Winter Jade Werner, “All in the Family? Missionaries, Marriage, and Universal Kinship in Jane Eyre” (pp. 452–486)

As a number of critics have shown, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) has as a central theme the analysis of certain essential contradictions in a constellation of ideas concerning kinship and race. In this essay, I propose that these contradictions—which receive fullest exposition in the missionary St John’s determination to wed his kinswoman Jane—gesture toward the history of these issues as they were enacted in missionary literature. Jane Eyre, this essay contends, roots itself in a fraught phase of the Protestant missionary movement: the brief period of time prior to the 1820s when missionary societies, eager to realize what they termed “universal kinship,” not only permitted but encouraged missionaries to enter into interracial marriages. These marriages, however, proved more reciprocal in influence than missionary societies had anticipated. Ultimately they undermined assumptions of British Christians’ “natural” superiority over “natives”—the very assumptions that underwrote missionary work in the first place. Unnerved by the reciprocity and openness these unions appeared to establish between spouses, missionary societies began discouraging intermarriage and dissociated conceptions of “universal kinship” from actual racial mixing. This period of controversy unifies the novel’s anxious focus on family formation and interracial marriage. In exposing how intermarriages worked to legitimate and problematize evangelical understandings of universal kinship, Jane Eyre ultimately suggests that there exists a crucial link between St John’s proposed endogamous union with his kinswoman and Rochester and Bertha’s intermarriage—the former becomes the conceptual alternative to the latter.

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