Charlotte Bronte, 1847
Orphaned at an early age, Jane Eyre leads a lonely life until she finds work as a governess at Thornfield Hall, where she meets the mysterious Mr. Rochester and sees a ghostly woman who roams the halls by night.
This is a story of passionate love, travail and final triumph. The relationship between the heroine and Mr. Rochester is only one episode, albeit the most important, in a detailed fictional autobiography in which the author transmuted her own experience into high art.
In this work the plucky heroine is outwardly of plain appearance, but possesses an indomitable spirit, a sharp wit and great courage. She is forced to battle against the exigencies of a cruel guardian, a harsh employer and a rigid social order which circumscribes her life and position. (From Simon & Schusters Collector's Series.)
• Birth—April 21, 1816
• Where—Thornton, Yorkshire, England
• Death—March 31, 1855
• Where—Haworth, West Yorkshire, England
• Education—Clergy Daughters' School at Cowan Bridge in
Lancashire; Miss Wooler's School at Roe Head; Pensionnat
Heger (Belgium, to study French and German)
Bronte was born on April 21, 1816, in Thornton, Yorkshire, in the north of England, the third child of the Reverend Patrick Bronte and Maria Branwell Bronte. In 1820 the family moved to neighboring Haworth, where Reverend Brontë was offered a lifetime curacy. The following year Mrs. Brontë died of cancer, and her sister, Elizabeth Branwell, moved in to help raise the six children.
The four eldest sisters—Charlotte, Emily, Maria, and Elizabeth—attended Cowan Bridge School, until Maria and Elizabeth contracted what was probably tuberculosis and died within months of each other, at which point Charlotte and Emily returned home. The four remaining siblings—Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne—played on the Yorkshire moors and dreamed up fanciful, fabled worlds, creating a constant stream of tales, such as the Young Men plays (1826) and Our Fellows (1827).
Reverend Bronte kept his children abreast of current events; among these were the 1829 parliamentary debates centering on the Catholic Question, in which the Duke of Wellington was a leading voice. Charlotte's awareness of politics filtered into her fictional creations, as in the siblings' saga The Islanders (1827), about an imaginary world peopled with the Brontë children's real-life heroes, in which Wellington plays a central role as Charlotte's chosen character.
Throughout her childhood, Charlotte had access to the circulating library at the nearby town of Keighley. She knew the Bible and read the works of Shakespeare, George Gordon, Lord Byron, and Sir Walter Scott, and she particularly admired William Wordsworth and Robert Southey. In 1831 and 1832, Charlotte attended Miss Wooler's school at Roe Head, and she returned there as a teacher from 1835 to 1838. After working for a couple of years as a governess, Charlotte, with her sister Emily, traveled to Brussels to study, with the goal of opening their own school, but this dream did not materialize once she returned to Haworth in 1844.
In 1846 the sisters published their collected poems under the pen names Currer (Charlotte), Ellis (Emily), and Acton (Anne) Bell. That same year Charlotte finished her first novel, The Professor, but it was not accepted for publication.
However, she began work on Jane Eyre, which was published in 1847 and met with instant success. Though some critics saw impropriety in the core of the story—the relationship between a middle-aged man and the young, naive governess who works for him—most reviewers praised the novel, helping to ensure its popularity. One of Charlotte's literary heroes, William Makepeace Thackeray, wrote her a letter to express his enjoyment of the novel and to praise her writing style, as did the influential literary critic G. H. Lewes.
Following the deaths of Branwell and Emily Bronte in 1848 and Anne in 1849, Charlotte made trips to London, where she began to move in literary circles that included such luminaries as Thackeray, whom she met for the first time in 1849; his daughter described Bronte as "a tiny, delicate, serious, little lady." In 1850 she met the noted British writer Elizabeth Gaskell, with whom she formed a lasting friendship and who, at the request of Reverend Bronte, later became her biographer. Charlotte's novel Villette was published in 1853.
In 1854 Charlotte married Arthur Bell Nicholls, a curate at Haworth who worked with her father. Sadly, less than a year later, Bronte died during her first pregnancy. While her death certificate lists the cause of death as "phthisis" (tuberculosis), there is a school of thought that believes she may have died from excessive vomiting caused by morning sickness. At the time of her death, Charlotte Brontë was a celebrated author. The 1857 publication of her first novel, The Professor, and of Gaskell's biography of her life only heightened her renown. (Bio from Barnes and Noble Classic Edition.)
(Older works have few, if any, mainstream press reviews online. See Amazon and Barnes & Noble for helpful customer reviews.)
Possibly no book, other than Pride and Prejudice, has been as beloved by women as Jane Eyre, a Cinderella novel if ever there was one.... On its surface, Jane Eyre is a simple romance: a young girl, brought low by circumstance and maltreated by the very institutions that should have protected her (family and school), wins the love of a wealthy, accomplished man. At its core, however, Jane Eyre is much, much more. (Read more...)
LitLovers Book Reviews - April 2013
The detailed exploration of a strong female character's consciousness has made readers in recent decades consider Jane Eyre as an influential feminist text. The novel works both as the absorbing story of an individual woman's quest and as a narrative of the dilemmas that confront so many women. Its mythic quality is enhanced by the fact that at the time of its writing its author was, like her heroine, unmarried and unremarked, and considered unattractive. In Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë created a fully imagined character defined by her strength of will. Though Jane is nothing more than an impoverished governess, she can retort to her haughty employer Rochester: "Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless?—You think wrong!" (p. 284). Jane's willfulness scandalized many contemporary critics, who called her (and the novel) "coarse" and "unfeminine." Such criticisms were powerless against the novel's popularity, and Jane's indomitable voice continues to enthrall readers more than 150 years after the novel's original publication.
Penguin Classic Edition (excerpt)
(There are two sets of questions—from the Penguin [first set] and Random House editions)
1. Why does Bronte juxtapose Jane's musings about women's social restraints with the mysterious laugh that Jane attributes to Grace Poole (p. 125-26)?
2. Rochester tells Jane, "if you are cast in a different mould to the majority, it is no merit of yours; Nature did it" (p. 153-54). Are we intended to agree or disagree with this statement?
3. After Mason's visit to Thornfield, Jane asks herself, "What crime was this, that lived incarnate in this sequestered mansion, and could neither be expelled nor subdued by the owner?" (p. 237). What crime does Bertha represent? Why does Rochester keep her at Thornfield?
4. Does Rochester ever actually intend to marry Blanche Ingram? If so, when does he change his mind? If not, why does he go to such lengths to make Jane believe he does?
5. Rochester's disastrous marriage to Bertha was based on passion, while St. John refuses to marry Rosamund because of his passion for her. What is Brontë saying about the role passion should play in marriage?
6. What does St. John feel for Jane? Why does Jane end her story with his prayer?
7. Jane asserts her equality to Rochester (p. 284), and St. John (p. 452). What does Jane mean by equality, and why is it so important to her?
8. When Jane first appears at Moor House, Hannah assumes she is a prostitute, but St. John and his sisters do not. What distinguishes the characters who misjudge Jane from those who recognize her true nature?
9. When Jane hears Rochester's voice calling while he is miles away, she says the phenomenon "is the work of nature" (p. 467). What does she mean by this? What are we intended to conclude about the meaning of this experience?
10. Brontë populates the novel with many female characters roughly the same age as Jane—Georgiana and Eliza Reed, Helen Burns, Blanche Ingram, Mary and Diana Rivers, and Rosamund Oliver. How do comparisons with these characters shape the reader's understanding of Jane's character?
11. What is the balance of power between Jane and Rochester when they marry? Does this balance change from the beginning of the marriage to the time ten years later that Jane describes at the end of the novel (p. 500-501)?
12. In a romantic relationship, does one partner inevitably dominate the other?
13. Should an individual who holds a position of authority be granted the respect of others, regardless of his or her character?
(This set of questions issued by Penguin Classics Edition.)
1. In Jane Eyre, nothing can better show a man's moral worth than the way in which he treats the women in his life. How is Rochester's character reflected in the way he treats Jane, Adele, Bertha Mason, and Miss Ingram, and in his reported treatment of Celine Varens? How is St. John's character reflected in the way he treats Jane, Miss Oliver, and Diana and Mary? Why does this serve as such a good gauge of a man's morality and worth? What other relationships serve similar functions in the novel?
2. Throughout the novel, questions of identity are raised. From her identity as an orphan and stranger in the hostile environment of Gateshead Hall to that of a ward of the church at Lowood; from her being a possible wife of Rochester, then of St. John, to being the cousin of Diana and Mary, Jane is constantly in transition. Trace these changes in identity and how they affect Jane's view of herself and the world around her. Describe the final discovery of her identity that becomes apparent in the last chapter of the novel and the events that made that discovery possible.
3. Throughout the novel, Charlotte Brontë uses biblical quotes and religious references. From the church-supported school she attended that was run by Mr. Brocklehurst to the offer of marriage she receives from St. John, she is surrounded by aspects of Christianity. How does this influence her throughout her development? How do her views of God and Christianity change from her days as a young girl to the end of the novel? How is religion depicted in the novel, positively or negatively?
4. Many readers of Jane Eyre feel that the story is composed of two distinct parts, different in tone and purpose. The first part (chapters 1-11) concerns her childhood at Gateshead and her life at Lowood; the second part is the remainder of the story. Is creating such a division justified? Is there a genuine difference of tone and purpose between the two sections as they have been described? Some critics and readers have suggested that the first part of Jane Eyre is more arresting because it is more directly autobiographical. Do you find this to be true?
5. Upon publication, great speculation arose concerning the identity of the author of Jane Eyre, known only by the pen name Currer Bell. Questions as to the sex of the author were raised, and many critics said that they believed it to be the work of a man. One critic of her time said, "A book more unfeminine, both in its excellence and defects, it would be hard to find in the annals of female authorship. Throughout there is masculine power, breadth and shrewdness, combined with masculine hardness, coarseness, and freedom of expression." Another critic of the day, Elizabeth Rigby, said that if it was the product of a female pen, then it was the writing of a woman "unsexed." Why was there such importance placed on the sex of the author and why was it questioned so readily? What does it mean that people believed it to be the product of a man rather than of a woman?
6. Scenes of madness and insanity are among the most important plot devices in Jane Eyre. From the vision Jane sees when locked in the bedroom at Gateshead to her hearing the "goblin laughter" she attributes to Grace Poole, to the insanity and wretchedness of Bertha Mason, madness is of central importance to the plot and direction of the story. Give examples of madness in the text, and show how they affect the reader's understanding of the character experiencing the madness and how these examples affect the reader's understanding of the characters witnessing it.
7. There is probably no single line in the whole of Jane Eyre that has, in itself, attracted as much critical attention as the first line of the last chapter: "Reader, I married him." Why is the phrasing of this line so important? How would the sense be different-for the sentence and for the novel as a whole-if the line read, "Reader, we were married"?
(This set of questions issued by Random House—cover image, top right.)
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