A New Name and Face: Identity in Victorian Literature

“Mrs. Rochester! She did not exist: she would not be born till to-morrow, some time after eight o’clock a.m.; and I would wait to be assured she had come into the world alive before I assigned to her all that property.” (Jane Eyre, XXV)

Victorian England was extremely concerned with titles and names. Family names, which were innately linked to good breeding, special titles of importance, historical legacies, and old money, were of the utmost importance. During this time especially, one did not rise out of the class into which he or she was born easily or often. While culture had moved beyond a caste system, it had not progressed very far. The self made man was not as highly respected (if indeed one gained respect at all) as the inherited family position. Without these inherited qualities, one was severely limited to a certain set of possibilities for the future. Of course, the upper class did not have to work, but they were often limited as the choices for marriage as well. While a member of the upper class could marry someone of lower standing if they so chose, it was greatly frowned upon. Jane Eyre, Laura Fairlie, and Tess Durbyfield found this to be all too true within their lives. Each in their own way struggled with identity, status, and class. They would each have to, in their own way, “lose themselves” in order to find true happiness. Each would go through horrific trials, near death experiences, and loss of everything they knew or owned (even if only for a time) due to this struggle with identity. While many today say they are “finding themselves”, no modern audience can understand just what these women experienced because of their respective identity crises. Each of these women was constantly reminded of who and what they were because of their names. Good or bad, their names affected everything about their lives, including how desirable they were to men. They were bound to certain standards because of their higher or lower class related name or title, then suddenly, not because of anything they had done or achieved, they were seen as something or someone else. This struggle with and for identity is seen over and over throughout Victorian Literature, playing itself out in every scenario imaginable, but still remaining true to its innate, pervading difficulties.

At the pinnacle of her search for identity, we see Jane Eyre struggling with her proposed (and later future) identity as Jane Rochester. She struggles openly, in the seclusion of her bedroom, to her reader, yet she is unconscious to the harsh reality of her struggle that would be realized the very next day. This is the turning point of her existence. She saw how she was destined to be, yet she innately knew that she would not become that other person, at least until the proper time had come. She allows her readers to witness her inner struggle over control of her destiny. Throughout their engagement, Jane doubts the reality of someone like Mr. Rochester loving someone like her, of her class and family breeding. She is so bound by the constraints that society has placed on her that she cannot see outside of them. This bondage takes the form of not only social class, but also in the constant reminding that she is considered plain or ugly but the beauty standards of that day. Many times her appearance and her plot in life seem to be synonymous, in statements like Bessie’s, “a beauty like Miss Georgiana would be more moving in the same condition.” (Jane Eyre, III) Not only was her identity placed on her name, but it was also further instead by her appearance; yet another aspect of her being over which she holds no control. Not only social class, but also the amount of pity she is allotted are decided for her based on inherited qualities. Here, Bessie is saying that if the very same girl had been born to be what was considered “pretty”, society would have treated her more kindly or would have been more forgiving of her unfortunate circumstances.

Jane stands on the brink of her identity as she portrays he inner dialogue in her bedroom the day before her wedding. She is at the proverbial crossroads of her life; today she is Jane Eyre, tomorrow she will be Jane Rochester. While she is pondering her future self, she reveals much doubt to her readers. She cannot assume the persona of Jane Rochester as yet—no, it is someone else entirely. It is as if upon her marriage she must become someone whom she does not know; society demands it of her. She must dress a certain way, act in a particular manner; she must become one of them. Jane has been rejected repeatedly by this impending class of people; she has been reminded almost constantly by every member of it whom she has encountered that she is undoubtedly not part of their class, yet now she is to become it. While Jane is not presently conscious of the reason behind her fear of this ‘Jane Rochester’, she is very present with the knowledge that she does not belong behind this title. This is all a dream to her; it is surreal to the point of being altogether unbelievable. This is class of people whom have inflicted her pain and heartache—and she is to become one of them.

Jane sees herself as an island. She is very much unlike anyone she encounters throughout her life, and it seems as if no one will ever let her forget that. In childhood, she is not to be compared with her Aunt Reed or her cousins—they are much better than she. At Lowood, at first she was a disparaging child unworthy of friends, then becoming accepted, but not in the same way as many of the children. She is still very different, yet it cannot always be determined as to why at this stage in her life; all the other girls are orphaned, yet they do not carry the same weight as Jane does. This may be due to her abuse at the Reeds’, or it may be her disparaging introspective nature. Of course, much of this aspect of her nature is due to outside influences such as the Reeds, members of the upper class such as Blanche Ingram, and authority figures such as Mr. Brocklehurst. Jane’s view is not irrational—it is in fact accepted and encouraged in Victorian England. Jane was a governess, a position which was supposed to be an isolated one. Because of this aspect of her identity, she is to remain “disconnected, poor, and plain.” (Jane Eyre, XVII) Her identity to others lies within completely superficial means.

Jane’s inner conflict between her identity as Jane Eyre and Jane Rochester was not only due to outside influences of social custom and class, but also between her faith and emotions. Jane fought to remain pure in all things, including her relationship with Mr. Rochester, but her desires would often find themselves in direct opposition to this. Before she knew of Mr. Rochester’s love for her, she felt that she should and even could not feel anything more for him that of her master. Jane’s resistance to her changing identity can be clearly seen through her inability to place the name placards entitled “Jane Rochester” on her luggage for her wedding tour. Notice that these placards were not even written by Jane herself—this was an identity ascribed to her by Mr. Rochester. The deeper meaning of this assigned status by an outside source shows how culture and society placed value and meaning on something as little as name. Jane would be allowed to mingle with certain people and do certain things with the surname Rochester that she couldn’t with the surname Eyre.

Laura Fairlie is rather sure of her identity for the first part of her life. Unlike others, she is and was a clear and accepted member of the upper class society. Laura dealt with the normal questions that go along with growing up and the death of her parents, but experiences nothing else truly remarkable concerning her personal identity in her youth. This, however, changes with the introduction of her intended husband, Sir Percival Glyde, and her uncle, Count Fosco. These men’s deceit cause both Laura and her sister, Marian, to become uncertain of everything they had previously held to be true. They do not as much mold Laura’s identity to begin with, as they do their own. Laura’s story is directed by their dramatically changing identities, whereas hers changes only at their willful hands. Sir Percival and Fosco assumed whatever personality best suited their own needs for deception at the time—charming during Laura’s courtship and their introduction into the family to win trust; then calculating and conniving to keep their plans hidden until it was too late. Both men acted with honest feeling at times—leaving Marian and Laura lost and confused. Once they were able to carry out their treacherous plot, they became haughty and secure in their success. These changing identities enabled them to lie and cheat, but would also eventually lead to their destruction.

By the time we find Laura at the insane asylum, she is very nearly questioning her own identity. While Laura is quickly losing her identity, Sir Percival and Count Fosco have finally revealed theirs, in all their deceptive glory. She has been there for several months, admitted by the men under the pretense that she is in fact the wayward and insane Anne Catherick. Laura is nearly at the point of losing herself altogether, after being drugged, stripped of everything she has ever known, and taken to a strange place, only to wake up as someone else. She was certain of her identity upon first becoming aware that she has been admitted into an asylum, but as the weeks and months wear on, she loses her will to even be Lady Glyde or Laura Fairlie any longer. She is not only dressed in Anne Catherick’s clothes, she is constantly reminded as part of her treatment that she is Miss Catherick. In fact, the more she attempts to convince them of her true identity, the crazier they believe her to be and the more they remind and attempt to persuade her of her “real” identity. Throughout her captivity, she endeavors to remember who and what she is, regardless of what society told her she had become.

Laura also fought against her identity as Lady Glyde. Married to a man she does not love, nor does Sir Percival love her, she is literally imprisoned within the confines of cultural class. She willfully accepts Sir Percival’s surname and title, yet she does not willfully submit to his controlling manner and forceful nature. While Laura is naturally meek and good natured, she holds her ground against her husband as much as she is able. She also remains in control, even partially, of her inheritance. This was unheard of at the time. The ideal and acceptable wife during the 19th century did nothing of the sort; she was to be submissive and supportive, in addition to have the ownership of all her possessions assumed by her husband upon their marriage. A woman was not to be her own, but to only think and act as her husband dictated. Laura acted in direct opposition to social convention, acting doing as she and her sister thought best instead. In this way, Laura took the reins over her identity, enabling her to eventually break free of her husband and uncle’s manipulative grips.

For Tess Durbyfield, nothing good would come of her father’s discovery of their relation to the old, wealthy D’Urberville family. For sixteen years she had been allowed to be Tess Durbyfield and no one else. Upon this discovery, however, Tess would never be left simply lead her own, albeit rather simple, life again. Her parents use her as a pawn for their own personal welfare, sending her to visit the old lady D’Urberville in town. Their reasoning behind this choice is that Tess is more lovely and charming. Effectively, they are using her as means to an end, never thinking of the possible negative consequences for Tess. They vow that “She’d be sure to win the lady—Tess would; and likely enough ‘twould lead to some noble gentleman marrying her.” (Tess of the D’Urbervilles, IV) Everyone in her life view Tess as a sort of doll—something pretty that can be named and renamed what they like and dressed up to be what they need her to be at the point in their lives. The true culmination of these selfish desires for the direction of Tess’s life, she is being pulled in all directions; she is pressed to be everything except for simply Tess Durbyfield, the one thing she desires to be. Angel pulls her to adopt the D’Urberfield name so she have claim to higher social rank, meanwhile asking her to marry him and identify herself as a Clare and a D’Urberfield. Meanwhile, Alec and her stolen maidenhood weight greatly on what she is even able to do or be. The responsibility to provide for her family also influences the choices with which she struggles. Every outside force in Tess’s life comes in this one moment and demand that she choose whom she is to be.

Alec D’Urberville uses his identity (or, really, merely his assumed identity) to control Tess. He reminds her of the family relation at every opportune moment, controlling her actions through both their supposed relation, as well as using her family as a target. Through her self identification as a provider for the family He abuses this power of class over her and her family to control them, showing offering provisions (with oh-so-many strings attached!) when they need them most. This power play comes ironically, since he is not really a descendant of the true D’Urberfield family like Tess; instead, he is of the Stoke-D’Urberfields, merely descendants of Simon Stoke who adopted the name for prestige, not because of any family relation. Alec also controls her social identity when he “takes her maidenhood”. Forcing Tess to drink an unknown liquid, then raping her while she lies helpless and unaware in a drug-induced sleep, he forever destroys her social identity and any prospects for a respectable and successful marriage. He not only damages her personally and impregnates her; he also changes her social identity from that of a promising, intelligent, and pure country girl to that of a wayward, loose, unwed teenage mother. When Alec robbed her of her purity in the eyes of society, he also took away her future as it stood. He took away her freedom as an individual with that one selfish and calculated act.

Angel prods Tess to adopt the D’Urberville name as her own, since she is only really on his same social plane if she does so. He does this under the pretense that it is for her personal good, however, telling her, “Society is hopelessly snobbish, and this fact of your extraction may make an appreciable difference to its acceptance of you as my wife, after I have made you the well-read woman that I mean to make you.” (Tess of the D’Urbervilles, XXX) Angel convinces Tess that he acts out of love and concern for her, but upon even the slightest examination it can be clearly seen that Angel acts out of his own concern about what society might think of him if he marries a lowly milkmaid. When she refuses to “spell [her] name correctly” he continues on his quest, essentially bombarding into assent. Tess neither associates herself with the prestigious D’Urberville family, nor does she desire for others to do so. He then coerces her into agreeing to marry him. While Tess loves Angel, she had already decided not to marry, thinking it best because of what the culture has now named her.

Tess is almost never allowed to live her own life as her own person. She is only associated with other identities, and then allowed to live within those confines associated with that alternate, socially imposed persona. Only after she murders Alec does she take command of her situation. This culturally unacceptable act signifies her rejection of socially imposed identities upon her. Prior to this act of self liberation, rash as it may be, Tess has never held the control of her own identity within her grasp.

These three women, and countless others throughout Victorian literature, struggled with identities imposed upon them by culture, religion, gender, and class. They knew themselves as one person, yet society knew them as another. Jane knew herself to be of the lower class, and had been reminded of that throughout her existence, yet in the face of a lofty upper class marriage she could not come to terms with her sudden acceptance by that class which had rejected her for so many years. Laura, caught up in a web of deceit, was told by her captors that she was someone else. Tess, born and raised as a pauper, struggled to find her supposed sudden status as a member of an old, wealthy family. Through her struggle, she would challenge the age old ideal of a “pure woman”, making her culture rethink how that could be defined. Many would close their eyes and minds to these “unruly” women. They fought against social boundaries and customs to not only stay faithful to their own beliefs and principles, but also in their struggle to find true happiness. While this would manifest itself in very different ways in each woman’s story, it came to each nonetheless. Only once each woman had reached a clear understanding of who she was outside of the social constructs, could she be satisfied. No matter the cost, the discovery of the true, innate identity by each woman is well worth it. Without each woman’s clear understanding of her own identity, she is lost.


~ by Mary Christa on April 25, 2009.

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