Charlotte Bronte and her novel "Jane Eyre": a review
- Wide Sargasso Sea -- Jean Rhys' prequel to the novel Jane Eyre
This novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, written by Jean Rhys, is a prequel to Charlotte Bronte's 1847 famous novel, Jane Eyre. I had read Charlotte Bronte's novel many years ago, but just recently got around to reading Jean Rhys' postcolonial parallel novel..
1816 - 1855
Charlotte Bronte was the eldest of the three famed Bronte sisters that lived during the Victorian Era in England in the early 19th century.
All three women wrote definitive novels during their lifetimes, each with the message about women's role among men in Victorian times and the difficulties they faced in their working and personal relationships with them.
It is Charlotte Bronte's novel, Jane Eyre, that was a critical and acclaimed success at the time of publication in 1847. Critics exclaimed the style of the novel as new, combining naturalism with gothic melodrama.
Jane Eyre was a novel written from an intensely first-person female point of view, and this was the first time this had ever been done. Many have come to consider the novel to be ahead of its time because of the individualistic character of Jane and the open expression of her feelings and thoughts throughout the novel.
Bronte used Gothicism with Romanticism to create a distinctive Victorian novel. It logs the many obstacles both social and moral to Jane's and Rochester's love. Many of the settings come from Gothic fiction. Thornfield Manor, where Jane becomes the governess to Rochester's ward, Adele, is dark, mysterious, and secretive. There is the Byronic hero and master of Thornfield in Rochester's character. The novel also offers the character of Bertha, the madwoman locked away in the attic, and this is one of the main Gothic elements in the story and the center of Jane's inner conflict.
The character of Rochester is a dashing, brooding, moody Byronic hero. The Byronic hero was already common in early Victorian literature and was based on the Romantic hero type of character, and was named after the English Romantic poet Lord Byron. The Byronic hero was described as a man who has his faults and is proud, moody, cynical, with defiance and misery in his heart. He scorns society around him, suffers no fools, will not hesitate to seek revenge and yet at the same time he is capable of deep and strong affection. Charlotte Bronte wrote her character of Rochester in this vein. And strong-willed and outspoken Jane falls in love with such a man - Edward Rochester, master of Thornfield Manor.
Charlotte Bronte believed that to write a novel it was best for the author to write from some kind of experience. So she took her experiences of attending and working at boarding schools and as a governess for five years with nearby families and used these experiences in the novel which gave it universal appeal.
So from her experiences as a governess she knows the emotions and feelings that Jane would have working with an employer such as Edward Rochester, and was able to transfer those feelings to her character Jane.
The novel covers Jane's life from a child of about nine or ten, orphaned, and living with her deceased uncle's family, at Gateshead. They see Jane as an imposition and abuse, ignore and neglect Jane until she cries out one day that she wants to go to school. At that point she is sent to Lowood, a charitable institution, where she learns the Puritan values of a certain clergyman, Mr. Brocklehurst, who runs the school.
Upon graduation, Jane seeks employement as a governess and is hired by a Mrs. Fairfax, housekeeper, at Thornton Manor, to teach the a small girl, Adele, the ward of the master, Edward Rochester. Here Jane works as a governess, while at the same time, falling in love with Rochester, some twenty years her senior.
Rochester also falls in love with Jane, though there are impediments to their future together, but he does propose marriage to her and she accepts. Jane, while standing on the altar, learns of Rochester's first living wife who is mad and has been locked in the attic at Thornton Manor for some time.
Agast, that Rochester would commit bigamy with her, Jane leaves Thornton Manor and walks miles and miles to look for other employement. During a rainstorm she collapes on the doorstep of St. John Rivers and his two sisters who take her in, nurse her to health and try to help her organize her future. St. John Rivers also proposes marriage to Jane, but it is a loveless, dispassionate marriage that he proposes. Jane refuses and returns to Thornton Manor.
When Jane arrives at Thornton Manor, she discovers that it has been destroyed by fire, Rochester has been disabled by the fire and his first wife has died in the fire. Jane finally can now marry Rochester.
Rochester proposes to Jane
Important themes in Jane Eyre
Charlotte Bronte looks at social class and social position of women through her main character, Jane, in her novel. The social class and social position of Jane is quite ambiguous. She is a penniless orphan, yet she is moderately educated and originally from a good family. Jane is educated, and well-mannered, but she is still a governess, a paid servant of low social standing and therefore relatively powerless in 19th century English Victorian society. Bronte is criticizing discrimination based on class, which I am sure she experienced as a real life governess.
Bronte also gives a description of a patriarchal society that Jane is up against. Jane attempts to assert her own identity within a male dominated society. The characters Brockhurst, Rochester, and Rivers are all men who try to keep Jane in a subordinate position and try to prevent her from expressing her own thoughts and feelings.
Brockhurst harasses and punishes Jane throughout her stay at Lowood and then expects her to want to stay on and teach there in adult life. Of course, Jane refuses. Rochester, although he truly loves Jane, sees himself as her master and orders her around and demands her time and attention. He goes so far as to try to marry her, committing bigamy, and thinking nothing of the outcome for Jane had the marriage ceremony been completed. And Rivers offers a loveless, dispassionate marriage to Jane, wanting her only as a helpmate for his missionary work in India and then is stunned when she refuses his offer.
Jane is strong and confident enough as a woman to escape Brocklhurst, reject Rivers and only marries Rochester in the end when she is sure they are marrying on equal terms.
Bronte also looks at love and passion between a man and a woman, but much differently than her sister Emily did in Wuthering Heights. Here there is a conflict between conscience and passion. Jane's quandry and inner conflict is whether to go with conscience or passion and how to find a balance between the two in life. Jane is an extremely passionate woman yet also dedicated to a close personal relationship with God. Through most of the novel, Jane is struggling between the two extremes.
Jane choses conscience over passion when she learns Rochester already has a wife, albeit a mad one locked in the attic of Thornfield Manor. Rochester begs her to run away with him and be his mistresss/ lover, but she refuses. No matter how swept up Jane is in her love for Rochester, at the moment of the wedding ceremony, which is where and when she finds out about Rochester's mad wife when the marriage is contested by Bertha's brother, Jane turns to her conscience for guidance and refuses Rochester.
Jane struggles to find a balance between conscience and passion when she learns that all passion she has been feeling at Thornfield Manor for Rochester and all conscience that she lived at Lowood are not good. There has to be a balance of the two in life, and Jane struggles to find a middle ground between her passionate side and her conscience. Jane will not allow herself to give up her moral and religious principles.
Another important theme that Charlotte Bronte examines in her novel is feminism. Jane is independent and confident and is able to make decisions for herself. All the men in her life try to exert some form of power and control over her life. We read and feel for Jane as she winds through the maze of men's power and direction over her.
Rochester tries to manipulate her feelings toward him and even though Jane is caught up in her love for him, elements of her true personality and conscience come through. When Jane accepts his proposal of marriage the first time, she asserts herself by telling Rochester she will continue to be governess to Adele and earn her keep. This represents Jane's drive to remain a somewhat independent woman. This was a radical and unheard of thought at the time.
Jane continues to exert her indpendence as a woman when she refuses Rivers dispassionate marriage proposal. She realizes that to be truly independent and free, she must find passionate love combined with conscience and so she returns to Thornfield Manor to find Rochester and discovers the manor has been destroyed by fire and Bertha has died in that fire.
Rochester can only be forgiven for his past sins after Jane refuses to be his mistress and leaves him. It is only the destruction of Thornfield Manor by fire that finally burns away the stain of his past sins and the loss of his left hand and his eyesight represent the price he must pay for his sins. Only now, can he be redeemed by Jane's love and their marriage on an equal basis.
Final scene from Jane Eyre
Bronte's later life
When Jane Eyre was published, sales of the novel were strong and it became a literary and commercial success. It was well received by the critics and Charlotte became the toast of London literary society. At the time, critics called it an influencial feminist novel because of its in-depth exploration of Jane, a strong female character with feelings. Her publisher persuaded Charlotte to visit London and she made friends there within literary circles. Such success did not come to Emily nor Anne, and it was not until far after their deaths that their novels also became critically acclaimed.
After Jane Eyre, Charlotte published several more novels;
- Shirley published in 1849
- Villette published in 1853
- The Professor, actually written before Jane Eyre but published posthumously in 1857
- Emma, actually unfinished. It was completed by Constance Savery and published posthumously in 1860.
Charlotte continued living and writing at Haworth, making short trips to London from time to time as she did not want to leave her aging father. In June of 1854, Charlotte and Arthur Bell Nichols, a curate who worked with her father, were married. She was the only Bronte sister to marry and they honeymooned in Ireland.
Charlotte became pregnant soon after the marriage, but her health declined rapidly. She died with her unborn child in March of 1855, from tuberculosis, which had taken all the Bronte children. She was only thirty-eight years old.