The second Brontë novel in my Reading the Classics series is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. A romance yet a romance with a difference, Jane Eyre is a novel that will remain with you long after reading it.
The first book in my Reading the Classics series was Wuthering Heights. This was a book I simply adored! Emily Brontë’s only novel, Wuthering Heights is a Victorian Gothic masterpiece! Feeling the need for more Brontë, I turned to Emily’s sister, Charlotte and decided to read her classic, Jane Eyre.
A Little Bit About The Author
Charlotte was born in Thornton, near Bradford in 1816. Her father was a poor clergyman. After the death of her mother, Charlotte, along with her sisters, Emily (author of Wuthering Heights) Maria and Elizabeth attended a boarding school – ‘The Clergy Daughter’s School’ in Lancashire. Charlotte was able to draw upon her schooling experiences for the novel.
Lowood is the school featured in the novel Jane Eyre. The children are treated cruelly; they are insufficiently fed, live in cold condition and unfairly punished. The school was exposed for its cruelty to the pupils through the novel Jane Eyre.
Two of Charlotte’s sisters, Maria and Elizabeth died at The Clergy Daughter’s School during a tuberculosis epidemic which hit the school hard. A similar epidemic hits Lowood and Jane loses a dear friend, Helen to the disease. The character Helen was based upon Charlotte’s sister, Maria. Throughout her life, Charlotte spoke out against the cruelty of The Clergy Daughter’s School and openly declared that Lowood was based upon her own schooling experiences. She openly proclaimed that the premature deaths of her sisters could have been prevented had they received better treatment at school.
From 1839, Charlotte worked as a Governess, another experience she was able to draw upon in her creation of Jane Eyre. This occupation eventually took Charlotte to Brussels.
Charlotte’s Publishing Career Begins
Returning to England, Charlotte along with her sisters Anne and Emily published a collection of poems in 1846. These poems were written by the sisters although published under the names of Currer (Charlotte) Ellis (Emily) and Acton (Anne) Bell. The sisters had to assume these publication names for it was unsuitable for women to publish written works at this time.
The following year, Jane Eyre was published and was a huge success. However, tragedy struck the Brontë family shortly afterwards. In 1848, Charlotte lost her brother, Bramwell. The death of her sister, Emily occurred 3 months later. Anne then passed away in May 1849.
Charlotte married Arthur Bell Nicholls in 1854 and the marriage appears to have been a happy one. Sadly, their happiness was short-lived for Charlotte died along with her unborn child in March 1855. She was only 38 years old.
Jane Eyre By Charlotte Brontë
I was pleasantly surprised to find literary similarities between Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. The sisters had clearly developed a particular style of writing which enables the reader to visualise exactly what the authors are trying to convey through the pages. The plot thickens as the stories develop and each chapter ends with the reader in utter suspense.
The novel is written from the perspective of the leading character, Jane Eyre as a sort of autobiography. The story follows the life of Jane, an orphan as she progresses through life. The novel opens with a 10-year-old Jane who lives with an Aunt who has undertaken responsibility for her upbringing. However, all is not well within the home. Jane is the victim of a cruel tyrannical Aunt who cares little for the emotional wellbeing of her ward.
Subsequently, Jane is sent to a boarding school, Lowood, where she spends the remainder of her childhood. After obtaining a good education she seeks employment as a governess. She finds herself a job at Thornfield Manor. The master of the house is Mr Rochester, an odd sarcastic character who has taken into his care a French orphan girl, Adele.
As Jane educates the little Adele, Jane undergoes an education of her own, an education in love. Jane longs more than anything to find love in all senses of the word and a family to belong to.
Will she find what she seeks on the home of Mr Rochester! Can she find happiness at Thornfield?
We follow the trials and tribulations of the young, educated and intelligent Jane as she finds her place in the world. It is a tale of love, woe and adventure!
After reading the novel, I was not surprised to learn that Patrick, the father of the Bronte sisters was a Curate. Christianity is a prevalent theme of the novel. Jane’s faith is tested and explored at various points throughout the text. And also the Christian morals of other key characters are questioned.
This novel is, in essence, a love story, but love can take many different forms. Jane seeks romantic love but, as an orphan, she also wants to find a place she belongs to. A family. And to receive unconditional love, and importantly, acceptance from her kin.
Class and Gender
Jane Eyre is in some ways a product of her time. She is to conform to a patriarchal society. However, through Jane, Brontë challenges some of the feminine stereotypes of her time. And so we could consider gender to be a theme of the text. Passages like this one demonstrate that Bronte was questioning the subservient position of Victorian women:
“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, to 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 and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. 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.”
Through Jane, Brontë explores the rigid class system of early nineteenth-century England. This class system separated rich from poor and the gulf between the two was incredibly wide. People were expected to ‘know their place’. The character Blanche Ingram is particularly useful in this respect. She embodies all the snobbery and refinery expected of a nineteenth-century socialite. On the prowl for a wealthy husband, she treats her social inferiors with bitter contempt. Unsurprisingly, Jane finds friendship and warmth in persons from the lower social orders.
A Recommended Read
Jane Eyre is such a classic novel, it simply must be on your reading list if you haven’t read it already, It has all the ingredients of a great novel – love, betrayal and drama. The book will leave you on the edge of your seat. Importantly, Brontë was drawing upon her own life experiences and her personal experiences really bring the novel to life.
The home of the Brontë Sisters is now a thriving museum and is open to the public. Look out for our forthcoming visit to this historic home!