Modern readers often ask why Rochester did not simply divorce his wife once he discovered she was insane. Apparently it was for medical reasons, as Rochester explains to Jane:
“I could not rid myself of it by any legal proceedings: for the doctors now discovered that my wife was mad…”
Jane Eyre was published in 1847, 170 years ago. Marriage law of the time must have supported this premise of the novel, or surely Brontë would not have made it so critical to Rochester’s fate as a young man of 26. The “Pocket Chronicles,” the backstory I created for Rochester you may read elsewhere on this site proceed from this same assumption, that Rochester was trapped and had no legal recourse for a divorce.
While Jane Eyre was published in 1847, a mere ten years after Victoria succeeded to throne of England, that is not necessarily the time period in which it takes place. There are tantalizing yet contradictory clues provided by Brontë, but they only seem to muddle the picture.
The clearest indication for the year of the events in the novel is found in the Morton sequence. Jane has run away from Thornfield and found shelter with the Rivers family, St. John, Diana and Mary. She is taken in, and after several weeks accepts the post of school teacher for the poor girls of the community. One evening during his visit, St. John Rivers brings Jane a gift, a book, something she describes as a “new publication.” It turns out to be Sir Walter Scott’s epic poem, Marmion, which was first published in February, 1808. (1)
A second hint as to time period is found in Adele’s description to Jane of her journey across the English Channel from Paris, when she describes the passage on a ship “that smoked, how it did smoke!” Obviously, they traveled across the Channel by steamship.
And yet, the first sea-going steamship in England was built by Richard Wright, which steamed from Leeds to Yarmouth in July 1813 (2), five years after Scott’s poem was published. Steam travel initially was confined inland, to rivers and shore journeys. Regular Channel crossings began in 1824, when The General Steam Navigation Company distinguished itself as “the first British company operating a steamer service to foreign ports.” (3)
And finally, when Rochester describes to Jane how he impatiently waits for his lover, Céline Varens, to return to her apartment one June evening in Paris, he says,
I bethought myself to open the window and step out on to the balcony. It was moonlight, and gas-light besides…
Jane Eyre, Ch 15
While gas lighting was common in London by 1816 (the year Brontë was born), it came more slowly to France:
The gas industry spread incomparably more slowly in France and Germany…Only from 1829 did gas begin to be used for street lighting, and then its use spread at a snail’s pace. (4)
So, with time frames twenty years apart: 1808, 1813, 1824, and 1829, it seems only to prove that Brontë meant be deliberately obfuscatory when writing her most famous work.
1. Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Lochinvar#ref1224355
2. Malster, R (1971), Wherries & Waterways, Lavenham, p. 61)
3. Heritage, P. (n.d.). The History of The General Steam Navigation Company. Retrieved January 1, 2017, from http://www.poheritage.com/our-history/company-guides/general-steam-navigation-company
4. Schivelbusch, Wolfgang, Disenchanted Night: The Industrialization of Light in the 19th Century, pg. 32, the University of California Press, 1983