horrendous sexism, with many women expected to resign from their jobs when they became engaged to be married, and receiving significantly less pay for doing the same work as men.
My edition of Jane Eyre features an introduction by a Mrs. Humphrey Ward. I found this interesting because married women are thankfully no longer referred to in this way (they probably still use these archaic ways in formal circles). It is only at the end of the introduction that we learn that her own first name is Mary.
Women were expected to be in the home, and be responsible for childcare and keeping house. Many women today will still do the lion’s share of the childcare and housework as well as going out to work, but the women of the 1930s did not have the benefit of labour saving devices (not to suggest the invention of kitchen appliances puts right this gender imbalance, but sticking a load of washing in the machine is a whole lot easier than washing the load by hand).
Today women are free to follow (nearly) any path in life they choose. I say ‘nearly’ because casual sexism against women is still rife: for example despite legislation, there are still jobs where women receive less money than men for doing the same role, and some employers are reluctant to recruit women of child-bearing age, to name just a couple of issues.
Charlotte Bronte would be likely to have been bemused if she knew that as recently as the 1990s Joanne Rowling was encouraged to use her initials, lest boys be deterred from reading about a boy wizard that came from a woman’s imagination.
Many of us may take for granted the right to vote. Charlotte Bronte was unable to vote, and women had received the right to vote on the same terms as men in 1928 (thank you Suffragettes) – only three years before Olive wrote her name in her copy of Jane Eyre. Whatever you think of the upcoming General Election, please do use your right to vote, whether you are male or female!
With Bertha, Mr Rochester’s ‘insane’ first wife imprisoned in the attic of Thornfield for years, the treatment and perception of those with mental ill health in the last 160 years is worth consideration. In Victorian times, both men and women could be imprisoned in asylums for years, decades, or the rest of their lives. There are stories of women in particular being sent to asylums for spurious reasons including ‘hysteria’, or having a baby out of wedlock. While she is less likely to be locked in an attic in 2015 Bertha (if she was real) she may still have faced significant challenges today, in the context of mental health services that are under resourced, and the stigma that still surrounds mental ill health.
This is a whistlestop journey through time, and of course there will be so many differences I haven’t included, or considered. Is there anything else that you can think of?