Charlotte Bronte's thoughts on Jane Eyre

quoted from her letters

To W.S. Williams, 28 October 1847

You are right in having faith in the reality of Helen Burns's character: she was real enough: I have exaggerated nothing there: I abstained from recording much that I remember respecting her, lest the narrative should sound incredible. Knowing this, I could not but smile at the quiet, self-complacent dogmatism with which one of the journal lays it down that "such creations as Helen Burns are very beautiful but very untrue".

The plot of "Jane Eyre" may be a hackneyed one; Mr. Thackeray remarks that it is familiar to him; but having read comparatively few novels, I never chanced to meet with it, and I thought it original --. [...]

I would still endeavour to keep my expectations low respecting the ultimate success of "Jane Eyre"; but my desire that it should succeed augments -- for you have taken much trouble about the work, and it would grieve me seriously if your active efforts should be baffled and your sanguine hopes disappointed: excuse me if I again remark that I fear they are too sanguine; it would be better to moderate them. What will the critics of the Monthly Reviews and Magazines be likely to see in "Jane Eyre" (if indeed they deign to read it) which will win from them even a stinted modicum of approbation? It has no learning, no research, it discusses no subject of public interest. A mere domestic novel will I fear seem trivial to men of large views and solid attainments.

28 October

I have just recd. "the Tablet" and the "Morning Advertiser" - neither paper seems inimical to the book - but I see it produces a very different effect - on different natures. I was amused at the analysis in the Tablet - it is oddly expressed in some parts - I think the critic did not always seize my meaning - he speaks for instance of "Jane's inconceivable alarm at Mr. Rochester's repelling manner" - I do not remember that

To W.S. Williams, 31 December 1847

You do very rightly and very kindly to tell me the objections made against "Jane Eyre"; they are more essential than the praises. I feel a sort of heart-ache when I hear the book called "godless" and "pernicious" by good and earnest-minded men - but I know that heart-ache will be salutary - at least I trust so.

What is meant by the charges of "trickery" and "artifice" I have yet to comprehend. It was no art in me to write a tale - it was no trick in Messrs. Smith & Elder to publish it. Where do the trickery and artifice lie?

I have received the Scotsman, and was greatly amused to see Jane Eyre likened to Rebecca Sharp - the resemblance would hardly have occurred to me.

To W.S. Williams, 4 January 1848

Your letter made me ashamed of myself that I should ever have uttered a murmur, or expressed by any sign that I was sensible of pain from the unfavourable opinions of some misjudging but well-meaning people. But indeed, let me assure you, I am not ungrateful for the kindness which has been given me in such abundant measure; I can discriminate the proportions in which blame and praise have been awarded to my efforts; I see well that I have had less of the former and more of the latter than I merit; I am not therefore crushed, though I may be momentarily saddened by the frown, even of the good.

It would take a great deal to crush me, because I know, in the first place, that my own intentions were correct; that I feel in my heart a deep reverence for Religion, that impiety is very abhorrent to me; and in the second, I place firm reliance on the judgement of some who have encouraged me. You and Mr. Lewes are quite as good authorities in my estimation as Mr. Dilke or the editor of the Spectator, and I would not under any circumstances, or for any opprobrium regard with shame what my friends had approved: none but a coward would let the detraction of an enemy outweigh the encouragement of a friend. You must not therefore fulfil your threat of being less communicative in future; you must kindly tell me all.

Miss Kavanagh's view of the Maniac coincides with Leigh Hunt's. I agree with them that the character is shocking, but I know that it is but too natural. There is a phase of insanity which may be called moral madness, in which all that is good or even human seems to disappear from the mind and a fiend-nature replaces it. The sole aim and desire of the being thus possessed is to exasperate, to molest, to destroy, and preternatural ingenuity and energy are often exercised to that dreadful end. The aspect in such cases, assimilates with the disposition; all seems demonized. It is true that profound pity ought to be the only sentiment elicited by the view of such degradation, and equally true is it that I have not sufficiently dwelt on that feeling; I have erred in making horror too predominant. Mrs. Rochester indeed lived a sinful life before she was insane, but sin is itself a species of insanity: the truly good behold and compassionate it as such.

"Jane Eyre" has got down into Yorkshire; a copy has even penetrated into this neighborhood: I saw an elderly clergyman reading it the other day, and had the satisfaction of hearing him exclaim "Why - they have got --- School, and Mr. --- here, I declare! and Miss --- (naming the originals of Lowood, Mr. Brocklehurst and Miss Temple). He had known them all: I wondered whether he would recognize the portraits, and was gratified to find that he did and that moreover he pronounced them faithful and just - he said too that Mr. --- (Brocklehurst) "deserved the chastisement he had got."

To W.S. Williams, 5 February 1848

A representation of "Jane Eyre" at a minor theatre would no doubt be a rather afflicting spectacle to the author of that work. I suppose all would be woefully exaggerated and painfully vulgarised by the actors and actresses on such a stage. What, I cannot help asking myself, would they make of Mr. Rochester? And the picture my fancy conjures up by way of reply is a somewhat humiliating one. What would they make of Jane Eyre? I see something very pert and very affected as an answer to that query.

Still, were it in my power, I should certainly make a point of being myself a witness of the exhibition. Could I go quietly and alone, I undoubtedly should go; I should endeavour to endure both rant and whine, strut and grimace, for the sake of the useful observations to be collected in such a scene.

To W.S. Williams, 11 March 1848

As to your second suggestion, it is, one can see at a glance, a very judicious and happy one; but I cannot adopt it, because I have not the skill you attribute to me. It is not enough to have the artist's eye; one must also have the artist's hand to turn the first gift to practical account. I have, in my day, wasted a certain quantity of Bristol board and drawing-paper, crayons and cakes of colour, but when I examine the contents of my portfolio no, it seems as if during the years it has been lying closed, some fairy had changed what I once thought sterling coin into dry leaves, and I feel much inclined to consign the whole collection of drawings to the fire; I see they have no value. If then "Jane Eyre" is ever to be illustrated it must be by some other hand than that of it's author. But I hope no one will be at the trouble to make portraits of my characters: Bulwer- and Byron- heroes and heroines are very well - they are all of them handsome-; but my personages are mostly unattractive in look and therefore ill-adapted to figure in ideal portraits -- At the best, I have always thought such representations futile.

To W.S. Williams, 14 August 1848

You say, Mr. Huntingdon reminds you for Mr. Rochester - does he? Yet there is no likeness between the two; the foundation of each character is entirely different. Huntingdon is a specimen of the naturally selfish sensual, superficial man whose merit of a joyous temperament only avails him while he is young and healthy, whose best days are his earliest, who never profits by experience, who is sure to grow worse, the older he grows. Mr. Rochester has a thoughtful nature and a very feeling heart; he is neither selfish nor self-indulgent; he is ill-educated, mis-guided, errs, when he does err, through rashness and inexperience: he lives for a time as too many other men live - but being radically better than most men he does not like that degraded life, and is never happy in it. He is taught the severe lessons of Experience and has sense to learn wisdom from them - years improve him - the effervescence of youth foamed away, what is really good in him still remains - his nature is like wine of a good vintage, time cannot sour - but only mellows him. Such at least was the character I meant to pourtray.

From The Life of Charlotte Bronte by Elizabeth Gaskell

"Someone conversing with her once objected, in my presence, to that part of Jane Eyre in which she hears Rochester'’s voice crying out to her in a great crisis of her life, he being many, many miles distant at the time. I do not know what incident was in Miss Bronte’'s recollection when she replied, in a low voice, drawing in her breath, ‘'But it is a true thing; it really happened.’”'"