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Just as Emily Dickinson's life gave rise to the
Myth of the Recluse, so the Bronte homelife gave rise to the Myth of the
Lonely Geniuses and to stories which sentimentalized the three Bronte sisters
and demonized their homelife. For instance, there is the story that their
father, a minister, fired his gun in the house. Another story runs that while
his wife, who had born six children in seven years, lay dying, he destroyed
her only silk dress. Stories like these are now regarded as false.
Nonetheless, it is true that their homelife was difficult. Their mother died when Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and their brother Branwell were children; the two oldest sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, died young. Branwell was a drug addict and an alcoholic whom Charlotte, Emily, and Anne nursed through his collapses, his psychosis, and his final days. The devoted sisters found support and companionship in one another; at night, they read their novels and their poems to one another. Their society did not encourage women to fulfill their talents. The twenty-year old Charlotte wrote to Robert Southey, the poet laureate, for his opinion about writing. His response shows the barriers facing women writers: "Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life, and it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure will she have for it, even as an accomplishment and a recreation." Conventional wisdom held that men and women had separate "spheres" and duties, with woman's sphere being the house, family, and self-sacrifice. The popular image for the ideal woman was "the Angel in the House," who was expected to be devoted and submissive to her husband. The Angel was passive and powerless, meek, charming, graceful, sympathetic, self-sacrificing, pious, and above all--pure. The phrase "Angel in the House" comes from the title of an immensely popular poem by Coventry Patmore (1854), in which he holds his angel-wife up as a model for all women.
Granting this view of women, it is not surprising that the sisters adopted pseudonyms to hide their sex when they published their poems and novels. They chose names which were not obviously masculine: Acton Bell (Anne Bronte), Currer Bell (Charlotte Bronte), and Ellis Bell (Emily Bronte).When Jane Eyre was published in 1847, it became a bestseller. The reviews were on the whole favorable. There was much speculation about whether the writer was a man or a woman and whether the Bells were really three persons, two persons, or just one person. When it became known that a woman had written such a passionate novel and seemed so knowing sexually, the reviews became more negative.
This is not merely a work of great promise; it is one of absolute performance. It is one of the most powerful domestic romances which have been published for many years. It has little or nothing of the old conventional stamp upon it ... but it is full of youthful vigour, of freshness and originality, of nervous diction and concentrated interest. The incidents are sometimes melo-dramatic, and, it might be added, improbable; but these incidents, though striking, are subordinate to the main purpose of the piece, which is a tale of passion, not of intensity which is most sublime. It is a book to make the pulses gallop and the heart beat, and to fill the eyes with tears (1847).
Jane Eyre is, indeed, one of the coarsest books which we ever perused. It is not that the professed sentiments of the writer are absolutely wrong or forbidding, or that the odd sort of religious notions which she puts forth are much worse than is usual in popular tales. It is rather that there is a tendency to relapse into that class of ideas, expressions, and circumstances, which is most connected with the grosser and more animal portion of our nature; and that the detestable morality of the most prominent character in the story is accompanied with every sort of palliation short of unblushing justification (1848).
Jane Eyre is throughout the personification of the unregenerate and undisciplined spirit, the more dangerous to exhibit from that prestige of principle and self-control which is liable to dazzle the eye too much for it to observe the inefficient and unsound foundation on which it rests. It is true Jane does right, and exerts great moral strength, but it is the strength of a mere heathen mind which is a law unto itself. No Christian grace is perceptible upon her.
Underlying this harsh criticsm is a fear of social unrest. In 1847, the working classes were organizing political protests in England, as well as on the Continent. The Chartists, regarded by the affluent classes as revolutionaries threatening the foundation of government and order, were demanding such rights as the vote for working men, a shorter work week, and a secret ballot. In 1848, political protest erupted in so many revolutions on the Continent that historians call it the Year of Revolutions.Jane Eyre is obviously written from the first person point of view or "I." When the novel was initially published, the subtitle was An Autobiography, and Currer Bell was identified as the editor rather than as the author. The subtitle was dropped in subsequent editions of the novel.
In general, a first person point of view has the advantages of being a constant point of view and helping to make the work consistent; also, it tends to give authority and credibility to the narrative, since the person telling the story observed and/or was involved in all the incidents. Its drawbacks are that the story is limited to what the narrator saw or heard and to the narrator's interpretation of the other characters. Because the action is completed before the story begins, the narrative may not be as vivid as fiction using other points of view, and the characters and action may seem more distant.
Jane Eyre has the virtues of this method; most readers accept Jane's interpretation and explanations of herself, the other characters, and events. However the problem of too great an aesthetic distance does not arise. Jane's emotional intensity and openness cause the reader to identify with her, so that her experiences and feelings temporarily become those of most readers.This novel presents a number of conflicts and struggles within Jane and between Jane and other characters, conflicts which must be resolved for her to achieve self-fulfillment and happiness:
It has been suggested that at least part of the appeal of Jane Eyre comes from its fulfilling common fantasies and wishes. According to this theory, we feel that we are orphans, that the family we are living with is not our real family; we want to punish the parents (and other authority figures) who thwarted childhood desires by saying "no" to us; we desire wealth and the perfect mate. Jane Eyre fulfills these desires and dreams, and it justifies the punishment of cruel authority figures like Aunt Reed and Mr. Brocklehurst, who deserve what they get. Think about this theory as you read the novel and decide whether you agree with it.
The image clusters running through this novel are fire, the moon, the weather, windows, and mirrors. Jane's paintings serve to characterize her and her situation.It is hard for the modern reader to see the innovative aspects of this novel because they have become familiar to us. Unlike her sisters, Charlotte rejected the convention of the beautiful heroine. While writing Jane Eyre, she told them, "I will show you a heroine as plain and as small as myself." She succeeded in her goal and established a trend of ordinary-looking or unattractive heroines. Also Jane Eyre is one of the first novels to present a child's experiences as the child saw and felt them and to trace that child's development into adulthood.
Charlotte Bronte: An Overview.
An excellent site. Discussion of themes, setting, symbolism, characterization, narration, genre, religion & philosophy, etc.
Eyre and A Vindication of the Rights of Women.