A Year of Feminist Classics

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Introduction to Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

I cannot wait to read and discuss Jane Eyre with all of you. I know this is a book that many love, but also one that some people have major issues with. Personally, I fall into the former category. I read Jane Eyre in high school, but it was a little too spooky for me. Almost two years ago, I became slightly obsessed with the book, and reread it a number of times, during a few months of studying abroad. I am a little nervous, but also very excited, to pick it up again for this project.

Charlotte Brontë, by George Richmond, 1850.

Charlotte Brontë

Charlotte Brontë was born on 21 April 1816 in Thornton, Yorkshire. She was the third of six children, all of whom were girls except Branwell, who was born in 1817. In 1820, the family moved to Haworth village, the village where the Brontës would write most of their novels. In 1824, Charlotte went to a Clergy Daughters School at Cowan Bridge in Lancashire, together with her older sisters Maria and and Elizabeth, as well as her younger sister Emily (who we know for her novel Wuthering Heights). Maria and Elizabeth died at school, leaving Charlotte the eldest child of the Brontë family. The circumstances and Charlotte’s experiences at school were to serve as inspiration for Lowood school in Jane Eyre.

Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne (the latter known for her two novels Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall) started making up stories about fictional kingdoms at a young age. Branwell and Charlotte wrote about a kingdom called Angria, while Emily and Anne wrote about Gondal. Some of these stories still exist, though (I think?) they are believed to have been heavily edited (and several stories thrown away) by Charlotte.

Charlotte and Emily enrolled in a boarding school in Brussels in 1842, but their stay was cut short when their aunt died. Charlotte returned to the boarding school to teach. During her stay she felt lonely and isolated, and became attached to Constantin Heger, who ran the school together with his wife. Her attachment provided inspiration for Charlotte’s novels The Professor (written before Jane Eyre, but published posthumously) and Vilette.

Jane Eyre was written while watching over her father’s operation on his eyes. It was published in May 1846, and was very succesful, even though there was also criticism that her writing was coarse, doubts about the gender of the author, as well as questions about the morality of the novel, to which Charlotte responded with a preface to the second edition of the novel, in which she refutes the attacks on her views of morality and religion.

Jane Eyre was published under the pen name Currer Bell. The fact that Charlotte and her sisters all used pseudonyms when they published their work may in itself be an interesting starting point for the discussion of gender, as their pen names were meant to disguise their gender but retain their initials (C.B. for Currer Bell and Charlotte Brontë).

After the publication of Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë kept writing. First, she worked on Shirley (published in 1849). However, before publication she suffered the loss of both her brother and her two other sisters. Her third novel, Vilette, was published in 1853.

Charlotte married her father’s curate Arthur Bell Nichols in 1854. While pregnant, she became ill, and both she and her unborn child died on 31 March 1855. Charlotte’s father and Elizabeth Gaskell, with whom Charlotte became friends from 1850 onwards, subsequently worked together to write a biography of Charlotte Brontë.

Further reading:

If you would like to know more about Charlotte Brontë and her sisters (I am in no manner an expert on her or her sisters!), I would recommend the fictional account of their lives written by Jude Morgan: The Taste of Sorrow. Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography might be interesting, but I have heard that it is very much a sanctification of her life. I have been recommended The Brontës by Juliet Barker as a good biography, as well as The Brontë Myth by Lucasta Miller as a cultural history of the Brontës as cultural icons.

Jane Eyre

I hardly think it is necessary to introduce Jane Eyre, but in short it is the story of Jane Eyre, and her growth to adulthood. Jane is an orphan who grows up with her aunt and cousins, is subsequently sent away to Lowood school where she experiences the harsh regime that religion can provide (according to Charlotte Brontë, this is not true Christianity), but also finds her first and only friend, Helen Burns. When Jane Eyre finishes her education, she becomes a governess at Thornfield Hall, where she falls in love with her employer, Mr. Rochester…

Jane Eyre is available in many versions, in print and online. I will be reading the Oxford World’s classics version, with an introduction by Sally Shuttleworth. I think it would be interesting to compare notes on what the introductions of different versions might tell us about feminism in Jane Eyre. The novel is also available in the public domain, for example here on Project Gutenberg, and here on girlebooks.

Reading Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre can be read as an enjoyable love story (also as a creepy one), but also has a lot to say on the topics of feminism, religion, schooling, etcetera (I know I will have a hard time not being distracted by the love story and the topic of religion myself, eek).  When it comes to feminism, the story of the girl Jane Eyre is interesting, but I also think it would be interesting to look at the portrayal of other women in the story. The former will provide more than enough to discuss, but I think in comparison with Wide Sargasso Sea, the whole cast of female characters will be interesting to look at.

As I mentioned in my post yesterday, I hope you will feel free to look at the text in any way you want. I look forward to sharing thoughts! Discussion questions will be posted somewhere closer to the middle of March. Feel free to comment or email with suggestions [email: irisonbooks (at) gmail (dot) com].

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13 responses to “Introduction to Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

  1. SilverSeason May 4, 2012 at 8:25 pm

    I cannot agree about the Gaskell biography of Charlotte Bronte. Gaskell was the more established author, and the two women became acquainted after the success of Jane Eyre. They visited each other’s homes and had much in common. For example, both were the daughters of ministers, well educated for their day, and (ultimately) married to ministers. After Bronte died, Gaskell got the support of the family to interview people and use the family letters. She soft-pedals the problems with Bronte’s brother and obscures the Brussels attachment, but the voice of Charlotte Bronte can be heard in her book, especially in the quotations from the letters. Gaskell’s book is not as romanticized as some later biographies written by people who do not understand the position of women in mid 1th century England.

  2. Kay Clarke May 4, 2012 at 10:44 pm

    Fantastic book to read – just reread it again before knowing it was chosen. My first copy of Jane Eyre had a preface by a Professor from Monash University in Melbourne. It discussed in detail the influence of the Aunt’s Methodism on the writings of Charlotte Bronte. Having been raised as a Methodist I find the influence of this religion is very much to the fore in this book and indeed her other books. Jane’s (Charlotte’s) attempts to suppress her passionate nature, but also her independence of spirit and her actions, are for me consistent with her religious upbringing with its emphasis on personal thought and beliefs rather than following set “church” dogma. I believe her religious beliefs contribute to making her one of the first feminist novelists in the English language.

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  5. A Year of Reading My Own Books Blog May 26, 2012 at 3:11 pm

    Thank you for suggesting Jane Eyre, I loved it! As I wrote in my post at http://yearofreadingmybooks.wordpress.com/2012/05/25/madness-death-and-poetry-charlotte-brontes-jane-eyre-hennezels-the-art-of-growing-old-kumins-always-beginning/ I’d read it many times as a child, but in abridged form that left out a lot of the feminist elements. In full form, I was amazed at how powerful and feminist it is. Now, on to Jean Rhys! Ruby

  6. Pingback: Jane Eyre: Choices « Silver Threads

  7. SilverSeason May 28, 2012 at 12:49 am

    I have read Jane Eyre many times and still find it compelling. The feminist heart of the book for me is Jane Eyre’s belief in her power to choose for herself: http://silverseason.wordpress.com/2012/05/27/jane-eyre-choices-2/.

    • Anil khan September 28, 2013 at 8:01 am

      i agree your view about Jane Eyre novel , but she also very good and nice because that time was not for a simple female without in society a good position , so in the end i want to say that she was perfectly right ……… she was belong only a middle family but in the novel character Jane protest the tradition and male society
      In the beginning time if a man became a reader so a revolution begin time to time so Bronte that time began a small and simple ,she started write in male dominated society after her feminism became strong and she became a good example for other women ……..
      so first is important in the world it is not matter it is small ,it is important she began .

      by ,,,,,,,,,,,
      Anil khan
      Panjab University

  8. pontalba May 28, 2012 at 2:49 am

    I believe I was about 9, or possibly 10 the first time I read my mother’s copy of Jane Eyre. Her copy is still my first love, although I have at least 3 others. Hers has a Introduction by Leonard S. Davidow, Reading, Pa. 1937.

    I’ve lost count of my rereadings throughout my teens and twenties into my 40’s. Only last year after that last film of it came out (shudder), did I reread it once again. I suppose it had been 20 years since the last rereading. It has meant different things to me at different ages. Of course the romantic youngster in me thrilled to the forbidden passion aspect, and the eventual marriage of Jane and Edward. Funny how many, probably most people refer to Edward only as Rochester, I know it’s prominent in the book, but still, he was Jane’s Edward.

    I didn’t think of it as “feminist” back then, I only saw the hurt that was inflicted upon Jane by a hateful society that had complete control over her fate. I loved the way she fought back and refused to be trodden down into the dirt by those that were so truly inferior to herself. I think of Jane as ultimately one of the fairest minded persons, with the most wonderful and powerful sense of right and wrong I’ve encountered in fiction. Her Christian conscience driven decisions were fair to all, excepting herself. She reckoned she was strong enough to bear the personal burdens she put upon herself.

    Anyhow, enough rambling. 🙂 Glad this is being discussed.

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