“It sometimes seems as if I had no sooner learned to talk than I was doing it wrong,” writes Rohan Maitzen in her guest post on Jane Austen’s Anne Elliot and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and “women’s long struggle to be heard on their own terms.” Rohan is an English professor and literary critic, and she lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Her essays and reviews have appeared in Open Letters Monthly, Quill & Quire, the Times Literary Supplement, and several other publications, and she blogs at Novel Readings. She created a free online guide called Middlemarch for Book Clubs, which you can find here. Rohan is an excellent guide to Middlemarch (which I know from personal experience because I took her class on George Eliot when I was a graduate student), and she recently won an award from Dalhousie University for her outstanding work as a teacher. It’s a pleasure to introduce her contribution to my blog series “Youth and Experience: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.”
It sometimes seems as if I had no sooner learned to talk than I was doing it wrong. Over the years I have been mocked, criticized, disciplined—even, once, slapped in the face—for talking too much, or at the wrong time, or in the wrong tone of voice; at other times I have been pressured to say more, to share, to discuss, to explain, to justify. The more fluent I became with language, the more it became a double-edged sword: I have been praised for being articulate and blamed for being intimidating, applauded for arguing forcefully and shamed for “ranting.”
I eventually came to see my fraught relationship with speech—along with the experiences of other women I have seen silenced, suppressed, or (more rarely) boldly speaking out—as part of women’s long struggle to be heard on their own terms in a world that rarely welcomes their voices. History has provided the context, but it is novels—particularly Persuasion and Jane Eyre—that have given me both comfort and courage as I continue to navigate this difficult terrain.
These two novels perhaps seem an unlikely pairing: one, after all, is famous for its heroine’s reticence, the other for its heroine’s rage. For most of her novel, Anne Elliot says too little; often, in hers, Jane Eyre says far too much. Elizabeth Bennet is Jane’s more obvious cousin: from the beginning of Pride and Prejudice she says exactly what she thinks. For all the pleasure I take in Lizzie’s liveliness, though, there’s an element of fantasy to her fearless conversation. Persuasion, in contrast, offers a deeply moving representation of the suffering that comes from being unable to speak your mind, an all-too-common experience for women made all the more painful for Anne because in her world (as Louisa Musgrove’s fall from grace so clearly illustrates) self-control really is a virtue and desire truly can be a wayward force. It’s precisely because speech is so ethically and emotionally complicated for Anne that the scene at the White Hart is so suspenseful and, ultimately, so satisfying.
Jane initially errs in the opposite direction; her immoderate outbursts, her vehement demands for equality and justice, are as thrilling as Anne’s inhibitions are frustrating. But the violence of Jane’s speech proves as destructive as it is liberating; her struggle is to control it, to channel its energy so that, like Anne, she can lead a life that reconciles her desires with her principles. While Anne’s most significant speech finally breaks down the barriers set by principle and propriety, Jane’s asserts the primacy of morality over passion: “I care for myself,” she silently declares, in the face of Rochester’s urgent plea that she abandon “Conscience and Reason” in favor of their love (Volume 3, Chapter 1). Stirring as her earlier words to Rochester are—“Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless?” (Volume 2, Chapter 8)—this later moment reminds us that what we say to ourselves can be as powerful as what we say to others.
In both Persuasion and Jane Eyre, agency, not just self-expression, is the ultimate goal: the point is not for Anne and Jane simply to demand what they want, but for them to achieve what they need and deserve. “Power,” Carolyn Heilbrun observes, “is the ability to take one’s place in whatever discourse is essential to action and the right to have one’s part matter” (Writing a Woman’s Life ). That’s what, in their complementary ways, Anne and Jane are seeking, and it’s what I’m after too. To an extent that might surprise those who know me and see only, or mostly, a confident and self-sufficient exterior, I still find it stressful deciding if, when, or how to speak up. I carry the psychological baggage of years of criticism, which now manifests as a tendency to brood, second-guess, and self-censor. That’s why I am inspired by women who emerge victorious from this ongoing struggle—by Anne and Jane, and even more by Austen and Brontë, who took the pen into their own hands to show us that whatever the hazards, we must and can find the words to speak for ourselves.
Quotations are from the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Jane Eyre, edited by Margaret Smith, with Introduction and revised notes by Sally Shuttleworth (2000).
Twenty-ninth in a series of blog posts celebrating 200 years of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. To read more about all the posts in the series, visit “Youth and Experience.” Coming soon: guest posts by Sheila Johnson Kindred, Judith Sears, and Marcia McClintock Folsom.