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NAX35712 - BRONTE, C.: Jane Eyre (Unabridged)

Charlotte Brontë
Jane Eyre

It would be wrong to view Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre as merely a romance. Brontë was anxious to examine and describe the theme of a woman’s struggle against the conventions of the time: her attempt to grow up and gain respect in a society where she and her talents were not valued. Relations between the sexes, and between the young and those in authority, social and religious conventions, all were explored.

Jane Eyre was written in the traditional style of the ‘picaresque’ or ‘travelling’ novel, in which the journeys and adventures of the heroine are described. Consequently Jane is found in five distinct locations at five different phases of her life: childhood at Gateshead, schooldays at Lowood, adolescence at Thornfield, maturity at Marsh End and fulfilment in marriage at Ferndean. The five phases of the story are linked, not mechanically, but by the presence in each of the imagery and symbolism found throughout the story, and as much a part of it as the action. Widely read from an early age, Brontë drew on, amongst others, Shakespeare, the Romantic novelists, and the Bible for inspiration, and thus her special genius created a work of compelling force.

In spite of Brontë herself denying any link between herself and her heroine beyond their plain looks, saying that Jane Eyre was ‘not myself any further than that,’ many parallels exist between events in Jane Eyre and those in Charlotte Brontë’s own life. At Gateshead the young and defiant orphan Jane Eyre is barely tolerated by her spiteful Aunt Reed, who ignores the shortcomings of her own children and gains sadistic satisfaction by instead punishing Jane for these. Charlotte Brontë, born in Thornton near Bradford, on April 21st 1816, experienced the loss of her own mother, Maria, from cancer in 1821. The Brontë children, Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne, were, by this time, living in the parsonage at Haworth, where their father Patrick was the incumbent, and their mother’s sister Elizabeth Branwell moved in to care for them.

From Gateshead, Jane Eyre is sent to Lowood School where she experiences considerable hardship and the loss of her friend Helen Burns from tuberculosis. These events reflect Charlotte’s own experiences as a boarder at Cowan Bridge, a school in Kirkby Lonsdale for the daughters of clergymen. Here, in 1825, her two older sisters, Maria, on whom Helen Burns was based, and Elizabeth, both died from tuberculosis precipitated by the prevailing unhealthy environment.

Like Charlotte herself, Jane Eyre was the daughter of a clergyman but Lowood School provided her with widely differing experiences of religious faith. The Evangelical proprietor, Mr Brocklehurst, was described in such hypocritical terms that when Jane Eyre was published criticism was received from some quarters for this apparent attack on Evangelicalism. Helen Burns, however, is portrayed as an exemplary Christian, displaying forgiveness, and meekly enduring adversity in this world, certain of rebirth in Heaven. The gentle and pious Miss Temple also illustrates Christianity at its best, and both characters are seen to have an influence on the young Jane.

After leaving Cowan Bridge School Charlotte Brontë was, for a time, educated at home, together with her surviving sisters Emily and Anne. The remoteness of their home meant that they seldom saw other people, especially children, and consequently immersed themselves in reading. Later they wrote poetry, drama and prose, losing themselves in fantasy worlds. Not surprisingly then, Jane Eyre has a strongly gothic element, the episode in the red-room at Gateshead and the sinister laugh at Thornfield being just two examples. The symbolic use of literature is also present in the novel, so that we learn about the characters and their situations from the works they read. The young Jane reads Gulliver’s Travels to provide her with a world in which to escape, and later rejects Dr Johnson’s Rasselas which Helen Burns reads, since it contains no magic or poetry. However, this book is especially symbolic since it suggests wisdom and an acceptance of reality – traits clearly evident in Helen.

In 1839 Charlotte became a governess, firstly for the Sidgwick family in Skipton, then in 1841 for the White family at Rawdon near Bradford. At this time clergymen’s daughters, though well educated, were poor, and consequently their social status was difficult to define. Educated like the upper classes, their poverty required them to work, and being a governess was one of the few socially acceptable jobs. This, then, was the third phase which Charlotte Brontë introduced into the life of Jane Eyre, moving the action to Thornfield Hall.

Opinions vary as to Charlotte’s inspiration for Thornfield: Norton Conyers near Ripon, which Charlotte visited whilst with the Sidgwicks at Skipton, has been cited. However, a combination of Rydings, a country house belonging to the brother of her friend, Ellen Nussey, in which Charlotte stayed in 1832, and North Lees Hall Farm which she visited with Ellen in 1845 has also been suggested. The latter had contained a madwoman’s room and was reputed to have been burned out in a fire which caused her death. It also belonged to a family called Eyre, its suggestion of air possibly providing Brontë with inspiration for an apt name for a free spirited-heroine.

Charlotte Brontë’s time as a governess was not a success, mainly because her own isolated childhood at Haworth rendered her ignorant of normal children. Books and stones were thrown at her by her charges and her discomfort is probably reflected in the humiliating circumstances she describes for Jane Eyre, as a child at Gateshead, and later at Thornfield where, as a governess she is treated with contempt by the beautiful but cold Blanche Ingram.

A gifted artist herself, Charlotte frequently describes Jane Eyre’s painting and drawing ability during her times as a governess at Thornfield and also as a teacher at Morton. In fact Brontë herself was asked to illustrate the novel but declined, saying she felt she was insufficiently talented.

Between 1842 and 1844 Charlotte Brontë, together with her sister Emily, studied French at the Pensionat Heger in Brussels, in preparation for opening their own school. Forced to return home at the end of 1842 by her aunt’s illness, and finding the sisters’ school idea meeting with little enthusiasm, she returned to Mme Heger’s school in 1843 as a teacher of English. She fell in love with M. Heger but on returning home due to her father’s failing eyesight, found that her letters to M. Heger went unanswered. Like her heroine Jane Eyre, who rejects St John Rivers’s proposal of marriage, and, at that time, being ambitious for something more than life as a clergyman’s wife, Charlotte had also rejected proposals. These came in the late 1830s from her friend Ellen Nussey’s clergyman brother, and also from an Irish clergyman.

Recognising at last that her great desire was to ‘express herself in some way’ as she later described it to her biographer, Mrs Gaskell, she published a collection of poems written, together with her sisters Anne and Emily, under the pseudonyms Currer (Charlotte), Acton (Anne) and Ellis (Emily) Bell. However, it was not until 1846 that Charlotte began writing her first novel. Although this work, The Professor, was published after her death, at this time it was rejected. However, in 1847 Charlotte’s sister Anne, writing again as Acton Bell, found a publisher for her novel, Agnes Grey, whilst the same publisher, Thomas Newby, also published Wuthering Heights, written by Emily, again under the pseudonym Ellis Bell. Dedicated to William Thackeray, whose work Charlotte much admired, Jane Eyre was published later in 1847 by Smith, Elder and Co., this and the subsequent two editions being in three volumes. The later 1850 edition was the first to be presented in one volume.

The independent and spirited character of Jane Eyre is a reflection of Brontë’s own behaviour. In writing the novel she flouted society’s expectations in many ways, not least in attacking the convention of brotherly and sisterly love as the basis for marriage, and in creating in her heroine a passionate woman. Some critics considered the work a demonstration of a coarse morality with a portrayal of physical and emotional desires quite explicit for the times, even though Jane learns how to temper passion by duty before we reach the story’s end. In addition, Jane’s union with Rochester comes at a price, that of his eyesight, although, like Charlotte’s father who regained partial vision through a cataract operation, Rochester does eventually regain some sight.

Charlotte Brontë revealed the identity of her pseudonym in July 1848 but the deaths that same year of her brother Branwell from alcoholism and her sister Emily from tuberculosis dampened any feelings of celebration. Her next novel, Shirley, was published in 1849, the same year in which Anne, her only surviving sibling, died, whilst Villette followed in 1853. In 1854 Charlotte married her father’s curate, Arthur Nicholls, but the following year, pregnant with their first child, her health failed and on March 30th, little short of her fortieth birthday, she died of pneumonia.

Notes by Helen Davies

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