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6 Things You Didn’t Know Influenced Charlotte Brontë’s Classic, Jane Eyre

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6 Things You Didn’t Know Influenced Charlotte Brontë’s Classic, Jane Eyre - Enya's Attic

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In celebration of Charlotte Brontë's birthday on 21 April, take a look at some of the surprising things that influenced her classic novel, Jane Eyre.

The 21 April is the birth date of Charlotte Brontë. Born in England in 1816, Charlotte was the eldest of the three Brontë sisters whose novels have since become globally-acclaimed classics.

Though Charlotte wrote four novels in comparison to Emily’s single bestseller, Wuthering Heights, and Anne’s two feminist classics, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, she is best remembered for her pioneering work, Jane Eyre.

A gothic romance that was a critical and popular phenomenon when it was first published, Jane Eyre has never been out of print since.

Radical in its depiction of an independent and “modern” female protagonist, it is regularly included in lists of the Most Influential Books of all Time. 

But why is Jane Eyre such a powerful read and what propelled the Brontë brood’s big sister to write it?  

Read on, and you might find yourself surprised at these 6 things you didn’t know influenced Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.

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Charlotte was not the eldest Brontë sibling

Most people are aware that Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë had a brother named Branwell. An alcoholic and opium addict, he died when he was 31 years old. Less well-known is the fact that there were originally six siblings. 

The family’s oldest daughters, Maria (named after the Brontës' mother) and Elizabeth, both died of tuberculosis within six weeks of each other when Charlotte, the next oldest, was only eight.

The sisters had come down with the deadly bacterial illness while students at the poorly-run Cowan Bridge School. Charlotte was also a pupil at Cowan Bridge and she would use her harsh experiences here, as well as the memories of her sisters’ deaths, as the basis for her depiction of the oppressive Lowood in Jane Eyre years later. 


Charlotte Brontë's $1.1 million juvenilia boasted the first scenes of Jane Eyre

When still a child, Charlotte and her remaining siblings wrote a multitude of stories based on a series of fantasy worlds. One such world, known as Glass Town, was inspired by Branwell’s collection of toy soldiers. Charlotte and her sister penned miniature magazines for these soldiers, filled with stories, poems and other imaginative works. 

Charlotte herself wrote The Young Men's Magazine, Number 2, since described as a colourful tale of murder and madness, in 1830 when she was 13 years old. 

Over 200 years later, that teeny-tiny magazine was purchased at auction by the UK nonprofit, Friends of the National Library (FNL) for $1.1 million and donated to the Brontë Parsonage Museumin Haworth, England. 

The manuscript, which had been found between the pages of a 19th-century school book, is said to have contained Charlotte’s only unpublished poetry and a story similar to later scenes found in Jane Eyre


READ NEXT: What Have the Brontë Sisters Ever Done for Us?

Charlotte was advised to drop her dreams …because she was a woman

Charlotte’s dreams of being a published writer began while she was still a teen. 

Hoping to be encouraged in her pursuit, she sent samples of her work to the then-poet laureate Robert Southey. Surprisingly, the Romantic poet replied to the young girl’s letter, but not with the rallying words Charlotte was fishing for. 

Though he noted that she had “the faculty of verse” he added that:

Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life, and it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure will she have for it even as an accomplishment and a recreation”.

Whether Charlotte’s response was genuine gratitude or ripping sarcasm (and I like to think the latter!), she wrote back:

“I must thank you for the kind, and wise advice you have condescended to give me …I trust I shall never more feel ambitious to see my name in print”!


Charlotte demanded her book be judged on merit, not gender

10 years after Southey’s “wise advice”, Jane Eyre was published. 

However, with the support that she’d already received from her fellow (male) writers, it’s no wonder that Charlotte published the novel under the pseudonym of Currer Bell. 

While the book was very well-received, one critic did scoff that if the anonymous Currer Bell was indeed a lady as had been suggested, she "must be a woman pretty nearly unsexed." 

The spirited Brontë sister was having none of it. She had been careful to choose a name that signalled neither male nor female. She wanted the work to speak for itself, and like her protagonist Jane Eyre, was willing to stand up for herself at a time when women were expected to be weak and submissive.

In an angry letter sent off to her editor, she wrote:

"To such critics, I would say — 'to you I am neither Man nor Woman — I come before you as an Author only — it is the sole standard by which you have a right to judge me — the sole ground on which I accept your judgement.'"


Charlotte's early failure set her on the path to success

Jane Eyre was Charlotte Brontë’s first published novel. But the first book she wrote was the posthumously-published and quite ordinary tale of The Professor. Charlotte wrote it before 1847, submitting it that year to over nine different publishers. 

But while her sisters, Emily and Anne, were finally able to secure publishers for their first books, Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey respectively, Charlotte was not.

With no secrets for her earnest professor to spill nor mad wives in the attic, the older Brontë sister’s short novel did little to interest the small publishing houses on her list. 

But she wasn’t to be defeated. Like many writers who learn their greatest lessons from failure, Charlotte set The Professor aside and began writing Jane Eyre. She realised that she needed to give her potential readers something meatier to read and more in keeping with the gothic trends of the day. 

That first charming attempt would get onto people's bookshelves eventually, however. In 1857, two years after her deathCharlotte’s widowed husband, Arthur Bell Nicholls, took on the task of reviewing and editing the text and agreed to the publication of his now-famous wife’s first book.


Charlotte may have swiped the idea of Jane Eyre from her sister

Jane Eyre is undoubtedly a pioneering novel, not least because it was one of the few at the time that centred “a plain woman of no great physical beauty or delicacy” as its heroine.  

According to Elizabeth Gaskell in her biography of her friend and fellow author:

“Charlotte once told her sisters that they were wrong - even morally wrong - in making their heroines beautiful as a matter of course. They replied that it was impossible to make a heroine interesting on any other terms. Her answer was, 'I will prove to you that you are wrong; I will show you a heroine as plain and as small as myself, who shall be as interesting as any of yours’.”

In the fame that followed Jane Eyre across the centuries, that representation of inner over outer beauty was beloved by scholars and readers alike. And the “poor, obscure, plain and little” protagonist became a flag-bearer for all the world’s future plain Janes.

But the truth is, the idea of a small and plain heroine had already been brought to life by Charlotte’s younger sibling, Anne. 

While Charlotte was pouring over The Professor, Anne was penning Agnes Grey

Like Jane Eyre, the titular Agnes Grey was a woman of little beauty but of independent mind and spirit, determined “to go out into the world; to act for myself; to exercise my unused faculties; to try my own unknown powers”.

The likeness to Charlotte’s later strong-willed heroine is uncanny and several scholars suggest that Charlotte discovered the story Anne was writing, and it influenced her own ideas for a second novel.

Agnes was also a governess. But while the younger  Brontë was determined to show the often terrible treatment and toil of a life spent tutoring the children of the upper classes, Charlotte’s governess, Jane Eyre, would offer a much more romanticised depiction of the job - even though Charlotte was very vocal about how much she had despised her own time spent working in this profession. 

Though Anne had already found a publisher for her novel, Jane Eyre hit the printing press first. It was an immediate sensation and became the ultimate “governess” story.

Agnes Grey, a quietly powerful and extraordinarily feminist book for its time, was overlooked when it finally did get published. It was even derided by some critics as “a sort of younger sister to Jane Eyre… inferior to her in every way”.

Whether Charlotte did steal her sibling’s idea is too difficult to prove. But even if the novel's premise was not wholly of her making, the importance of the book that did result cannot be denied.

Jane Eyre is a novel that broke rules both in literary form and in how women were characterised in literature.  Her heroine challenged the social and gender norms of the time just by believing in the right for her voice to be heard and her life to be lived on terms that she chose.

Jane Eyre (the book and the protagonist) was bold, brave and radical. And English literature would never be the same again.



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