April 21st would be Charlotte Brontë’s 200th birthday. As Jane Eyre is my favourite book and as a fan of Brontë’s in general, I jumped at the chance to do a little research on her and her work. I knew that some letters of Brontë’s had been published in The Times in the early 20th century, so I used those and Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography (both available via Gale Artemis: Primary Sources) to do a little digging. Having read Jane Eyre every year for the past 20 or so years I thought I knew everything there was to know about its history, but I was a little surprised by some of the things I found out…
- Brontë’s father lost his vision:
Spoiler alert! Towards the end of Jane Eyre, Mr Rochester, the romantic lead, loses his eyesight and his hand in a dramatic fire. The once proud and ferocious Rochester becomes completely dependent on those around him, and it is this, as well as Jane’s unexpected inheritance, that finally brings he and Jane onto an equal footing. As Jane says at the end of the novel:
“Mr. Rochester continued blind the first two years of our union; perhaps it was that circumstance that drew us so very near—that knit us so very close: for I was then his vision, as I am still his right hand. Literally, I was (what he often called me) the apple of his eye… He loved me so truly, that he knew no reluctance in profiting by my attendance: he felt I loved him so fondly, that to yield that attendance was to indulge my sweetest wishes.”
I hadn’t realised that Brontë’s father also lost his vision, and that Brontë became his nurse. In a letter she wrote to her beloved tutor Monsieur Héger in 1845, she writes to say that her father’s sight is almost completely gone:
As Jane Eyre was first published in 1847 it is not difficult to suppose that she was writing from life when she described Rochester’s blindness, as she had seen her father experience it first-hand.
- Brontë’s love for M. Héger was very similar to Jane Eyre’s for Mr Rochester:
I already knew that Brontë spent her young adulthood as a student in Belgium, and there she fell in love with her married tutor, Monsieur Héger. Her love was very much unrequited, but there was a mutual respect between them and Charlotte was permitted to correspond with M. Héger after she returned to England, and it is these letters that were later published in The Times. I had little idea of the depths of Charlotte’s passion for her tutor until I read these letters:I was very much struck by the similarity of this passage and of how Jane Eyre refers to her ‘master’ Mr Rochester – both Charlotte and her fictitious counterpart Jane Eyre adored these men but were acutely aware of their position and the (seeming) impossibility of their love being requited, and therefore would have to be satisfied with the ‘crumbs’ of friendship that these men bestowed:
“I knew there would be pleasure in meeting my master again, even though broken by the fear that he was so soon to cease to be my master, and by the knowledge that I was nothing to him: but there was ever in Mr. Rochester (so at least I thought) such a wealth of the power of communicating happiness, that to taste but of the crumbs he scattered to stray and stranger birds like me, was to feast genially.”
- Brontë did not like her appearance:
One of the most romantic elements of Jane Eyre is that Jane’s and Rochester’s love transcends such superficial barriers as physical appearance and fortune. Early on in the novel Jane wishes that she were more attractive as she feels the loneliness of her situation. According to this description of Brontë by her publisher, she was a very small, quaint figure, just like Jane, and she was not happy with the way she looked:
That Charlotte Brontë was a fascinating and complex woman is not a new revelation to me. The woman who wrote novels of independent women defying social norms and making their own destiny at a time when women did not even have the vote must have been a woman of extraordinary talents. But I am gratified to learn how much of herself Brontë put into her writing, and to know that the next time I read Jane Eyre it will be bring me to a closer understanding of Brontë as a person.
For those who wish to explore further, I discovered the above items in The Times Digital Archive, Nineteenth Century Collections Online, and 19th Century British Library Newspapers, all cross-searchable via Gale Artemis: Primary Sources.