The Realm of Faeries: Queerness and Neurodivergence in Jane Eyre
By Grace Patrick-West
ENGL 425: Seminar in Literary Studies
In this essay, Grace posits one of the most original and fascinating arguments I’ve encountered in students work: that, through the Irish fairy motifs that abound Jane Eyre, Brontë represents her heroine’s queerness and neurodivergence. The brilliance of this essay lies in the depth of its research and Grace’s command of its material—that and the innovative way Grace intervenes in scholarship. For, as they writes in their introduction, scholars have written about Irish fae in Jane Eyre, they’ve written about Jane’s queerness, and they’ve written about her as neurodivergent. However, no one has thought that perhaps all of these might actually work together, or that, in fact, the fairy motifs allow Brontë to represent the queerness and neurodivergence of her heroine. Grace also performs creative and rich close readings of the text, which are compellingly compared to tales and tropes of Irish folklore.
– Kate Nesbit
During the Victorian era, interest in faeries began to peak. With the Brontë family connection to Ireland, Charlotte Brontë’s inclusion of faery lore in her novel Jane Eyre is quite useful in understanding her connection to both the time period she lived in and to her Irish lineage. As Carole Silver states, “For the Irish, especially those involved in the Celtic revival, belief in fairies was a political and cultural necessity,” demonstrating the importance that faeries had during the Victorian era from a Celtic perspective (141). While many scholars have looked at the intention behind folklore included in Jane Eyre as symbolic in various ways, none have approached faeries as evidence that Jane as a character is queer and neurodivergent. Neurodivergence refers to a difference in mental function from what is considered historically typical or normal (frequently used with reference to autistic spectrum disorders). Other scholars have also looked at Jane as a queer character, or as autistic, yet there have been no connections between these arguments the faery themes in the novel. By observing these gaps in scholarly approach, I seek to connect Celtic faeries with the arguments of Jane’s queerness and neurodivergence.
Throughout the relationship between Jane and Rochester, and even earlier in the chronology of the novel, fairies are an integral part of Jane’s identity as queer and neurodivergent. From Jane’s childhood, the connection with faeries is immediately established, as Jacqueline Simpson recalls, “In the course of the book we find that Bessie has filled Jane’s mind with omens, dreams, elf-lore and ghostly black dogs; the fruits of this imaginative awakening remain long after Jane has ceased literally to believe in such creatures,” an aspect of the novel that continuously emphasizes the underlying faery themes within the otherwise grounded narrative (47). Even the name of Rochester’s domicile, Thornfield Hall, can be interpreted as a reference to the hawthorn tree, a plant commonly thought to be sacred to and protected by faeries. Throughout the novel, faeries are mentioned continuously. However, the most prevalent context in which they are discussed is in comparing Jane to a faery. Charlotte Brontë writes about Rochester’s pet names for Jane, listing terms such as “‘provoking puppet,’ ‘malicious elf,’ ‘sprite,’ changeling,’ etc.” in relation to her character (199). Exploring the cultural significance of Irish fae is important in understanding other parts of Jane’s queerness and neurodivergence.
Irishness and the Brontës
Charlotte Brontë’s connections to Celtic folklore originated based upon her family lineage. Patrick Brontë, the father of the Brontë sisters, was born in Ireland with the last name Brunty, before changing his last name while attending St. John’s College in Cambridge (“Reverend Patrick Brontë”). Kathleen Constable writes about this name change by explaining the motivation of Irish people like Patrick Brontë, who “wished to establish some semblance of social position and thus were quick to amend their Irish names to more Anglicized versions,” which shows his rejection of Irishness as a product of the society he lived in (25). Changing the Brontë family name influenced power dynamics, as the Irish name Brunty impeded the family’s pursuit of status, while changing it both concealed their origins and protected them from anti-Irish sentiments. One could draw similarities to the power of naming in faery lore, with the idea of power held in a name specifically described as faeries often bringing bad luck to people who referred to them as Sidhe (“The Sidhe, the Tuatha de Danaan, and the Fairies in Yeats’s Early Works”). As Constable later argues of Charlotte’s relationship with Irishness, many examples of literary works by the eldest Brontë sister are connected to Irish symbols (60). Enthusiasts of the Brontë sisters can trace Charlotte’s passion for her heritage, which is described thusly: “a clue to Charlotte Brontë’s early affinity with things Irish may be found in her juvenile works, beginning in 1829 with the Adventure in Ireland” (Constable 60). It is quite fitting then that Charlotte Brontë would utilize Irish folklore as a motif in her novel Jane Eyre to reconnect with her heritage.
While Patrick Brontë attempted to separate himself from his Irishness, Charlotte’s approach to her lineage was one of curiosity and disobedience to her father, most noticeable in her eventual marriage: “Charlotte had rejected a marriage proposal from her father’s curate, the Reverend Arthur Bell Nicholls, and Patrick was incensed by the mere thought of the poor Irishman pursuing his famous daughter,” which inspired Charlotte to later accept Nicholls’s proposal (“Family History”). Charlotte Brontë’s interest in Ireland also motivated her interest in faeries. Silver mentions her opinion on faeries during the Victorian era as supportive of the rural settings of Ireland as more comfortable for faeries with the statement, “Many agreed with the geologist Hugh Miller (222-23) and the novelist Charlotte Brontë (576) that the fairies were leaving England,” as England’s urbanization was damaging to the faeries (142). Interestingly, Charlotte Brontë’s interest in the Celtic fae, called sidhe, is mentioned during a recounting of her tale “The Search for Happiness,” with Constable drawing a parallel between the protagonist’s journey and stating that “it also is strongly reminiscent of the tales of the sidhe…the former gods of ancient Ireland” (66). In examining the other references to Celtic faery lore, it becomes evident that early in her works, even before writing Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë was using Irish narratives of faeries and folklore in her writing. Even in Jane Eyre, the location that Rochester proposes she go to is in Ireland, with him stating, “I have already, through my future mother-in-law, heard of a place I think will suit: it is to undertake the education of the five daughters of Mrs Dionysius O’Gall of Bitternutt Lodge, Connaught, Ireland” (Brontë 182). This indicates the possibility that Jane as an Irish faery could possibly be more at home in Ireland than at Thornfield Hall, in Rochester’s opinion. Another element of Irish faery lore that is often used in Jane Eyre is the changeling, or the faery child exchanged for a human child. The explanation of changelings intrinsically connects to anti-Irish sentiment, with Silver describing this as, “[Changelings] were especially prevalent among the Irish-whom most English saw as another superstitious, primitive, and backward race” (87). The difficulty in separating changeling myths from association with Ireland further strengthens the idea of these creatures representing any outsider figures at all. The changeling folklore is most simply a tale of faeries stealing children and leaving another child, a faery itself, the aforementioned changeling, as a replacement (“Changeling”). Often the behavior of the child will drastically change, often aligning with symptoms of learning disabilities or other neurological disabilities.
Changelings: Jane as a Neurodivergent Faery
Throughout the novel, Brontë compares Jane to a changeling. Now, speculative sources see both the novel and changeling lore as possible tales to explain disability and neurodivergence. As various academic circles study neurodivergence further, the link between changeling lore and autism has become a divisive topic. J Leask says of this idea, “The legends were society’s attempt to make sense of, and cope with, child disability, providing a coherent explanation for its occurrence,” explaining the connections between the changeling lore and autistic traits as a means of coping for parents with neurodivergent or disabled children (271). Leask also states, “folkloric heritage suggests the existence of autism long before its formal recognition in 1943,” before further describing the relationship between changelings and autism by observing, “The new child—the changeling—is characterised by unresponsiveness, resistance to physical affection, obstreperousness, inability to express emotion, and unexplained crying and physical changes such as rigidity and deformity. Some are unable to speak” (271). Some of these traits can also apply to Jane’s behavior and characteristics throughout the novel.
From an early age, it appears that Jane has difficulty behaving in a neurotypical fashion. When she visits her dying aunt, she is accused of having an “incomprehensible disposition,” and her aunt states that her behavior as a child was hard to manage (Brontë 168). Jane’s abuse at the hands of her aunt is also acknowledged by changeling lore, with the statement that so-called changeling children “are often scapegoated and abused” (Silver 76). Even today, many neurodivergent children face abuse from family and peers because of their supposedly incomprehensible behavior. This lends support to the idea of Jane as a changeling, as the most typical stories of the creatures relate to children being replaced, with their behavior becoming difficult to understand from an adult perspective, often resulting in mistreatment similar to Jane’s childhood experiences.
One real life case of abuse inflicted upon an accused changeling involves a woman named Bridget Cleary. Silver recounts the story: “Bridget had been suffering from some form of mental illness, and when the services of a local priest and doctor proved ineffectual, a frustrated Michael Cleary turned to other means” (64). These “other means” included treatments such as forcing Bridget “ to swallow a concoction of milk and herbs while a more odious mixture of water, urine, and hen’s excrement was repeatedly sprinkled on her body,” which is just one of many severely abusive ways to drive away changelings (Silver 64). Tragically, this abuse ended in Bridget Cleary’s death. The idea of Jane being misunderstood, leading to abuse at the hands of people she trusts, lends itself both to changeling connections and the autistic traits that she displays. As Leask states, “Most tales of changelings contain instructions on how to prevent the child being stolen, ways of determining whether the child is a changeling, and instructions on how to manage their behaviour” (271). The approach to preventing and treating changelings is similar to rhetoric around autism as neurotypical people, seeking explanations and treatments for autism, supervise self- proclaimed autism networks and charities such as Autism Speaks1 . This idea of managing and trying to understand neurodivergent people is still prevalent. Silver says of the focus of changeling lore, “Power, in the form of social dominance, also plays a considerable role in explaining the interest of sceptical, educated, middle-class Victorians in reading about these brutal incidents,” referring back to the harsh treatment of people considered changelings (67). On a basic level, changeling accusations centered around control, much like the modern approaches to autistic individuals. In an attempt to force “normal” behavior from changelings and autistic people, the method of violence proves most effective. However, these methods ultimately damage the physical and psychological safety of the victims of such abuse.
Jane Eyre as an autistic character has only recently become a topic of discussion in critical debate, as more scientific advances are still being made in studying autism. However, the attitudes that provide evidence for Jane’s possible coding as autistic have been central in criticism of the novel both during Charlotte Brontë’s lifetime and after. As Julia Miele Rodas points out, “From its first publication in 1848 and persistently throughout the century and a half that has followed, critics and theorists have commented on the idiosyncratic nature of Jane’s feelings and reactions, on her unconventional approach to relationships, and on the singularly remote, withdrawn, or unattractive quality of her social intercourse,” a common critique of the novel’s protagonist that can be interpreted in a variety of ways (2). While the narrative is told from a first person perspective, Jane seems to cut herself off and have reservations when sharing her thoughts and feelings. While some people might interpret this use of narratorial voice as a frame for the readerly address and a set-up for a possibly unreliable narrator, others have begun considering other explanations.
I argue that developing Jane’s personality as Rodas describes supports the autistic coding of Jane’s character. Rochester points out Jane’s emotional ineptitude when he says, “You never felt jealousy, did you, Miss Eyre? Of course not: I need not ask you; because you never felt love,” which points to the inability to relate to others that is often associated with autism (Brontë 104). Jane continuously struggles to discuss her feelings openly, and her ignorance of Rochester’s affections until his proposal also indicates trouble understanding the emotions of others in a social atmosphere. On the most basic level, autism relates to difficulties in social, emotional, and communication skills (“What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?”). Jane appears to display difficulties in all of the aforementioned fields, and based on her blunt nature and struggle to connect with people, as well as her pursuit in special interests like art and reading (especially when considering her fascination with images), one can view her character as autistically coded.
Her bluntness is demonstrated when rejecting Rochester. Jane’s mental state at Rochester asking if she finds him attractive is described thusly: “I should, if I had deliberated, have replied to this question by something conventionally vague and polite; but the answer somehow slipped from my tongue before I was aware, ‘No, sir’” (Brontë 96). The inability to censor oneself is often attributed to autistic behavior, and in Jane’s interaction with Rochester here, the response given could be an inferred indicator of her potential neurodivergence. This bluntness is described as “Janian” later by Rochester when Jane responds to his inquiry about where she went when she left Thornfield with “I have been with my aunt, sir, who is dead” (Brontë 178). Rochester’s description of this reply indicates the common nature of Jane’s attitude as direct and without any filter. Her character displays autistic traits intrinsic to Jane’s personality. The behavior of such emotionally detached reactions to family loss, even if her aunt was needlessly cruel towards Jane, relates to the difficulties that many autistic people have coping with emotionally distressing events.
In spite of the more negative associations autism has in the inability to connect emotionally or socially, many autistic people thrive in creative pursuits. Rodas states, “For many autistic persons, the visual world simply feels more real, more concrete, more authentic, than the seemingly random social interactions of a babbling humanity” (13). For Jane, the visual world consistently draws her attention. Jane is introduced to readers while she flips through a book, paying attention to the images contained particularly: “each picture told a story; mysterious often to my underdeveloped understanding and imperfect feelings, yet profoundly interesting;” this narrative demonstrates her attraction to the visual world rather than to interaction with other people (8). The fascination with visuals and Jane’s artistic talent only grow as she ages. She shows her art to Rochester upon request, before describing her feelings towards her creations: “The subjects had, indeed, risen vividly on my mind. As I saw them with the spiritual eye, before I attempted to embody them, they were striking; but my hand would not second my fancy, and in each case it had wrought out a pale portrait of the thing I had conceived” (Brontë 92). This passage shows her dissatisfaction with her artistic pursuits. Yet, later in the same scene, Jane also states, “I was absorbed, sir: yes, and I was happy. To paint them, in short, was to enjoy one of the keenest pleasures I have ever known” (Brontë 93). While not necessarily perfect, art provides her with security and joy. Her interest in art develops her as a complex character with traits similar to some autistic savants.
Having established common traits of autism Jane displays, I return again to changeling folklore. Notably, Jane fits into both demographics most common in changeling reports; as Silver states, “most of the incidents recorded involved the victimization of either children or women–that is, those who were viewed as dependent or subordinate” (66). The idea of changelings being a way to victimize powerless groups supports the connection of neurodivergence and changelings as well. However, the groups of marginalized people did not cease at only gender, age, and mental state. The changeling story is described as a means that “reinforced and intensified subtle prejudices” of the Victorian era (Silver 73). The difficulty in separating the changeling tale from prejudice further solidifies the concept as related to any outsider perspective. From this, we can infer that changelings and other faery beings could also explain discrimination in Victorian England against race, class, and, perhaps most significantly, queerness.
Jane and the Queerness of Faeries
In approaching Jane’s character as queer, background in queer theory is required to create a solid foundantion for further expansion on how she fits into this ideology. One element of queerness and visibility of queer characters is sexual stereotypes, which consist of natural/deviant behavior, monogamy/ promiscuity, and gender clarity/ gender ambiguity (Ott 221- 227). In many ways, both faery lore and Jane’s characteristics fit into queer theory through these listed attributes. In order to further support Jane’s queerness, a folkloric figure should also be defined: the Swan Maiden. The tale is detailed as, “Spied upon while bathing or dancing with her sisters, one of the maidens would find her swanskin plumage stolen. Unable to flee, she would be forced to accept the embraces of her captor” (Silver 283). Simply, the Swan Maiden figure of Victorian folk tales is defined as a fairy bride captured by a mortal and forced into marriage. Silver adds, “Yet, even in captivity, she kept her separateness and power” (283). Silver continues, describing these Swan Maidens by comparing them to the Amazons, asserting, “The traits that female faeries shared with Amazons were equally evident: both groups were nonmonogamous, nonmaternal, outdoor creatures who favored hunting, riding, and wandering where and when they would,” ideas that support the fundamental concepts of queer theory (285). She subverts gender expectations, which applies the queer theoretical concept of gender ambiguity. Silver also states, “Swan Maiden tales, as a genre, suggested the possibility of the superiority of women, thus overturning the prevailing hierarchy of gender,” which applies to Jane’s overarching story as a parallel to folklore while supporting the argument for her queerness as she functions within the Swan Maiden role (285).
The Swan Maiden story serves to deconstruct gender roles in a similar way that the androgyny of faeries is utilized. This information lends evidence to Jane’s relationship with gender, as her role in romantic relationships and in life more generally is often considered transgressive for the Victorian era. Jane plays a more masculine role in many situations. During the Victorian era, financial management by women was unheard of. Yet, in the novel, Jane negotiates her inheritance with St. John and blatantly tells him that her future does not include marriage (Brontë 280). Her place as inheritor of a large sum of money gives her masculine power over St. John, Diana, and Mary. Further, she also refutes the patriarchal expectation of marrying when St. John brings the topic up, showing Jane’s position as the controlling and dominant person in the conversation. Her resolute stance on marriage gives her command over the conversation, with her statement, “I know what I feel, and how averse are my inclinations to the bare thought of marriage” (Brontë 280-281). She effectively shuts down the conversation with force before St. John can force the role of wife onto Jane.
Upon her first meeting with Rochester, Jane takes on a masculine role once again. She serves a rescuer role for Rochester when he falls from his horse, as she assists him in recovering, with Rochester fulfilling a damsel in distress role rather than a masculine heroic one (Brontë 83-85). Upon his fall, Jane immediately offers assistance, and she stubbornly insists upon staying at the scene to see that Rochester has recovered. Her internal thoughts reflect this obstinance, as she declares to herself, “I would not be driven quite away till I saw the event” (Brontë 83). His appearance has many supernatural attributes, with the image compared to Jane’s memories of fairy stories told to her as a young girl. She reminisces, “I remembered Bessie’s tales, wherein figured a North-of-England spirit, called a ‘Gytrash’” (Brontë 82-83). While unconnected to Irish folklore, the ‘Gytrash’ nonetheless reflects the submersion in fairy lore Jane experienced as a child. Also notable in the first meeting are the similarities between Rochester’s first appearance and the figure of the Dullahan, a fairy creature in Irish folklore more commonly known as the headless horseman. Fairy figures are used both in reference to Rochester and Jane throughout the novel, yet Rochester’s association with faery lore is far more brutish. Jane still maintains a certain ethereality, but Rochester as a faery indicates a more manipulative air to his character. From his first appearance, Brontë leads readers into a more haunting image of faery lore rather than Jane’s more independent and gracious behavior. Where Jane’s faery traits subvert gender expectations, Rochester’s faery characteristics enforce his masculine coarseness.
From the beginning of their relationship, the references to faeries are dominant in Jane’s relationship with Rochester. The most common references often indicate Jane’s overall appearance and personality. This relationship dynamic ties sexuality to her faery-like ways. Developing this idea of sexuality and faery queerness, considering the novel as a narrative about abuse and control over women is an approach to take in terms of Rochester’s attitude towards Jane’s independence, which connects to the way Swan Maidens are perceived. Silver argues, “By depicting fairy brides either as depraved and degraded, akin to female savages, or as idealized and etherealized beyond the realm of physical desire, folklorists brought female sexuality within the realm of Victorian comprehension,” which establishes a need to tame women’s sexuality both within Victorian consciousness and in the Swan Maiden tale’s use as it relates to Jane Eyre (290). Throughout the novel, Jane is portrayed as a passionate individual in many areas of life, and her relationship with Rochester could be interpreted as a stifling of that fiery autonomy within herself. In “taming” Jane by placing her in the position of the Swan Maiden, Rochester is both taking ownership of her passion and trying to create a more docile wife, while also degrading her by viewing her as a sexual faery-like being.
Yet Jane Eyre is a Gothic novel, a genre known as a space for subverting the Victorian assumption that men can take ownership of women’s sexuality. To support an argument for Jane’s queerness, many scholars have approached the novel as a work of Gothic literature. The genre of the Gothic is ideal for pursuing queer themes compared to other forms of speculative fiction. In the Victorian era, sexuality was seen as a taboo topic, and as George E. Hagerty argues, “Gothic fiction offered the one semirespectable area of literary endeavor in which modes of sexual and social transgression were discursively addressed on a regular basis,” a statement that points to sexual repression as a source of inspiration for writers of the Gothic (3). Jane Eyre certainly falls into this description of Gothic queerness, as the novel uses common indicators of queerness. An interesting connection to point out is Charlotte Brontë’s own close relationships with women in her life, which have generated discussion of Jane as a bisexual or lesbian character. Both genre and narrative form relate to the queer themes of the novel. The narrative form focuses on recounting past events, with the entire story being written as a reflection of Jane’s memories: “Memory offers the heroine the opportunity to confront her deepest fears and darkest desires,” which contributes to the argument that the chronology of the story relates to Jane trying to convince herself of being satisfied with Rochester (Haggerty 14). Rather than effectively persuading herself that she is happy with Rochester, writing about the past instead brings to the surface Jane’s queer desires.
Jane’s friendship with Helen Burns is a focus of reflection on her past, and their relationship strongly indicates some form of queer coding. However, Jane and Helen cannot pursue this relationship due to the Victorian expectations of heterosexuality. As Haggerty says of Gothic queerness, “Because same- sex love is impossible, everyone becomes a victim” (26). The death of Helen Burns fits into this idea, with the scene described by Brontë as, “She kissed me, and I her, and we both soon slumbered. […] I was asleep, and Helen was–dead” (61). Helen Burns, one of Jane’s very first romantic interests, dies in the same bed as Jane. Victimhood is most explicit in Helen’s case, with her dying, but Jane’s experience likely impacted her traumatically as well. Neither girl can pursue their homoerotic desires, and with that impossibility the only outcome is suffering.
Notably, Helen dies from tuberculosis (also known as consumption), a disease connected to vampirism and associated with blood. By approaching the subject of consumption as a disease that “eats away” at the person, faery lore once again becomes relevant. Silver describes of a type of fairy seen as a parasitic creature: “the omnipresence of the Ilhiannon-shee and her sister fairies-their sucking of vitality and life, whether metaphorical or literal– suggests how widespread was the male Victorian fear of being devoured by the female” (182). Helen’s association with consumption as a disease is also used as a motif referring to her as a queer faery seeking to devour males. Even the epitaph for Helen, “Resurgam,” means “I shall rise again,” a possible reference to supernatural forces such as vampires (Brontë 61). Faeries are often associated with death, with one example described as, “The terror of the banshee seems to lie in her zombielike qualities, in the fact that she looks like the dead reanimated rather than reborn” (Silver 174). Further, the Lianhan Shee are also referred to as “like a leech” in some folklore, strengthening the association between faeries and vampiric beings (Silver 180). The idea of vampiric faeries connects to the ideology surrounding tuberculosis during the Victorian era. This creates further evidence of faery lore indicating queerness, even outside of Jane’s character.
Another trait relating to queerness that does not necessarily relate directly to Jane is the age difference between her and Rochester. As Haggerty points out, “The disowned and dishonored heroine […] flees the aggressive attentions of an overly erotic father or father surrogate” (30). Rochester’s age difference certainly portrays him as paternal rather than romantic. He speaks to her as a father to a child, asking, “‘Did you expect a present, Miss Eyre? Are you fond of presents?” upon his first formal discussion with her (Brontë 89). The trigger for the questions he asks also stems from his daughter’s demands that Jane receive a gift. His treatment of her reflects that of his own child, though Jane’s responses align with her age. The idea of this Gothic trope is fulfilled when Jane flees from Thornfield and Rochester after finding out about Rochester’s marriage to Bertha (Brontë 231-233). Her queerness is accented by this action of running away from Rochester, as she attempts to escape his control when she learns of his own transgressive abuse of power over Bertha. His former marriage subjectively reflects heterosexual relationships and the dangers held within them. Jane running away from Thornfield represents an escape from the patriarchal position Rochester places her in. Jane’s position as an orphan further supports the idea of Rochester as a father figure, as mentions of her desperation for familial love consistently arise in the novel. Forced into a relationship with Rochester, Jane settles on his romantic intentions because he serves her as a paternal figure, and that is the closest to an erotic heterosexual relationship as she can truly achieve.
While many scholars have noticed the prevalence of Irish faery folklore in Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre, rarely has the idea been explored as a way of developing Jane’s mental state and sexuality. However, through my analysis of the novel, using evidence of faery lore, the titular character can be read as both queer and neurodivergent. Charlotte Brontë’s connection to Ireland and its tales of fae strengthen the argument for using Irish lore to develop Jane’s characteristics. By reading the Swan Maiden figure relating to fairy brides as subversive to patriarchal expectations, and the changeling folklore as references to autism before the disorder was officially recognized, key development of Jane’s character connect to faeries on a deeper level than other scholarly claims that her and Rochester’s relationship is based upon faery references.
1 See Lucy Barrington’s article, “A Reporter’s Guide to the Autism Speaks Debacle,” published November 2013 in Psychology Today for more information about the charities run by neurotypical people and their controversial reputation in the autistic community.
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