She who spoke out her mind

September 04, 2018 12:00 am | Updated 03:32 am IST

A well-written book that readers from all over the world enjoy generation after generation is what we call a classic. Every week this column will feature a classic. Today, we focus on Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre

by Charlotte Bronte


The original title of “Jane Eyre” (1847) suggested that it was an autobiography, “edited” by Currer Bell. In fact, it was a novel written by Charlotte Bronte under the pen name Currer Bell. In it, an orphan successfully makes her way in the world. Little Jane is treated cruelly by her wealthy aunt and cousins and then sent to Lowood, a strict boarding school. There the students starve and freeze in the winter, till many of them die, including the fellow student Jane loves best, Helen Burns. But Jane studies six years at Lowood and then teaches there for two years. She eventually leaves the school to work as a governess (a female tutor) to a little girl.

In her new home, Thornfield, she meets Edward Rochester, the mysterious and often gloomy guardian of her student. She and Rochester have interesting conversations and though he is older, wealthier and more powerful, she matches him in her thinking and her speech. He asks her to marry him, but on the morning of the wedding she discovers that he, and his house, have hidden a secret for many years. Jane must escape Thornfield and start all over again in life.


Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855) and her two sisters, Emily and Anne, became famous with their very first novels. Apart from the power of their writing, their hidden identities created a stir. They wrote under the names Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, and reviewers and readers debated whether they were men or women, or even whether they were all just the same writer. They grew up in relative poverty and isolation in Yorkshire, England, and their mother and other sisters died young. At a very young age, the three sisters and their brother wrote elaborate mythologies. Charlotte went to study in Brussels and when she returned home she insisted that the three sisters should publish their new work. Her other novels are “Shirley”, “Villette”, and “The Professor”.


In the Brontës’ time, women’s writing was often dismissed as unimportant, and that is why the sisters used pen names. “Jane Eyre” captured readers’ imaginations with its deeply personal and emotional narrative voice that drew the reader into the mind of the heroine. It was a rare technique then. Also unusual was Jane’s bold and independent way of thinking and reasoning. She is always a good student, a dedicated teacher, and a loving sister and wife, according to the social customs of that era, but she also speaks out against class and gender prejudice. At a time when women were cautious about what they said, she is honest about her feelings and opinions. Teaching was almost the only profession open to women in the mid-1800s, and the novel shows that it was often a difficult life.


There have been numerous films of Jane Eyre—the earliest a silent movie made in 1910, and the latest in 2011.


You may enjoy “The Woman in White” by Wilkie Collins, a Victorian mystery with an extraordinary woman at its centre.


I shuddered as I stood and looked round me: it was an inclement day for outdoor exercise—not positively rainy, but darkened by a drizzling yellow fog; all under foot was still soaking wet with the floods of yesterday. The stronger among the girls ran about and engaged in active games, but sundry pale and thin ones herded together for shelter and warmth in the veranda; and amongst these, as the dense mist penetrated to their shivering frames, I heard frequently the sound of a hollow cough.

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