October 19, 1847—The eponymous heroine of the book published by the British firm Smith, Elder and Co., Jane Eyre, made her way through a world riven by class and gender distinctions through open, full-throated defiance of her brutal aunt-guardian and brooding employer. But the author, 31-year-old Charlotte Bronte, sought to do so through subtler means.
Like her protagonist, Bronte saw books as a source of stimulation, even as a means of refashioning her identity. She had convinced sisters Emily and Anne to send their novels together to publishers, using pseudonyms. While their non de plumes held the keys to their respective identities through the first initials, their gender-neutral names (Currier Bell, Ellis Bell and Acton Bell) would allow them, they hoped, to get more open-minded receptions from prospective publishers, critics and readers.
The ruse worked. At first, only the manuscripts by Emily and Anne (Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, respectively) were accepted for publication. But Charlotte received such an encouraging rejection letter concerning hers, The Professor, that, she later recalled, “it cheered the author better than a vulgarly-expressed acceptance letter.” Within weeks, she had submitted another manuscript, Jane Eyre, which was read with mounting excitement by one editor after another at the firm.
For months, Charlotte maintained her alternate identity in dealing with Smith, Elder. (Even messages from “Currer Bell” that all mail to “him” should be addressed instead to “Charlotte Bronte” does not appear to have aroused suspicions.) In fact, it would not be until July 1848 that Charlotte and Anne traveled by train to the firm’s London offices and revealed their identities, in order to demonstrate that, contrary to rumor, Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell were not one (male) person, but three females.
Smith, Elder released the book with the subtitle “An Autobiography,” harking back to an early marketing ploy used for Daniel Dafoe’s Robinson Crusoe, in which readers’ identification with fiction was increased by the suggestion that the book came from a real person. In more ways than Smith, Elder ever suspected when it accepted the novel, however, it was heavily autobiographical. Though she and her sisters were still at home with their father, Charlotte had, like her heroine, grown up motherless before becoming a governess. Like her character, she had few real advantages: no money and, because of her stunted growth and poor skin, little in the way of looks. And the author even gave her middle name to her creation.
What she did have, from early on, was a powerful love for literature. Books enabled poor, plain Charlotte Bronte, like poor, plain Jane Eyre, to discover herself, to realize her true identity.
Readers encountering Bronte’s horrific descriptions of being locked in the “red room” at Gateshead, the home of her aunt, and of surviving a starvation diet at the charity school Lowood are likely to associate Bronte with Charles Dickens and his similar fiction about the travails of orphans. But perhaps a more intriguing comparison might be drawn with Henry James’ short novel, Washington Square (1880).
Both novels are, at heart, about the struggle for female autonomy. The death of a parent leaves James’ heroine, Catherine Sloper, like Jane Eyre, at the mercy of a well-educated professional whose most notable personal characteristic is cruelty. (Jane contends at Lowood against the Rev. Brocklehurst, while Catherine deals with her father, who ends up directing his own self-disgust for botching his wife’s pregnancy at his innocent daughter.) In adulthood, Jane and Catherine deal with predatory men who want to exploit them sexually. (Edward Rochester simply wants his way with Jane, while Morris Townsend is a fortune hunter who dupes Catherine into falling in love with him.)
The difference between the two female protagonists arises from the life of the mind. Catherine’s identity is shaped by her fortune (hence, the title of the play and film derived from the novel, The Heiress); Jane’s, on the other hand, derives from books. Not only Jane's intellect, but her sense of fairness and justice derives from her reading. When her aunt's son, 14-year-old schoolboy John Reid, tries to bully her from reading any of the family's books, it represents an attack on the only sustenance the penniless, loveless little girl has. Her accusation--that he is as cruel as the Roman emperors--might derive from her reading of an Oliver Goldsmith history, but it gives her a sense of the confidence she'll need as a young woman in standing up to Edward Rochester.
Someone could write a fascinating, though admittedly quite idiosyncratic, book simply by reading all the books to which Jane alludes in her narrative: not just the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, but also Goldsmith, Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, Bunyan, Swift, Milton, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Thomas Moore, Coleridge, Pope, Cowper, and Robert Burns (whose surname perhaps inspired the one given to Jane’s consumptive schoolmate, Helen Burns).
Catherine Sloper survives the soul-searing sarcasm of her father and the callousness of her suitor, but her achievement of selfhood comes from acts of negation—i.e., saying no to the two men who deeply hurt her—rather than from happiness. In contrast, Jane, through her love of books, gains a friend (Helen) and a mentor (Lowood’s headmistress, Miss Temple) whose example light her way even after they pass from her life. In fighting for the right to self-improvement represented by books, Jane becomes “heir” as well as “Eyre” to the best of civilization and the best of herself.
(Portrait of Charlotte Bronte ca. 1839 by J. H. Thompson)