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One of the world’s most beloved novels, Jane Eyre is a startlingly modern blend of passion, romance, mystery, and suspense.
Susan Ostrov Weisser is a Professor of English at Adelphi University, where she specializes in nineteenth-century literature and women’s studies. Her research centers on women and romantic love in nineteenth-century literature, as well as on contemporary popular culture. Weisser also wrote the introduction to the Barnes & Noble Classics edition of Persuasion.
From Susan Ostrov Weisser’s Introduction to Jane Eyre
Matthew Arnold famously characterized Charlotte Brontë’s writing as full of “rebellion and rage,” yet that description does not easily square with the most famous line of her best-known novel, Jane Eyre: “Reader, I married him.” Coming as it does at the conclusion of a tempestuous series of ordeals in the romance of the governess Jane Eyre and her wealthy employer, Rochester, it implies a conventional happy ending for a heroine, her domestic reward for virtue. Between these two differing accounts of Jane Eyre as subversive and conservative lies a complex and challenging novel full of paradoxes, not least of which is that it appears regularly on lists of classics, yet has had enduring mass appeal as a romance as well.
In Jane Eyre we have that unusual monument in the history of literature, a novel considered from the first a work of high literary merit that is also an immediate and enormous popular success. Indeed, it continues to be widely read both in and out of the academic setting. While it is often “required” reading in secondary schools and universities, it has also been adapted into numerous films, television productions, theatrical plays, and at least one Broadway musical. The first of these productions took place in London less than four months after the novel’s publication, much to the dismay of its author, who feared, like most authors, that the play would misrepresent her work. In fact, it is not surprising that most adaptations of Jane Eyre have selectively emphasized the melodramatic Gothic and romantic elements of the novel at the expense of less easily dramatized aspects, such as its passages about religion or the condition of women. Yet these are just as integral to its meaning as the melodrama for which it is remembered, if not more so.
In some ways it is difficult to account for the continued stature and popular appeal of a work that has been read as both feminist and antifeminist, radical and conservative, highly original and highly derivative, Romantic and Victorian. Certainly many readers, beginning with George Eliot in the nineteenth century, have been disturbed by the way the plot hinges on a moral dilemma involving antiquated divorce laws and nineteenth-century notions of women’s sexual purity. Some critics, such as Virginia Woolf, have seen the novel as too angry for its own literary good; others, notably some modern feminist critics, as not explicitly angry enough. Why does this novel about the moral trials of an impoverished and orphaned governess continue to hold such fascination for a modern audience? Is it the passionate romance, the Cinderella ending, the incipient feminism of its views about the suppression of women?
Most readers who respond to the novel agree that the appeal of Jane Eyre lies in its intensity of feeling, richness of language, and forceful representation of passion in a decidedly dramatic plot. Even at its publication in 1847, critics and the public recognized that, for better or worse, Jane Eyre was something different: a novel about a woman written with a man’s freedom, the freedom to portray the indecorum of a heroine who has outbursts of anger as a child and uncontrollable passion as an adult, who confesses her desire openly when she thinks it is hopeless and refuses the passive and dependent role in romance. All these violated deeply entrenched social codes of femininity and respectability, and shocked some of Brontë’s early critics. Miss Eyre is “rather a brazen Miss,” cried one contemporary reader letter from John Gibson Lockhart, 1847; another called the novel “dangerous,” filled with “outrages on decorum.” “[The author] cannot appreciate the hold which a daily round of simple duties and pure pleasures has on those who are content to practice and enjoy them,” sniffed another reviewer Anne Mozley, The Christian Remembrancer, April 1853.
Fearing with justification that female authors would not be taken seriously, the three Brontë sisters, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, published their first novels in 1847 under the male pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. A great deal of speculation followed in the press about the identities of the pseudonymous authors, including controversy as to their gender. The exciting revelation that eventually followed—that the writers were not only females, but the humble, reserved, unfashionable, and religious daughters of a clergyman living in a remote village on the moors of Yorkshire—only stimulated more curiosity, this time about the nature of the women who could produce such disturbing works about passion while leading reclusive and virginal lives.
Many modern readers are aware that Charlotte Brontë was one of four remarkable children, three of whom, including Emily Brontë and Anne Brontë, became famous authors themselves, and the other of whom, Branwell, the only brother, died at age thirty-one in miserable and ignoble circumstances. One important aspect of Jane Eyre’s remarkable success has surely been the literary mystery that has grown to the proportions of myth about the entire Brontë family: How could the modest, unworldly authors of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall have understood and depicted fervent, obsessive, sometimes violent love?