The Oxford Movement and Jane Eyre
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The Victorian period from the mid to late 1800's was a time of internal religious turmoil for England. In the Anglican Church there were many different groups competing to define the doctrine and practice of the national religion. The church was politically divided in three general categories following: the High Church, which was the most conservative; the Middle, or Broad Church, which was more liberal; and the Low Church, which was the Evangelical wing of the Anglican Church. Within the High Church there were also differences of opinion on the true nature of the Church as a whole. It is from this conservative branch of the Anglican Church where the men of the Oxford Movement came.
The Oxford Movement began as a movement to reform the Church of England in 1833. The name is taken from the Oxford University fellows who led the movement. Among these men were John Keble, Edward Pusey and John Henry Newman. All of them were extremely loyal to the Anglican Church and were concerned with the government's interference in its affairs. They also were worried about the liberal tendencies of the Evangelicals as a threat to the Church. The Oxford movement thought that they needed to lead the Church back to the "true" church of the fourth century AD; drawing on the patristic writings of St. Augustine, St. Jerome and St. Bernard, their aim was to revive the ritual and mysticism of the early church.
The Oxford Movement's beginning is usually associated with July 14, 1833, which was the date John Keble gave his sermon on "National Apostasy." But, more importantly the movement took its roots with the publication of the "Tracts for the Times" by Newman, the first of which was published September 9, 1833, and the last, Tract 90, in 1841. The Tracts meant to remind the English to understand the church as an independent body, not as an appendage to the state. The Tractarians wanted the movement to offer a compromise between Roman Catholicism and Evangelicalism. The Anglicans were distrustful of the Catholic tendency because of the power of the Pope. On the other hand, they did not embrace the evangelical doctrine of universal damnation. The Oxford Movement and its leaders had the best intentions to reform the Church, but it seems to have been most successful in the way it pursued faith as "an impulse of the heart and conscience not an inquiry of the head" (Chadwick 12).
Essentially its close association with the Roman Catholic traditions was the main reason for its failure to appeal to the majority. It is the skepticism and ambivalence toward this religious movement which is illustrated in Jane Eyre.
Jane is surrounded by religion yet is never identified with any particular Protestant denomination, nor does Bronte ever endorse either extreme in the Anglican Church. Although she is willing to show the High Church movement and the Evangelical movement in a bad light she refuses to commit Jane to any doctrine other than her own moral conscience.
The High Church physically resembled that of the Catholic Church with its emphasis on the altar and Mass. Jane's experience in the red room at Gateshead show Bronte's fear of the masculine power of the Church and the anxiety over Rome. Red is universally associated with the Roman Catholic Church and is the color of ordained Cardinals. The bed itself as described by Jane "stood out like a tabernacle in the center..." (20; ch. 2); the rest of the room--drapes, bed covers, and carpet--repeats the color scheme of red. This room is also heavily associated with ghosts and superstition; in Jane's heightened sense of fear she believes that she sees the spirit of her dead uncle.
These images clearly show the Anglican dread of Rome and the Papal control that the Tractarians were stirring up in their theological quest to recover the medieval doctrines of the Church. Not only did the High Churchmen want to recover the old sacramental visage inside the church, but the 1830's also saw the era of the Gothic Revival in England. This was meant to restore the look of the church to that of the Twelfth and Thirteenth centuries; typically those facades of the Gothic churches built in catholic France. Not all High Anglicans saw this as a positive mood, though. Edward Pusey, a Tractarian, saw this emphasis on exterior beautification as a distraction to the true meaning of the Christian faith. He staunchly defended the Church as a body of humble members in Christ, not to be compounded with a certain building, or architecture.
The fierce rivalry between France and England is embedded in all European history. French Catholicism versus Anglican Protestantism is just one aspect of this feud, but most certainly anti-Catholic sentiments in England are echoed in this novel. It is Jane's charge to "anglicize" little Adele to English standards. And it is Rochester's comments about Celine Varens that show the distrust toward the French (a woman, in this case) as deceitful and treacherous. He goes so far as to say he was spellbound by Celine, whom he calls a "Gallic sylph" (160; ch. 15), as if her attraction were not of this world. Rochester's confidence of this intimacy to Jane supports the humility Pusey referred to as the basis of faith for the Church of England. Rochester looks to Jane's simplicity to "refresh" (163, ch. 15) his spirit.
Bronte's most revealing statement on the Catholic tendencies within the Church and what it meant for the future of the Church is through the character of Eliza Reed. Jane's visit to the dying Aunt Reed finds the Reed sisters in quite different circumstances from their last encounter. Eliza Reed, now without any family money, is in the same position Jane was in when she left Gateshead. Eliza has nowhere to go now that her mother is dead, and John has squandered the family fortune. She looks for a solution in the High Church movement toward the ritualism and fundamental Catholic traditions: " I shall devote myself for a time to the examination of the Roman Catholic dogmas, and to careful study of 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" (272; vol. II; ch. 7). She really has only one other choice other than becoming a nun, and that is to become, like Jane, a governess. With her genteel upbringing, it is not surprising she chooses the lesser of two evils. It is Jane's reaction to this conversion that proves Bronte had little, if any, sympathy with the movement toward Catholicism and the Oxford Movement, especially after Newman's conversion in 1845. First, Bronte uses the dialogue between Eliza and Georgianna to show the fanaticism of this type of religious fervor. Eliza turns completely to the Church and away from her family. She goes as far as to say "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, a betake myself to the new" (265; vol. II; ch. 6). Jane herself recognizes that the life Eliza has chosen for herself will resemble what she once experienced at Lowood, that of an "inmate of a convent cell" (273; vol. II; ch. 7). It is this prison imagery that is recurrent in the novel. This type of atmosphere is also typical of the colleges of Oxford. It "was a thoroughly introverted community, socially, sexually, intellectually, theologically - a positive greenhouse in which plants could grow to heights not possible in the climate outside" (Gilmour, 77). Here the situation is made up of men, and Gilmour seems to say that it was a good thing, but in the same situation for women it only led to a life of chosen servitude.
Jane Eyre's independence from any professed religious tenet reveals that Charlotte Bronte was well aware of the Oxford Movement and is warning against any and all kinds of religious extremes. In her preface to Jane Eyre, she says "narrow human doctrines, that tend to elevate and magnify a few, should not be substituted for the world-redeeming creed of Christ" (6). If there was any beneficial, lasting impression of the Oxford Movement on Bronte, it would be the incorporation of individual conscience as a guide to morality, with interpretation of Scripture as given as the true path to faith.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. London, Penguin Books Ltd.: 1996. (Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Michael Mason).