Born in Yorkshire, England, on the 21st of April, 1816, Charlotte Brontë was the third of six Brontë children, and the longest surviving. Along with her younger sisters Emily (1818-1848) and Anne (1820-1849), Charlotte remains a popular author to this day. She completed four novels in her lifetime, three of which she saw published (the last being published posthumously), as well as poetry published collectively with her sisters under male pseudonyms. She worked for much of her life as a teacher, or governess, in the north of England and in Brussells, Belgium. She eventually married, happily, in 1854. Less than a year later, at the age of 38, Charlotte Brontë died whilst pregnant with her first child. Her literary legacy, however, lives on, and her first published novel, Jane Eyre (1847), is still celebrated as one of the most famous romances of all time and as a seminal work in its exploration of the protagonist’s consciousness through prose.
Not knowing all that the first time I read Jane Eyre (against my will as a student), I assumed it to be all petticoats and proper etiquette, and my mind was so obscured by preconception that I somehow missed the story entirely. A few years later, I read it again and its gothic complexities were revealed to me. The secrets were loosed from the attic…
“𝕴 𝖋𝖊𝖑𝖙 𝖕𝖍𝖞𝖘𝖎𝖈𝖆𝖑𝖑𝖞 𝖜𝖊𝖆𝖐 𝖆𝖓𝖉 𝖇𝖗𝖔𝖐𝖊𝖓 𝖉𝖔𝖜𝖓: 𝖇𝖚𝖙 𝖒𝖞 𝖜𝖔𝖗𝖘𝖙 𝖆𝖎𝖑𝖒𝖊𝖓𝖙 𝖜𝖆𝖘 𝖆𝖓 𝖚𝖓𝖚𝖙𝖙𝖊𝖗𝖆𝖇𝖑𝖊 𝖜𝖗𝖊𝖙𝖈𝖍𝖊𝖉𝖓𝖊𝖘𝖘 𝖔𝖋 𝖙𝖍𝖊 𝖒𝖎𝖓𝖉.”
– Charlotte Brontë
The novel follows our titular gothic heroine, who in classic fairytale fashion is alone in the world. The young, orphaned Jane is in the care of a rich, evil aunt, who punishes her by locking her in the ominously named red-room – the very room in which her uncle had died, and in which, she maintains, his ghost remains.
Very early on, the punishment of ‘improper’, independent female behaviour by imprisonment is established as a norm(!). Despite having cried “Ghost!” however, the professionals are on Jane’s side, and it is the apothecary, Mr Lloyd, who prescribes the young protagonist a formal education, enabling her to escape the home at last…
“𝕾𝖎𝖓𝖈𝖊 𝖙𝖍𝖊 𝖒𝖊𝖉𝖎𝖈𝖆𝖑 𝖒𝖊𝖓 𝖍𝖆𝖉 𝖕𝖗𝖔𝖓𝖔𝖚𝖓𝖈𝖊𝖉 𝖍𝖊𝖗 𝖒𝖆𝖉, 𝖘𝖍𝖊 𝖍𝖆𝖉, 𝖔𝖋 𝖈𝖔𝖚𝖗𝖘𝖊, 𝖇𝖊𝖊𝖓 𝖘𝖍𝖚𝖙 𝖚𝖕.”
– Charlotte Brontë
After close to a decade studying and then teaching at the school, Jane finds herself governess in the home of a Mr. Rochester, ***Spoiler Warning*** that classic, charming love interest with a pyromaniac first wife, named Bertha, locked in the attic…
Jane is strong, especially for a female protagonist published in 1847, but she’s still trapped in a constant struggle between isolating freedom and domestic confinement. Bertha, depicted as an animal, is Jane’s double – a gothic trope used to reveal startling similarities between immediately dissimilar characters.
In The Madwoman in the Attic (1979), literary critics Sandra Gilbert & Susan Gubar assert that Bertha is a manifestation of Brontë’s own emotion – the culmination of a life of female oppression, of sadness and anger. But Bertha is a wild, sexual beast, she’s strong, and smart, and she cannot be killed. Whilst she’s not the most upsetting glimpse into an author’s psyche, the representation of mental health is particularly revealing…
Do any of your favourite characters offer heavily (or thinly) veiled glimpses into their author’s mind?
“𝕴 𝖘𝖆𝖙 𝖑𝖔𝖔𝖐𝖎𝖓𝖌 𝖆𝖙 𝖙𝖍𝖊 𝖜𝖍𝖎𝖙𝖊 𝖇𝖊𝖉 𝖆𝖓𝖉 𝖔𝖛𝖊𝖗𝖘𝖍𝖆𝖉𝖔𝖜𝖊𝖉 𝖜𝖆𝖑𝖑𝖘 […] 𝕴 𝖇𝖊𝖌𝖆𝖓 𝖙𝖔 𝖗𝖊𝖈𝖆𝖑𝖑 𝖜𝖍𝖆𝖙 𝕴 𝖍𝖆𝖉 𝖍𝖊𝖆𝖗𝖉 𝖔𝖋 𝖉𝖊𝖆𝖉 𝖒𝖊𝖓 𝖙𝖗𝖔𝖚𝖇𝖑𝖊𝖉 𝖎𝖓 𝖙𝖍𝖊𝖎𝖗 𝖌𝖗𝖆𝖛𝖊𝖘.”
– Elizabeth Gaskell
This quotation, whilst credited to Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865, English novelist & biographer, contemporary to the Brontës), is itself quoting Mary Jones, a school-friend of Charlotte Brontë, who in turn is paraphrasing a passage from Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Suffice it to say The Life of Charlotte Brontë is a black hole of quotation marks and inverted commas!
In this particular section, Gaskell discusses the similarities between Brontë and her famous female protagonist through Jones’ examples. Jones recalls Brontë confiding in her, recounting a fright she had had in the dark of night. Gaskell continues to quote Jones:
“‘𝔉𝔯𝔬𝔪 𝔱𝔥𝔞𝔱 𝔫𝔦𝔤𝔥𝔱,’ 𝔐𝔞𝔯𝔶 𝔞𝔡𝔡𝔰, ‘𝔥𝔢𝔯 𝔦𝔪𝔞𝔤𝔦𝔫𝔞𝔱𝔦𝔬𝔫𝔰 𝔟𝔢𝔠𝔞𝔪𝔢 𝔤𝔩𝔬𝔬𝔪𝔶 𝔬𝔯 𝔣𝔯𝔦𝔤𝔥𝔱𝔣𝔲𝔩; 𝔰𝔥𝔢 𝔠𝔬𝔲𝔩𝔡 𝔫𝔬𝔱 𝔥𝔢𝔩𝔭 𝔦𝔱, 𝔫𝔬𝔯 𝔥𝔢𝔩𝔭 𝔱𝔥𝔦𝔫𝔨𝔦𝔫𝔤. 𝔖𝔥𝔢 𝔠𝔬𝔲𝔩𝔡 𝔫𝔬𝔱 𝔣𝔬𝔯𝔤𝔢𝔱 𝔱𝔥𝔢 𝔤𝔩𝔬𝔬𝔪, 𝔠𝔬𝔲𝔩𝔡 𝔫𝔬𝔱 𝔰𝔩𝔢𝔢𝔭 𝔞𝔱 𝔫𝔦𝔤𝔥𝔱, 𝔫𝔬𝔯 𝔞𝔱𝔱𝔢𝔫𝔡 𝔦𝔫 𝔱𝔥𝔢 𝔡𝔞𝔶.'”
Gaskell paints an image of Brontë haunted by her psyche, particularly in the solitude of night, that is saddeningly reminiscent of the females trapped in her novel…
Ultimately, I understand that the novel’s ending is written as a happy one – Brontë makes Jane’s contentment abundantly clear – I just don’t agree that it is. Maybe Jane is rewarded for her trust and pious patience, and perhaps Rochester truly is reformed. I know that gender played an inescapable role in the world in which Brontë and her characters lived. Because of this, I know that Jane could not be her own saviour and forge her own crown. I also appreciate that Brontë writes a great deal of strength into the character, and readdresses the balance in leaving Rochester in Jane’s care for the first two years following the fire.
Despite it all though – the understanding, the context – I just don’t think that accepting the man who imprisoned his secret first wife in the rafters with open arms can be considered a happy, let alone a smart, conclusion. The novel is no less a success for my disagreeing with the ending; I just wish for Jane, and Brontë, to have had their worth realised and their freedom found.
How important is it to you to know about an author’s process of, & personal connection to, a novel?
When autobiographical suggestions are made, do you think it’s often a case of correlation rather than causation – that we find what we’re looking for by sheer force of will?
Let me know your thoughts in the comments below, or join the conversation on Instagram. And if you want more screentime in Brontë’s worlds, I highly recommend Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre (2011) starring Mia Wasikowska, and the BBC’s To Walk Invisible (2006) – a poignant portrait of all three famous Brontë sisters.
This post is part of my Gothic Psyche series, exploring portrayals of the mind in the gothic setting.
Coming soon: A discussion on Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, which gives Bertha the voice that Brontë was unable or unwilling to, an investigation of The Double and why it loves gothic fiction, and a look at Colonialism and the ways that this horrific chapter of history manifests in the gothic.
For now, continue reading with a glimpse backwards at the Gothic Muses that laid the foundations for the genre.
4 thoughts on “An Unutterable Wretchedness of the Mind: ‘Jane Eyre’”
I haven’t read Jane Eyre since school, but the way you’ve written about it, it makes me think of The Yellow Wallpaper. Since I really enjoyed that, maybe I should give Jane Eyre another go. Also, I love your shadowy book pics!
Yes, I think it’s worth it – I went from hating it to adoring it! It’s far less poetic, intense, and rapidly paced than the ‘Yellow Wallpaper’, but enjoyable nonetheless. Thank you! The shadows were sheer coincidence too relevant to ignore!
I just love your articles, and I enjoy when you start writing them telling us what was your experience with the book!
I didn’t have to read “Jane Eyre” as a student. My granny gave me her copy and told me: “this is a great book, I like it a lot, I am sure you will love it too”.
I tried reading when I was child, but I could not go on, I cried my eyes out in the first chapters. Specially when Helen passes away. I closed the book and told my Granny that it was enough.
Luckily, when I told her that I was going to study English literature and linguistics, she insisted that I should give the book another chance.
I am so happy to read that Bertha can be understood as Charlotte’s double and as a personification of her own psyche. When I was at the uni, I had a course called “World Literature” and in that course the professor told us and taught us the racist theories about the book. I remember she said that Charlotte Bronte was a racist and had excluded women who were not English or European, because of the prevalent idea that the rest of the world were like animals. Bertha as an outsider, a marginalised character not allowed to speak neither defended by another woman. It really made me feel terrible. But at the same time, I wanted to know any other interpretation, I always thought the book is so complex.
I have also read an analysis of Spivak’s reading of “Jane Eyre” under a feminist eye, I think I should write about that some day.
I completely agree with you:
“The novel is no less a success for my disagreeing with the ending; I just wish for Jane, and Brontë, to have had their worth realised and their freedom found”.
I have always wonder if all those novelist would have changed their endings if there hadn’t been any social conventions about how women should behave and what they were supposed to write. It reminds me of Louisa May Alcott and “Little Women”, she never married, she didn’t want her Jo to marry but she had to.
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Thank you so much, Inia <3! I'm so pleased you enjoyed the piece.
Your granny sounds like a wonderful, encouraging woman.
Yes, it's difficult to fully embrace a novel within the confines of historical context – part of me accepts how difficult and limiting it must have been as a woman in those times, how Bronte's racism was a product of society… but I also wish she, and others, could have transcended it. When they did not have the luxury to speak about things openly, it is about finding the ways that an author conveys things subtly. That space is where a lot of Gothic literature exists.
I read 'Wide Sargasso Sea' recently (I wrote a blog post about that too – the first section is free of spoilers, and I make it clear before I start discussing plot points), which you may enjoy too. It deals with the race issue from a more modern perspective, and I think I actually like it more than Jane Eyre! (Shh, don't tell! Haha.)
Little Women is a good example. I wonder how much the opinions of the publishers influenced Alcott & Bronte's stories…
Thanks for such a thought-provoking comment!