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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: August 2012

36 - Race


‘Race’ was an unstable term in the nineteenth century, with new meanings emerging and colliding with older ones, challenging and challenged by principles of equality and justice. At its most benign, ‘race’ denotes lineage or a ‘group of people, animals, or plants, connected by common descent’. The young, imprisoned Jane Eyre uses the word in this sense when she reasons: ‘Mrs Reed probably considered she had kept [her] promise [to her husband]; and so she had, I dare say … but how could she really like an interloper not of her race, and unconnected with her, after her husband's death, by any tie?’ ‘Race’ here means ‘belonging to a family’: with Mr Reed dead, Jane understands that she is not of Mrs Reed's ‘race’. The word is also used to indicate ‘type’, as when Jane notes that she is ‘one of the anathematised race’ of governesses, or when John Barton in Gaskell's Mary Barton realises that ‘[t]he mourner before him was no longer the employer; a being of another race, eternally placed in antagonistic attitude’. Here the word functions as a synonym for ‘class’, nation, people or any classificatory category marking difference.

Race also indicates a group or subdivision of a species that shares common characteristics. It is from this sense that more divisive interpretations took shape in the eighteenth century and found full expression in the nineteenth.