Jane Eyre: A Reflection of Charlotte Bronte
During mid-nineteenth century a new author emerged with her first published novel Jane Eyre which broke the typical stereotype of submissive and ignorant women of that period with the fiercely independent character of Jane Eyre. Charlotte Brontëis the novelist who gave readers a different insight to women through the behaviors, actions, and personality of the protagonist Jane. Brontë did not feel inferior to the male authors during her time, but in order to be assured publications of her hard worked novels, she wrote with the pseudonymous name Currer Bell (Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vol. 3). While the novel is a fictional tale, Brontë incorporated many experiences and people of her own life into the novel adding a more realistic and personal touch. Writers often construct characters similar to themselves and their own personal experiences but possess the freedom to alter the story to what they wish it to be. There is clear evidence in Jane Eyre that Jane is the reflection of Brontë and through Jane’s character she presents an unconventional woman to be admired and gives Jane the fantasy ending she desired herself.
Charlotte Brontë was one of six children in her family, though her two older siblings, Maria and Elizabeth, passed away several years after their mother succumbed to cancer. Following the death of her mother, Charlotte’s Aunt Branwell came to live with the Brontë family in order to help her father, Patrick Brontë. Like Charlotte, Jane’s parents passed away when she was a baby and she was taken into the care of her Aunt Reed. Jane’s aunt was very cruel and unfair in her treatment towards her niece. As Charlotte’s mother had been described as a genuinely kindhearted person, her aunt, Miss Branwell was just the opposite. “…she lacked the warmth and the understanding which can be balm to the sensitive. She was not really fond of children, “ (Crompton 7). Just as Charlotte had used her own aunt for the characterization of Jane’s Aunt Reed, she also used her eldest sister Maria as a character basis in Jane Eyre. The two had a close relationship while both attending the Cowan’s Bridge boarding school until Maria grew very ill and passed away. Charlotte immortalized her through the sweet Helen Burns that Jane befriends while attending the Lowood School. For both Charlotte and Jane, the loss of their companions took a deep toll on them as they were both too young to understand the earlier deaths of their parent(s). Charlotte was nine when her sister passed and since then, “she had nursed her bitterness of heart at the death of her sisters till it became an obsession to her,” (Benson 24). In fact, most of Charlotte’s experience at school was incorporated into Jane Eyre, not only ‘Lowood’ as Cowan Bridge and ‘Helen Burns’ as her sister Maria, but ‘Naomi Brocklehurst’ (Mr. Brocklehurst’s mother and owner of the new part of the institution) was modeled after Cowan Bridge’s establisher Reverend William Carus Wilson (Benson 23).
From her childhood experiences, Jane grew up independently as she had no other living family besides her Aunt Reed whom she had no relation with from the time she was sent to the Lowood School, other than the one visit while her aunt was growing near death. Having spent years at the Lowood School, Jane looks elsewhere to employment where she finds a job as a governess, a popular occupation for women at this time, at a home in Thornfield. Jane had taken it upon herself to find a job paying a higher salary and away from the school she resided at for so many years. At around the same time in her life, age nineteen, Charlotte and her younger sister Emily became governesses at Miss Wooler’s which was happy time in Charlotte’s life just as Jane’s time at Thornfield was for her .The education that Charlotte had obtained from the Cowan Bridge School enabled her to become a governess to young children and become the great writer she is known as today. She had a close relationship with the schoolmaster Miss Wooler just as Jane’s relationship formed with Mrs. Fairfax, Thornfield’s housekeeper, who she had mistaken for the owner when she first arrived (Gaskell 143). The two spend time talking and having tea while residing together and Jane generally liked Mrs. Fairfax. Upon meeting her the first time Jane was surprised at Mrs. Fairfax’s kind treatment, “I little expected such a reception; I anticipated only coldness and stiffness; this is not like what I have heard of the treatment of governesses,” (Jane Eyre 82). Unlike Jane, Charlotte was a governess again after her experience at Miss Wooler’s; however the second time was not an enjoyable experience.
Having worked on her own, Charlotte was not as dependent on men as many young women were in the nineteenth century. She had come across four proposals in her life, but only married once because she would not settle. She respected the sanctity of marriage but did not wish to be married in order to gain social rank or to fulfill the expectations of the roles of women as a wife and mother. Her first proposal from clergyman Henry Nussey sparked similarities between St. John Rivers’ marriage proposal to Jane towards the end of the novel. Although Jane cared for him, she did not love him and did not wish to settle. Following Henry’s proposal, Charlotte “studied the situation sanely, intelligently, objectively, and decided that she was not in love with Henry Nussey,” (Crompton 52). This quality that Charlotte mirrored through Jane spoke greatly of their independence and values that majority of women in the nineteenth century didn’t possess. However, Jane Eyre contained the character of Mr. Rochester who was the object of Jane’s affection and whom she married in the last chapter of the novel.
The romance between Jane and Mr. Rochester was not only a love story but an attempt on Brontë’s part to create equality between man and woman in a marriage. Before the final chapter of the novel which results in the courtship of the two, Jane demonstrates her belief that women should be entitled to same rights as men and not held to different standards. One of the prominent passages in Jane Eyre that exhibits this is in chapter twelve:
Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings….knitting stockings….playing on the piano….It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex. (Jane Eyre 93)
Charlotte Brontë was ahead of her time in this feminist display. It was viewed as ludicrous and even a form of insanity for a woman to believe she was entitled to equal rights and standards as a man. Fortunately Brontë was an intelligent woman in forming her pseudonymous name, Currer Bell, so Jane Eyre could be published because it might not have been if it was known to be written by a woman.
While the novel Jane Eyre ended with Jane personally addressing the reader with a joyful sense of accomplishment from a pleasing statement in the opening of the final chapter, “Reader, I married him,” (Jane Eyre 382), Charlotte Brontë’s own life continued in tragedy. Two years after the novel’s publication, Charlotte experienced the deaths of her older brother, Branwell, and her younger sisters Emily and Anne. Her family had begun with a mother, father, and six children and only a mere thirty-three years later only Charlotte and her father remained. Having faced the severity of death on too many occasions, she was left grieving which resulted in a noticed change in tone in her works written after 1849 (The Literature Network). Would Jane Eyre have been composed of the same heroine admired for her ability to overcome adversity if Charlotte wrote it during that time of misery and sorrow? That answer can never been obtained, but readers favorably are left with the work Brontë so skillfully formulated by mirroring Jane’s character with her own that was, and still is, praised. As author Elizabeth Gaskell was writing the biography of Charlotte Brontë that her father proposed, she received a letter from an American clergyman stating, “We have in our sacred of sacreds a special shelf, highly adorned, as a place we delight to honour, of novels with we recognise as having a good influence on character, our character. Foremost is ‘Jane Eyre’,” (Gaskell 398).
Benson, E.F. Charlotte Brontë. London, New York, Toronto: Longman's, Green and Co., 1932. Print.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York: Norton, 2000. Print.
"Charlotte Bronte - Biography and Works." The Literature Network: Online classic literature, poems, and quotes. Essays & Summaries. Web. 08 Dec. 2009. <http://www.online-literature.com/brontec/>.
Crompton, Margaret. Passionate Search: A Life of Charlotte Brontë. New York: David McKay Company, Inc., 1955. Print.
Gaskell, Elizabeth. Life of Charlotte Brontë. New York and London: Harper & Brothers Publisher, 1900. Print.
Harris, Laurie Lanzen. Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vol. 3 (Nineteenth Century Literature Criticism). Vol. 3. Belmont: Thomson Gale, 1983. Print.
Last updated on June 12, 2010
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