Charlotte Bronte’s Life Informs Jane Eyre

 

The best authors inform their works of fiction with details, memories, and remembered or imagined dialogue from the most vivid memories and impressions from their lives. Fiction allows writers to recall and mix and match the essence of their most vivid experiences, without having to be accountable to the exacting standards of an autobiography. Fiction also allows writers to protect the identity of characters, including themselves, who might be depicted in an unfavorable light. One of the most lucid illustrations of how the experiences of a troubled but brilliant author’s life can fuel a dark but triumphant literary work is Jane Eyre (1847by Charlotte Bronte. Though the reader cannot accept the idea that every word in her novel happened in exactly the way she described it her most famous novel, we can trace through a casual examination of her biography, that she experienced many of the interactions she described in Jane Eyre, in some re-shaped manner, in her own life. Fortunately, the biography of Charlotte Bronte and her other literary sisters are supplied in a concise but revealing fashion in the Barnes & Noble Classic version of Jane Eyre. See a depiction of Charlotte Bronte below:

charlotte bronte.jpg

Charlotte was born in 1816 and lived most of her life in Yorkshire, England and was the third sister of Maria and Patrick Bronte. Her father was a clergyman and her mother died at an early age. Like Jane Eyre, Charlotte, and her sisters were raised by their “unpleasant, maiden aunt.” Writer, Charlotte Bronte does not give her cruel and heartless Aunt Reed a first name in Jane Eyre. A father is mentioned as having died in her book. We can assume that Charlotte’s father was too preoccupied with his work to be very involved in the lives of his children and that he did not earn much money. I doubt that he even had as much interaction or influence on the lives of his daughters as Branson Alcott had on his daughter, Louisa May Alcott’s, life. The painting of the Bronte Sisters, done by their brother Branwell which accompanies this article, suggests that he or  perhaps their father only occupied a dim shadow of influence in their lives. Charlotte, like Louisa, liked to read classic works like The Pilgrim’s Progress and The Arabian Nights. I think that Louisa May Alcott must have read and been influenced by Jane Eyre. Alcott’s school punishment scenes and her dwelling on her sister Beth’s death seem almost directly lifted from Bronte’s book. Jane is seen in the opening chapters, reading a book about Birds of Antarctica and Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift. The books that Jane mentions she was reading suggests that she would like to travel, as soon as possible, to a far-away land for an adventure and a relief from being abused, beaten (by her teen uncle), held captive, and then ultimately neglected and discarded by her adopted family.

In 1824, the Bronte’s father decided to send his children away to a school for “the daughters of poor clergyman.” By the stark way that Jane described Lowood School for orphans, readers can readily see that she clearly experienced many of the deprivations she described in her novel. It is difficult not to empathize with Jane when she describes being required to give thanks for a meal of burnt porridge and water, and for enduring freezing cold dormitory conditions with scant clothing. However, those physical conditions were not nearly as harsh as the treatment she received from the school’s overseer, Reverend Brocklehurst. Jane described him as a dark marble of “architecture.” He was determined to see that the Jane should be singled out as being an evil one who was cast out of God’s flock. He even suggested that she may not have any soul worth redeeming. I wonder if Jane’s depiction of Brocklehurst reflected her views of her father or if she had a general disdain of how the clergy treated neglected orphans. It does not take a religious scholar to conclude that such practices violated Jesus’ teaching to honor and uplift children and the poor. After insisting that the girls of the orphanage cut their curly hair and dress more modestly to glorify God, his own wife and daughters entered the school dressed in furs and wearing their hair in French curls. Jane wished that those girls would have stepped in the school a few minutes earlier to hear their father’s admonishment about the sins of vanity. Charlotte’s description of the hypocrisies of the clergyman vividly point out that his aim was to instruct the girls to get used to a life of poverty and austerity since he believed that  they had no possibility to raise to a higher station in the stratified social system of mid-nineteenth-century English society.

Jane and the girls at Lowood endured a harsh winter of deprivations before the landscape changed more favorably to spring. The beautiful descriptions of the natural scenery became quickly juxtaposed with the introduction of typhoid fever and tuberculosis which spread like poisonous weeds throughout the school. Jane’s closest schoolmate, Helen Burns, along with forty-four other children at the school were seriously affected by the diseases. Jane describes death as a frequent and almost daily visitor at their school. Jane’s description of those hardships might lead readers to conclude that these girls died due to the cruel austerities and deprivations imposed by Mr. Brocklehurst. Two of Charlotte’s sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, died at the school for poor clergymen. In the novel, Jane stayed with Helen as she was dying, but reflected, in her adult voice, about how she remembered her and was influenced by her thinking throughout her life. It felt sad to read that Helen’s father disowned her because he re-married and that he wouldn’t even come to tend to his daughter when she was chronically ill or when she needed a proper burial. We can easily conclude that Bronte reflected on the inspiration and grief that she endured after the death of her sisters to shape the Helen Burns character in Jane Eyre. A subsequent investigation of the school eventually concluded that Brocklehurst had been mismanaging the school’s funds. He was ultimately shamed and subjected to the supervision of a more liberal overseer. But, because of his wealth and influence, he was not dismissed from his position as school treasurer. However, a group of wealthy patrons took over the management of the school and improved the conditions.

Charlotte and Emily Bronte, who wrote Wuthering Heights, were ultimately withdrawn from the typhoid-ridden school they attended and sent by their father. He wanted to make sure that they would learn the trade of being a governess, so they could support themselves after he died. In Jane Eyre, she became the governess for Adele, the young ward of Mr. Rochester at the Thornfield House. Perhaps the name, Thornfield, suggests that Jane might find some thorns and roses in her employment there. Jane characterizes herself as a capable governess for her only student. However, in real life, Charlotte was incompetent and not satisfied being a governess. At that time, that role was one of the only jobs that women could achieve. However, this position created ambiguities regarding a woman’s social status. Although governesses were often more accomplished in writing, musical ability, knowledge of literature, and foreign languages than the mistresses of the houses they served in, their ranks in those homes were scarcely higher than servants. The ambiguities of Jane’s role in the households of two very different men, who tried to aim to influence her thinking and character, engage the reader’s attention until the final chapters of the book. I won’t spoil the plot of the book any more than I may have already done. However, suffice it to say that, Charlotte Bronte, who lived the majority of her life as a reclusive single woman, has written an enduring Romantic and Gothically-tinged novel. Though it principally focuses on the lives of nineteenth-century women, it also highlights the struggles that men were involved with as they were forced to redefine their roles and expectations in relating to the opposite gender. For being a groundbreaking work of feminist literature; for being an excellent lyrical writing; and for its realistic characterizations of nineteenth-century life in England, Charlotte Bronte’s classic masterpiece, Jane Eyre justifies its perennial position as an essential read for teenagers and for men and women of any age. Admittedly, I would not have conceded this revelation when I read Jane Eyre in college. Hopefully, though, males today are more enlightened about the importance of studying literature which informs us about significant gender and social issues.

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Murray Ellison received a Master’s in Education at Temple University (1973), a Master’s of Arts in English Literature at VCU (2015), and a Doctorate in Education at Virginia Tech in 1988. He is married and has three adult employed daughters. He retired as the Virginia Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Correctional Education in 2009. He is the founder and chief editor of the literary blog, www.LitChatte.com. He is an editor for the “Correctional Education Magazine,” and Co-Editor of the 2016 book of poetry, Mystic Verses, by Shambhushivananda. He also serves as a board member, volunteer tour guide, poetry judge, and all-around helper at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond Virginia. He will be teaching literature classes in OSHER Program at the University of Richmond and offering book club discussions at the Midlothian Library (Virginia) beginning in January  2017.

 

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