The 100 best novels: No 12 – Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847)
Charlotte Brontë's erotic, gothic masterpiece became the sensation of Victorian England. Its great breakthrough was its intimate dialogue with the reader
Robert McCrumMonday 9 December 2013 07.30 GMT
"There was no possibility of taking a walk that day."
From its haunting first line to its famous closer, "Reader, I married him", Charlotte Brontë takes her audience by the throat with a fierce narrative of great immediacy. Jane Eyre's voice on the page is almost hypnotic. The reader can hardly resist turning the next page, and the next…
In an extraordinary breakthrough for the English novel, borrowing the intimacy of the 18th-century epistolary tradition, Charlotte Brontë had found a way to mesmerise the reader through an intensely private communion with her audience. We, the author, and Jane Eyre become one. For this, she can be claimed as the forerunner of the novel of interior consciousness. Add to this a prose style of unvarnished simplicity and you have the Victorian novel that cast a spell over its generation. Even today, many readers will never forget the moment they first entered the strange, bleak world of this remarkable book.
The magic of Jane Eyre begins with Charlotte Brontë herself. She began to write her second novel (The Professor had just been rejected) in August 1846. A year later it was done, much of it composed in a white heat. The reading public was spellbound. Thackeray's daughter says that the novel (which was dedicated to her father) "set all London talking, reading, speculating". She herself reports that she was "carried away by an undreamed-of and hitherto unimagined whirlwind".
There are three principal elements to Brontë's magic. First, the novel is cast, from the title page, as "an autobiography". This is a convention derived from Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (No 2 in this series). But the adventure offered by the author is an interior one. Jane Eyre portrays the urgent quest of its narrator for an identity. Jane, who cannot remember her parents, and as an orphan has no secure place in the world, is in search of her "self" as a young, downtrodden woman.
Related to this, Jane Eyre has a raw, occasionally erotic, immediacy. Not only does Jane reject Brocklehurst, St John Rivers and John Reed, she also craves submission to her "master", the Byronic Mr Rochester. The violence of men against women is implicit in many of Jane's transactions with both Rivers and Rochester. The thrill of this, to the Victorian reader, cannot be overestimated.
Finally, Jane Eyre, addressed insistently to "the reader", is so steeped in English literature that it becomes an echo chamber of earlier books. Within a very few pages of the opening, there are references to Paradise Lost, Walter Scott's Marmion and Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (No 3 in this series).
Brontë herself, the daughter of a tyrannical north country parson, was very familiar with John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (No 1 in this series). Critics have described a five-fold Bunyanesque progression to Jane Eyre, beginning with "Gateshead", moving to the depths of "Lowood", then the trials of "Thornfield" and "Marsh End" before achieving the blessed release of "Ferndean". Jane's spiritual pilgrimage is also narrated with biblical simplicity, combined with considerable artifice.
Jane Eyre also displays the familiar tropes of the gothic novel. Thornfield is a gothic manor; Mr Rochester a gothic-romantic protagonist. The mad woman in the attic speaks for herself, as it were. In addition, Brontë herself knows the storytelling power of what she calls "the suspended revelation", a phrase coined in chapter 20, and never hesitates to tantalise and seduce the reader.
The year 1847 must be the annus mirabilis of English fiction. The manuscript of Jane Eyre reached the publisher, George Smith, in August. He began to read one Sunday morning. "The story quickly took me captive," he wrote. "Before twelve o'clock my horse came to the door but I could not put the book down… before I went to bed that night I had finished reading."
Publication in October 1847 became so sensational that publisher Smith, Elder & Co's rival, Thomas Newby, decided to bring forward the release of Emily Brontë's unpublished manuscript. In December, 1847, Victorian readers still digesting the thrill of Jane Eyre found themselves contemplating a new novel called Wuthering Heights.
A note on the text
The publication history of Jane Eyre is intimately connected to Charlotte Brontë's return from Brussels in 1844. As soon as she read Emily's poetry, she persuaded Anne and Emily to submit a selection of their work under the names Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell to London publishers, but without any immediate success. In the end, the poems were privately published. Then, in July 1847, Thomas Newby agreed to publish Emily's Wuthering Heights. Her elder sister Charlotte now sent her first novel, The Professor, to Smith, Elder & Co, who turned it down, but asked to see other work. Charlotte submitted Jane Eyre, which caught the eye of George Smith, and appeared at breakneck speed on 19 October 1847, in three volumes, "edited by Currer Bell". The first American edition, from Harper & Brothers,of New York, appeared in 1848. A second British edition, dedicated to William Thackeray, was published in 1850, with some local scandal. Charlotte Brontë did not apparently know that Thackeray had had his own wife declared insane.
Other books by Charlotte Brontë
The Professor; Villette; Shirley. Mrs Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë is also indispensable reading.
THE 100 BEST NOVEL WRITTEN IN ENGLISH
001 The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan (1678)
002 Robinson Crusoe by Danie Defoe (1719)
003 Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726)
004 Clarissa by Samuel Richardson (1748)
005 Tom Jones by Henry Fielding (1749)
007 Emma by Jane Austen (1816)
008 Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)
009 Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love Peacock(1818)
011 Sybil by Benjamin Disraeli (1845)
012 Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847)013 Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (1847)
070 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949)