I’m not so much into comparing the work of siblings, but ever since they were first published in the 1840s, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre has been compared to her sister Emily’s Wuthering Heights. Critics did it at the time. Viriginia Woolf did it in her essay ‘Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights’ published in The Common Reader in 1916. And two years ago Guardian journalist Imogen Russell Williams did it in her article ‘How the Brontes divide humanity‘ when she asked ‘Are you a Jane Eyre or a Wuthering Heights person?’ And claimed that ‘In my experience, you can’t be both.’
Russell Williams was responding to a blog about memorable school reading by Alison Flood, who said that Jane Eyre ‘bored me’, but Wuthering Heights ‘really stands out in my memory’. This reminded Russell Williams ‘of my long-held pet theory about the Battle of the Brontes: everyone who’s read both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights is passionately devoted to one book but nose-holdingly repelled by the other.’ She calls Jane Eyre lovers Librarians and Wuthering Heights lovers Rock Stars. Russell Williams is a Librarian. Flood is a Rock Star. I am definitely a Rock Star. But I also love Jane Eyre.
Charlotte Bronte was just 20 years old when she wrote to the British poet laureate Robert Southey to ask his advice on her poetry. Remarkably, Southey replied to this young, unknown, provincial writer. But only to advise her that ‘Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life.’ Bronte assured Southey that she had ‘endeavoured not only attentively to observe all the duties a woman ought to fulfil, but to feel deeply interested in them. I don’t always succeed, for sometimes when I’m teaching or sewing I would rather be reading or writing; but I try to deny myself.’
The complex mix of audacity, determination, longing, submissive restraint and forbearance revealed by Bronte in this episode is painfully evident in the pages of Jane Eyre:
‘I could not help it: the restlessness was in my nature; it agitated me to pain sometimes. Then my sole relief was to … allow my mind’s eye to dwell on whatever bright visions arose before it … a tale my imagination created, and narrated continuously; quickened with all of incident, life, fire, feeling, that I desired and had not in my actual existence.’
Jane Eyre burns with the restless fire of contained desire. It opens with Jane, aged 10, seated by scarlet curtains, gazing out onto a wild and sombre winter’s afternoon. There is something about Jane that unsettles her aunt and three cousins with whom she lives. ‘I was a discord in Gateshead Hall: I was like nobody there,’ she confides to the Reader. On this fateful afternoon, her life is forever altered when, tormented by her cousin John, she fails in her habitual obedience. Soon after, she is sent from rural Gateshead Hall into the world, to boarding school, from where she eventually secures a post as governess at Thornfield Hall. The story of Jane’s passionate love for the master of Thornfield Hall, Edward Rochester, is one of the great love stories of fiction.
Jane narrates her own story. She directly addresses ‘the Reader’, recalling her innermost thoughts and feelings as she struggles through her teenage years to honour both her sense of duty and her own wild nature – for Jane shares not a little of Catherine Earnshaw’s moorland spirit. Bronte’s novel is remarkable for its innovative approach to narrative – told retrospectively by an adult Jane from her point of view as a child – and the intimacy, energy and intelligence this brings to Jane’s confessions.
Bronte’s writing is rich, compressed and dense, at times intimate and hushed, at others muscular and Gothic: ‘that blood-bleached robe with which Christianity covers human deformity’. Her observations are astute, such as Jane’s sense of the potential ruthlessness of religious zeal: ‘I felt how – if I were his wife, this good man, pure as the deep sunless source, could soon kill me, without drawing from my veins a single drop of blood, or receiving on his own crystal conscience the faintest stain of crime.’
Although Bronte had taken Southey’s advice by attempting to curb her writing ambition and turning her energies to teaching, circumstances conspired to reveal her talent to the world. Having been educated briefly at two boarding schools, Charlotte worked as a teacher and governess. She then decided, with sisters Emily and Anne, to open a school in Haworth, Yorkshire. With this in mind, Charlotte and Emily went to Brussels in 1842, where they studied French, German and school management.
Their teacher Constantin Heger recognised the sisters’ literary talent – and in turn it seems that Charlotte fell in love with the brilliant Heger, for when she returned to Yorkshire in 1844 she wrote him a series of passionate letters. Heger responded by tearing each letter to pieces. (Miraculously the letters survive to this day, their fragments stitched together by Heger’s suspicious wife.)
In 1844 the Bronte sisters advertised their school, but could attract no pupils to the distant Yorkshire village of Haworth. Then by chance the following year Charlotte discovered some poems written by Emily, which amazed her. Soon after she and Anne revealed their own secret writings and in 1846 the three Brontes published their collected poems. They presented their work to the public as Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, keeping their initials but choosing male pseudonyms for secrecy and to avoid the special treatment they believed was given to women writers. Only two copies of Poems sold, but the experience opened up a new world to the sisters and they began to send their novels to publishers.
Charlotte’s first novel, The Professor, was rejected. She then sent her second manuscript, Jane Eyre: An Autobiography, to Smith, Elder & Co. The first reader praised it so effusively that the publisher decided to find a more levelheaded judge. So he gave it to a sober Scotsman to read. But the sober Scotsman was so gripped by Bronte’s manuscript that he stayed up half the night to finish it. Less than 8 weeks later, in October 1847, Jane Eyre was published.
The first edition of Jane Eyre sold out in two months. When the second edition appeared in January 1848, dedicated to Charlotte’s hero William Makepeace Thackeray, controversy exploded on the streets of London. Little did Charlotte realise that, like Rochester’s first wife in Jane Eyre, Thackeray’s wife had gone mad and was kept in the attic. It was soon rumoured that ‘Currer Bell’ was once Thackeray’s governess and lover, although Charlotte did not in fact meet Thackeray until after the third edition of Jane Eyre was published.
More rumours circulated when Emily and Anne’s publisher claimed that Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell were one single author. To prove they were not, Charlotte and Anne travelled to London in July 1848, where they revealed to their astonished publishers their identity not as one man but three women.
Charlotte became a minor celebrity, but her fame and fortune were soon overshadowed by the death of her brother, Branwell, in September 1848, and her beloved sisters Emily and Anne within the next 8 months. In 1854, Charlotte married her father’s Irish curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, having turned down his proposal and three other offers of marriage. She was pregnant when she died the following year, aged 38.
Jane Eyre was written at a time of massive change – revolution in Europe and profound unrest in England – and women were beginning to challenge their social bounds. Jane’s internal rebellion against the restrictions placed on her as a woman of no independent means, her sexual longing and her passionate claim to be equal to Rochester before God were highly contentious in Bronte’s day.
As Elizabeth Rigby chastised in her review of Jane Eyre in Quarterly, December 1848, ‘the tone of mind and thought which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine abroad, and fostered Chartism and rebellion at home, is the same which has also written Jane Eyre’.
There have been at least 16 film versions of Jane Eyre, the most recent one in 2011 starring Mia Wasikowska as Jane and Michael Fassbinder as Rochester. The 1944 film starring Joan Fontaine as Jane and Orson Welles as Rochester was billed as ‘A Love Story Every Woman Would Die a Thousand Deaths to Live’.
An opera of Jane Eyre by English composer Michael Berkeley, with a libretto by Australian writer David Malouf, premiered in 2000.
Stay tuned for Wuthering Heights, up next.