Monday, October 9, 2017

Happy Birthday to the Classic Novel JANE EYRE

In October of 1847 - one hundred and seventy years ago - the classic novel ‘Jane Eyre’ was published by Smith, Elder and Company. The author’s name on the cover was ‘Mr.’ Currer Bell.

But ‘Currer Bell’ didn’t write the book, but Ms. Charlotte Brontë (April 21, 1816 – March 31, 1855) from the village of Haworth in Yorkshire, England. Charlotte had been writing and submitting short stories and poems to publishers under the name of Currer Bell, and despite her stories being rejected, she kept writing. It is said that in 1846 while on a trip with her father to Manchester, England in which he had to have surgery, Charlotte began writing ‘Jane Eyre,’ a semi-autobiographical novel that would help cement her firmly in literary history for generations to come.

Back then women simply were NOT 'writers', never mind published writers – writing was deemed appropriate only for men. So when THE END was written on the final page of ‘Jane Eyre’, Charlotte Brontë knew her male pseudonym would have to yet again accompany her manuscript to prospective publishers. She and her sisters had already cloaked themselves with men’s names in the literary world – much-needed if their work was going to get noticed – and a book of poems had been published under the co-author names of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell - Currer for Charlotte, Ellis for Emily and Acton for Anne. Emily and Anne also published individually under their male pseudonyms.

Six weeks after sending out the manuscript, ‘Jane Eyre’ was published and was an instant success. Charlotte earned 500 pounds for that book; twenty-five times her salary as a governess, which was a tremendous amount for those times. Controversies, myths, fabrications and cover-ups of those times obscure the true story of how the real identity of Currer Bell – as well as Ellis and Acton - came to be, but the authors’ true identities as females didn’t seem to affect the success of ‘Jane Eyre’ as the book launched Charlotte into the literary world, forging close relationships with William Thackery and Elizabeth Gaskell. But it was during the writing and publications of her not-as-successful next novels, ‘Shirley’ and ‘Villette’, that Charlotte was met with family tragedy. The deaths of her brother and sisters brought on a loneliness that seemingly forced her into a loveless marriage. She soon realized the duties of marriage and caring for her ailing father made writing impossible and she died of pneumonia during her pregnancy not having written anything further of note.

Fast forward 170 years….

I first read ‘Jane Eyre’ in my grade nine English class, and I was instantly hooked – a forever fan. Yes, the writing style of that era was something new to my 80's child-self. I was used to Nancy Drew books, Sweet Valley High, Sweet Dream teen romances, Danielle Steele and I was just starting to dabble in Harlequin romances (I read A LOT in my teens). Not that there was anything wrong with what I had been reading up until then, but written works from the Victorian Era was quite different and challenging for my 15-year-old self.

And I’m so very, very thankful the school’s curriculum had us read this classic novel. We analyzed and over-analyzed the novel, and countless essays were penned with fervour about the classic (the beginning of my writing career!). Reading the book at that age broadened my world, whetted my writing taste buds, ignited my romance reader/writer ways, and initiated my appreciation of historical literary fiction. Would I have ever picked up such a book later in life if I hadn’t been handed that classic? Maybe, maybe not. We can never know what the future holds. Charlotte Brontë had no idea that her novel in which she had to disguise herself as a male author to get published would be still appreciated 170 years later, either.

My life-long love of the book is still strong. I have numerous editions of the beloved story of which I have re-read countless times over the years, I once met a hunky English-man with a dog named Pilot (spoiler alert) - HELLO Mr. ROCHESTER! - I’ve watched many Hollywood renditions of the story on the big screen and love them all (despite the movie critics’ cranky ways), and I still love the famous line that goes….

But no more spoilers! You must read it!

Despite my love for the novel and appreciation for historical literary fiction I’m not a historian, and any errors made here are strictly my own: may the ghost of Charlotte Brontë haunt me forever due to my inadequacies. But when she does come visiting to scold me for my historical shortcomings, she better be ready as I’ll have cake and tea waiting to celebrate the birthday of her timeless novel that will always hold a dear place in my reader heart.
(painting of the Brontë sisters by their brother, Patrick Branwell Brontë)

Be sure to check out the Brontë Society, a group committed to the preservation of the Brontë Family and their works.

Articles of interest: