Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Chapter 28: Jane alone

So Jane's not just broke and in unfamiliar territory here -- she also managed to leave her parcel behind in the coach that brought her away from Thornfield, so she's pretty much got nothing but the clothes on her back.

Jane-the-narrator is back to present-tense scene-setting here, giving you a sense of how desperate she's feeling:
Not a tie holds me to human society at this moment—not a charm or hope calls me where my fellow-creatures are—none that saw me would have a kind thought or a good wish for me. I have no relative but the universal mother, Nature: I will seek her breast and ask repose.
This isn't the glorious Romantic natural world here. It's Jane's last resort, and it's a cruel world.

Even though she was neglected by the Reeds and has been working for her living, Jane's retained her place among the gentry (though at the bottom of it) by virtue of her father's clergyman status. When she finds herself without money, connections, or any idea what she's going to do, she's also lost that class protection.

(Sort of. Even though she's bedraggled, she's still wearing decent-quality clothes, and when she breaks down and begs some food from a farmer, she assumes that he still considers her a lady of some sort.)

Time for some historical context here, in two parts: the Corn Laws and the Poor Laws. This is the part where I get to prove I learned stuff in my semester of graduate school.

The Corn Laws were in effect for the first half of the nineteenth century, and served to keep the price of grain artificially high, mostly through import restrictions. ("Corn" referred to all kinds of grains, not just what we apply the word to today. The English were eating corn long before they encountered maize in their North American settlements.)

Semantics aside, the result was that high grain prices meant high food prices -- in other words, the Corn Laws benefited the landowning agricultural class at the expense of the poor (and the emerging middle class).

And the Poor Laws didn't help matters. Here we jump out of the story's chronology for a minute, because it's likely that Bronte's description of Jane's experience was shaped by political events in the years before Jane Eyre was published. (For reference, the book was published in 1847, but the story takes place twenty or so years earlier.)

Poor Laws had been around for centuries at this point, regulating relief payments to the needy, who were considered the responsibility of the parish they lived in. In 1834, the Poor Law Amendment was passed. It created the workhouse (pace Dickens).

If you needed relief, the workhouse became your only option, but a) if you had any ability to work, regardless of how little you had the potential to earn, you didn't qualify, but still couldn't get help elsewhere, and b) the people in charge were determined to make the workhouse the most miserable experience ever, on the theory that nineteenth century England was largely populated by Ronald Reagan's welfare queens.

This, by way of summary of what Jane's facing as she's wandering around the countryside, is my five-paragraph summary of a fabulously informative 800-page book, E.P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class. If you're at all interested in what the Regency and early Victorian years were like for the people who only rarely got speaking roles in Jane Austen's books, pick this up.

Returning to the story: Jane's wandering takes her to a house; she eavesdrops on two girls and a housekeeper for a while. When she knocks and asks for help, the housekeeper is unsympathetic, but the man of the house appears and says she can stay. Jane is thoroughly worn out, but not too tired to pick a pseudonym, so as far as her new protectors know, she's Jane Elliott.

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