Book Name: Jane Eyre
Author: Charlotte Bronte
First Published: 1847
Charlotte Bronte was born in Thornton, Yorkshire in 1816. She was the third of six siblings to her mother Maria and her father Patrick Bronte, an Irish Anglican clergyman. When her father was appointed the Perpetual curate of St. Michael and All Angels Church, the family moved to the village of Haworth. Soon after, her mother died of cancer, leaving the six children in the care of her sister, Elizabeth Branwell. The girls were sent to the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge in Lancashire to further their education. The conditions there were poor and it was felt that not only was the health of Charlotte harmed, but the school hastened the deaths of two sisters that died of tuberculosis later. After the deaths of Charlotte’s elder sisters, her father removed Charlotte and younger sister Emily from the school. It is said that Charlotte used this school as the basis for Lowood School in her novel Jane Eyre.
In 1846, the three sisters, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, decided to self-financed the publication of a collection of poetry under the pen names of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. The women wished to hide their feminine gender while preserving their initials. This caused Charlotte to become Currer Bell. “Bell” was the middle name of Haworth’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, the man that Charlotte would later marry. Although they sold only two copies of the book of poetry, the three sisters continued writing with the thought of publication. Each began their first novels, using the same pen names when sending manuscripts to publishers.
Although Charlotte’s first novel, The Professor did not publish, Smith, Elder & Co of Cornhill, the publisher that read it was impressed enough that they asked “Currer Bell” to send in any longer works that “he” might like to send to them. Charlotte finished the manuscript to her second novel and six weeks after she sent it to the publisher, Jane Eyre: An Autobiography was published.
Jane Eyre was an instant success and received favorable reviews. Speculation about who “Currer Bell” was and if the author was male or female fueled the popularity of the novel. Later, once the critics suspected that the author of Jane Eyre was a woman, they found it to be “pre-eminently an anti-Christian composition.” It was said that the novel was an “improper” book, being a protest against the Victorian lifestyle. The sales of Jane Eyre continued to be strong despite this claim and these reviews may have even increased its sales. In time, as more of her novels gained success, Charlotte “came out” and revealed her true identity and gender to London’s social circles.
Writer Anne Isabella Thackerary wrote about a meeting between her father and Charlotte once the author had became the toast of London:
…two gentlemen come in, leading a tiny, delicate, serious, little lady, with fair straight hair, and steady eyes. She may be a little over thirty; she is dressed in a little barège dress with a pattern of faint green moss. She enters in mittens, in silence, in seriousness; our hearts are beating with wild excitement. This then is the authoress, the unknown power whose books have set all London talking, reading, speculating; some people even say our father wrote the books – the wonderful books… The moment is so breathless that dinner comes as a relief to the solemnity of the occasion, and we all smile as my father stoops to offer his arm; for, genius though she may be, Miss Brontë can barely reach his elbow. My own personal impressions are that she is somewhat grave and stern, specially to forward little girls who wish to chatter…
Before the publication of her final novel, Villette, Charlotte was offered a proposal of marriage from Arthur Bell Nicholls, her father’s curate. He had been in love with her for years, but Charlotte had turned him down at first because she did not love him and that her father objected to the union due to Nicholls’ poor financial holdings. In time, friends of Charlotte that approved of the match, came to Arthur’s aid to help improve his finances and Charlotte found herself becoming more attracted to Arthur due to the intensity of his feelings for her. In 1854, she accepted his proposal and they gained the approval of her father. Charlotte and Arthur had a June wedding and honeymooned in Ireland.
Months after her marriage, Charlotte became pregnant at the age of 38, but her health, which had always been fragile took a turn for the worse. She was besieged by “sensations of perpetual nausea and ever-recurring faintness.” Charlotte and her unborn child died in March of 1855 of dehydration and malnourishment caused by the excessive vomiting from her severe morning sickness. Charlotte Bronte Nicholls is buried within the family vault in the Church of St. Michael and All Angels at Haworth, England.
The novel Jane Eyre begins when a young orphan girl is being raised by her cruel and wealthy aunt, Mrs. Reed. She is abused both verbally and physically by the aunt and her two small cousins. One day, as punishment for fighting with her cousin, her aunt imprisons Jane in the “red room”, the same room that Jane’s uncle had died in and a place that fills her with fear. Jane faints from terror and awakens to the face of the kindly apothecary, who takes Mrs. Reed aside and suggests that perhaps it would be better if Jane was sent away to school instead. To Jane’s happiness, Mrs. Reed agrees.
Jane’s joy is short-lived as she discoverers that Lowood School is far from a resort. The school’s headmaster, Mr. Brocklehurst is a hypocritical man that preaches a doctrine of poverty and privation to his students while using the school’s funds to provide a lavish lifestyle for himself. At Lowood, Jane befriends a fellow orphan named Helen Burns, who provides a strong moral example to Jane. During a typhus epidemic at Lowood, Helen dies of consumption. The epidemic also results in the removal of Mr. Brocklehurst by bringing the poor conditions of Lowood to the public. Jane’s life improves dramatically once Mr. Brocklehurst is gone and she spends eight more years at Lowood, six as a student and two as a teacher.
Jane has ambitions for herself and auditions for a job she had seen in a paper at a large estate called Thornfield. She is hired and leaves Lowood behind to become the governess to a lively French girl named Adele. Jane’s new employer is a dark, impassioned man named Rochester. He is many years older than Jane, and has had many scandalous affairs abroad. He verbally spars with Jane and she stands up to him, both parties enjoying the interaction, but their relationship is that of servant and master. This relationship changes after Jane saves Rochester from a bedroom fire that he later claims was started by a drunken servant named Grace Poole. Jane does not quite believe his story and she wonders about the strange noises she hears in halls of Thornfield and what they really might portend.
Soon after the fire, Rochester brings a party of society to visit in his manor. He focuses his attention on the region’s beauty, Blanche Ingram, all the while insisting that Jane is included to watch him woo the woman. Jane becomes sad, because by this time she has fallen in love with Rochester herself, but due to her inferior social standing, she approves of Rochester marrying Blanche, a woman of equal standing to his own status. She fully expects Rochester to propose to Blanche and begins making her own plans to leave Thornfield once the wedding is finalize. Much to Jane’s surprise, Rochester proposes to her and explains that he had been courting Blanche in an attempt to make Jane jealous. Jane follows her heart and wholeheartedly accepts Rochester’s offer.
As Jane and Rochester stand before the priest and prepare to exchange their vows, the voice of Mr. Mason cries out that Rochester already has a wife. It is his sister, Bertha Mason Rochester, and he is there to prevent Rochester from committing bigamy. Mr. Mason testifies that his sister, whom Rochester married as a young man during his time in Jamaica, is not only still alive, but lives in Thornfield.
Enraged by Mason’s accusations, Rochester takes the wedding party into Thornfield’s attics where the insane Bertha scrambles around like an animal and displays a violent temper. All this time, Bertha had been the one making the noises in the night and Grace Poole, far from being a drunk, had been paid to to keep Bertha locked away and under control. He compares calm and sensibile Jane to the insane and wild Bertha and asks the wedding party if they can blame him for wanting to be with Jane. Within the hour, Jane flees Thornfield, knowing that she could never marry or be with Rochester under these circumstances, despite the fact that she loves him.
Jane is penniless and alone, forced to sleep outside on the moors and to beg for food. She happens upon the home of three siblings, St. John (pronounced “Sinjin”), Mary, and Diana Rivers. They befriend Jane and take her in. St. John is a clergyman and to be helpful, he finds Jane a job teaching at a local charity school. This gives Jane the independence that she craves, humble as her life is. Some time later, St. John gives Jane shocking news, he informs her that her uncle, John Eyre, has died and left her with a large fortune of 20,000 pounds. When Jane asks how he came to know this, he surprises her again by informing her that her uncle is also his uncle; Jane is his cousin! Jane is overjoyed to discover that she is not alone in the world and decides to share the inheritance equally with her three cousins.
St. John finds himself drawn to Jane. Although he loves another woman, he feels that Jane would make a better wife for the missionary work that he feels god has called him to accept. He urges Jane to join him in his journey to India and accompany him as his wife. Jane is interested more because of the work than because of St. John. She tells her cousin that she will only agree if they could travel together as brother and sister. St. John will not hear of this and pressures Jane to reconsider his offer his offer of marriage.
Jane steps outside and mystically hears Rochester calling her name on the wind from the moors. She realizes that she can not give up the man she loves and departs the Rivers family that night to go out in search of Rochester. This time, as an heiress, she travels in style when she returns to Thornfield. There, Jane learns that Thornfield had been set afire by Bertha Mason and is now burned to the ground. While Rochester had managed to save all the servants, Bertha had lost her life in the fire.
Jane travels on to a small cottage called Ferndean where Rochester, blind and having suffered the loss of an eye and his hand, lives quietly with two servants. Jane comforts Rochester and tells him that she will be his nurse. She will never leave him again. Jane now has money of her own and has gained standing, while Rochester has suffered injuries, losing some of his social standing. They can now meet in the middle. The impediments to their union are now forever gone.
Rochester refuses to accept Jane as his nurse and instead proposes marriage to her. She accepts him. In the end, Jane writes that she and her love have been married for ten happy years and they enjoy perfect equality in their life. Rochester regains the sight in his remaining eye in time to view the birth of their son.
Jane Eyre is a classic that should be enjoyed. It is available for free download at Project Gutenberg in all ebook formats.