(Somewhat) False Legitimacy
The depiction of Creole women in Victorian era literature is vastly different when comparing works by Mary Seacole and Charlotte Bronte. Although the works in question – Jane Eyre and Adventures of Mrs. Seacole – are different genres, the commonality of features they share is far more than one would expect between a fiction and a non-fiction piece. When Jane Eyre (a non-fiction piece) was first published, Bronte deliberately made efforts to deceive readers. The name of the author of the book was Currer Bell – a pseudonym of Charlotte Bronte – and the original publication name was Jane Eyre: An Autobiography (lecture notes 10-27-14). For Jane Seacole’s memoirs, on the other hand, readers must suspend all disbelief and trust that the stories she regales them with are written as they have actually happened and that there is no embellishment used. Each author attempts to introduce their work with a certain level of authenticity, thus increasing its believability and subsequently strengthening the piece’s rhetorical purpose.
Interestingly enough, both Seacole and Bronte place a large emphasis on a Creole’s lineage. Mary Seacole actually begins her Adventures with a brief description of her ancestry – probably hoping to increase her legitimacy with the book’s primarily British audience. She frequently and explicitly states her Scotch heritage: the fact that her “father was a soldier, of an old Scotch family” and that many individuals attribute her “Scotch blood (to) that energy and activity which are not always found in the Creole race” (Seacole, ch.1). Although, she also brings up a point of negativity: that she has “often heard the term ‘lazy Creole’ applied to (her) country people” (Seacole, ch.1). Bronte, on the other hand, offers a less generalized overview of Creole lineage – instead giving information specific to Bertha Mason, the Creole character in Jane Eyre. According to Mr. Rochester, “Bertha Mason is mad; and she came of a mad family; idiots and maniacs through three generations!” (Bronte, 246). Bertha’s Creole ancestry may not necessarily be indicative of her mad behavior, but rather a consequence of her family’s individual, chronic ailments. Soon after, Mr. Rochester mentions that “Her mother, the Creole, was both a mad woman and a drunkard!” (Bronte, 246). Explicitly stating her mother’s heritage in a context where it seems somewhat irrelevant may actually relate specific cultural beliefs of the time regarding the Creole people. Regardless of its legitimacy, it is evident that the societal acceptance of Creole people during the Victorian era hinged largely upon the individual’s personal family history.
In addition to the difference between their family lineages, further distinction between Bertha Mason and Jane Seacole comes in their characterization and description throughout each piece. Seacole presents herself as a matron, a healer, and an adventurer who defies traditional gender roles of the time. Despite being a sutler and, eventually, opening a battlefield hotel, she insistently refers to herself as a “doctress” (Seacole). Despite the fact that Adventures is autobiographical, Seacole feels the need to legitimize her claims through citing “A Stir for Seacole” – nearly in its entirety – from Punch. Bertha Mason, contrarily, is characterized in a bestial, sub-human manner. Upon Jane’s first sight on Bertha, she was not sure “what it was, whether beast or human being” and that “one could not, at first sight, tell” (Bronte, 247). In Bronte’s description of Bertha, she uses the term “it” quite often, instead of “her” – an indication that her categorization lies somewhere between the boundaries of human and animal.
Each writer utilizes very different, but still similar strategies in order to strengthen the legitimacy of their work. Charlotte Bronte relies heavily on slight misinformation in order to achieve psychological realism. She chose to release the first publication of Jane Eyre under an androgynous pseudonym and in an autobiographical format. Jane Seacole, on the other hand, forces readers to suspend their disbelief while reading her tales. Not only are many of her stories firsthand accounts where it is nearly impossible to check if embellishment was used, but she also included a citation of a piece from Punch; essentially saying, “if you don’t believe me, then read this.” Both Seacole and Bronte bolster the rhetorical purpose of their work through effective use of tactics to introduce them with authenticity.