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About this book

Sara Lodge offers a lively introduction to the critical history of one of the most widely-studied nineteenth-century novels, from the first reviews through to present day responses. The Guide also includes sections devoted to feminist, Marxist and postcolonial criticism of Jane Eyre, as well as analysis of recent developments.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Abstract
Everybody reads Jane Eyre. Charlotte Brontë’s story of a rebellious orphan who survives a harsh school, becomes a governess in a mysterious mansion and falls in love with the owner, only to discover a secret that forces her to escape and forge a new life before returning to him, has gripped a remarkably diverse audience from its publication in 1847 to the present day. Queen Victoria (1819–1901; reigned 1837–1901) read it, recording in her journal that it ‘is really a wonderful book very peculiar in parts, but […] such a fine tone in it, such fine religious feeling, such beautiful writing. The description of the mysterious maniac’s nightly appearances awfully thrilling’.1 The young American poet Emily Dickinson (1830–86) pronounced it ‘electric’.2 The all-male crew of HMS Discovery on the polar expedition of 1901–4 led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott (1868–1912) borrowed it repeatedly from the ship’s library. The literary historian Prince Dmitri Mirsky (1890–1939), fighting in the Russian Civil War in 1918, remembered coming across Jane Eyre in an Armenian town during the white army’s retreat and experiencing ‘the intense thrill of the first reading’.3 In 1947, a speaker to the Brontë Society recalled that Jane Eyre had recently been serialised on the radio and had attracted more than 6,000,000 listeners for eleven successive weeks: in the sombre post-war climate ‘the tale shone through these grey days, when we seem almost afraid of emotion, like […] a live coal.’4 More recently, in 2004, listeners to the BBC Radio programme ‘Woman’s Hour’ voted Jane Eyre second in an all-time list of books that had changed their lives.
Sara Lodge, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter One. Victorian Responses: Power and Popularity; Coarseness and Criticism

Abstract
The novel we now know as Jane Eyre was first published, in three volumes entitled Jane Eyre. An Autobiography. Edited by Currer Bell, in London on 16 October 1847. It was immediately and resoundingly popular. The first edition sold out within three months. A second edition, with an authorial preface, was issued in January and a third in April 1848. Thomas Wemyss Reid (1842–1905) mused in 1877 that ‘Those who remember that winter of nine-and-twenty years ago know how something like a “Jane Eyre” fever raged among us.’1 The novel was widely reviewed in newspapers and magazines and discussed by readers including the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray (1811–63), whose own literary masterpiece, Vanity Fair, was appearing in monthly numbers during 1847–48. Thackeray, to whom Brontë’s publishers had sent a complimentary copy, thanked them for a gripping and emotionally intense experience:
■ I wish you had not sent me Jane Eyre. It interested me so much that I have lost (or won if you like) a whole day in reading it […] Who the author can be I can’t guess — if a woman she knows her language better than most ladies do, or has had a ‘classical’ education. It is a fi ne book though — the man & woman capital — the style very generous and upright so to speak […] Some of the love passages made me cry […] St. John the Missionary is a failure I think but a good failure there are parts excellent I dont know why I tell you this but that I have been exceedingly moved & pleased by Jane Eyre. It is a womans writing, but whose?2
Sara Lodge, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Two. Jane Eyre’s ‘I’: From Humanism to Deconstruction

Abstract
Unlike many Victorian novels, Jane Eyre remained a bestseller in the twentieth century. A divide emerged in the period between 1900 and 1950, however, between popular affection for Jane Eyre as a love story and academic disdain for Jane Eyre as a work of art. Lord David Cecil, a critic and biographer who would become Goldsmiths’ Professor of English Literature at Oxford in 1949, described Jane Eyre in 1934 as ‘a roaring melodrama’ whose plot, like those of Charlotte Brontë’s other novels, is ‘conventional, confusing, and unlikely’.1 He noted that among Jane Eyre’s other faults, it was formless, humourless, and exaggerated — saved from absurdity only by the power of Brontë’s ‘volcanic’ imagination.2 In a 1958 survey, The English Novel the novelist and critic Walter Allen (1911–95) suggested that ‘if it were not for the unity of tone, Jane Eyre would be incoherent, for as a construction it is artless’.3 He added that Charlotte Brontë’s novels need ‘to be read in adolescence; come to them after that and a considerable act of imagination is called for before she can be read with sympathy’. F.R. Leavis (1895–1978), in his formidably selective account of the English novel, The Great Tradition (1948), deliberately relegated the Brontës to a footnote: ‘Charlotte, though claiming no part in the great line of English fiction […] has a permanent interest of a minor kind […] The genius, of course, was Emily.’4 Tom Winnifrith, even in 1977 felt the need to mount a critical defence of Jane Eyre as a great novel. As he explained, the Brontës’ tragic lives and passionate prose had gained them a following of pilgrims, who were more inclined to visit the shrine of the Brontë Museum in Haworth than to subject the novels to measured appraisal: ‘Such a cult has not found favour with the high priests of our more austere literary tradition, and just as there are some students of the Brontës who know nothing of any other major literary figure, so there are students of literature who profess to know almost nothing about the Brontës’.5
Sara Lodge, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Three. An Iconic Text: Feminist and Psychoanalytic Criticism

Abstract
Jane Eyre is the story of a woman’s life. Since its publication it has been a novel enjoyed by female readers (although also by male ones), many of whom have felt convinced, as Harriet Martineau reported feeling, ‘that it was by some friend of my own, who had portions of my childish experience in his or her mind’.1 Is Jane Eyre, then, in some important respects, the story of every woman’s life, its trials emblematic of the difficulties that face women everywhere in their quest for self-determination and self-fulfilment? This is the assertion of many feminist critics for whom Jane Eyre is an iconic text expressive both of the obstacles and injustices under which women labour and the power of the female protagonist and the female author to resist, reform, and flourish in a male-dominated world.
Sara Lodge, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Four. Caste Typing: Marxist and Materialist Criticism

Abstract
Most readers forget the names of the servants in Jane Eyre. There are, after all, a lot of them: Bessie and Abbot at Gateshead, Sophie, Leah, John, and Grace Poole at Thornfield, Hannah at Moor House, John and Mary at Ferndean — we do not know the full names of most of the servants and there are others whose names we do not learn at all. Indeed it is very easy, when reading a novel, to ignore the economic and class structures that support the plot. Whose work was necessary to make the money that Jane Eyre inherits from her uncle in Madeira? Where does Rochester’s money come from? And why, exactly, is it that gentlemen in Mr Rochester’s social station are ‘not accustomed to marry their governesses’? As we involve ourselves in Jane’s story, it is also easy to forget that the book we are holding is an industrial product, involving multiple hands, from paper-makers and binders to printers and distributors: the novel exists within a particular social and economic system in which it accomplishes and demands certain kinds of work. This chapter deals with criticism of Jane Eyre that deliberately chooses to focus on economic and class structures within and around the novel.
Sara Lodge, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Five. Bertha’s Savage Face: Postcolonial Concerns

Abstract
The British Empire is at both the geographical margin and the ideological centre of Jane Eyre. This is the view of many late twentieth and early twenty-first century critics, who draw attention to the various ways in which the novel’s ‘plot’, in the twin sense of its outcomes and the space in which it locates its action, depends upon the far reaches of an empire that is outside the pale of the central romance between Jane and Rochester yet funds, defines, and threatens to undermine their union. Rochester’s Creole wife, Bertha, comes from the West Indies, where Rochester was sent by his family to marry money. That money and perhaps the blood of his wife, who turns into a creature with a ‘savage’, ‘blackened’ face and swollen, dark lips, is infused by the legacy of African slaves, who were sold in the West Indies in a triangular trade involving commodities such as sugar and rum, which were then shipped to Europe. Jane’s uncle in Madeira, another point on this trading route, is connected to the West Indies and her inheritance is thus also linked to imperial traffic that has slavery at its roots. India and the East also feature strongly in Jane Eyre’s plot. Most obviously, Jane considers going to India as a missionary with her cousin St John Rivers and the novel ends with a letter from St John in Calcutta [Kolkata] where, Jane remarks, he ‘labours for his race’ and is likely soon to die. More subtly, the imagery of the harem and of ‘sati’ — the practice in which Hindu widows sacrificed themselves on a pyre to burn alongside their dead husbands — recurs in Jane’s conversations with Rochester about the boundaries of their relationship. The nature and meanings of Jane Eyre’s deployment of discourses of empire, race, and cultural difference have become among the most hotly debated topics of modern Brontë studies.
Sara Lodge, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Six. New Historicism and The Turn Toward History

Abstract
Studies of Jane Eyre from 1980 to the present have been diverse and wide-ranging, but many are informed by a new interest in the novel’s relationship to nineteenth-century social and cultural history. Critics have been at pains to situate Jane Eyre, its composition, publication, readership and later forms of transmission such as adaptations for theatre, radio, and cinema, within contexts that illuminate the ideas on which the novel draws, the debates in which it participates, the cultures of which it has been and remains a part.
Sara Lodge, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Seven. Jane Eyre Adapted

Abstract
Modern criticism has become increasingly attentive not only to the way in which Jane Eyre is embedded in the particular history of its time of writing and first publication, but also to the way in which each adaptation and rewriting of Brontë’s novel relates to the social, ideological, and cultural life of its age. Once regarded as inferior bridesmaids, following and imitating the original text, adaptations of Jane Eyre have recently enjoyed their own trip down the literary studies aisle, as critics espouse the fascinations of Jane Eyres set in India, Italy, and America, and consider the possibilities of prequels, sequels, and rewritten plot-lines in which Jane works in a soup kitchen; marries her clergyman cousin and has six children; or even becomes a generator maintenance technician on the isolated planet Fieldspar in outer space.1
Sara Lodge, Nicolas Tredell

Conclusion

Abstract
Where will criticism of Jane Eyre go next? It is difficult to forecast the critical future of a text that, as this Guide has shown, has already generated such a rich history of literary response from critics in so many different camps. Two predictions can, however, be made with some confidence. The first is that new technologies will continue to expand the range of ways in which an ever-growing audience encounters and debates Jane Eyre. The second is that future approaches to Jane Eyre will continue to expand the range of cultural products they address.
Sara Lodge, Nicolas Tredell
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