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Jane Eyre and Elizabeth Taylor: real tales of orphans and Victorian children in London

Updated on January 17, 2013

Gone With The Wind

A rule; plot-in a broody, moody lad; a stern Heathcliff - Rochester character; a flawed secretive hero; one "mad, bad, and dangerous to know". Like James Steerforth; in Dickens's David Copperfield, or Rhett Butler; from Gone with the Wind.
A rule; plot-in a broody, moody lad; a stern Heathcliff - Rochester character; a flawed secretive hero; one "mad, bad, and dangerous to know". Like James Steerforth; in Dickens's David Copperfield, or Rhett Butler; from Gone with the Wind. | Source

Gone With The Wind on Video

Four rules for the successful writer

Last week I went to the latest Jane Eyre movie. I found the theatre full of educated women. Before the movie started, sounds of energetic cheerful conversation; of high anticipation.
The audience survived, with a guffaw, the final scene (a directors' bad call) where Jane kisses Rochester and submerges into his Taliban-beard.
A cackle of laughter the fomula: The credits began, and a different laughter rose - a cackle - across the hall; a hall-full of women (and two men). They laughed at themselves; at the satisfaction of the formula .
The Jane Eyre formula:
Jane Eyre's got the lot; a ting-a-ling of truth; a plucky protagonist with emotional reserve but deep feelings; orphans, horror, fear, ancient architecture, manor houses, inheritance, cruelty, loss, unrequited love, marriage proposals; servants, staircases, fireplaces, a strong, dark man, a weak, fair man, madness, and a mysterious person from Jamaica, locked in the attic.
We learn from the story of the writing of Jane Eyre , four rules for the successful writer;

  1. first - try, try and try again ;
  2. second - never, never, never, give up ;
  3. third - write what the market wants ; and
  4. avoid: "he said", and "she said"; aim to write dialogue like Charlotte Bronte; she had faith in the reader to work it out; (see dialogue examples, below).

Keep your work plain: Bronte described Jane Eyre as a "plain tale".

The five successful writers described here, wrote to make money, not for self-fulfillment.

Rochester and Jane's 1983 kiss

No sex, except just one magical kiss.
No sex, except just one magical kiss.

Plain Charlotte the governess; also known as Currer Bell, author of Jane Eyre

Write between the housework and old age care: Charlotte Bronte began to write Jane Eyre in a boarding house in Manchester while she nursed her father after an eye operation.
Write between the housework and old age care: Charlotte Bronte began to write Jane Eyre in a boarding house in Manchester while she nursed her father after an eye operation.

Misfortune and the need to make money helps to create great works:

A need for money motivates great works. For example, the pattern for five writers; Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens and William Thackeray, and Charlotte’s survivor-sisters, Emily and Anne; they all needed money.
They wrote to pay the bills:
The Brontes churned out the words amid constant loss, constraint and death.
We liked Jane, But did we like Becky?
Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre eclipsed her sister’s Wuthering Heights ' they followed a rule; a broody, moody lad appeared in both; a stern Heathcliff - Rochester character; a flawed secretive hero; one "mad, bad, and dangerous to know". Like James Steerforth in Dickens's David Copperfield , and Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell; a strong, mysterious, dominant bloke, with a dark history.
Thackeray over- mannered: By contrast, Thackeray's Becky in Vanity Fair reads like Gone With the Wind without Rhett Butler. We see why he called it "a novel without a hero".

A ting-a-ling of truth; a plucky protagonist and a dark hero

No sex, just one magical kiss: The five write of emotions, decision, loss; and consequence. With no sex, except usually one magical kiss.
Arrive at the treasure of self: They did not know it; the Bronte sisters wrote in the form of Bildungsroman; a journey through loss and growth to discovery, of the treasure of self.
Charlotte Bronte described her first published book - Jane Eyre - a “plain tale with few pretensions”.
Jane Eyre a runaway success by a mysterious author: Jane Eyre - published by George Murray Smith proved a runaway success. Smith - also publisher of the Cornhill Magazine - employed William Thackeray as magazine editor. Published in 1847 under the name Currer Bell, the book Jane Eyre appeared the year before William Thackeray’s popular Vanity Fair.
You may need a dark brooding alpha ape as a hero: Jane Eyre - a gothic romance - eclipsed Thackeray’s hero-less Vanity Fair.
Brontes wrote to a formula: Charlotte and her two sisters - in their books - used their handsome alcholic, opium-addicted sexually- proflicate brother, Branwell as a model. Branwell lost his job, for "proceedings bad, beyond expression". He died the next year, of TB; alcoholic and addicted to opium. They also used their father's pastor Arthur Bell Nicholl. In a happy ending - Charlotte Bronte married Arthur Bell Nicholl on 29th June 1854.

A beautiful orphan with violet eyes; a movie fantasy

Orphans scrubbed up well in the 1934 movie of Jane Eyre; here, Elizabeth Taylor, age 12 played Helen. Helen dies of TB as Jane Eyre sleeps next to her in the bed.
Orphans scrubbed up well in the 1934 movie of Jane Eyre; here, Elizabeth Taylor, age 12 played Helen. Helen dies of TB as Jane Eyre sleeps next to her in the bed. | Source

The theme for Jane Eyre - the female orphan

Victorian England hosted a high population of orphans. No contraception, no social welfare, no rules about child labour; and a partnered woman could produce - and many did - 10 to 20 children.
Death from Typhoid and Tuberculosis came often:
All the six Bronte siblings died of Typhoid or Tuberculosis before the age of 39. None produced children.
Like HIV in Africa, the death of parents creates unsupported orphans. One child in five born alive in Victorian England - the 1830s and 1840s - died by the age of five. One third of all deaths of were recorded as TB. Life expectancy was between 30 and 40. To add to the stress on women; a male-lineage inheritance culture required high control of women's fertility and free labor. For example, in the case of the Brontes; even after Charlotte passed 35, her father banned her from marrying. By that time she had money, and he thought men were after her money. Also he would lose a housekeeper; the sole survivor of her siblings. So her sad theme spoke a truth. As did Dicken's tales of orphans, work house, debt and inheritance; at the same time.
Deadlines help: Dickens also wrote to make money, most of his books, first published as serials for newspapers.
Thackeray a mere fashion-statement: Thackeray competed with Dickens and the Brontes. But his works lacked the heart, and depth of Jane Eyre in and Charles Dickens of their dark tales of an underworld of death and despair; in a legal system which enslaved women and children.

Real orphans of London

 Jane Eyre's theme came from this verse: "Why did they send me so far and so lonely, Up where the moors spread and grey rocks are piled? Men are hard-hearted, and kind angels only Watch o'er the steps of a poor orphan child".
Jane Eyre's theme came from this verse: "Why did they send me so far and so lonely, Up where the moors spread and grey rocks are piled? Men are hard-hearted, and kind angels only Watch o'er the steps of a poor orphan child".

What writers’ rules did those successful writers follow?

The six now all long gone; the books they published, live on.
What writers’ rules did these successful writers follow?

  1. first, they all wrote to survive, not for self-fulfillment; and
  2. second, all six studied the market; and wrote for the needs of a market.

Orphans in Victorian England

Try, try and try again

Try, try and try again: The sisters:

  • lived in the limited world; a patriarchal society;
  • worked as teachers;
  • worked as governesses, around Yorkshire;
  • tried and failed to start a school (no pupils enrolled); and then:
  • set out to make money as writers.
  • they first published a joint book of poems; (it sold only two copies);
  • they moved to novels; publishers accepted - by mail - Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
  • Death, death and more death a part of life: Charlotte Bronte’s four sisters and one brother died of TB; none married. Jane Eyre described - with romantic arabesques - the sad stories of the world of her and her sisters; the story of the life of the educated middle class woman in England in the time of Victoria; the options; marriage, to teach, work as a governess.
    Charlotte's four sisters died young, single, childless. Their brother, Branwell - the only boy of the family; had five single sisters - if they did not marry, they must rely on Branwell to use his male work-world privileges to provide an income. Their mother died; an aunt came to help; she died too; their father declined towards old age. The weight proved too much for Bramwell.
    Brother Branwell dies, disgraced: Then, brother Branwell died disgraced; he failed in steps; as a portrait painter; he then took a job as clerk-in-charge on the Leeds-Manchester railway; and lost that, due to sins deemed too large, to describe. Someone had to make some money.

Oliver Twist - Like Jane Eyre a must-read classic

This author wrote only one book. And a good one, too

Try for 10,000 hours

For 10,000 hours: Years of long practice sharpened their skills; and that practice - the 10,000 hours - appears statistically in many works of genius.
Tales of 10,000 hours:
Maria Curie, for example: Marie Curie's father ran a mathematics school for boys. Curie listened and learned; and went on to discover a new element in the table of elements. She lived in extreme poverty as she studied. She gained her grounding at the family mathematics school.
Mozart, as a baby slept in a basket under the harpsichord: He had his 10,000 hours of training by the age of four.
Self-published tales give the Brontes their 10,000 hours: In a little village on the oceanic moors, the Bronte sisters, poor - but wealthy compared with their neighbours - lived in the manse, and made their own fun. The family entertained each other with self-published tales, as soon as they could write. But the family in the end, died one-by-one of TB; then, an untreatable contagious disease. They left a legacy; each of the sisters published a successful novel before the age of 30.

Bronte’s chick-lit romance came with a hero; a plucky orphan; a female Oliver Twist and a happy ending

Bronte described Jane Eyre as a plain tale. The character Jane Eyre - a person of plain appearance; wore the dark Quaker-like garb of the poor, the invisible, the service-person; one not a servant nor a ruler. An observer. A person in the middle. A non-person. A good place to hide a novel-writer.
Bitter ink: Bronte wrote with darker, more bitter and with more believable ink than Thackeray.
Like Dickens in Oliver Twist, Bronte drove Jane Eyre through fields of bitter herbs. Jane Eyre's curly journey stopped at all the stations of loss; and arrives at an inheritance, a happy ending; love ever after. Sort of.
Happy ever after: A happy ending makes commercial sense. But happy endings did not match the Brontes's reality. All her sisters died of TB: as did Helen In Jane Eyre. Charlotte herself died after one year of marriage.

Charlotte Bronte wrote better than Thackeray

But for all her adulation - Bronte wrote better than Thackeray. Yet, Charlotte Bronte called Thackeray "the legitimate high priest of Truth", for his Vanity Fair. Thackeray dashed-stuff-off - like Dickens - he wrote Vanity Fair, at high speed as a serial, to pay his debts. Thackeray subtitled Vanity Fair as a “a novel without a hero" a novel of the city; of aspiration under the press of social class.
Charlotte Bronte shocked by Thackeray’s hero-less novel: Charlotte Bronte more of a country girl, dedicated her second edition of Jane Eyre to Thackeray. She argued her own poor work - Jane Eyre - bore "the same relation to his serious genius that the mere lambent sheet-lightning playing under the edge of the summer- cloud does to the electric death-spark hid in its womb.
Red faced over Victorian chick-lit: It appeared she aspired to a hero-less novel; to high literacy, to move outside a populist romance formula. But it did her no good. Publication of three novels followed; each one short of needed bad-boy alpha-ape; none reached the sales success of Jane Eyre.
Her work more accessible than Thackeray: Charlotte Bronte's measured consideration, implied skills of her sisters as manuscript editors.
Thackeray for example used "he said.. she said". Charlotte Bronte gains a cleaner effect; her dialogue assumes the reader knows who said what. And the reader knows. Thackeray in short, appears by contrast, too mannered; too writerly.
Thackeray lost money in a financial crash: Thackeray's serialization of Vanity Fair restored his financial balance, and established Thackeray's literary reputation. Before Vanity Fair, he wrote the funny bits for Punch magazine. He followed the rule; gentlemen do not write for money; but, to amuse. From trough of a recession Thackeray turned to trade; he wrote to survive.
Charlotte later met Thackeray - they had the same publisher. But she did not like him in person; after that encounter she wanted little to do with him. The adulation ceased. She made no more dedications to Thackeray.
Charlotte and her sisters used male names: Charlotte and her sisters used male names to gain authority to publish. Charlotte used the name Currer, and also the name Bell. The three sisters used the names Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. The name Bell shows an easy provenance; Reverend Allan Bell, headmaster of the Royal Free School, Banagher. He had adopted a son - Bronte's neighbour; a dark brooding type. That adopted son occupied the role of pastor to the Bronte sister's father, Arthur Bell Nicholls. Charlotte Bronte married Arthur Bell Nicholls on 29th June 1854. The further connection was Arthur Bell Nicholls boarded at the home of the village sexton. The sexton's daughter worked as servant in the Bronte home.

Oliver Twist on Video

Photography of Victorian England

Books on the history of the Governess in Victorian England

Jane Eyre 1944 with Elizabeth Taylor as Helen

jane Eyre the Movie

Dialogue examples

Charlotte Bronte trusts the reader to understand who speaks, in sequence:

I stood face to face with him; it was Mr. Rochester.

“How do you do?” he asked.

“I am, very well, sir.”

“Why did you not come and speak to me in the room?”

I thought I might have retorted the question on him who put it; but I would not take that freedom. I answered, “I did not wish to disturb you, as you seemed engaged, sir.”

“What have you been doing during my absence?”

“Nothing particular; teaching Adele as usual.”

“And getting a good deal paler than you were—as I saw at first sight. What is the matter?”

“Nothing at all, sir.”


Some less plain dialogue from Thackeray; In Thackeray's Vanity Fair we see the scene as if with film script directions. In Jane Eyre, we feel it from Jane's point of view

A chariot was in waiting with four horses; likewise a coach of the kind called glass coaches. Only a very few idlers were collected on account of the dismal rain.

"Hang it!" said George, "I said only a pair."

"My master would have four," said Mr. Joseph Sedley's servant, who was in waiting; and he and Mr. Osborne's man agreed as they followed George and William into the church, that it was a "reg'lar shabby turn hout; and with scarce so much as a breakfast or a wedding favour."

"Here you are," said our old friend, Jos Sedley, coming forward. "You're five minutes late, George, my boy. What a day, eh? Demmy, it's like the commencement of the rainy season in Bengal. But you'll find my carriage is watertight. Come along, my mother and Emmy are in the vestry."


Dialogue between Jane and Helen, as Helen prepares to die

"I believe; I have faith: I am going to God."

"Where is God? What is God?"

"My Maker and yours, who will never destroy what He created. I rely implicitly on His power, and confide wholly in His goodness: I count the hours till that eventful one arrives which shall restore me to Him, reveal Him to me."

"You are sure, then, Helen, that there is such a place as heaven, and that our souls can get to it when we die?"

"I am sure there is a future state; I believe God is good; I can resign my immortal part to Him without any misgiving. God is my father; God is my friend: I love Him; I believe He loves me."

"And shall I see you again, Helen, when I die?"

"You will come to the same region of happiness: be received by the same mighty, universal Parent, no doubt, dear Jane."

Again I questioned, but this time only in thought. "Where is that region? Does it exist?" And I clasped my arms closer round Helen; she seemed dearer to me than ever; I felt as if I could not let her go; I lay with my face hidden on her neck.

Presently she said, in the sweetest tone-- "How comfortable I am! That last fit of coughing has tired me a little; I feel as if I could sleep: but don't leave me, Jane; I like to have you near me." "I'll stay with you, _dear_ Helen: no one shall take me away."

"Are you warm, darling?" "Yes."

"Good-night, Jane."

"Good-night, Helen." She kissed me, and I her, and we both soon slumbered.

When I awoke it was day: an unusual movement roused me; I looked up; I was in somebody's arms; the nurse held me; she was carrying me through the passage back to the dormitory. I was not reprimanded for leaving my bed; people had something else to think about; no explanation was afforded then to my many questions; but a day or two afterwards I learned that Miss Temple, on returning to her own room at dawn, had found me laid in the little crib; my face against Helen Burns's shoulder, my arms round her neck. I was asleep, and Helen was--dead.

Her grave is in Brocklebridge churchyard: for fifteen years after her death it was only covered by a grassy mound; but now a grey marble tablet marks the spot, inscribed with her name, and the word "Resurgam."

Below a bit of the 1934 film version: With Orson Welles as Mr Rochester and 12-year old Elizabeth Taylor as Helen; in this story, Helen dies from TB, as did author Charlotte Bronte's four sisters and one brother.


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    • claudiafox profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      Thanks, EnLydia Listener for your comment.

      When Charlotte Bronte wrote Jane Eyre, death from T.B. seemed a common affair; as she and all her sisters died young of T.B.

      So even young children needed a philosophy about death and dying; Jane Eyre gave that to us: "I believe; I have faith: I am going to God".

    • Enlydia Listener profile image

      Enlydia Listener 

      6 years ago from trailer in the country

      Wow, that brought back memories...thanks for sharing that scene with Helen and of my favorite books. This was well written and well researched.


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