What Jane Eyre Can Teach Women Today About Money
“Reader, I married him” is one of the best-known lines in literature and may seem the most romantic too. Jane Eyre’s famous declaration at the end of the 19th-century eponymous novel by Charlotte Brontë sums up everything readers have been aching for throughout this much-loved tale of a “poor, obscure, plain and little” governess who, by remaining true to herself, triumphantly gets her man in a classic happy ending.
What most readers forget is the more pragmatic financial state of affairs that underpins Jane’s final decision to marry her employer, Mr. Rochester. In a clunky but typically Victorian deus ex machina, a long-lost heirless uncle conveniently dies and leaves Jane his fortune.
So when she says, “Reader, I married him,” it is worth adding “because I am now rich and can do whatever I want.”
The precarious personal finances of women such as Jane Eyre usually dictated their lives to a much greater degree than today. A 19th-century middle-class English woman was expected to marry (think Jane Austen heroines), with a small settlement from her family independent of her husband’s wealth that was rarely enough to live on. If she didn’t marry, she was looked after by her father or brother or uncle but was often expected to earn her keep.
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There were few occupations open to women then: they were not allowed to go on to higher education, hence law and medicine were closed, and commerce was also ring-fenced as a male domain. A woman could work as a teacher or a governess – poorly paid occupations that kept them barely above the poverty line and stripped them of the benefits of their class standing. Jane Eyre is from a reasonable social and financial background, but as an orphan she loses her family money, and as a governess she is treated as if she doesn’t belong either Upstairs among the family or Downstairs with the servants.
Charlotte Brontë knew what she was writing about. She and her sisters Emily and Anne (also writers) were daughters of a church vicar – well educated but with little money. They suffered similarly during their time as teachers and governesses, with Charlotte and Anne drawing on bitter personal experience for their novels.
In some surprising ways, however, the Brontës differed from typical Victorian women, especially with their money. Though financially precarious, each inherited a small nest egg from their aunt, and invested this in railroad shares – without interference from their father. (Patrick Brontë was famously absent, taking meals in his study and oblivious to his daughters penning bestsellers ten feet away in the dining room.)
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When Charlotte’s novel became a surprise bestseller, she began to make money. From her books and her railroad shares, she emerged with a respectable £1678 (about $142,000 today); it would have been even more if she had chosen the riskier royalties route rather than selling her copyright outright and so receiving a flat fee, but she was not expecting Jane Eyre to become the instant hit it did.
Most surprising of all, when she married Arthur Bell Nicholls late in life (in 1854 at age 38 – she died the next year), Charlotte had a pre-nup drawn up! Admittedly, this was insisted on by her father, who was suspicious his potential son-in-law might be a gold-digger. (He wasn’t. Nicholls pursued Charlotte long before she became famous or wealthy, and stood out in the rain crying the first time she turned him down. Patrick Brontë just didn’t like him – but that’s another story.)
Charlotte, then, understood only too well how much money affected the choices a woman made in life. Jane Eyre’s money may have come a bit implausibly out of nowhere, but it gave her the secure, independent foundation on which to look around and decide what she really wanted, unimpeded by having to rely on a man financially.
Was she happy to marry a broken suitor, blinded and lame, who had lied to her about a previous wife and almost caused her to commit bigamy? Yep. Because she could. Not so romantic after all!
Novelist Tracy Chevalier is editor of Reader, I Married Him: Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre (HarperCollins).