(or, how Jane Eyre may have gone from being Cinderella to being the Wicked Stepmother)
What happened to little Adele? Did she get her happily ever after? Or did she, like her stepmother before her, become the next generation’s lonely, unwanted “Cinderella”?
At the end of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, all seems well. Jane is reunited with Rochester and they have a son; Diana and Mary Rivers are both married, with families of their own; and St. John Rivers is a devoutly successful missionary in India. However, it is the question of Adele, Rochester’s illegitimate daughter, that remains ambiguous. Despite all the assurances offered the reader in the final chapter, there are lingering doubts. Readers are told Jane needs to devote all her time to Rochester, and thus sent Adele to a “more indulgent” school where her “French defects” were corrected, and that she grew up to be a “docile, good-tempered, and well-principled” young lady.
So Jane was too busy being a wife and mother to her newborn son to continue teaching Adele herself. Understandable. Why, then, did she not simply hire another governess? Why send Adele away? The answer may lie in how Jane sees her past, her journey and, ultimately, herself.
As a child in the home of her Aunt Reed, Jane felt severely out of place and neglected by the only family she knew. She was also a pauper at the mercy of her of her late uncle’s wife. Despite these circumstances, she becomes first a woman capable of earning her own living, then a wealthy heiress and finally the wife of not only the man she loves, but one who is also a member of the landed gentry. Adele could simply be a reminder of a past Jane would rather forget.
Jane may have chosen not to hire another governess because of how she came to be Mrs. Rochester; presumably, the story was still circulating through the regional gossip mill. Another person, especially one who had seen the story unfold, even little Adele, was just too dangerous to keep around. Until she had firmly asserted herself as mistress of Ferndean and Rochester’s wife, Jane did not want in her household any other woman who could become a rival for Rochester’s affection.
There is, however, a darker possibility. The parallels between Jane’s treatment of Adele and Mrs. Reed’s treatment of Jane are eerie. Both Adele and Jane were, for the most part, orphans dependent on relatives for support and neither was responsible for their situation. Adele was very young when she lost her mother, and if Rochester is her father he does not recognize her — but he does bring her to England in an attempt to “put things right.” Similarly, when Jane’s parents died, her uncle took her in as an attempt to mitigate the damage done to her, however indirectly, by her grandparents. Mrs. Reed dealt with Jane by sending her to Lowood Institution; Jane deals with Adele by sending her away. Looked at this way, Adele and Jane’s suffering is not accidental or their fault, but the result of a pattern of neglect within the Rochester and Reed families that was passed on from one generation to the next. Thus Jane’s treatment of Adele is simply and woefully the fulfillment of the Rochester-Reed family legacy.
So, during the course of the novel Jane goes from being the powerless child at the mercy of relatives to being the older relative with power over an orphan, from “Cinderella” to the “wicked stepmother.” Jane may have sent Adele away to school because she had become the very Aunt Reed she feared and disliked as a child.