Jane Eyre’s Eliza Reed

In Jane Eyre, I am one of the bad characters you are not supposed to emulate. That is to say, I identify most with her.

Eliza Reed isn’t an awful character; she’s certainly not as bad as Mr. Brocklehurst or St. John Rivers. When Jane parts from her forever, as she does about halfway through the novel when Mrs. Reed dies, Jane does not wish her ill—but she is rather cool.

What’s wrong with Eliza? For one thing, she is much too dispassionate for Jane, who thinks an evener blend of reason and emotion might be better. Eliza, instead, is extremely calm and rational, even in the face of family tragedy. She is busy all the time and keeps to a strict schedule she doesn’t want anyone to disturb—much like myself.

Eliza still spoke little: she had evidently no time to talk. I never saw a busier person than she seemed to be; yet it was difficult to say what she did: or rather, to discover any result of her diligence. She had an alarum to call her up early. I know not how she occupied herself before breakfast, but after that meal she divided her time into regular portions; and each hour had its allotted task…. I believe she was happy in her way: this routine sufficed to her, and nothing annoyed her so much as the occurrence of any incident which forced her to vary its clock-work regularity.

This could just as easily be a portrait of me. Not a lot of time is scheduled in there to visit with her dying mother, which is a bit of a shame, and she sheds no tears when the fateful morning arrives.

Eliza is, of course, a member of the disharmonious Reed family. Why is everyone so unhappy and unfulfilled in the Reed family? Well, Eliza’s problem at least is that she doesn’t really love them, especially not her sister Georgiana.

“Georgiana and she had nothing in common: they never had had. She would not be burdened with her society for any consideration. Georgiana should take her own course; and she, Eliza, would take hers.”

And why not? She tells Georgiana as much herself, after giving her some life advice.

“Georgiana, a more vain and absurd animal than you, was certainly never allowed to cumber the earth. You had no right to be born; for you make no use of life. Instead of living for, in, and with yourself, as a reasonable being ought, you seek only to fasten your feebleness on some other person’s strength: if no one can be found willing to burden her or himself with such a fat, weak, puffy, useless thing, you cry out that you are ill-treated, neglected, miserable. Then, too, existence for you must be a scene of continual change and excitement, or else the world is a dungeon: you must be admired, you must be courted, you must be flattered—you must have music, dancing, and society—or you languish, you die away. Have you no sense to devise a system which will make you independent of all efforts, and all wills, but your own? Take one day; share it into sections; to each section apportion its task: leave no stray unemployed quarters of an hour, ten minutes, five minutes, include all; do each piece of business in its turn with method, with rigid regularity. The day will close almost before you are aware it has begun; and you are indebted to no one for helping you to get rid of one vacant moment: you have had to seek no one’s company, conversation, sympathy, forbearance: you have lived, in short, as an independent being ought to do. Take this advice: the first and last I shall offer you; then you will not want me or any one else, happen what may. Neglect it—go on as heretofore, craving, whining, and idling—and suffer the results of your idiocy: however bad and insufferable they may be.”

These are, in fact, excellent instructions, and I can see in Eliza’s assessment of Georgiana many of the faults of my own younger sister, for whom I have extremely little affinity. This, again, is where I line up very closely with Eliza. She may be related to Georgiana, but they are nothing alike, and there is little reason why they should be.

“After my mother’s death, I wash my hands of you: from the day her coffin is carried to the vault in Gateshead church, you and I will be as separate as if we had never known each other. You need not think that because we chanced to be born of the same parents, I shall suffer you to fasten me down by even the feeblest claim: I can tell you this—if the whole human race, ourselves excepted, were swept away, and we two stood alone on the earth, I would leave you in the old world, and betake myself to the new.”

Jane describes her, after this speech, as “intolerably acrid.” She has spent her whole life looking for a family, while Eliza rejects hers. But of course, Jane has rejected Eliza’s family too; she agrees that Georgiana is an annoying fool. She’s just too nice to make a big deal out of it. Her assessment of the sisters: “Feeling without judgment is a washy draught indeed, but judgment untempered by feeling is too bitter and husky a morsel for human deglutition.” Too bitter and husky for humans; I suppose I can accept that.

Where I differ from Eliza is in her devout and somewhat strange religiosity. She spends a large amount of time while Jane is staying in the house studying the Book of Common Prayer, specifically the rubric. And she is planning on moving to a nunnery to make a study of the Roman Catholic Church and see whether that might not be a better path to heaven. I wonder, does this occasion coolness on Jane’s part as well? Eliza is not only peculiar and unloving, but a potential papist. Jane’s somewhat offhand remark that Eliza will soon be “walled up alive in a French convent,” I think, supports this at least somewhat. (St. John is certainly a worse person, but Jane is nicer to him—and note that their relatedness is identical with hers and Eliza’s. But St. John is a Calvinist while Eliza flirts with Rome. Even St. John’s household routines, work ethic, and reluctance to spend time talking to his sisters rather than working are similar to Eliza’s habits.)

At their parting, Eliza does have some positive words for Jane: “you perform your own part in life, and burden no one.” Nicest thing she could possibly say, really, from her perspective, where being “quiet and unmolested” are the ultimate goals.

And the more I think about it, maybe the religiosity fits with me too. Eliza does say that she wants to study “Roman Catholic dogmas, and…the workings of their system; if I find it to be, as I half suspect it is, the one best calculated to ensure the doing of all things decently and in order, I shall embrace the tenets of Rome and probably take the veil.” An extremely rational way to go about things, really. So we may have reached different conclusions about that, but temperamentally….

So what to do, when you find yourself at the wrong end of a Victorian novel’s morality lesson?

3 comments to Jane Eyre’s Eliza Reed

  • Excellent post. This happens to me all the time. Don’t let the writer bully you – sympathize with whoever you want.

    One issue here is that Charlotte Brontë was in some sense an anti-Catholic bigot. Saying something like that can be a way to stop discussion, which I don’t want to do, and this attitude is probably more relevant to Villette than to Jane Eyre.

    The use of the word “husky” is excellent. I hadn’t noticed that.

  • Ugoki

    Don’t see why the priest is worse myself.

    “Jane’s somewhat offhand remark that Eliza will soon be “walled up alive in a French convent,” I think, supports this at least somewhat”

    Well, if she’s really that interested in Catholicism, then why don’t she just go there?

    Eliza is not a bad person. But she’s certainly alien to Jane that wishes for love.

    She’s certainly not as bad as the common moralizing Protestant characters Dickens would have.

    If she’s bad, she’s only bad to herself, similar to Miss Wade in Little Dorrit. Those kind of characters don’t really deserve a bad ending.

    Of course, the real bad sibling is the fat dude. What a Dudley prototype.

  • Ugoki

    So, I just read the early chapters and Eliza collecting money while counting it would totally make her a great accountant/treasurer if she hadn’t become a nun.

    And I empathize so bad with Jane.