Late last month, my short story, “You and Jane” was published by Abandon Journal. It’s about a modern-day, parallel universe Charlotte Bronte who’s receiving genetic counseling, and she must reckon with grief and the deaths of all her siblings and her mother. I know that doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs, but the piece is meant to be funny, with dark, absurdist humor. You don’t have to understand the connection between Jane Eyre and her creator, Charlotte Bronte to enjoy the story, but I thought I’d provide some context, nonetheless.
Jane Eyre, the titular protagonist of Charlotte Bronte’s beloved novel of the same name, is iconic. The novel, Jane Eyre, continues to spark a bevy of critical analysis and debate, particularly regarding the similarities and differences between Charlotte and Jane.
There is reason to believe that Bronte intentionally wrote Jane in her own image. For example, both Bronte and Jane were born in the same rural area of England, both were raised motherless, and both were subjected to the same sort of religious upbringing. Additionally, both Bronte and Jane were remarkably independent and strong-willed, and both were highly educated and fiercely loyal to their friends and family.
How much do you know about Charlotte Bronte’s life?
While was best known for her masterpiece, Jane Eyre, she was also the author of The Professor, Shirley, and Villette. Born in the small village of Thornton, Yorkshire, Charlotte was the third of six children born to Maria and Patrick Bronte. Her father was an Anglican clergyman, and her mother was a schoolmistress. Maria died young of ovarian cancer, and Charlotte and her older sisters were sent off to boarding school. The conditions were so poor there, that Charlotte’s two older siblings died of tuberculosis, and Charlotte blamed the school. Back home, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne created their fantasy world called Glass Town, and published stories about it in their homemade family magazine.
Charlotte Bronte grew into an intelligent and passionate young woman, and she was an avid reader. Her father encouraged her interest in literature and books, and she read widely and deeply. At 21, she went to school to become a teacher. During her time there she developed a close attachment to her professor, Constantin Heger. Heger was a married man, however, and the two never acted on their mutual attraction. However, her first novel, The Professor, is said to be inspired by him.
Charlotte returned to England, and the following year, she and her sisters Emily and Anne published a poetry book under male pseudonyms: Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Charlotte’s novel The Professor was submitted for publication but rejected. Emily and Anne had better luck finding publication with their novels, Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Anne’s Agnes Grey. However, in 1847 Charlotte’s novel Jane Eyre was published and was an instant success.
Despite Charlotte’s literary success, tragedy struck in 1848 when Branwell, Emily, and Anne all died within eight months of each other. Charlotte’s grief was so profound that she stopped writing for a while. Later, she wrote Shirley, which was full of social commentary about industrialization and women’s rights.
In 1853 she married her father’s former curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls. The couple had a happy marriage, but it wasn’t to last long. In 1855, Charlotte became pregnant, but she was so sick and dehydrated that both she and the baby died during childbirth.
It’s hard to even contemplate the amount of loss and grief Charlotte dealt with during her short life.
How does it compare to Jane Eyre?
You might be more familiar with that story. Jane was an orphan with a mean aunt and an abusive cousin, and they locked her in haunted rooms until she passed out. She was sent to a boarding school, made a friend who was very ill, and then the poor girl died in Jane’s arms. (This character was inspired by one of Charlotte’s deceased older sisters.) Eventually, Jane winds up as a governess and falls in love with her boss, the much older Mr. Rochester. He loved her back, and it seemed like things might work out, until Jane discovered he was still married, and he’d locked his first wife away in the attic. So Jane took off, met some cousins she didn’t know she had, inherited some money she didn’t realize was coming to her, and eventually reconnected with Mr. Rochester, whose first wife set the house on fire. The first wife died and Mr. Rochester became blind. Yet, with Jane’s famous line, “Reader, I married him,” we know Jane got her happy ending after all.
While a lot of the gothic elements of Jane Eyre were fictionalized (ghosts, a tree struck by lightning, a man getting bitten in the heart), a lot were taken directly from Bronte’s life–namely, all the death.
But what about the personalities of Jane and Charlotte?
Bronte and Jane both had an affinity for learning and an eagerness to explore new ideas. Both also had a passion for writing, though Jane’s writing was more limited to diary entries and letters. Additionally, both Jane and Charlotte had a deep appreciation for the natural world and a strong connection to the landscape and people of their home. Finally, Bronte and Jane each had a deep understanding of social and economic issues and were particularly attuned to the plight of the impoverished and underprivileged.
Charlotte Bronte was a brilliant author who left behind an impressive legacy of work with a profound impact on literature and culture. She was a pioneer of her time, her work marked a milestone in the history of literature as she was one of the first female authors to be widely published and widely read. She addressed controversial topics, such as sex, religion, and morality from a female perspective. By doing this, Bronte opened the door for other female authors to follow in her footsteps. Her novels also featured strong, independent female characters, which was revolutionary.
Meanwhile, Jane Eyre is a passionate and determined protagonist, determined to make her own destiny despite the obstacles that are put in her way. She is a symbol of courage and strength, as she stands up against societal norms and expectations and is not afraid to fight for what she believes in. Her story speaks to the need for freedom and self-determination. She is a victim of oppression, and her journey to independence is inspirational and moving. Through her struggles, Jane Eyre finds her own voice and can ultimately choose her own path in life.
Both women, whether fictional or real, left behind a lasting legacy. They each had an immense impact on literature and culture and gave voice to so many women. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre will continue to be enjoyed by readers for many years to come.