THE most touching scenes in Charlotte Brontë‘s novel Jane Eyre, in my estimation, arise not from Jane’s amorous adventures but from her sufferings in her childhood home of Gateshead Hall. After she has forsaken it for many a year, living as student and teacher in Lowood Institution and then as governess in Mr. Rochester’s Thornfield Hall, she returns in the twenty-first chapter to Gateshead at the wishes of her dying aunt, whom she most nobly forgives. Jane also reunites with her cousins Georgiana and Eliza, and it is to Eliza that I now wish to turn. Jane observes she is
very tall, almost as tall as Miss Ingram—very thin too, with a sallow face and severe mien. There was something ascetic in her look, which was augmented by the extreme plainness of a straight-skirted, black, stuff dress, a starched linen collar, hair combed away from the temples, and the nun-like ornament of a string of ebony beads and a crucifix. This I felt sure was Eliza, though I could trace little resemblance to her former self in that elongated and colourless visage.
Her habits change just as much as her appearance, and in just the same fashion:
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 alarm 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. Three times a day she studied a little book, which I found, on inspection, was a Common Prayer Book. I asked her once what was the great attraction of that volume, and she said, “the Rubric.”
This is not a terribly popular passage for Brontë scholars to pick apart, but such literary criticism of it as does exist seems to focus on its characterization of Eliza as a devout yet dreary girl whom Jane cannot understand, though she surely prefers her to the tormenter of her youth.
Eliza Reed studies The Book of Common Prayer three times a day for “the Rubric” only, thus revealing her obsession with the external forms of conduct and her obliviousness to the moral roots of behavior in emotion and value (Carol Bock, Charlotte Brontë and the Storyteller’s Audience, p. 70).
The Reed cousins are used to present effectively two types of women, extremes of possibilities that Charlotte despises. One is the fashionable beauty who lives only for admiration and marries for convenience, for a man to support her; the other is the spinster by nature who finds in the ritual of High Anglicanism a substitute for life and who ends logically in a convent. The naked distaste with which Eliza is presented is more striking when one remembers that the author, like her heroine, was a clergyman’s daughter; and the satiric method is the more intense for its starkness: Three times a day she studied a little book, which I found, on inspection, was a Common Prayer Book. I asked her once what was the great attraction of that volume, and she said, ‘the Rubric’ (Q. D. Leavis and G. Singh, Collected Essays: Volume 1. The Englishness of the English Novel, p. 184).
These are reasonable observations, and from Jane’s point of view I would say they are probably true. But I suspect the authoress, looking beyond Jane’s own knowledge, may be hinting also at something else. Why does Eliza say “the rubric,” not “the rubrics”? What is so compelling about the particular rubric she is reading, over and over again? Well, perhaps it is this one, printed at the head of “The Order for the Burial of the Dead.”
Here is to be noted, that the Office ensuing is not to be used for any that die unbaptized, or excommunicate, or have laid violent hands upon themselves.
Now, we must recall that the messenger who bade Jane come to Gateshead to see her aunt had also told her about her cousin – Eliza’s brother – for whom it was now too late for anyone to see.
“Mr. John died yesterday was a week, at his chambers in London.”
“And how does his mother bear it?”
“Why, you see, Miss Eyre, it is not a common mishap: his life has been very wild: these last three years he gave himself up to strange ways, and his death was shocking.”
“I heard from Bessie he was not doing well.”
“Doing well! He could not do worse: he ruined his health and his estate amongst the worst men and the worst women. He got into debt and into jail: his mother helped him out twice, but as soon as he was free he returned to his old companions and habits. His head was not strong: the knaves he lived amongst fooled him beyond anything I ever heard. He came down to Gateshead about three weeks ago and wanted missis to give up all to him. Missis refused: her means have long been much reduced by his extravagance; so he went back again, and the next news was that he was dead. How he died, God knows!—they say he killed himself.”
So if “they” speak truth, and John was a suicide, then the dreadful prohibition of the Rubric applies to him. He cannot receive a Christian burial in the Church of England. Either the Reed family lied to secure a clergyman to perform the ceremony, or the Office was never read over him. More importantly, the implication of the Rubric seems to be that a suicide, being guilty of a willful murder and forever unable to repent thereof, would make a mockery of the Burial Service’s hopeful words of eternal life in Christ. If my theory is correct, Eliza is thus reading the Rubric in agony over her lost brother, trying to come to terms with the teachings of her Church that would pronounce him damned. No “obsession with the external forms of conduct,” this, but a pain so internal she dares not voice aloud.