Beauty in Jane Eyre

Bessie (young Jane's nurse, speaking to Miss Abbot, the lady's-maid): "Poor Miss Jane is to be pitied, too, Abbot."

"Yes," responded Abbot, "if she were a nice, pretty child, one might compassionate her forlornness; but one really cannot care for such a little toad as that."

Cruel words! This passage (from the end of Chapter III) shows how girls of that era were judged by their appearance.

And what of Jane Eyre herself, the spirited resister of societal fetters — did she care a whit about how she or anyone else looked? If you think that such surface-level judgments went against her natural depth, the answer will surprise you.

Here, for example, is another conversation (from Chapter X) involving Bessie, when Jane was eighteen and speaking as an adult.

Bessie: "... you look like a lady, and it is as much as I ever expected of you: you were no beauty as a child."

I smiled at Bessie's frank answer: I felt that it was correct, but I confess I was not quite indifferent to its import: at eighteen most people wish to please, and the conviction that they have not an exterior likely to second that desire brings anything but gratification.

In other words, being unattractive saddened Jane. This view is reinforced by her ruminations when arising in her first morning at Thornfield (Chapter XI):

It was not my habit to be disregardful of appearance, or careless of the impression I made: on the contrary, I ever wished to look as well as I could, and to please as much as my want of beauty would permit. I sometimes regretted that I was not handsomer: I sometimes wished to have rosy cheeks, a straight nose, and small cherry mouth; I desired to be tall, stately, and finely developed in figure; I felt it a misfortune that I was so little, so pale, and had features so irregular and so marked.

Perhaps Jane was just fixated on her own homeliness and her corresponding lack of self-esteem, but did not judge others by their appearance as readily? Not true, as can be seen during her initial encounter with Mr. Rochester (Chapter XII):

Had he been a handsome-looking, heroic young gentleman, I should not have dared to stand thus questioning him against his will, and offering my services unasked. I had hardly ever seen a handsome youth: never in my life spoken to one. I had a theoretical reverence and homage for beauty, elegance, gallantry, fascination; but had I met those qualities incarnate in masculine shape, I should have known instinctively that they neither had nor could have sympathy with anything in me, and should have shunned them as one would fire, lightning, or anything else that is bright but antipathetic.

Seeing herself as non-beautiful, Jane believes she could not relate to a handsome young man. She can only feel comfortable around those who are similarly unattractive. Surprisingly closed-minded attitude for such a free-thinking character, isn't it? Do you think this reflects Charlotte Brontë's own insecurities?

Sensitive about her unattractiveness, Jane recognizes that others might feel the same about their own appearances. When, in Chapter XIV, she answers Rochester's question "[D]o you think me handsome?" with an immediate "No, sir", she then feels the need to assuage his feelings:

"Sir, I was too plain; I beg your pardon. I ought to have replied that it was not easy to give an impromptu answer to a question about appearances; that tastes mostly differ; and that beauty is of little consequence, or something of that sort."

By saying that she "ought to have" replied in that way, she makes it clear that such a response would have been untrue in her eyes, and that beauty is indeed of great consequence.

Two chapters later, while puzzling over the mystery surrounding Grace Poole and the nocturnal burning of Rochester's bed, Jane tries to figure out why he seems so protective of Grace. It can't be for her looks, Jane decides:

I don't think she can ever have been pretty; but, for aught I know, she may possess originality and strength of character to compensate for the want of personal advantages.

To my eyes, that looks like a good description of Jane herself, and of the qualities for which Rochester values her.

In that same chapter, Mrs. Fairfax contributes a similar assessment of why ladies might be drawn to the unattractive Rochester:

"[T]hough you would not think his appearance calculated to recommend him particularly in their eyes: but I suppose his acquirements and abilities, perhaps his wealth and good blood, make amends for any little fault of look."

So a "fault of look", while significant, may be overcome by other attributes — "originality and strength of character" in Jane's case, wealth and breeding in Rochester's.

There is more to beauty than simple physiognomy, though. One's inner spirit can make even a plain face radiant and attractive when one is in love, as Jane describes in this passage from Chapter XXIV:

While arranging my hair, I looked at my face in the glass, and felt it was no longer plain: there was hope in its aspect and life in its colour; and my eyes seemed as if they had beheld the fount of fruition, and borrowed beams from the lustrous ripple. I had often been unwilling to look at my master, because I feared he could not be pleased at my look; but I was sure I might lift my face to his now, and not cool his affection by its expression.

Even so, Jane can't help reminding Rochester of her lack of natural attractiveness later in that chapter:

"Don't address me as if I were a beauty; I am your plain, Quakerish governess."

So important was appearance in that time that St. John Rivers felt compelled to comment on it even as Jane lay weak and ill in his house, shortly after collapsing outside it (Chapter XXIX):

He stood considering me some minutes; then added, "She looks sensible, but not at all handsome."

It was easy for St. John to judge others by their attractiveness, as he had no worries on that score. As Jane described the contrast between them in that same chapter:

It is seldom, indeed, an English face comes so near the antique models as did his. He might well be a little shocked at the irregularity of my lineaments, his own being so harmonious.

Bronte has Jane venerating beauty so much that she actually admires Rosamond Oliver for meriting such a dispensation of physical perfection. Her first view of Rosamond, who comes to visit St. John in chapter XXXI, produces this awestruck description:

A vision, as it seemed to me, had risen at his side. There appeared, within three feet of him, a form clad in pure white — a youthful, graceful form: full, yet fine in contour; and when, after bending to caress Carlo, it lifted up its head, and threw back a long veil, there bloomed under his glance a face of perfect beauty. Perfect beauty is a strong expression; but I do not retrace or qualify it: as sweet features as ever the temperate clime of Albion moulded; as pure hues of rose and lily as ever her humid gales and vapoury skies generated and screened, justified, in this instance, the term. No charm was wanting, no defect was perceptible; the young girl had regular and delicate lineaments; eyes shaped and coloured as we see them in lovely pictures, large, and dark, and full; the long and shadowy eyelash which encircles a fine eye with so soft a fascination; the pencilled brow which gives such clearness; the white smooth forehead, which adds such repose to the livelier beauties of tint and ray; the cheek oval, fresh, and smooth; the lips, fresh too, ruddy, healthy, sweetly formed; the even and gleaming teeth without flaw; the small dimpled chin; the ornament of rich, plenteous tresses—all advantages, in short, which, combined, realise the ideal of beauty, were fully hers. I wondered, as I looked at this fair creature: I admired her with my whole heart. Nature had surely formed her in a partial mood; and, forgetting her usual stinted step-mother dole of gifts, had endowed this, her darling, with a grand-dame's bounty.

Does nature really have an intent in mind when bestowing beauty or the lack of it? Jane clearly thought so in that last passage, and St. John concurred in Chapter XXXIV:

"God and nature intended you for a missionary's wife. It is not personal, but mental endowments they have given you: you are formed for labour, not for love."


In the face of such blunt assessments, Jane does maintain a wry attitude about her unappealing features. Witness this exchange in Chapter XXXV with Diana, who hopes Jane will marry St. John:

"You do not love him then, Jane?" "Not as a husband." "Yet he is a handsome fellow." "And I am so plain, you see, Die. We should never suit."

Fortunately,  we know someone [Rochester] for whom Jane feels she is better physically suited. And while she admires beauty, she doesn't think less of him for lacking it (Chapter XXXVII):

"I thought you would be revolted, Jane, when you saw my arm, and my cicatrised visage." "Did you? Don't tell me so — lest I should say something disparaging to your judgment."

In Jane Eyre, beauty — in its most important senses — is greatly in the eye of the beholder, and it is up to each person to decide how to assess and value it. This attitude is summed up nicely by Rochester's faithful servant John in the final chapter [XXXVIII]:

"If she ben't one o' th' handsomest, she's noan faal and vary good-natured; and i' his een she's fair beautiful, onybody may see that."

[If she be not one of the handsomest, she's not foul and very good-natured; and in his eyes she's fair beautiful, anybody may see that."]