Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Jane Eyre's chronology - the golden age of modern literature

There’s one 19th century book in Jane Eyre, Walter Scott’s long poem Marmion (1808), “a new publication” (Ch. 32, 326)*. It’s autumn; Jane is teaching in the country school. Autumn 1808.

Suddenly, for those paying attention, the entire chronology snaps into place. This is the first and only detail that allows a precise determination of the chronology of Jane Eyre. Jane, now 19 (that summer she was “almost 19”, Ch. 29, 305), was born in 1789. Chapter 1 takes place in the winter of 1800 when Jane is ten. The main action takes place from 1807 to 1809, at which point Jane is married.

Jane says she is writing the book ten years later (Ch. 38, 396), so that’s 1819, when she is 29 or 30. That’s also Charlotte Brontë’s age while writing Jane Eyre, although Jane is, of course, 27 years older than Brontë. Jane would be 58 or so at the time of Jane Eyre’s publication in 1847. Let’s save that idea.

Lest one think I’m putting too much weight on this slight detail, I’ll point out that just a few pages later, Brontë recapitulates Jane’s entire history, from the unlucky marriage of her parents forward, (Ch. 33, 334), in the novel’s second discovery scene (the first is on Jane’s first wedding day). This is St. John revealing all he knows for the benefit of both Jane and the reader who was not collecting the clues:

“Twenty years ago, a poor curate--never mind his name at this moment—fell in love with a rich man's daughter; she fell in love with him, and married him, against the advice of all her friends, who consequently disowned her immediately after the wedding. Before two years passed, the rash pair were both dead, and laid quietly side by side under one slab. (I have seen their grave; it formed part of the pavement of a huge churchyard surrounding the grim, soot-black old cathedral of an overgrown manufacturing town in ---shire.) They left a daughter, which, at its very birth, Charity received in her lap--cold as that of the snow-drift I almost stuck fast in to-night.” And onward to the novel's present moment.

Seen their grave, have you, St. John? Odd bird. Anyway, Brontë knew just what she was doing. We're in good hands here.

So let's see - when Rochester is having his fling with the French actress, it is perhaps 1796, just after the terror and before Napoleon’s coup. When Rochester asks Jane to flee with him to the south of France, it is 1808, France and England have been at war for a decade, and the whole scheme seems extremely unlikely. Perhaps this tells us something about Rochester, that he’s not serious, or that he’s serious but unrealistic. Perhaps it is an error on Brontë’s part. Or perhaps the world of Jane Eyre is different than the historical world on a few key points. That, I think, I’ll save for tomorrow.

* Marmion is “one of those genuine productions so often vouchsafed to the fortunate public of those days—the golden age of modern literature. Alas! the readers of our era are less favoured. But courage!” And so on, for quite a while. Weird passage. What on earth is Jane, or Charlotte, talking about?


  1. Well, Jane Eyre (i.e. Charlotte Brontë) could also have been referring to the edition of Marmion from 1833 which was Scott's revised text from 1831.
    (Ref. http://infomotions.com/etexts/
    gutenberg/dirs/etext04/marmn10a.htm) Chapter "V. THE TEXT OF THE POEM."

  2. Using an 1833 date solves the France problem and makes the novel more contemporary with Charlotte's own life, so it has some attractions. But it doesn't fit the text, or Jane's eagerness to read the book. Oh boy, a reprint of a 25 year old poem! The "golden age" passage is pretty weird, but as a response to a reprint, it makes much less sense.

  3. The author of this site makes a MISTAKE when he or she writes: "This is the first and only detail that allows a precise determination of the chronology of Jane Eyre." WRONG! I have done very extensive research on this subject because SO MANY people have tried to guess at the precise years of Jane Eyre's story. WELL -as ALL of Charlotte Brontë's personal friends and acquaintances stated in centuries past, Jane Eyre was a quasi-autobiography of Charlotte Brontë’s, and Charlotte Brontë first became a governess in 1839. SO, if we assume (for argument's sake) that Jane also became a governess at Thornfield Hall in 1839, then . . . when she is about to marry Rochester the following year - 1840 - and after the failed wedding attempt she flees, and is with St. John and Mary and Diana for about one year, after which she returns to Thornfield in search of Edward, it is then 1841. In chapter thirty-six, Jane (Charlotte Brontë) tells us that she left Whitcross for Thornfield on TUESDAY, JUNE FIRST! If you check the calendar year 1841, June first IS A TUESDAY! However, June first does NOT fall on a Tuesday for ANY of the other years that people have suggested -- not 1808 or 1809 or 1834 -- so that completely disproves those dates for Jane's return to Rochester. I believe that Tuesday, June first, is the ONLY ACTUAL DAY AND DATE GIVEN in the entire book. SO - that is the date I believe to be correct -- based on the premise that Jane Eyre became a governess in 1839 just as Charlotte Brontë did, and that she returned to Rochester to marry him in 1841 -- because it matches the calendar for Tuesday, June first! ANOTHER problem in stating a much earlier year for Jane's stay at Lowood Institution is that Lowood was quite obviously a monitorial school system--and Lowood is absolutely based upon Charlotte Brontë 's experience at Cowan Bridge school, and the monitorial school system only became popular in the early 1800s (1820s to 1830s). IF Jane had been sent by her aunt Reed to a school in 1799, the monitorial school system of teaching had not yet been introduced. Therefore, I believe Charlotte Brontë wrote what she knew (as she ALWAYS did, even in her other books) and she KNEW the monitorial school system (which caused the death of her two sisters) and she knew very well the year 1839 as a governess from personal experience. WATCH BBC's 2006 Jane Eyre mini series --they got the dates right! The script said that Rochester had married Bertha Mason in 1825, and 15 years later would make it 1840 when Jane was about to marry him, and it was then 1841 when she left Whitcross on Tuesday, June first!

  4. P.S. about the dates in Jane Eyre -Blanche Ingram also mentions Byron's Corsair in Jane Eyre, and THAT poem was not published until 1814! I think it is possible that just because the ORIGINAL publication of Marmion was in 1808, that does not necessarily mean that CB was absolutely referring to the FIRST publication of that poem. However, I believe that Miss Brontë may have even intentionally tried to confuse readers because PUBLISHERS in the 1800s did not want dates given in books because they did not want books to be "OUT-dated" in a short period of time. I have read several 19th century books where years are simply given as dashes, as Charlotte Brontë did in Jane Eyre.

  5. ALSO - it says in 'Jane Eyre' that St. John brings Jane the book of Marmion on a holiday, November 5th (Guy Fawkes Day-always celebrated on November 5th no matter what day of the week). Then, in the next chapter, she says it is the NEXT DAY - which would be November 6th, and she says "Mary came to school this morning ---" But in the calendar year of 1808, Nov. 5th falls on a SATURDAY so there would NOT have been school the next day - Sunday. Sunday was the Sabbath and there was never work or school on Sunday in the 19th century! HOWEVER – if you change that year to 1840 - which I believe is the year Charlotte Brontë intended - November 5th falls on a Wednesday so the next day, Thursday, would be a school day. There are far too many reasons why 1808 does not make sense, and in fact, CB may have had her own copy of Marmion that was printed in 1808 which did not give an earlier publishing date. In earlier centuries, books would OFTEN not give the first publication date, so maybe that is why she said it was a new publication. You must remember that CB was totally un-savvy about publishing -- she was unpublished when she wrote Jane Eyre. She may have been a brilliant writer but she was quite naive about many things, and in particular she was naive about publishing (and about many other things in the world). She led a very sheltered life up until the very end. I have many books that do not give a first publication date – only the date of that specific printing.

  6. CORRECTION: I meant to say that Charltte Bronte may have had a copy of Marmion as she wrote 'Jane Eyre' that was printed in 1840, and it did not give an earlier printing date, as was often the case. So, when she said 'new publication' - it WAS a new printing of the book, and she may have even mistook that for the first publication!

  7. Thanks for all the detail - this is very interesting. Every idea about the date of the chronology leads to a different interpretation of certain elements of the novel. And none of them are 100% consistent with the internal detail.

    One argument: surely Jane Eyre-the-narrator, writing in 1851(!) would know that Scott's "Marmion" was not first published in 1840. Scott was long dead, "Marmion" was a famous poem.

    Anyway, thanks again - you've given me some new things to look for when I reread.

  8. I think Charlotte Bronte was paying a tribute to the Romantic era in general, hence calling it the golden age. The 1830s Marmion edition would fit the dates better, but I think it doesn't really matter when exactly the story is set. Strangely, for something probably set in the 1830s, the setting seems far removed from the uneasy, bustling 1840s - as if were a totally different era, the Romantic visionaries compared to the Victorian utilitarians.

  9. Honest question - how would the 1830s Marmion "fit the dates" better? Which dates? The problem is that there are no dates!

    You pack a lot of ideas into this comment. So the "genuine production" passage is just an intrusion by Brontë, and I should perhaps ignore it when decoding Jane? An attractive solution in some ways.

    It is funny, I do not think of the Victorians as particularly Utilitarian, or for that matter Walter Scott as any kind of visionary.

  10. Various writers have said that the characterisation of Marmion as new is an anomaly. I agree and don't think it's safe to date the whole novel on this detail alone. (IMO this and the two weeks going missing when Jane receives Rochester's call for help are both deliberate anomalies, maybe I'll publish my research on this one day)

  11. M. Anonymous (I assume you are French), I missed your comment - yes, please publish. Let me know where. "deliberate" - I like the sound of that. I think the novel is full of deliberate anomalies.

  12. Tom, Stevie Davies' Penguin notes on Marmion include the nugget "Charlotte Brontë's haphazard datings obscure the novel's chronology. Sir Walter Scott's narrative poem, Marmion, was published in 1808, a date inconsistent with other textual clues. Marmion is concerned with a woman walled up alive, vowing revenge upon her persecutors." I know that last sentence really isn't germane to the dating question you and my comment predecessors have wrestled with here, but I thought it was too good to pass up. By the way, I'm quite fond of Caprezia's double-pronged attack: "Charlotte Brontë wrote what she knew (as she ALWAYS did, even in her other books)" and "I believe that Miss Brontë may have even intentionally tried to confuse readers because PUBLISHERS in the 1800s did not want dates given in books because they did not want books to be "OUT-dated" in a short period of time." Those seem to cover most of the bases, no?!?

  13. Yes, the creativity of some of the comments her is admirable. And the enthusiasm!

    I wonder if some of the argument comes from this myth that the Brontës were especially isolated, when they in fact lived in town (on the edge) and subscribed to magazines and so on. Charlotte Brontë knew who (and when) Walter Scott was!

    I would not put too much weight on 1808, but any attempt to move the novel too far away from that date seems pointless. Those other textual clues are from around the same time.

    Maybe I should read Marmion. Wait wait wait, now I get it. Duh! Do people still say "duh"? It's not Brontë who mistakes the date of the poem. It is Eyre. So then the question is why?