Jane Eyre | Shirley | Villette | The Professor
Charlotte Brontë was the eldest of the three Brontë sisters who became famous as authors. During her short lifetime (she was born on 21 April, 1816, and died on 31 March, 1855, at the age of just 38) she wrote various short stories and poems, plus four novels. Jane Eyre (1847) was her first published novel1. It is presented as the autobiography of Jane Eyre, an orphan. It includes details of Jane's early life with her cousins and at school, her work as a teacher and governess, and her fateful encounter with Mr Rochester, a man with a secret. Featuring more nuanced portrayals of women than were common in novels at the time, plus themes of abusive relationships, mental illness and physical disability, the novel has become a much-studied classic of English Literature.
We first meet Jane when she is ten years old. She lives in the house of her aunt Mrs Reed with her cousins Eliza, John and Georgiana. However, they are not fond of her because she is not of a 'sociable and childlike disposition'. John, aged 14, regularly hits her and verbally abuses her. When he catches her reading one of his books, he throws the book at her and grabs her hair. When she retaliates, she is taken away and locked into the 'red-room', a bedroom with a red carpet, red window-drapes and a four-poster bed with red curtains, which is where her uncle had died nine years previously. She has some sort of fit, loses consciousness, and awakes to discover an apothecary has been summoned. His recommendation is that she should be sent away to school.
At Lowood Institution, a charity school for girls, the schoolchildren are given meagre rations, including porridge at breakfast and dry bread at tea-time. Lunch is not usually served unless the kind superintendent Miss Temple orders it when the morning porridge is burned and inedible - the manager Mr Brocklehurst expects the children to 'evince fortitude under temporary privation' for 'spiritual edification'. They share drinking cups, and are often cold as well as hungry, so disease spreads easily. Jane meets Helen Burns, an intelligent but absent-minded girl with tuberculosis. For her imperfections, Helen is subjected to verbal criticism and corporal punishment by a teacher, Miss Scatcherd, but bears the abuse with patience. When Helen's illness advances, she is moved from the dormitory to a crib in Miss Temple's room. One night, Jane finds her, and they speak of the Christian faith and afterlife. Helen eventually succumbs to her illness with Jane's arms around her.
In subsequent years, the school is improved for the benefit of the health of the 'inmates' and Jane is able to learn well. She becomes a teacher at the age of 16. When Miss Temple marries a clergyman and leaves the school, Jane is 18 so decides she needs a new challenge. She secures a position as governess to Adèle Varens, aged seven or eight, whose mother ('a French opera-dancer') had died some months previously. Adèle is the ward of Mr Edward Fairfax Rochester, the owner of Thornfield Hall.
Mr Rochester was away from home when Jane arrived, so when she encounters a man who had fallen from his horse on an icy road, she is not aware that it is him:
He had a dark face, with stern features and a heavy brow... He was past youth, but had not reached middle-age; perhaps he might be thirty-five.
Jane assists him to get back on his horse, and formally meets him the following day. He is gruff and unfriendly at first, but takes an interest in her ability to paint scenes from her imagination. Mr Rochester asks for permission to be 'masterful, abrupt, perhaps exacting' and appreciates Jane's 'frank and sincere' manner in response. 'In time, I think you will learn to be natural with me, as I find it impossible to be conventional with you.' Jane knows 'his great kindness to [her] was balanced by unjust severity to many others' but believes that her presence is helping him to be better. She begins to fall in love with him.
At times, Jane hears mysterious laughter emanating from the third floor of Thornfield Hall, but is told it is a servant by the name of Grace Poole who is responsible. One night, she hears the laughter and discovers Mr Rochester's bed is on fire - she saves his life by fetching water to extinguish the flames. Mr Rochester begins to fall in love with her.
Not realising that Jane reciprocates his feelings, Mr Rochester decides to make her fall in love with him through jealousy. He begins to court Miss Ingram, whose family was of high rank, even though he doesn't love her and she would only marry him for his money. When Mr Rochester eventually proposes to Jane instead, Jane accepts. On their wedding day, the secret of the third floor is revealed.
Jane leaves Mr Rochester when she learns that he is already married and his 'lunatic' wife lives on the third floor of Thornfield Hall. She travels far from Thornfield and accidentally loses all her possessions. While begging for help, she coincidentally discovers relatives she never knew she had. She also becomes rich thanks to an inheritance from her uncle.
Jane's cousin St John Eyre Rivers is a clergyman who wishes to become a missionary in India. He decides Jane would be the perfect companion for his work. However, although she is like a sister to him, he says, 'I want a wife: the sole helpmeet I can influence efficiently in life, and retain absolutely till death.' Jane is unable to accept this proposal.
I could no longer talk or laugh freely when he was by, because a tiresomely importunate instinct reminded me that vivacity (at least in me) was distasteful to him... I felt how - if I were his wife - this good man, pure as the deep sunless source, could soon kill me, without drawing from my veins a single drop of blood, or receiving on his own crystal conscience the faintest stain of crime.
St John continues his efforts to persuade Jane to join him. Just when she is about to relent, she hears Mr Rochester's voice calling2 'Jane! Jane! Jane!' She discovers that Mr Rochester had been injured in a fire at Thornfield Hall - he has lost his eyesight and his right hand3, his wife is dead, and he is now living at Ferndean Manor, a house in 'quite a desolate spot'. Jane makes him jealous with talk of St John, but then she comforts him. Whereas a year previously they had been master and governess, now they are more equal thanks to Jane's new wealth and family connections, and Mr Rochester's disability. Mr Rochester proposes again, leading to what is probably the most famous line in the novel:
Reader, I married him.
The novel contains episodes inspired by Charlotte's own life. For example, Jane's father was a clergyman and her mother 'had married him against the wishes of her friends, who considered the match beneath her'. Jane's experiences at Lowood School reflect those of Charlotte at the Clergy Daughters' School - in particular the life and death of Charlotte's oldest sister Maria is mirrored by those of Helen Burns. Jane becomes a teacher and a governess. Jane's cousin John takes to drinking and gambling, and dies young, as Charlotte's brother Branwell was fated to do4. Jane's cousins Diana and Mary Rivers have much in common with Charlotte's sisters Emily and Anne - they are intelligent women whose mother died when they were young. Their family was not rich so they had to make a living for themselves by working as governesses. And Jane herself has much in common with Charlotte, being of short stature and not conventionally pretty by the standards of the time.
As with her sisters' novels, Anne's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and Emily's Wuthering Heights, Charlotte makes reference to phrenology (judging people by the shape of their heads). For example, Mr Rochester 'showed a solid enough mass of intellectual organs, but an abrupt deficiency where the suave sign of benevolence should have risen'. Mr Rochester, with his 'olive face, square, massive brow, broad and jetty eyebrows, deep eyes, strong features, firm grim mouth' has some aspects in common with Emily's anti-hero Heathcliff. And the novels share other themes, such as dealing with abusive relationships and wishing to marry for love.
Jane Eyre was published on 19 October, 1847, and became a great success. It was praised by several literary critics, including George Henry Lewes, who recognised its 'deep, significant reality'. In contrast, a reviewer in the Spectator magazine found 'too much of artifice... everything is made to change just in the nick of time'. Others criticised Jane for having more passion than a woman was expected to have, but that increased the novel's appeal. Speculation about the person behind the pen name of Currer Bell also helped to increase sales - novelist William Thackeray read Jane Eyre in a day and suspected it was written by a woman, even though he noted, 'If a woman, she knows her language better than most ladies do, or has had a "classical" education'. The first edition of around 500 copies sold out by January of 1848, and the third edition was published in April 1848.
Jane Eyre established the fame of Charlotte and her sisters as writers - Emily's first novel Wuthering Heights and Anne's first novel Agnes Grey had been accepted for publication before Jane Eyre and were released after Jane Eyre's success. The popularity of Jane Eyre endured after Charlotte's death in 1855. For example, Queen Victoria read the novel in 1858 with her husband Prince Albert, and she read it again in 1880. In the centuries since its publication it has been extensively studied by academics. It has also often appeared on school reading lists in the UK.
Jane Eyre has been adapted for stage and screen numerous times. The first Jane Eyre stage play was performed in 1848, just a year after the novel was first published. The novel has also been turned into ballet, opera and musical forms as well as radio plays. In 1909 a silent film was produced in Italy. Another notable film was the 1943 US version starring Orson Welles as Mr Rochester and Joan Fontaine (who was only two years younger than Orson Welles) as Jane, with Elizabeth Taylor as Helen Burns. And the 2011 British film version starred Mia Wasikowska as Jane, future Magneto Michael Fassbender as Mr Rochester, with Jamie Bell, known for playing Billy Elliott in the film of the same name, as St John Rivers. The book has also been adapted for television. For example, a BBC television miniseries was produced in 1983 with future James Bond Timothy Dalton (who had played Heathcliff in the 1970 adaptation of Wuthering Heights) as Mr Rochester and Zelah Clarke as Jane.
Jane Eyre has also inspired other novels. For example, Mr Rochester (2017) by Sarah Shoemaker is presented as the autobiography of Mr Rochester, and Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) by Jean Rhys incorporates sections written as the autobiography of Bertha Mason aka Antoinette Cosway, who would become Mr Rochester's first wife.