By Gretchen Patterson
What makes a great novel? To explore this question further, what must a novel achieve for inclusion in the top one hundred list? What draws the reading audience to a particular book, resulting in enthusiastic reviews? The key elements in any good novel include the plot, one or two sub-plots, captivating characters of opposing natures, a believable timeline, and a satisfactory conclusion. Adding to this catalog, there should be cohesive narrative, stimulating dialogue, a conflict or mystery, descriptive settings, proper grammar and punctuation. The story should command the reader's attention, invoke thoughtful consideration, and provide an escape into the author's imaginary realm.
Charlotte Bronte's first full-length novel, Jane Eyre, contains all these components within its pages, taking the reader on a sweeping odyssey through the heroine's life from orphan child to maturity as a woman, wife and mother. Originally published in October 1847, the book quickly became a best seller with a second, then a third edition published in 1848.
one of the immediate appeals of Charlotte Bronte's work is that it is melodramatic
without being crude;
it inhabits melodrama yet differs from it without parodying it." (Haller 205)
From 1847 to the present, numerous scholars and students have read and written about Bronte's novel and the international Bronte Society continues to publish literary criticisms devoted to Jane Eyre. This fictional, feminist chronicle truly belongs on the list of great literature.
There are several different aspects of the novel which invite critical commentary and these various scholarly approaches examine the cultural, feminist, Marxist, psychological, and religious attitudes of the nineteenth century English society. Bronte wrote under the assumed name of Currer Bell, due to the traditional, patriarchal philosophy that espoused women as wives, mothers and homemakers but not writers of great books or other refined literary works. "The woman was expected to devote herself to the repetitive tasks of domestic labor and to minister to the needs of others; how, then, could she expect to write?" (Newman 6) Throughout the Victorian age, the institutions of marriage, family and women's traditional roles were either questioned or praised. Bronte firmly believed in the woman's role of domesticity but economics demanded that she find some means of procuring income using her skills and gifts. Attempts as a governess and school teacher met with failure, as did a book of poems and her first novel, The Professor. With the encouragement of Smith, Elder and Company, a London publishing firm, she completed Jane Eyre, thus rendering other forms of employment unecessary and elevating her novel into literary history.
Jane Eyre, written by a woman, is in part, a reflective narrative. As it is told in first person, we see life through Jane's eyes, beginning in early childhood, to coming of age, and concluding as the beloved wife of Edward Fairfax Rochester. Bronte also uses dialogue to provide the reader with a perspective of Jane's life and circumstances.
"Portrayal of Jane's voice, whether narrative or dialogue, is a significant aspect of her concealment, because it is only through dialogue that Jane reveals her true self." (Haller 205)
She embodies various personae"that best fit her situation, whether it be student, governess, or caretaker...while cloaked in a persona, Jane's voice is portrayed as largely narrative." (Haller 205) Within these self-concealing facades, Jane makes her way throug the major settings that significantly influence her progress and development, these being at Gateshead Hall, Lowood Institution, Thornfield Hall, Moor House or Marsh End, and Ferndean Manor. In the conclusion, Jane speaks as a happily married woman of ten years and the only concealment is the deeply wooded environment of Ferndean Manor.
Bronte employs a large cast of women who make their way through the tale, adding depth, wisdom, and a wealth of feminine experience to Jane's exploits. There is Bessie, nursemaid to the Reed children and Jane. There is Miss Temple, the Lowood superintendent and Jane's role model, and there is Helen Burns, Jane's first friend at Lowood. With Jane's arrival at Thornfield Hall, she meets Mrs. Fairfax, the matronly housekeeper, and her new pupil, Adele Varens, who is Rochester's young, lively, French-born ward. When Jane turns up at Moor House, she meets Diana and Mary Rivers, sisters to St. John, both kind, well-educated ladies, and ultimately, her cousins.
Adding dark contrast to the narrrative are Jane's aunt by marriage, Sarah Reed, a conceited, abominable woman, her daughters, the narcissistic Georgiana and greedy Eliza, and Grace Poole, warden to Bertha Antoinetta Rochester, the unwanted, insane wife of Edward Rochester. Bertha is the sinister axis of the novel, providing the necessary conflict, secrecy, and strange behavior of Rochester, Grace Poole, and Leah, the upstairs maid. Bertha's occasional late night wanderings give Jane good cause to wonder about the safety of the Thornfield Hall residents, but blinded by her feelings for Mr. Rochester, she does not piece all the clues together.
During the course of the story, Rochester hosts a house party whose high-born guests include Lady Ingram, Blanche and Mary Ingram, Lady Lynn, Mrs. Eshton, Amy and Louisa Eshton, and Mrs. Dent. Other minor feminine characters include Miss Satchem and Miss Gryce, Lowood teachers; old Hannah, cook and housekeeper to the Rivers family; the lovely Rosamond Oliver, and the Morton village schoolgirls. Even Edward Rochester temporarily assumes a female persona when he appears one evening disguised as an elderly gypsy fortune-teller. With this remarkable array of female characters, the author leads her audience into a skillful, inspired saga of one woman's life story, intriguing romance, and shadowed mystery, all entangled within the social strata and strait-laced ethics of Victorian British society.
No fairy tale romance and no "triumph of the innocent heroine" (Heiniger 23) would be without the essential masculine figures who provide the counter balance. John Reed, Jane's cousin, is a mean, constant bully; he is always taunting and tormenting her and frequently resorting to physical abuse. Bronte later dismisses him in the story as a rakish, alcoholic youth meeting an early death. Mr. Lloyd, the kind apothecary, treats Jane for the head wound she received at the hands of John Reed and arranges for Jane's removel from the loveless atmosphere of Gateshead Hall and the Reed family. Mr. Brocklehurst, overseer of Lowood Institution, next appears as a seemingly benevolent cleric, accepting Jane as a student in his school for orphan girls, but is in fact miserly, unreasonable, and duplicitous in his treatment of women. During an inspection some three weeks after Jane arrives at Lowood, he lectures Miss Temple and the assembled pupils concerning his standards for simple, plain dresses and severe, modest hairstyles required for the girls. When his wife and daughters enter the schoolroom, they are "splendidly attired in velvet, silk, and furs...[with] gray beaver hats, then in fashion, shaded with ostrich plumes, and...a profusion of light tresses, elaborately curled." (Bronte 74) Jane takes note of the rich display of dress wondering why she is the one called "a liar!" (Bronte 76)
Brocklehurst receives his comeuppance when typhoid fever reduces the school populace and a public outcry demands better food, decent living conditions for the girls, and new administration by a governing committtee. Bronte lost two sisters to illness contracted at a boarding school "run on principles hostile to physical comfort and ignorant of hygiene." (Newman 5) Bronte's grieving, embittered reaction to the overly strict and uncaring owners of British girls' educational institutions is plainly visible through Jane's narration of her early days at Lowood school.
In true Gothic romance style, Edward Rochester is a wealthy albeit lonely man with with a deep, murky secret who meets his future bride in a rather embarassing, unromantic way by falling off his horse. Jane, recently hired as governess for his ward, Adele, has no knowledge that the man on the icy ground is her employer. She simply tries to help him catch and remount the black stallion. This plot device, often used in fairy tales, ensures that readers are completely enthralled when the two main characters first meet, and so begins the whirlwind courtship of Jane and Edward. Abigail Heiniger states in "The Faery and the Beast" that "[Bronte] harnesses all the power of a fairy tale, not merely to entertain, but to challenge the prejudices...perpetuated by the cultural mythology of pre-Victorian society. (23) She compares Jane Eyre to the traditional "Beauty and the Beast," a fable about more than outward appearances wherein the beautiful maiden transforms the ugly, bestial creature into the charming, good-looking prince. Jane is no great beauty, often describing herself as "plain" and Rochester is not "a handsome, heroic-looking young gentleman." (Bronte 120)
Rochester becomes the beast and a bigot with his intention to marry Jane while Bertha remains alive, imprisoned in the third story of Thornfield Hall. "He has no legal right to remarry and thus when he tries to remarry, it is on the sly...The marriage contract between Rochester and Bertha holds even though Bertha is insane." (Haller 204) The cause of her insanity is never fully explained. When observed by Jane, Mr. Briggs and Mr. Mason, Bertha fully displays the acts and mannerisms of someone not in her right mind. Despite his claims that she is no longer his wife, Rochester remains bound bound by English law as her husband. Bertha's eventual self-inflicted demise clears the way for Jane and Rochester to be reunited. True love triumphs over contractual marriage.
Bronte's final strong masculine character is St. John Rivers who enters the story when Jane, penniless and faint from hunger, sits on the doorstep of Moor House; seeing that she is unable to walk, let alone consider her next move, St. John tells Hannah, his housekeeper to let Jane enter.
"I think this is a peculiar case - I must at least examine into it. Young woman, rise, and pass before me into the house." (Bronte 330)
Bronte paints a fair image of St. John with his tall, graceful carriage, blonde hair, and attractive classic Greek features in stark difference to Edward Rochester's shorter stature, broad chest, black hair, dark eyes and olive complexion. As their relationship develops, Jane receives a second opportunity for marriage, but this offer comes at a cost to her psyche since she considers him as "hard and cold." (Bronte 383) St. John wants a dutiful and obedient missionary wife. Jane perceives this as a death knell to her soul and future happiness. "In fact, as St. John's wife, she will be entering into a union even more unequal than that proposed by Rochester, a marriage reflecting once again her absolute exclusion from the life of wholeness toward which her pilgrimage has been directed. (Gilbert 497) Jane informs St. John that she will happily accompany him to India as his deacon, but not as his wife. He rejects this proposal and the extended discusssion between the two cousins illuminates Bronte's fervent desire for feminine equality in a dominant male culture: "As I walked by his side homeward, I read well in his iron silence all he felt towards me: the disappointment of an austere and despotic nature...in short, as a man, he would have wished to coerce me into obedience; it was only as a sincere Christian he bore so patiently with my perversity." (Bronte 399-400) Jane refuses his continued efforts to wrap her soul in the "iron shroud" of missionary labor and a cold, "marriage of spirituality." (Gilbert 496) Through this long conversational dialogue between Jane and St. John, Bronte asserts a woman's right to independence, to choose her vocation, and "to discover her real place in the world." (Gilbert 495) This early call for women's rights and equality cloaked around a ficitional character with an odd romance most assuredly gave readers in Bronte's time something to discuss over afternoon tea.
In the late eighteenth century, the invention of an efficient, steam-driven engine restructured the very foundations of industry, business, and transportation - what is now labeled by historians as the Industrial Revolution. There are countless firsts occurring within this period, i.e., the steam locomotive, cotton gin, mechanical loom, and steam-powered ocean vessels. More importantly, this era brought about vast changes in the manufacturing of goods as well as societal upheavals that transpired parallel to the technological advances. England, France, Germany, and the United States embraced the new inventions, moving from the agrarian and cottage industry markets to a faster paced, industrial scale economy. This type of commerce required minimally skilled workers, performing repetitive motions and tasks. They labored long hours, earning meager wages and receiving no additional benefits. This new, proletariat class evolved from peasants to tenant farmers to laborers. They were certainly not beggars, but survived just above the poverty line. Merchants, tradesmen and the clergy rose into the middle class with the landed gentry and nobility remaining as the upper class. Unmarried women, widows, and orphans were relegated to working as servants or residing with relatives while others resorted to prostitution, thievery or even begging on the streets. Free government services such as welfare did not yet exist and the male dominant culture kept women bound with legal chains.
Bronte begins her developmental fiction by asking, "Where does Jane belong, to what kind of family?...On what terms will she come to reengage the social structure." (Fraiman 617) Her options are limited. "Jane's socially ambiguous position [as an orphan] corresponds to a different tension...potentially more disruptive to existing class arrangements: [somewhere] between the propertied classes...and the working poor." (Fraiman 616) She is neither a Reed family member nor does she belong as a servant subsisting between the two classes as the poor, unwanted relation. With her personal background as a clergyman's daughter, Bronte could be a governess, a schoolteacher, or find a well-to-do husband who would treat her well. Jane also has these three occupational choices, rising from a lowly, first year pupil at Lowood to the more elevated position of instructor. Miss Temple marries, leaving the school, and Jane's restless spirit emerges from hiding, seeking to go out into the world. "I traced the white road winding round the base of one mountain...how I longed to follow it further!" (Bronte 93) That longing came to fruition with a newspaper advertisement, applying to the readership for a governess position. She receives an answer within a few days, but Bronte builds up the tension as Jane keeps the letter from Mrs. Fairfax hidden and unopened in her pocket Late at night, she finally reads of her acceptance, dependent upon "satisfactory references as to character and competency." (Bronte 96) Jane supplies "all the particulars" (Bronte 96) and the road leads to the manufacturing town of Millcote and the estate of Thornfield Hall. Jane has lived a sheltered existence from the time of her parents' deaths to adulthood. Now she must rely upon herself and a genteel, well-rounded education to pave the way for a new experience. "It is a very strange sensation to inexperienced youth to feel itself quite alone in the world: cut adrift from every connection;...The charm of adventure sweetens that sensation,...but then the throb of fear disturbs it." (Bronte 101) Drawing upon her sojourn and studies in France, Bronte divulges the fears and uncertainty of leaving her family and living alone in a foreign country. As Jane's narrative voice relays, this is a bold, first step indeed for an orphan child. "A phase of my life was closing to-night, a new one opening to-morrow." (Bronte 98) In the television adaptation of Jane Eyre, Miss Satchern angrily shuts the gates of Lowood School, informing Jane that she is on her own. Jane steps into the coach and never looks back. ("Jane Eyre"The Westinghouse Program)
With the invention of motion pictures in the early 1900's, classic books supplied a wealth of material for screenwriters and directors looking for the next lucrative, illustrious project. By the 1940's television was introduced to the viewing public and that medium quickly altered and in some ways enhanced the daily lives of people around the world. The movie and television industries provided jobs for the actors and the numerous workers essential to bring a story to life via film. Other companies discovered that through television their products could be advertised directly to the consumer with a significant increase in sales and productivity. The Westinghouse Corporation, specializing in electronics and home appliances, sponsored a one-hour program, the 'Westinghouse Program,' which was televised by the Central Broadcasting Station, commonly known as CBS. In 1949, Westinghouse aired their adaptation of Jane Eyre, starring Mary Sinclair as Jane and Charlton Heston as Edward. With only a small budget, the black and white broadcast had no special effects and premiered relatively unknown, young, aspiring actors. Due to restrictions on time, only forty-five minutes were allotted to the story, interspersed with fifteen minutes of Westinghouse commercials. Bronte's full-length novel became a mini-version, telling Jane and Rochester's love story in short vignettes. Presenting the full visual and philosophical effects of Jane Eyre on television or film requires careful attention to detail, narration, and dialogue just as Bronte wrote the novel in 1847. The Westinghouse Program does not uphold the subtle claim of women's rights and equality so eloquently posed by the author nor does it adequately portray the love story. On the other hand, if treated as a one-act play, this production offers viewers a sampling of Bronte's work and perhaps inspires some to read the novel in its entirety.
Charlotte Bronte (circa 1850)
Born in 1819, Bronte came of age in the midst of rapid technological transformations, the expansion of the British Empire to a global economy, and a rigid set of moral values as exemplified by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, her domineering, conservative, and prim consort. Women could not own property, vote, establish a business or apply for political office. Marriage bestowed respectability and security to women, yet offered no equality. Any money, property, or inheritance belonged to the husband; a woman had no legal recourse to manage her affairs. Susan Fraiman reasons that "the opening chapters [of Jane Eyre] make a point of rattling the chains of gender and class that bind our heroine." (616) The Victorian era produced several, well-known female writers who "rattled the chains." Chief among these are Marian Evans, aka George Eliot, Florence Nightingale, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Sarah Stickney Ellis, and the three Bronte sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne. A close and careful reading between the lines of Jane Eyre exposes Bronte's thoughts concerning the lack of equality for women. Jane often relates to the reader that she and Edward Rochester are intellectual equals, though society and English law would not recognize women's rights in Bronte's lifetime. She filled her childhood with imaginary friends, playful fantasies and fairy tale books wherein women and men lived, loved, and worked in a balanced partnership. The creation of Jane, Edward, and the diverse troupe of women who enter and exit Bronte's novel bestow upon the reader a wealth of feminine encounters, a suspenseful mystery, and a triumphant love story. Great writers bare their souls, committing their personal, imaginative daydreams to pen and paper for the world to share.
Bronte invited her readers to peer into a reflection of her own life through Jane's world, offering an escape from reality. Jane Eyre is an exceptional book, worthy of inclusion in libraries, bookstores, and scholarly collections as well as any list of the top one hundred books everyone should read. She would smile demurely, having achieved the finest authorial compliment possible when a reader exclaims, "this is a good book!"
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. 1847. Ed. Beth Newman. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's P, 1996. Print.
Fraiman, Susan. "Jane Eyre's Fall From Grace." Ed. Beth Newman. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's P, 1996. 614-631. Print
Gilbert, Sandra M. "Plain Jane's Progress: A Feminist Perspective." Jane Eyre. Ed. Beth Newman. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's P, 1996. 475-501. Print.
Haller, Elizabeth K. "Guise and the Act of Concealment in Jane Eyre." Bronte Studies: The Journal of the Bronte Society. Journal 28 (2003): 205-213. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 20 March 2012.
Heiniger, Abigail. "The Faery and the Beast." Jane Eyre. Bronte studies: The Journal of the Bronte Society. Journal 31 (2006): 23-29. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 20 March 2012.
"Jane Eyre." The Westinghouse Program. Dir. Franclin Schaffner. Perf. Mary Sinclair and Charlton Heston. Prod. Worthington Miner. Archive.org. CBS, 1949. Web. 19 March 2012.
Newman, Beth. Introduction. Jane Eyre. By Charlotte Bronte. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's P, 1996. 3-13. Print
Jane Eyre has been published in many illustrated editions since its first release; for a sample of the styles used throughout various eras, you may wish to visit www.janeeyreillustrated.com and view their archival collection. The book illustrations used in this article were drawn by F. H. Townsend and included in the 1897 Service & Paton edition of Bronte's Jane Eyre.