First chapter page of the original manuscript of Jane Eyre (1847) in Charlotte Brontë’s handwriting.
“I sometimes regretted that I was not handsomer: I sometimes wished to have rosy cheeks, a straight nose, and small cherry mouth; I desired to be tall, stately and finely developed in figure; I felt it a misfortune that I was so little, so pale, and had features so irregular and so marked. And why had I these aspirations and these regrets? It would be difficult to say: I could not then distinctly say it to myself…” –Jane Eyre (1.11.47), Charlotte Brontë
If you’ve ever spontaneously decided to find new friends or move to a new town on short notice, it probably took time for the change to sink in. The changes you experienced popped up in different, unexpected ways—like new routines, new familiar quirks, and new insecurities you found yourself taking on. It’s like you just stepped into a new life altogether. And sometimes, you figure, that’s exactly what you need.
Jane Eyre had a similar situation when she realized how bored she was at the tiny, cramped boarding school where she grew into adulthood. So she found a job as a governess and accepted it on very short notice. Oh, crap, she started to think by the time she was in her carriage to travel to her new charges at Thornfield Hall. I just made an impulsive decision.
Jane’s new family was now a student, a lonely housekeeper, and a few maids—none of whom were actually related. The enormous mansion itself was empty and creepy, and at night there was the routine shrieking coming from the attic that no one seemed to question. Yes, Jane found her new life as a governess here beyond strange, but it was a new life nonetheless, and she liked a new routine.
When I moved to Illinois, I was too afraid to meet new people, much like Jane’s initial anxiety for starting a new life. I decided that meeting people I liked or admired was wishful thinking – so I never motivated myself to make something of myself. I let myself take a backseat. But the instant I started developing relationships with wonderful, new people, I did everything I could to figure myself out, to be memorable to the people I grew to love. I had a new sense of purpose. But in pushing myself to be the best version of me, I also had a tendency to become dangerously self-critical.
Like me, Jane also found herself growing more self conscious as she wanted—for the first time—not to be left out. Usually, Jane was happy taking a backseat, but now she found friends that reciprocated respect and interest. In fact, she loved everything about her new life so much that she even found herself friendzoned by her student’s adoptive father, her employer. (Awkward.) And, for the first time in her life, she started to feel insecure about something she never really gave much thought: her appearance.
When I first read Jane’s intimate inner dialogue, quoted at the top of this post, I was struck by the raw, resonant quality of Charlotte Brontë’s voice. I found myself nodding along, thinking of times I’ve asked myself Why couldn’t I just have been someone else? Why do I have to look like me? There was something empowering about knowing that Jane, who I had already travelled with so far on her journey, had a struggle similar to mine. My insecurity was valid and important. But you wouldn’t think you could connect so well with a character written two centuries ago.
The power Charlotte Brontë had to develop mere words into someone with flesh and blood enchanted me. She’d written into existence someone that confided in me, someone I knew I would confide in. The evening that I finished Jane Eyre, I sought out to discover Charlotte’s secret. And I discovered that aside from her other-worldly Gothic creativity, her ability to put herself into her writing was her finest skill. She literally wrote about what she knew; Jane Eyre is considered a semi-autobiographical novel.
The details of Charlotte’s life unfolded in a sense of drama uncannily similar to the events in her writing. Charlotte, like Jane, attended a school driven with the goal of saving young girls from damnation. Both the fictional and real schools, while striving to discipline its students by giving them a life of humble and scarce means, suffered a typhoid epidemic that swept away two-thirds of the student body. (Both schools’ health and safety standards were largely unmonitored.)
Charlotte, too, was one day tired of living in isolation and took up a teaching post in Belgium. It was there that she was met with extreme change in her lifestyle. It was there that she was friendzoned by her boss. But Charlotte was not as lucky as Jane, who later realized that she was not actually in the friendzone and, to her delight, had her feelings reciprocated. Jane’s author instead was really friendzoned by her boss, who was happily married. So she quit her job when she realized that he, in fact, lead her on; she fled back home, immersing herself in her writing to recuperate.
That was when she penned her most famous work, taking advantage of words to call out the injustice she found in a world that was cruel to her sex. Essentially, she made art from something terrible. She turned the ungraceful into something timeless.
Though Charlotte and Jane ultimately led very different lives, Jane is a very detailed portrait of her author’s character. Charlotte, too, faced many of the relatable coming-of-age issues and internal conflicts she highlights in Jane. And this portrait is a treasure, given that I can count on my fingers the number of times Charlotte left her small hometown during her life. Considering her immense fame during her own lifetime and continuing now, the amount of documentation that exists about her life is horrendously scarce.
I was empowered to be able to connect with Jane on my own internal conflicts. But I was honored to know that Charlotte, a master with her timeless pen and paper, struggled with her self-esteem all the same.
One of the aspects of Jane Eyre I love most is Charlotte Brontë’s use of second-person point of view in her semi-autobiographical narrative. She’s addressing you, the Reader, in every step of her journey. She trusts you, includes you, considers you a friend. Charlotte’s voice resonated even after I closed the back cover. There was no way I was done there. I needed to more to Jane’s story—I needed more to Charlotte’s story.
That was the first time I opened the can of worms that is Brontëmania. It would still be years before I realized that my story of falling in love with Jane was also the story of many of my fellow Brontëmaniacs.
All information cited comes from The Life of Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Gaskell, the Brontë sisters’ original work, and secondhand sources of their personal diaries (courtesy of the Brontë Parsonage Museum).