In Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë writes:

. . . I ventured the request: "Would she give me a roll for this handkerchief?"

She looked at me with evident suspicion: "Nay, she never sold stuff i' that way."

I doubt she actually looks at the shopkeeper in the face and says, "Would she give me a roll for this handkerchief?" However, the words are in quotation marks, and I always thought that that meant it signified direct discourse, that is, a true quotation without paraphrasing.

Is Brontë just weird? Wants to show that Jane Eyre is uneducated? This is very confusing.

EDIT: For clarification, in the context, Jane Eyre is asking the shopkeeper for a roll — there is no third person being referenced.

  • There is no indirect discourse. There is a sentence which quotes a spoken sentence.
    – Lambie
    Aug 27, 2016 at 15:11
  • 'I ventured the request' means 'I asked / tried asking / risked asking' // 'I posed the question'. What follows is direct speech. Aug 27, 2016 at 16:08
  • 5
    Having checked the context, I am struck by the excellence of this question. Pretty clearly the actual words of the conversation being recalled would have been "Would you give me a roll for this handkerchief?" and "Nay, I never sell stuff i' that way." This has been transformed, grammatically, into reported or indirect speech, mutatis mutandis. Quotation marks normally signify direct speech, speech that has not undergone this transformation. So we are getting contradictory signals from the text. A compromise visualization would be for the narrator to report speech dramatically. Aug 27, 2016 at 16:37
  • @BrianDonovan That’s a great observation; I think you're exactly right. It’s pretty subtle and rather interesting, and the asker is right to question what’s really going on here. It also illustrates why this is not a question better suited for speakers of other languages when they’re first learning English.
    – tchrist
    Aug 27, 2016 at 16:45
  • @BrianDonovan And +1 for mutatis mutandis.
    – deadrat
    Aug 27, 2016 at 17:02

2 Answers 2


I think it is just a convention that is found in writing of the time, and is not intended to say anything about either of the speakers. I have seen it in other historical writing such as newspapers.

In fact, I was trying to substantiate this and found a reference in this book, The Language of Public and Private Communication in a Historical Perspective edited by Nicholas Brownlees, Gabriella Del Lungo, John Denton (p. 229).

'Far into the nineteenth century (and contrary to today's practices), it was not uncommon to mark indirect speech by inverted commas'.


To best answer this question, I'd like to offer more from the original text than is present in the question.

From Project Gutenberg's rendition of Jane Eyre:

I drew near houses; I left them, and came back again, and again I wandered away: always repelled by the consciousness of having no claim to ask—no right to expect interest in my isolated lot. Meantime, the afternoon advanced, while I thus wandered about like a lost and starving dog. In crossing a field, I saw the church spire before me: I hastened towards it. Near the churchyard, and in the middle of a garden, stood a well-built though small house, which I had no doubt was the parsonage. I remembered that strangers who arrive at a place where they have no friends, and who want employment, sometimes apply to the clergyman for introduction and aid. It is the clergyman’s function to help—at least with advice—those who wished to help themselves. I seemed to have something like a right to seek counsel here. Renewing then my courage, and gathering my feeble remains of strength, I pushed on. I reached the house, and knocked at the kitchen-door. An old woman opened: I asked was this the parsonage?


“Was the clergyman in?”


“Would he be in soon?”

“No, he was gone from home.”

“To a distance?”

“Not so far—happen three mile. He had been called away by the sudden death of his father: he was at Marsh End now, and would very likely stay there a fortnight longer.”

“Was there any lady of the house?”

“Nay, there was naught but her, and she was housekeeper;” and of her, reader, I could not bear to ask the relief for want of which I was sinking; I could not yet beg; and again I crawled away.

Once more I took off my handkerchief—once more I thought of the cakes of bread in the little shop. Oh, for but a crust! for but one mouthful to allay the pang of famine! Instinctively I turned my face again to the village; I found the shop again, and I went in; and though others were there besides the woman I ventured the request—“Would she give me a roll for this handkerchief?”

She looked at me with evident suspicion: “Nay, she never sold stuff i’ that way.”

Almost desperate, I asked for half a cake; she again refused. “How could she tell where I had got the handkerchief?” she said.

“Would she take my gloves?”

“No! what could she do with them?”

From this, you can see a progression of events. Jane is in a sorry state, hungry, starving even, and she has been turned away from the local parish on account of the clergyman having left (called home for the death of his father). Jane wouldn't ask that sort of help from the woman at the parish, so she wanders off, deciding to return now to the bakery she saw earlier, with cakes and sweets (which she very desperately desires) in the window.

As she enters, she encounters a small group of customers, and she asks them if they think she (the shopkeeper) would trade a roll for her handkerchief. Someone in the crowd responds by telling Jane the shopkeeper doesn't do business in that way--i.e., doesn't barter. Jane then asks this person if the shopkeeper might take her gloves instead, which, besides still being a form of bartering, the customer finds silly, for what would a baker do with gloves?

Jane changes tone here and decides to summarize the rest of the story, because she can't bear the shame of those times over again. It continues:

Reader, it is not pleasant to dwell on these details. Some say there is enjoyment in looking back to painful experience past; but at this day I can scarcely bear to review the times to which I allude: the moral degradation, blent with the physical suffering, form too distressing a recollection ever to be willingly dwelt on. I blamed none of those who repulsed me. I felt it was what was to be expected, and what could not be helped: an ordinary beggar is frequently an object of suspicion; a well-dressed beggar inevitably so. To be sure, what I begged was employment; but whose business was it to provide me with employment? Not, certainly, that of persons who saw me then for the first time, and who knew nothing about my character. And as to the woman who would not take my handkerchief in exchange for her bread, why, she was right, if the offer appeared to her sinister or the exchange unprofitable. Let me condense now. I am sick of the subject.

A little before dark I passed a farm-house, at the open door of which the farmer was sitting, eating his supper of bread and cheese. I stopped and said—

“Will you give me a piece of bread? for I am very hungry.” He cast on me a glance of surprise; but without answering, he cut a thick slice from his loaf, and gave it to me. I imagine he did not think I was a beggar, but only an eccentric sort of lady, who had taken a fancy to his brown loaf. As soon as I was out of sight of his house, I sat down and ate it.

I could not hope to get a lodging under a roof, and sought it in the wood I have before alluded to. But my night was wretched, my rest broken: the ground was damp, the air cold: besides, intruders passed near me more than once, and I had again and again to change my quarters; no sense of safety or tranquillity befriended me. Towards morning it rained; the whole of the following day was wet. Do not ask me, reader, to give a minute account of that day; as before, I sought work; as before, I was repulsed; as before, I starved; but once did food pass my lips. At the door of a cottage I saw a little girl about to throw a mess of cold porridge into a pig trough. “Will you give me that?” I asked.

  • I see what you mean! You could be right. However, how would you explain the use of the past tense earlier -- is it the polite mood?
    – Hanry Hu
    Aug 31, 2016 at 20:49
  • Also, how would you explain the "cakes of bread in the little shop," which I originally thought referred to the rolls?
    – Hanry Hu
    Aug 31, 2016 at 20:54
  • Oh apologies, I made a mistake in my reading. The conversation with the young woman happened at the parsonage, where she was looking for the clergyman (as, she explains, it is a clergyman's duty to assist). Here, Jane has returned to the shops where she saw the cakes and pastries and is talking to other people who are in the shop (customers). I'll edit my response accordingly.
    – R Mac
    Aug 31, 2016 at 21:04
  • I don't see why you added so much extra information. Also, you still fail to convince me completely -- why would she say "though others were there besides the woman" if she were addressing the other customers?
    – Hanry Hu
    Sep 2, 2016 at 0:30
  • @HanryHu Literature must be interpreted holistically, and this question is a very good example why. The discourse in question is not indirect. It is very much direct, between Jane Eyre and a customer of the shop. To understand this, though, you must understand the series of events and the resulting state that led to Jane having this conversation. As for the phrase "though others were there besides the woman", she presumably writes this to make it clear that she's not talking to the shopkeeper.
    – R Mac
    Sep 2, 2016 at 12:53

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