Tuesday 14 August 2012

Charlotte Brontë on Marriage

By Adam Hincks, S.J.

Holy Matrimony … is an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man's innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church … and therefore is not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, to satisfy men's carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God; duly considering the causes for which Matrimony was ordained.
―Book of Common Prayer

One of the great contributions of nineteenth-century English novels is their rich exploration of the domestic sphere. I do not think there is a single major author from this period who was not preoccupied with the subject, and, needless to say, marriage inevitably plays a large role within it. The life of the home, though it may not always be glamorous or exciting, is (or ought to be) one of the most important of human projects, since it is the setting of our most intimate relationships and so many of our chances for happiness stem from within the four walls of our houses.

In this context, there is a very revealing exchange between two characters in Charlotte Brontë’s novel Shirley. Mrs. Prior, a widow, is speaking to Caroline, the protagonist, about marriage. After hearing about the many difficulties that come with matrimony, Caroline objects: "In this case there ought to be no such thing as marriage." To which Mrs. Prior responds: "There ought, my dear, were it only to prove that this life is a mere state of probation, wherein neither rest nor recompense is to be vouchsafed."

Like so many other novels of the period, much of Shirley is deeply concerned with the choosing of a spouse, but Charlotte Brontë is under no illusion that marriage brings unmitigated happiness. Even more importantly, Mrs. Prior suggests that marriage serves an eschatological function. Anyone who thinks that complete happiness will be found in the connubial state must learn that he must look much further.

This is an even more important lesson today than it was in 1849. While marriage can certainly bring authentic happiness, it can also lay bare human weakness and, at times, even be a source of suffering. The deeply Christian point that Brontë makes is that these desolations, rather than being antithetical to the vocation of marriage, are in fact a salvific part of its essence. Perhaps one of the reasons many marriages "fail" today is because suffering and sadness are mistakenly thought to be wholly incongruous with the married state.

If marriage brings these necessary challenges, then, as the Anglican marriage service exhorts, it is to be entered into "reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly". It is fitting, therefore, that the journey towards the maturity that makes authentic marriage possible is a major plot element in the novels of this period.

Charlotte Brontë’s greatest novel, Jane Eyre, is an excellent example of this. Both Jane and Mr. Rochester need to be transformed before they are fit for marriage. Jane’s continual growth in virtue and self-knowledge, especially during the episode with St. John, is evident, but it is Mr. Rochester’s development which is most remarkable. His transformation is profoundly spiritual, and I would venture that anyone who does not recognise the central importance of Christian conversion in the novel has seriously misunderstood it. For he confesses: "I began to experience remorse, repentance; the wish for reconcilement to my Maker. I began sometimes to pray: very brief prayers they were, but very sincere." It is only after he is humbled that he can marry, and this time with good judgement. He enters into marriage with the prayer, "I humbly entreat my Redeemer to give me strength to lead henceforth a purer life than I have done hitherto!"

Perhaps surprisingly, Jane Eyre does not end with a wedding, but with a eulogy on celibacy. St. John, who is often mistakenly taken to be seriously defective in character, is the one who fills Jane’s heart with "divine joy" as he toils in the mission fields. But this is not really surprising if we remember Mrs. Prior’s wisdom from Shirley. Jane Eyre closes by pointing not to earthly but to heavenly happiness. The novel ends with a paraphrase of the final verses of the Book of Revelation. Both the married and the single state, if lived as they were ordained, should lead to the great, eschatological Maranatha: "Come Lord Jesus!"

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