The folks at VICTORIA (scroll down) are grumbling, and rightly so, about Tanya Gold's "Reader, I Shagged Him," which somehow manages to exemplify just about everything that's wrong with ahistorical readings of Victorian sexuality. Gold, who seems to labor under the apprehension that, when it comes to Charlotte Brontë's biography, there's only Elizabeth Gaskell's way or the highway, trumpets that "It is time to exhume the real Charlotte - filthy bitch, grandmother of chick-lit, and friend." Filthy bitch?!
What's annoying about Gold's sensationalism is that it flattens out the nuances of the quite overt eroticism in Jane Eyre. As Rochester notes with some surprise, Jane quite cheerfully listens to his stories of mistress-keeping without the remotest twinge of anxiety; later, she grumbles about being treated like "a second Danae with the golden shower falling around me," and threatens to emancipate Rochester's imaginary "harem"; and she knows perfectly well what going abroad with Rochester entails. One does wonder how Jane managed to get so worldly at a school like Lowood. Of course Jane desires Mr. Rochester; but, also of course, she desires him within a Christian framework, one which (here, at least) enthusiastically endorses sexual passions within marriage while firmly punishing those same passions outside of it.*
Where Gold really goes wrong, however, is in her reading of Jane's attitude to St. John Rivers:
The St-John fantasies are filthier yet, as Charlotte's masochism oozes on to the page. "Know me to be what I am," he tells Jane. "A cold, hard man." Jane watches St-John admire a painting of a beautiful woman and the voyeurism excites her; "he breathed low and fast; I stood silent". I know Charlotte had an orgasm as she wiped the ink from her fingers and went to take her father his spectacles.
Leaving aside that last sentence--primarily notable as an unintentional parody of Camille Paglia at her absolute worst--Gold's reading badly mistakes Jane's attitude to St. John. The man may be, as I said in class the other night, "seriously hunky," but Jane finds him aesthetically pleasing--not sexually attractive. The two are not the same. It's not for nothing that Jane repeatedly compares him to stone ("colourless as ivory," "marble immobility of feature," "marble-seeming features," "chiselled marble"), which links him both to Rochester after the revelation of his perfidy ("his whole face was colourless rock") and to Mr. Brocklehurst ("stony stranger"). Even as Jane associates St. John with cold stone, her dreams of Mr. Rochester are "many-coloured, agitated, full of the ideal, the stirring, the stormy..." And when St. John proposes to her, she finds the thought of sleeping with him not appealing, but repulsive: "Can I receive from him the bridal ring, endure all the forms of love (which I doubt not he would scrupulously observe) and know that the spirit was quite absent?" Jane loves and desires Mr. Rochester, but will not be his mistress; Jane neither loves nor desires St. John Rivers, just as he neither loves nor desires her, and finds the prospect of marrying him to be no improvement, morally speaking, over a life as Rochester's live-in.
Speaking of that latter point, it's not at all clear how Gold arrived at this claim: "In Jane Eyre she created the men she could not have in the sack: rude, rich, besotted Edward Rochester and beautiful, sadistic St-John Rivers. Both, naturally, beg to marry Jane and Charlotte draws every sigh and blush and wince exquisitely." St. John Rivers isn't sighing, blushing, or wincing; he thinks that Jane is physically unattractive and bluntly informs her of that fact during his proposal ("It is not personal, but mental endowments they have given you: you are formed for labour, not for love"). All of St. John Rivers' lust is reserved for the beautiful Rosamond Oliver. One of the (many!) problems with St. John's proposal, in other words, is that it rules eroticism out of the picture entirely. Rochester, at one extreme, offers passion without the legal and religious form; Rivers, at the opposite extreme, offers the legal and religious form without the passion. Brontë represents both of these as perversions, but only Rochester's position can be transformed into what we now blandly call "a relationship."
*--Obviously, there's no such thing as a generic Christian attitude on this matter, but, as Marianne Thormahlen has shown, the Brontës developed their own idiosyncratic take on "Bible Christianity."