These women are characters of ill repute, characters often referred to as fallen woman, kept mistresses, demi reps, demimondaines, or courtesans. These novels present these women often in a moralizing passing, as minor characters claiming a page or two in dense descriptive volumes. Charlotte Brontë’s Céline Varens is the most developed persona of these novels yet she remains a flat and sinister refection of the nineteenth centuries obsession with the precarious virtue of women.
On the flip side, characters like Céline Varens indulge 19th century (and contemporary) reader’s fantasies of lavish, ornate and joyous “sinning.” These women are often wealthy, exquisitely dressed and are portrayed as thoroughly enjoying sex. They are a vicarious sexual liberation and financial alternative to the shackles of marriage or dull occupations of the mid 1800’s. Victorian readers could delight and fantasize in their “wickedness” or transgressive behavior as a form of escapism.
Jane Eyre is a Bildungsroman. The novel’s heroine finds her contented place in society through personal growth and change. Jane is given the choice of becoming a kept mistress herself, but will only be satisfied with an “equal” and official marriage. This is also true of the novel’s “anti-hero,” Mr. Rochester. It is through the exploits of Mr. Rochester that we learn that mistresses, in particular Céline Varens, were both delightful and destructive. This must be a common theme that Victorian readers would recognize because Mr. Rochester describes his actions as “the process of ruining myself in the received style” and not having “the originality to chalk out a new road to shame and destruction.” This inversion of power, with the ability of a woman to both destroy a man and indulge in luxury (as well as lovers) must have been a thoroughly temping daydream that in order to provide caution for the reader most fallen women are eventually unhappy, evil and doomed.
Despite the literary courtesans gifts of pleasure (including vicarious pleasure to the reader) she is punished and condemned. Giacinta is violent, and discarded, Clara stupid and discarded, and Céline pays for her refusal to accept societies’’, and her keepers’ rules with an illegitimate child and her life. Of course Mr. Rochester pays for his attempted bigamy and past hedonism with a loss of sight, which is (of course) returned to him once he is “domesticated.”
It would not be a leap to extend these judgments, punishments and fantasies of powerful, decadent, and nearly independent courtesan to English Nationalism and an exoticism of the other. Giacinta is Italian, Clara is German and Céline is French. Rochester treats them as pets or souvenirs, purchased and paid for, but soon exhausted of worth, pleasure and fascination.
The conflict between France and England is highlighted. La langue française is celebrated and condemned. Jane is fluent in French, perhaps an manifestation of her potential for passion, yet Jane also judges “French” attitudes when she chastises Adele’s love of clothing and presents, while praising England, as having the best schools in the world (despite her extreme abuse in one.) Jane’s refusal to live like the demimondaine as Rochester’s mistress in Sothern France further condemns both France and the role of mistress, no matter how true and pure love may be. Finally, the fact that after “contracted romances” with women while gallivanting across Europe, Mr. Rochester finally finds true love in the plain and tiny English woman, (while this is sweet and lovely,) screams of an inherent English dominance. These immoral and beautiful foreign sex workers help navigate a shifting identity in a rapidly globalizing and shifting world. The personal is political, even to the English Victorian reader.
By Jennifer Avery, Blog Editor