Jane Eyre 3: “Plain Jane” and the Mid-Nineteenth-Century Ideal of Beauty, Complexion to Corsets

Jane Eyre is, despite the fairy tale connections we mentioned in the first post, no beautiful princess.  How many times does Jane, the ever-self-deprecating first person narrator, point out her lack of physical beauty? As we’ll discuss later, Jane’s beauty is far more than the skin-deep variety, but, as we journey with Jane, it may be helpful to get a good idea of what “plain” meant in the mid-nineteenth-century, both to visualize Jane and to understand her perceptions of men, women, and herself.

A Gentleman’s Look

In the early nineteenth-century, men often cultivated a slim, boyish profile. As with the ladies, fashion  assisted individuals in their quest to fit the period’s ideals. Tall hats helped with the desired ramrod male profile, even for men who didn’t need height help (Abraham Lincoln clearly didn’t need enhancement in the height department).

By the later part of the century, beards were in full fashion (thank you, Prince Albert), a trend that had not come into full force yet at the time of the novel’s publication in 1847. It is clearly St. John (pronounced, much to my delight, Sin-Jin 🙂  Rivers, young, fair, and with the features of a classical sculpture, who would match the early nineteenth-century ideal of male beauty.

But it is Rochester, whose lack of beauty Jane frequently points out, who is far more attractive to Jane, and I’m willing to bet, to most female readers. Maybe I’m wrong, but I just don’t see a big market for “Team St.John” merchandise, even if the name was easy to pronounce. Like the statue to which Jane so often compares him, he is cold, while Rochester is the very embodiment of life and passion.

Rochester’s attraction for Jane does not come from his outer appearance, of course, emphasizing the depth of their relationship, but Jane’s focus on his individual features, including his eyes and expressive face, stem not only from her personal fascination with Rochester, but also from her cultural fascination with physiogamy, or the practice of attributing personality characteristics to physical features.  Though the trend was certainly not new in the nineteenth century (those ugly stepsisters were ugly inside and out), it went through periods of greater or less popularity, and then really camped out in the literature of the era, both in Britain and abroad, thus Dr. Jekyll’s evil counterpart Mr. Hyde is a small, stunted-looking creature who does not appear fully human, reflective of his subhuman personality (the big, strapping Hyde is a Hollywood invention). Eyes are of particular interest.  From Hester Prynne’s striking eyes to the bizarre eye that sets the narrator of “The Telltale Heart” over the edge, eyes get careful physiographic treatment in the literature of the nineteenth century, and Jane Eyre is no exception. Therefore, the beauty of Rochester’s features, including his eye(s) is less important to our narrator, Jane, than is the message they tell her about him.

The Clothes (and  hair, and hat, and stockings) make the woman

In any time period or culture, the ideal of beauty is largely determined by what the wealthy can have. In early 21st-century America, for example, rich people can hire trainers and lounge around tennis courts, pools, and beaches, and get plastic surgery to erase all signs of time and tension, while working stiffs have to stay indoors all day slaving away in cubicles working stressful jobs that age them. So the cultural ideal of beauty for women is to be young, tan, and thin, like the quality folks, rather than old, pasty, and plump. This trend can also be seen in beauty trends in other cultures, from neckrings that stretch a woman’s neck while exhibiting her wealth to foot binding that displays a woman’s prestige since she has no need to do anything so “pedestrian” as walking. A hundred and fifty years ago, though, the tables were turned.  Rich women could stay indoors all day and eat bonbons, while poor women had to work, indoors and out, often with meager diets that made them scrawny (rich men could ride horses and engage in other outdoor leisure that gave them that slim figure, but a wide girth still spoke of prosperity and security, just like the gold watch chain draped across a man’s middle, accentuating his width.)

In the mid-nineteenth century, the ideal of beauty for women in Britain (and the US, where some of the trends stuck around longer) was  certainly a product of the desire to appear prosperous, and, like many other female beauty trends, exhibited a woman’s potential as a mother. The ideal of beauty included a desire for fair skin, indicative of a woman’s social status that did not require outdoor work. This trend, which probably reached its zenith (or nadir) in Renaissance Europe with the Queen Elizabeth I look (often achieved with makeup that included white lead as an ingredient), was the norm until the twentieth century. Thus, Jane’s choice of ivory for her medium when creating a miniature of the beautiful Blanche Ingram, and Jane’s use of a veil when she travels. The pale complexion was ideally set off by rosy cheeks and lips, like those of Rosamund, for whom St. John nurses an unrequited passion.

The ideal female body was trim at the waist, an effect often achieved with corsets, which became more and more restrictive as the century progressed, until culminating in the long corset of the early nineteenth century that was laced until women’s bodies were damaged (Remember the scene in Titanic in which Rose’s mother jerks the laces tight on hers?) .

In the middle of the nineteenth century, corsets were not such torture devices. When I do living history programs, folks are often horrified that I am wearing a corset until I demonstrate that I can touch my toes, jump up and down, chase children (slop hogs, climb trees, etc.). The corset at this time just added to the optical illusion of a small waist; it did not entirely create the illusion. The rest of the effect was created by sleeves that were set off the natural shoulder (sloping shoulders were considered very attractive in women; note Jane’s admiration of Blanche’s shoulders based just on description) and by large skirts worn over multiple petticoats or a cage crinoline (the hoop skirt that eventually got out of hand!). These skirts also added to the illusion of wide hips, not so coveted today, but once considered a good indicator of a woman’s capability to  bear and birth children.

With the exception of the small waist, women wanted to appear plump. Round legs, in direct contrast to today, were very desirable, an effect often created with striped stockings. If you’ve seen the classic Tenniel illustrations for Alice in Wonderland, then you may have noticed Alice’s striped stockings. These were very fashionable up through the 1860s as women wanted their calves to appear rounded. Round faces were also desirable, an effect created by the nearly universal mid-nineteenth century trend of parting the hair right down the middle, slicking it down, and confining it at the back. When Jane “freshens up,” she usually smoothes her hair.  Hair was also, ideally, thick and lustrous. Rochester, in teasing Jane, compliments both Blanche Ingram’s size and copious hair. To create this illusion, women often collected the hair from their brushes and used it to make “rats” or other pieces to put into or under buns or other arrangements of hair. False curls or other hairpieces were also added. As the pale face and rosy cheeks illustrate, contrast was desirable, so Jane deems Blanche’s dark hair and eyes against her fair skin to be striking and therefore attractive.  Highlighted hair, a look often created artificially today, was not desirable in the 1800s, and women, Jane included, always wore hats, bonnets, or hoods when they were outdoors to protect their hair from fading.

The Professor in fancier dress

Clothes, of course, were often made of very different fabrics than they are today. Jane, as we see, has a black silk dress, but most of her clothes are wool or other serviceable materials that would hold up well and keep their structure to create the clean lines of the period (the baggy look was not desirable!). Colors like gray, brown, and black were popular, not just because they were easier to produce and therefore more common (and because every women needed at least one morning dress, just in case), but also because they did not stain easily, and clothes, at least the outer ones, were seldom, if ever, washed. Before this grosses  you out too much, the catch was  that women wore other items that were washed. Drawers and chemises, made of cotton or other easily laundered fabrics, were changed daily, as were the detachable cuffs and collars on the dresses.

Brighter, lighter colored fabrics were sported by younger, wealthier individuals, and were thus considered more flashy: thus, Jane’s horror at the bright pink satin and amethyst silk Rochester wants to buy for her before their wedding.  Jewelry was also a symbol of wealth or of status, the bigger = the more wealthy the wearer.  Jane’s one ornament, her tiny pearl brooch from Miss Temple, would likely be worn on the collar.

Jane, less than ideal?

The two adjectives Jane most frequently uses to describe herself are “plain”  and “little”; based on the nineteenth-century ideals of beauty, Jane would have good cause to consider herself less than gorgeous. Plain might better be termed “monochromatic.” Jane’s fair skin, hazel hair and green eyes (Rochester thinks they are hazel, like her hair) and lack of outstanding features would, especially in her own opinion, render her plain. Her style of dress, which she frequently terms “Quaker,” adds to her often colorless appearance.

Jane is also tiny.  She compares herself unfavorably to the tall Blanche and the curvy Rosamund, both of whom meet the cultural beauty ideal far more successfully than she.  Her height and slight figure both add to her childlike appearance, which Rochester thinks of as “elfin,” but which would not have won her any prizes at nineteenth-century beauty contests.

Because she is small and not flashy, Jane thinks of herself as plain. But her plainness actually suits her. Unlike the vain and shallow Blanche or the kindly but not spiritually rich Rosamund, Jane is a deep and introspective person whose very “plainness” allows her to blend in and observe those around her. It also  draws the attention to her rich and well-developed personality in contrast to her un-remarkable outer person.  Though she fulfills the conventions of dress and style of the period, Jane is a character whose inner beauty is far more important than her superficial features.

In creating this character, Bronte was not only making a statement about the superiority of inner over outer beauty, but, clearly, included her own ideas about self-perception and beauty. It doesn’t take much imagination to look at the portrait of Charlotte Bronte and see the image of Jane Eyre. Such autobiographical character styling often garners disapproval today, but, in fact, some of the most important of the great texts include characters the authors based upon themselves: from Dickens to Joyce, the fictionalization of oneself is a strategy  used by some of the most important and influential of authors.

Though we should avoid what C.S. Lewis called the “personal heresy” by using fictional texts to pick apart the author’s psyche in inappropriate ways, we can certainly see how an author’s documented experiences and attitudes come through in his or her work (like Shakespeare’s in-jokes about actors, poets, and theater folks).   Bronte was, herself, neither flashy nor striking, yet the beauty of her mind and her spirit come through in her words on the page.  Just as Jane is far more than a pretty (or plain) face, Bronte was far more than a rather plain woman who worked as a teacher. Though both aware of the ideals of their world, they both move beyond those ideals to personify a beauty that is far more than that of a period or a place. The beauty that Rochester sees in Jane, like that which we see in Bronte’s work, is timeless.


  1. What a great post! Especially with the picture of perfectly round faced EBH in period costume!

    I’d make two asides:

    First, Dickens and Austen frequently discuss (through preferred characters) the virtue of “penetration,” i.e., seeing the ‘inside bigger than the outside’ of others, their virtues or vices which constitute character or the lack of it, rather than focusing on the surface. Georgian and Victorian writers, to include Bronte, understood that they were “instructing while delighting,” and instructive most especially in the virtue of “penetration.” Readers were exercising their powers of inner heart reflection and recognition as they entered into and experienced the lives of what were principally minor gentry and aristocrats. This is “manners and morals” fiction at its best.

    Second, I’d offer the guess that Jane’s self-description as a “Quaker” and pre-occupation with eyes is another pointer to the novelist’s purpose in fostering “the inner light” as the Society of Friends puts it or “heart” more traditionally. Christianity to this sect was about “transformed vision” of the inner eye that is the “light of the body” (cf Sermon on the Mount), hence their insistence on being “no respecter of persons” or social station and their plain Jane taste in clothing.

    Bronte gives us a picture of her ideal woman finally being seen and adored as she should be in the end by a male protagonist who loses his exterior sight and knows her only by his inner vision. I suggest for your consideration that the entire novel is her thematic pursuit of the same end with readers engrossed by Jane’s story.

    Again, great post!

  2. Thank you so much for this educational post, Mrs. Hardy! I was not aware of the specific period fashion trends to which Jane compares herself. And I loved this fantastic exploration of Bronte’s take on the timeless inner/outer beauty theme as much as I loved your assessment of the fairy tale elements of the book!!! I am so looking forward to your further insights with this Jane Eyre study; this book is very special to me, as studying it was a turning point in my journey of truly understanding and enjoying literary analysis. Thank you for sharing your expertise on both literature and history with us; it is so good to hear your “writing voice!!” 🙂

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  4. Carrie-Ann Biondi says

    I finally had some time to check on something that may be relevant here to the language of being “plain.” I have admired Jane’s character in part for being “plainspoken,” that is, “candid, direct, . . . foursquare, freehearted, free-spoken, honest,” etc. (online Merriam-Webster dictionary). The first known use of the term is 1678, so the timing is right as are the Quaker-esque connotations for the what I (and arguably Bronte) would regard as the virtue of “plainness.” Hence, the inner and the outer are in harmony–though it took some time for Jane to realize her overall beauty. And it takes a discerning eye to see the entirety of her plain (i.e., direct) beauty, one that doesn’t take notice of the glitzy conventional trappings that can never make up for lack of the “inner light” you speak about.

  5. Hi! This is so fascinating. I know I am years too late, but a hail Mary pass just in case: John, do you have a source for Austen and/or Dickens discussing the virtues of “penetration”? Where do they mention seeing “the inside bigger than the outside”? Thanks so much! And thanks again for the great essay.

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