Monday, November 20, 2017

St. John Rivers: Cult Leader

The inspiration for the title of this article came from the names of some recent mash-up novels such as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and the article itself was inspired by the sudden realisation that St. John Rivers, a character in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, has some of the typical characteristics of a charismatic cult leader. 

It was reading about people such as Corin Redgrave and Bronson Alcott to get material for forum posts about cults that stirred up memories of this fictional character. I went back to Jane Eyre to refresh my memory and look at St. John Rivers in the light of what I now know about cult leaders.

The first few times I read Jane Eyre, I passed quickly through the chapters where he appears as he seemed an unsympathetic, not very exciting character; I much preferred Mr Rochester and other parts of the book. This time around, St. John Rivers was the main person of interest and his conversations with Jane the main scenes of interest.

Re-reading the chapters in which he appears has confirmed my idea that he has some attributes in common with cult leaders and the two men mentioned above. St. John Rivers too is tall and handsome, with fair hair and blue eyes. He says himself that he has a hard, cold personality. He is a fanatic with a burning ambition to make his mark on the world.

In support of my case, here are some examples of the familiar attributes I found:

Unlimited ambition and a mission
Both Corin Redgrave and St. John Rivers had a compulsion to change the world - or even save the world.

In St. John Rivers’ own words:

Reason, and not feeling, is my guide; my ambition is unlimited: my desire to rise higher, to do more than others, insatiable.  I honour endurance, perseverance, industry, talent; because these are the means by which men achieve great ends and mount to lofty eminence.

This may have been spoken by a fictional character, but it is uncannily familiar. It could be Corin Redgrave speaking; his wife said he had an air of importance and purpose and became immersed in his role as a revolutionary hero.

In Redgrave’s case it was political activism and the Workers’ Revolutionary Party; for St. John Rivers, his mission was to convert the Hindus to Christianity. I suspect that he too would have been a militant Marxist and atheist if he had been born in the 20th century.

Dedicating their lives to a cause
St. John Rivers thinks that having human needs, sympathies and affections is a defect, a sign of weakness. He is not under the influence of anyone else when he decides – or is compelled by inner forces – to make sacrifices for his cause. He abandons the idea of marriage with a beautiful, wealthy young woman who is very interested in him and whom he finds very attractive, in favour of his mission. Her father thinks that he is throwing his valuable life away by going overseas. He has loving sisters and comes into some money, but he leaves it all behind.

Claiming to be one of the elect
St. John Rivers believes that he is in direct contact with the Almighty.  He tries to recruit Jane by suggesting that she is one of the few people good enough to accompany him. He tells her:

I am the servant of an infallible Master.  I am not going out under human guidance, subject to the defective laws and erring control of my feeble fellow-worms: my king, my lawgiver, my captain, is the All-perfect.  It seems strange to me that all round me do not burn to enlist under the same banner,—to join in the same enterprise.

Her reply:

All have not your powers, and it would be folly for the feeble to wish to march with the strong.”

His answer:

I do not speak to the feeble, or think of them: I address only such as are worthy of the work, and competent to accomplish it.

That last bit sounds like something Nietzsche might have said!

Malign influence
It was lucky for Jane Eyre that she is protected by having Mr Rochester in her heart and that he called out to her at a crucial moment, as otherwise St. John Rivers might have lured her to her doom and sacrificed her on the altar of his ambitions:

By degrees, he acquired a certain influence over me that took away my liberty of mind… I fell under a freezing spell. When he said "go," I went; "come," I came; "do this," I did it... As for me, I daily wished more to please him; but to do so, I felt daily more and more that I must disown half my nature, stifle half my faculties…

This is uncanny and very familiar. It is exactly the sort of thing that people who have left a cult say about the leader and life inside.

This is one of the questions that people who think they may be involved with a cult should ask themselves:

“Do you have to change who you are to fit in, to please others?”

Impossibly high standards and expectations
St. John Rivers is hard on himself, and he is equally hard on Jane Eyre once he has decided that she would be a suitable person to come to India with him. In the discharge of what he believes to be his duty, he knows neither mercy nor remorse.  

Strongly encouraging people to develop and grow and fulfill their potential is one thing; devolving, damaging and destroying them by forcing them to act way beyond their capabilities and against their best interests is something else. The more you give cult leaders, the more they want from you. And it is all done in the name of a good cause.

Jane Eyre says:

He wanted to train me to an elevation I could never reach; it racked me hourly to aspire to the standard he uplifted.

“...he prolonged still further my lessons in Hindostanee, and
grew more urgent in requiring their accomplishment: and I, like a fool, never thought of resisting him--I could not resist him…

“...if the day was unfavourable, if there was snow, or rain, or high wind, and his sisters urged me not to go, he would invariably make light of their solicitude, and encourage me to accomplish the task without regard to the elements… when I returned, sometimes a good deal tired, and not a little weather-beaten, I never dared complain, because I saw that to murmur would be to vex him: on all occasions fortitude pleased him; the reverse was a special annoyance…”

Inordinate and unrealistic demands are continually made on cult members. Some are made to stand in the street for long hours in all weathers soliciting support and donations.

Emotional blackmail and the silent treatment
St. John Rivers tries to manipulate Jane Eyre by suggesting that she might end up in the fire and brimstone of Hell if she doesn’t do what he wants i.e. go to India with him to convert the Hindus. He shows his disapproval and disappointment in subtle ways:

…he made me feel what severe punishment a good yet stern, a conscientious yet implacable man can inflict on one who has offended him.  Without one overt act of hostility, one upbraiding word, he contrived to impress me momently with the conviction that I was put beyond the pale of his favour…All this was torture to me--refined, lingering torture.  It kept up a slow fire of indignation and a trembling trouble of grief, which harassed and crushed me altogether.

I read well in his iron silence all he felt towards me: the disappointment of an austere and despotic nature, which has met resistance where it expected submission—

This technique is very common in cults of all kinds. Guilt and fear, shunning, psychological torture ... same old, same old.

All for nothing
One common feature I have noticed is that usually Utopia never comes, the revolution never happens and most of the effort and sacrifices are wasted. Cult members usually get a very low rate of return on their investments. Some are destroyed by attempts to live up to impossibly high and unrealistic ideals.

Bronson Alcott’s Utopian vegan agrarian commune Fruitlands failed after only 7 months. It did not survive the first New England winter. It was run on ideology rather than being based on reality and caused a lot of hardship to Alcott’s wife and children – they ate mainly bread and apples and bathed in cold water.

The Workers’ Revolutionary Party never achieved much either, and Corin Redgrave’s wife and children suffered because of his involvement.

St. John Rivers should have realised that members of long-established religions such as Hinduism are not good subjects for conversion to Christianity. He died out in India, after labouring mightily in the name of the Lord. We are not told anything about what, if anything, he actually achieved.

Classic textbook cases?
Where did Charlotte Brontë get her ideas and inspiration from? 

Perhaps she met a few zealous, dedicated missionaries – her father was a clergyman so she moved in the right circles.

Maybe The Missionary is a personality type; Shakespeare said that all the world’s a stage, so maybe this is one of the parts that people play. Maybe it is a program that is encoded in everyone but gets activated only in some people, getting them to perform Christian or Marxist missionary work.

Perhaps Charlotte Brontë was in touch with other dimensions and able to sense and thus describe the entity that possesses cult leaders and makes them all say and do much the same things.

A few final thoughts
I have never much liked the many dramatisations I have seen of Jane Eyre: St. John Rivers in particular often seemed mis-cast. Ironically, Corin Redgrave would have been ideal for the part! He neglected his acting career in favour of political activism though.

Although Jane Eyre was an immediate success when it was first published in 1847, some critics said that it was too romantic and unrealistic, particularly in the case of the main male characters. Surely that is the whole point of escapist fiction!

I like to think of Charlotte Brontë saying to herself, “I’ll show them!” when she sat down to write Shirley, which she told people was going to be  “real, cool and solid, as unromantic as a Monday morning.” 

Shirley is packed with realistic male characters, of whom Martin Yorke is one of the best.

The irony here is that if we look at St. John Rivers as someone who has the personality of a cult leader, he is very realistic indeed.

For further information about dangerous cult leaders:


Destructive group leaders and Narcissistic Personality Disorder: