The neon light installation ‘quiet dust’ by Lucas acts as a signifier of the female space in Victorian middle-class England. Taken directly from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Lucas uses these words to highlight the interplay between text and art, interrogating the fictional and historical perspective of the narrator as Brontë and Eyre. The text below explores the art installation in the context of the themes of solitude, memory and the female as observer and observed.
‘The housemaid alone came here on Saturdays, to wipe from the furniture and mirrors, a week’s quiet dust…’ (1)
The words ‘quiet dust’ appear in the second chapter in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and draw together themes of solitude and memory. The words mark out the passing of time, gathering in layers, capable of being swept away in a moment, leaving only a memory of what was there before. Lucas’s neon light installation spelling out the words ‘quiet dust’ create a visual memory of Jane’s imprisonment in the red-room at Gateshead Hall. As the viewer contemplates the words, we are absorbed into the silent, eerie confines of the prison, haunted by the death, the memory, of Jane’s uncle, Mr Reed.
The scene starts and ends with a violent flurry, which marks a sudden, jolting contrast to the stillness of the room. Having been wrongly accused of fighting with her cousin, Jane is forced into solitary confinement to contemplate her actions. Both the viewer and Jane Eyre are drawn into a world of external and internal speculation. As she sits in the red-room, Jane’s thoughts rampage around her head, battling with her escape from an unfair and unjust world
‘Why was I always suffering, always browbeaten, always accused, forever condemned? Why could I never please? Why was it useless to win anyone’s favour?…‘Unjust! – unjust!’ said my reason…to achieve escape from insupportable oppression…..never eating or drinking more, and letting myself die’. (2)
As Jane is plunged further into solitude and silence, Jane’s thoughts reach a climax when she collapses into a violent fit, having seen the spirit of her dead uncle, Mr Reed, in the room
‘My heart beat thick, my head grew hot; a sound filled my ears, which I deemed the rushing of wings: something seemed near me: I was oppressed, suffocated: endurance broke down; I uttered a wild involuntary cry; I rushed to the door and shook the lock in desperate effort.’ (3)
The ‘quiet dust’ draws a parallel with Jane Eyre’s position as a young girl in Victorian society: both are only seen when they become a nuisance and result in action being taken against then. However, in the red-room we observe how Jane’s silence draws her into a world of illusion, bursting out in rush of panic.
The off-white glow of Victoria Lucas’s neon light installation acts as a visual reminder of the ephemeral nature of life which can be switched off in an instant. It echoes the ‘painful and crushing’4 reminder that Jane Eyre is forced to contemplate: that her existence as an orphan is completely dependent upon her aunt, Mrs Reed who can turn her off, reject her, at any time and send her to the poorhouse
‘You ought to be aware, miss, that you are under obligations to Mrs Reed: she keeps you: if she were to turn you off you would have to go the poorhouse’. (5)
In the same way, we can think of Lucas’s neon light installation creating a dependency between viewer and artist. Both the viewer and artist act as interpreter of the text. Each depends upon the other.
The glow of the neon light also plays host to the symbolic determination of Brontë as novelist and Jane Eyre in a patriarchal and class-driven society. Light since ancient times has been regarded as a symbol of power, faith and hope. Despite being imprisoned at Gateshead Hall and confined to Victorian society’s view of her class and gender, Jane’s resilience and dignity carry her forward. Bronte creates a resilient heroine in Jane Eyre. Jane’s endurance of her aunt, cousins, Mr Brocklehurst and even Mr Rochester underlines her faith in herself. In chapter two we see a pivotal point in Jane’s maturity, on the boundary between listening and finding her own voice. (6) As Freeman states ‘whilst the child Jane is learning to be silent and listen, she is at the same time, finding the voice, by which to tell her own story, as if the two skills were inseparable, two sides of the same precious coin’.(7) This marks a significant moment of power and faith. The words chosen by Lucas highlight this moment, releasing them from the novel into the viewer’s space.
Finally, the words ‘quite dust’ are also remembered towards the end of chapter two. Like the quiet dust which is swept away, Jane’s anguish at the sight of ‘some coming vision from another world’ is literally brushed aside, disappearing into the void
‘ …Mrs Reed, impatient of my now frantic anguish and wild sobs, abruptly thrust me back and locked me in, without further parley. I heard her sweeping away; and soon after she was gone, I suppose I had a species of fit: unconsciousness closed the scene’.(8)
As we contemplate the neon glow of ‘quiet dust’ we are aligned with Charlotte Brontë’s and Jane Eyre’s narrative voice, softly and quietly gathering our thoughts alongside their space and memories.
In response to a Neon Commission by Victoria Lucas, Leeds College of Art and Design
Written by Uthra Rajgopal, Assistant Curator, V&A Museum London.
1. Bronte, (1847), 2012:8
2. Bronte, (1847), 2012: 11
3. Bronte, (1847), 2012: 1
4. Bronte, (1847), 2012:7
5. Bronte, (1847),2012: 8
6. Joan D Peters Finding a Voice: Towards a Woman’s Discourse of Dialogue in the Narration of Jane Eyre, Studies in the Novel, Vol 23. No 2, (summer 1991) pp 217 – 236.
7. Freeman, Vol 24. No 4, 1984: 685. Speech and Silence in Jane Eyre, Janet H Freeman, Studies in English Literature, 1500 – 1900, (Nineteenth Century, Autumn, 1984) pp 683 – 700, published by Rice University
8. Bronte,*19847), 2012; 14
Brontë, Charlotte Jane Eyre (1847, 2012) Penguin Books, London.
Freeman, Janet H, Speech and Silence in Jane Eyre, Vol 24. No 4, 1984: 685, Studies in English Literature, 1500 – 1900, (Nineteenth Century, Autumn, 1984) pp 683 – 700, Rice University.
Peters, Joan D, Finding a Voice: Towards a Woman’s Discourse of Dialogue in the Narration of Jane Eyre, Studies in the Novel, Vol 23. No 2, (summer 1991) pp 217 – 236, University of North Texas.