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“Mr. Brocklehurst, I believe I intimated in the letter which I wrote to you three weeks ago, that this little girl has not quite the character and disposition I could wish: should you admit her into Lowood school, I should be glad if the superintendent and teachers were requested to keep a strict eye on her, and, above all, to guard against her worst fault, a tendency to deceit. I mention this in your hearing, Jane, that you may not attempt to impose on Mr. Brocklehurst.”
Well might I dread, well might I dislike Mrs. Reed; for it was her nature to wound me cruelly; never was I happy in her presence; however carefully I obeyed, however strenuously I strove to please her, my efforts were still repulsed and repaid by such sentences as the above. (Jane Eyre)

What’s the meaning of might in the sentence, and what are these two clauses meaning?

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You will usually encounter the idiom in this case as “You may well X”. It has two meanings:

  • One is, “It is very likely that you will X”. If you read much fiction you may well find unusual and difficult English constructions. In this case may is used in the sense be possible that.

  • The other is approximately, “You are quite right to X” or “If you X, that will be a good thing”—or a smart, or a prudent, or an appropriate thing, depending on the context. This is often uttered as an agreement with or amplification of someone else’s observation: You may well say that! In this case, may is used in the sense be permitted or entitled to.

In your example, Jane is employing the second meaning, cast in the past tense (maymight), and inverted for rhetorical effect—you will have noticed that Jane tends to get a little melodramatic at times. “I was quite right to dread and dislike Mrs. Reed.”

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  • Thank you, now I can see ‘well might’ feeling of Jane in the moment. – Listenever Feb 16 '13 at 8:30
  • I agree you've drawn the correct distinction. I think If you drive while drunk, you might well have an accident and kill someone, is a more "modern" form that uses well along the lines of Estuary English "Don't mess with him - he's well 'ard!" (i.e. - as an intensifier). Brontë's usage is "approbatory" - it's right & proper, correct, understandable, fitting that Jane feels antipathetic towards Mrs Reed, rather than highly likely, or implying even more antipathy than we might otherwise have supposed. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Feb 16 '13 at 21:19
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One of the functions of might is to express possibility, so the sentence means that there was a very strong possibility that Jane should dread and dislike Mrs Reed. In the context it tells us that she had good reason to do so. Well is here 'used as an intensive to strengthen the idea implied in the verb, or to denote that the action, etc., indicated by it attains a high point or degree' (OED).

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  • Then, can I understand the sentence as “It might well I dread, it might well I dislike Mrs. Reed.”? – Listenever Feb 16 '13 at 8:17
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    No, I'm afraid not. The construction has to be as Charlotte Brontë wrote it. – Barrie England Feb 16 '13 at 8:21

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