Education in Jane Eyre and Mrs. Warren’s Profession
With the advent of sophisticated industrial machinery and colonialism on a grand scale in previously unheard lands during the Victorian period came a thirst for knowledge. Accordingly, the purpose and value of education, which involved the acquisition of knowledge and the inculcation of social values, was a major concern of Victorian writers. By examining Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession, this essay will examine three areas of similarity between the authors’ views of education. Both texts portray education as an avenue to increased social respectability. However, both texts also view this respectability as a mask for hypocrisy. Both texts also portray education as an avenue for perpetuating gender inequality.
Education was viewed as a pathway for the individual to acquire greater respectability in the eyes of society. This was because education was seen to impart the discretion and intellectual prowess necessary to interact with men and women of higher social status. This perception is masterfully demonstrated by Shaw in the polemic between Mrs Warren and Vivie. Vivie is stunned when her mother tells her that she is ‘taught wrong on purpose’ and her mother elaborates in response that Vivie was ‘taught at school and college to think right and proper’ but this ‘is only a pretence, to keep the cowardly slavish common run of people quiet.’ Here, Shaw’s polemic reminds audiences of the way in which discretion is used to avoid offending society. Education thus uses this ‘right and proper’ thought to teach an individual discretion which engenders respect. Evidently, however, Shaw is sceptical about this ‘pretence’ of respectability, which hypocritically disguises social ills. Thus, Shaw exposes the hypocrisy of Victorian education even as he admits that it trains individuals to be respectable members of society. Similarly, Jane Eyre presents education as a tool to acquire a questionable social respectability. Instead of using polemic, Brontë’s first person narrative juxtaposes Mr. Brocklehurst’s treatment of Lowood’s women with his treatment of his own daughters to draw out the hypocritical nature of education. Mrs Reed does ‘”quite approve”’ of how ‘”quiet and plain’” the girls look, almost like ‘”poor people’s’” children. This dialogue reveals that the education of women is intended to help them become respectable by cultivating modesty. However, Mr Brocklehurst’s daughters themselves wear clothes ‘trimmed with ermine,’ a royal material, and ‘false French curls.’ Brontë’s apt choice of the word ‘false’ calls the reader’s attention to the falsity of Brocklehurst’s purported belief in modesty for the poor girls of Lowood. It is false because he is perfectly fine with his genteel daughters wearing extravagant clothes. This suggests that men of power like Brocklehurst use education to teach the poor that modesty is respectable, so that they would not aspire to the success of gentility and wealthy society. Hence, Jane Eyre shows that the ‘respectability’ of education is often used to create a false consciousness of subservience in poor or common people. This echoes Shaw’s earlier message. Hence, education in the Victorian era was a means to promoting respectability which in fact was intended to mask class and material inequity.
Similarly, both texts portray education as a mask for gender inequality. In the eyes of both Shaw and Brontë, education serves to justify and perpetuate the superior status of men over women. In Mrs Warren’s Profession, Vivie makes sharp and sardonic commentary on the inequality perpetuated by education. For instance, Vivie responds to Praed that his idea of ‘maidenly reserve’ is a ‘frightful waste of time… Especially women’s time.’ This sardonic commentary spoken by Vivie is Shaw’s critique of society’s view of educated women as modest and reserved. To him, this limits their potential. In the play, this idea is reinforced by the social backdrop of Vivie ‘tieing’ with the Third Wrangler at Cambridge but ironically being unable to replace him because she is a woman. This demonstrates the glass ceiling placed by the education system on women. Similarly, the inequality perpetuated by education is critiqued by Brontë’s use of the introspective narrator. Jane silently rebels against the barrier society places on her knowledge. Her thoughts that it is ‘narrow minded…to say that they ought to’ be confined to ‘making puddings and knitting stockings’ instead of learning ‘more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex’ has two effects. First, it directly critiques the limits on women’s education. Second, the introspective narration demonstrates that women are sufficiently intelligent to critique the system and desire more intellectual growth than it can provide. By giving the reader greater insight into Jane’s thoughts, Brontë thus caricatures the standard justifications for society’s lowly education of women. Hence, both texts view education as a perpetuator of gender inequality.
In conclusion, Jane Eyre and Mrs Warren’s Profession both view education as a means to social respectability. However, they also portray education as a mask for hypocrisy and a purveyor of gender inequality. It tells us much about the nature of the Victorian period that two texts separated by a few decades continue to portray the same message about education.
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