Charlotte Bronte was born on April 21, 1816, in Thornton, Yorkshire, England. The third of six children, she spent much of her childhood at her father’s parsonage in Haworth, England. Curiously, though their early life in Haworth seemed stern and somewhat deprived, Charlotte and her sisters and brother all found adventure and happiness exploring the moors near the parsonage and recounting their lives in spirited discussions and writings. Their father, Patrick Bronte, had risen from extreme poverty in Northern Ireland to become an undergraduate at St. John’s College, Cambridge, and then an Anglican priest in 1897. He passed his love of learning and vigorous discussion on to his children.
Whether viewed as a richly woven tapestry of feminine imagination, as a tableau of romanticism in the Victorian era, or as an early treatise on women’s rights, Jane Eyre stands as a classic work of literature in the English-speaking world. As a romance, Jane Eyre extends the tradition of sentimental concern for common folk and harsh judgment of those who exploit them within an industrialized or class-stratified social order. Condescension and mean-spiritedness on the part of landed or wealthy aristocrats causes alienation between them and the lower-middle or peasant classes. Orphaned and relegated to the foster family of her deceased uncle, Jane is badly abused by Mrs. Reed, her foster aunt. Edward Rochester retains the arrogance of his social class until his blindness causes him to turn inward and to revitalize his humble sensibilities. The love Jane maintains for Rochester results in a virtuous union between the two, a testament to perseverance and perfectibility in the romanticist view of human nature.
Set in early nineteenth-century England, Jane Eyre moves through various locations, all informed by autobiographical detail from Bronte’s life. As a child living in Mrs. Reed’s house, Gateshead Hall, Jane experiences overt class subordination. After her altercation with Mrs. Reed’s bully son, John, Jane is forcibly removed to an isolated room where she senses a presence, “a rushing of wings”; this ephemeral visitation recurs throughout the novel, each time signaling a major change in Jane’s life.
Jane, the main character of Jane Eyre, is sensitive and passionate, intelligent and reflective. As a child, she is keenly aware of her status as an orphan and an outsider. She learns to observe others quietly and takes refuge from her loneliness in books. When pushed beyond the limits of her tolerance for pain and injustice, Jane reacts impetuously. At Gateshead, she rebukes both John Reed and his mother for their cruelty toward her; later, at Thornfield, provoked by Rochester’s emotional manipulation, she hotly declares herself his equal and soulmate. Though she is often described as a small, plain “sprite,” and though she attempts to curb her self-righteousness with an attitude of stoic acceptance, Jane shows flashes of spirit and temper that make her a compelling character.
Critics agree that Jane Eyre offers a fine example of the author-as-narrator; narrative credibility follows from an intimate knowledge of the speaker. The novel is also an excellent fusion of the pious moral tone of Victorian literature and the Gothic elements of earlier romanticism. Thornfield and its bizarre third-floor inhabitant combine with Jane’s telepathic messages from the beyond and with awesome happenings in nature to produce scintillating ghostly touches.
Jane Eyre explores the predicaments of those bound by law, conventions, and social status to lives not of their own choosing. Like Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre resents being controlled by inferiors but uses this resentment to generate energy necessary for her survival and rise to independence. The power of religion to enlighten or to corrupt finds expression in Jane’s reliance on heartfelt prayer and in the diametrically opposed vocations of Brocklehurst and St. John Rivers. In each case the social value of religion is depicted as part of the individual’s motives.
TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
1. Examine the behavior of Georgiana Reed, Blanche Ingram, and Rosamond Oliver to determine their ultimate goals. What are they? Do you think these goals are worthwhile?
Bronte’s novel The Professor recalls her experiences at the Pensionnat Heger and explores the effects of ambition and authoritarianism on family relationships. Shirley: A Tale involves a much broader spectrum of society than does Jane Eyre. The book depicts the plight of Yorkshire people coping with industrialization and attendant problems. Romantic relationships and tortuous plot twists underlie the major social themes. In the somewhat autobiographical Villette, Bronte focuses on one character named Lucy Snowe.