Hiding in Plain Sight

In the Victorian era, British women lived in a society that caused them to “hide in plain sight” which means to hide while simultaneously remaining completely visible.  It appears that the women in Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814) consciously or subconsciously hide which enables them to cope in a male dominated society.  While Jane of Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) had more independence, she too copes by hiding.

A woman hiding is illustrated in the above image from the New York Public Library, Art and Picture Collection.  She is well dressed, in an outfit with matching hat and shawl, which indicates that she is a woman of wealth or high social standing.  As she stands behind a wall in a wooded area, it appears she does not want to be seen by the gentleman walking in her direction along the unpaved path.  The gentleman could represent her father, a suitor coming to visit or some other male authoritarian figure.  The wall, she stands behind seems out of place.  It may be the ruin of a building that was damaged in a storm.  It could also be a structure that was planned for construction, but never completed as indicated by the short unfinished wall behind her.  The woman looks very solemn as if she is hoping the wall will hide her from the man on the path.  This image captures the predicament of women in Mansfield Park.

In Victorian culture, middle-class women were raised to marry well and take care of the household.  Many women were satisfied to fulfill this expectation and would use their beauty to attract a good match.  Mansfield Park begins by stating “About 30 years ago Miss Maria Ward, of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram of Mansfield Park, in the county of Northampton, and to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronet’s lady, with all the comforts and consequences of a handsome house and large income.” (3).  In the first sentence of the book, Austen directly tells us that a woman’s fate is to obtain a husband of status to increase or maintain her rank and secure her future.  It’s interesting that Austen uses the words “good luck” and “captivate” in conjunction with Miss Ward getting a husband.  Luck is something received without any action by the receiver, so this indicates that she had to be fortunate enough to have a respectable family and a dowry.  In addition, captivates, indicates that in order to get a husband of means a woman would have to use her beauty to attract and hold his attention long enough to get a proposal of marriage.

There are different ways that hiding in plain sight manifests itself in the women of Mansfield Park.  Miss Maria Ward, or Lady Bertram, is an example.  As Austen says, Lady Bertram “had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram of Mansfield Park” which means she was beautiful enough to be chosen as Sir Thomas’ wife.  Austen writes “She was a woman who spent her days in sitting nicely dressed on the sofa, doing some long piece of needlework, of little use and no beauty, thinking more of her pug than her children” (16).  Lady Bertram has a presence and respect as the Lady of the house, but hidden are her desires, opinions and personality.  In fact, she hides herself so well that she appears to have lost herself and her purpose in life.  Unfortunately, because of hiding Lady Bertram is not fully respected.  For instance, when Tom tries to convince Edmund that the play would lessen their mother’s anxiety, Austen states, “As he said this, each look towards their mother.  Lady Bertram, sunk back in one corner of the sofa, the picture of health, wealth, ease, and tranquility, was just falling into a gentle doze, while Fanny was getting through the few difficulties of her work for her.  Edmund smiled and shook his head” (100).

Miss Maria Bertram is another example of a woman who hid her feelings.  When Sir Thomas told Maria that she did not have to marry Mr. Rushworth if she didn’t want to, “She thanked, him for his great attention his paternal kindness, but he was quite mistaken in supposing she had the smallest desire of breaking through her engagement…She had the highest esteem for Mr. Rushworth’s character and disposition, and could not have a doubt of her happiness with him” (157).  Actually, Maria was in love with Henry Crawford, but she had no “luck” with Henry.  What Maria doesn’t realize is that she did have some “luck” because Sir Thomas was willing to “…act for her and release her.” (157) from marrying Rushworth.   But she hid her feelings behind what was expected of her because she could not have Henry and she wanted to get out of her father’s house.  Going back to the word “luck”, Maria’s received her luck differently than Lady Bertram because her luck came in the form of getting out of a marriage.  Unfortunately, it was so ingrained in her to hide her feelings and she didn’t recognize that her “luck” was an opportunity to derail marriage to a man she did like.

Austen further illustrates and highlights what it means for a woman to hide in plain sight when she writes in regards to Maria’s upcoming wedding “In all the important preparations of the mind she was complete: being prepared for matrimony by a hatred of home, restraint, and tranquility; by the misery of disappointed affection, and contempt of the man she was to marry.” (158).  It’s so interesting that Austen writes that Maria was “complete”.  Complete means finished.  In a society where women were groomed only for marriage, Maria should have been happily complete.  She had the “good luck” to “captivate” Rushworth and like Lady Bertram, Maria was entitled to assume the title of Mrs. Rushworth and sit on the couch and doze in the lap of luxury.  Instead, Maria was as complete as the structure the woman in the illustration is hiding behind.  Austen writes Maria is complete by “hatred” “misery”, “disappointed affection” and “contempt”.  Here, Austen illustrates that when women are forced to hide it can affect them monumentally.  Hatred, misery and contempt are strong emotions that can fester over time and when a person has no outlet to express feelings or live life as they choose they can becomes a time bomb.  In this paragraph, Austen’s words also emphasizes that a female who lives in a society where she is only to be seen and not heard it completes her negatively.  This causes, Miss Bertram to choose the path of financial security and status and become Mrs. Rushworth.  In the end, she could no longer hide behind the wall of marriage and it caused her to make a humiliating, disgraceful and life changing decision.

In contrast to Mansfield Park, Bronte’s, Jane Eyre, gives insight into the lives of women who are without status or wealth.  Jane does not have to hide herself to the extent of the women of Mansfield Park because her rough childhood forces her to be strong and advocate for herself.  Due to her upbringing, she was not groomed, or inclined, to captivate a husband.  As a woman who has no dowry, Jane must take care of herself in a patriarchal society where submission to men is the norm.

The image below from The British Museum, Collection Online, titled “A Life of Flowers”, characterizes the plight of women who are considered second class citizens.  One woman is well dressed in a white poufy dress or ball gown with a flowing matching cape and beautiful long curly hair with a matching hair adornment.  She encounters a woman dressed in black who is sitting on steps in front of a building and she appears to stop for a moment to consider her condition as she lifts her dress to go around her and avoid disturbing her.  The woman dressed in black and seems to be sleeping or just too tired to lift her head or maybe she is just depressed and down-and-out.

The woman in white represents both the middle-class women in Mansfield Park who hide who they are and the lower-class women in Jane Eyre who are more independent and able to make decisions about their life within the confines of a repressive society.  Looking at the woman in black, she represents the wretchedness of the plight of all women who have no voice and no rights.

Bronte illustrates an independent woman when Jane decides to leave her world and comfort zone of teaching at Lowood to experience the real world and to have the “…courage to go forth into its expanse to seek real knowledge of life amidst its perils.” (85).

Bronte also writes of the plight of women when Jane reflects “Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags.  It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.” (109).

Bronte’s use of the terms “too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation” is reflected in the posture of the woman in black.  It is also reflected when Jane experiences “to rigid a restraint” in the home of Mrs. Reed.  For example, Jane was locked in the unused red room (where her uncle died) as a punishment.  After being in the room a while Jane got spooked and begged Mrs. Reed, “Oh aunt, have pity!  Forgive me!  I cannot endure it – let me be punished some other way! I shall be killed if ——-” (18).  Sadness, shame, depression, loneliness, vulnerability, being unloved are emotions that are the result of “too absolute a stagnation”.  Unfortunately, Jane experiences these emotions in her interactions with Mrs. Reed who rejected her, allowed her children to bully her and sent her away permanently to a school that was like an orphanage.  Mr. Brocklehurst also shamed Jane when he told the students Jane was “…not a member of the true flock, but evidently an interloper and an alien.  You must be on your guard against her; you must shun her example: if necessary, avoid her company, exclude her from your sports, and shut her out from your converse.” (66).  These examples also illustrate how females are made outcast if they do not hide in plain sight.

Despite her independence, there are times that Jane hides in plain sight.  As a governess at Thornfield Hall, she is subject to the wishes and demands of the master of the house, Mr. Rochester.  While Jane is independent and sometimes outspoken, there are times that she hides what she thinks, and does as she is told by Mr. Rochester.  An example is when she acquiesces to Mr. Rochester after Mason is stabbed by his sister.  She did as she was told and did not ask any questions about what was going on although she was quite curious.  Perhaps her love for Mr. Rochester leads her to hide herself so that she could be useful to him.  Jane again hides in plain sight when she tries to please St. John.  She learns a new language as he commands to please and help him as he prepares to do missionary work in India.  However, when St. John asks her to marry him to go with him to India, she chooses not to hide, exercises her independence and refuses to marry a man who doesn’t love her.

In conclusion, both Mansfield Park and Jane Eyre gives the reader some insight into the quandary of British women who live in a society where women, are treated like second class citizens and, as a result, are restrained, stagnated and forced to hide the very essence of who they are.

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