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Jane Eyre was an immediate success with the reading public and has remained popular ever since. The first critics, too, were mostly favorable.

One exception was a reviewer named Elizabeth Rigby, who condemned the novel as profoundly immoral and "anti-Christian"- not so much because of Mr. Rochester's character as because of Jane's "unregenerate and undisciplined" spirit.

Far more typical was the reaction of the great critic George Henry Lewes (who, like Rochester, had left his first wife to live with another woman, the novelist George Eliot):

Reality- deep, significant reality- is the great characteristic of the book. It is an autobiography- not, perhaps, in the naked facts and circumstances, but in the actual suffering and experience.... This faculty for objective representation, is also united to a strange power of subjective representation. We do not simply mean the power over passions- the psychological intuition of the artist, but the power also of connecting external appearances with internal effects- of representing the psychological interpretation of material phenomena.

Writing in 1925, the novelist Virginia Woolf praised the highly personal quality of Charlotte Bronte's art:

The writer has us by the hand, forces us along her road, makes us see what she sees, never leaves us for a moment or allows us to forget her. At the end we are steeped through and through with the genius, the vehemence, the indignation of Charlotte Bronte. Remarkable faces, figures of strong outline and gnarled feature have flashed upon us in passing; but it is through her eyes that we have seen them.

David Cecil, in his Early Victorian Novelists, makes perhaps the best case against Charlotte Bronte's writing. His charges against Bronte include:


  • lack of restraint
  • lack of a sense of humor
  • thin, two-dimensional characterizations

But, most of all, Cecil attacked Bronte's improbable plot:

....Not one of the main incidents on which its action turns is but incredible. It is incredible that Rochester should hide a mad wife on the top floor of Thornfield Hall, and hide her so imperfectly that she constantly gets loose and roams yelling about the house, without any of his numerous servants and guests suspecting anything: it is incredible that Mrs. Reed, a conventional if disagreeable woman, should conspire to cheat Jane out of a fortune because she had been rude to her as a child of ten: it is supremely incredible that when Jane Eyre collapses on an unknown doorstep after her flight from Rochester it should be on the doorstep of her only surviving amiable relations.

David Cecil was rather typical of his generation in feeling distaste at Bronte's "naive" and overemotional approach to her art.

But during the last several decades, many critics have praised Bronte for the very qualities Cecil disliked:

....If in Rochester we see only an Angrian-Byronic hero and a Charlotte wish-fulfillment figure (the two identifications which to some readers seem entirely to place him), we miss what is more significant, the exploration of personality that opens up new areas of feeling in sexual relationships.

....Charlotte's remoulding of feeling reaches a height when she sympathetically portrays Rochester's efforts to make Jane his mistress. Here the stereotyped seducer becomes a kind of lost nobleman of passion and specifically of physical passion.

"Charlotte Bronte's New Gothic" by Robert H. Heilman, reprinted in O'Neill, Critics on Charlotte and Emily Bronte

"Jane Eyre is at bottom... largely a religious novel, concerned with the meaning of religion to man and its relevance to his behavior. Jane discovers at Lowood that she can comprehend religion only when it has some relation to man, but at Thornfield she sees the opposite error, of man attempting to remake religion to his own convenience."

Robert Bernard Martin, The Accents of Persuasion Madness is explicitly associated with female sexual passion, with the body, with the fiery emotions Jane admits to feeling for Rochester. In trying to persuade her to become his mistress, Rochester argues that Jane is a special case: 'If you were mad,' he asks, 'do you think I should hate you?' 'I do indeed, sir,' Jane replies, and she is surely correct... When they finally marry, they have become equals, not only because Rochester, in losing his hand and his sight, has learned how it feels to be helpless and how to accept help, but also because Jane, in destroying the dark passion of her own psyche, has become truly her "own mistress."

Elaine Showalter, A Literature of Their Own

And finally, in defense of Bronte's "unrestrained" style:

On the first page of Jane Eyre the first issue raised is in fact the issue of style. The wrong style, in girlhood and in language, is the reason why Jane is kept by Mrs. Reed from joining the other children around the fire.

Ellen Moers, Literary Women



We wish to thank the following educators who helped us focus our Book Notes series to meet student needs and critiqued our manuscripts to provide quality materials.

Murray Bromberg, Principal
Wang High School of Queens, Holliswood, New York

Sandra Dunn, English Teacher
Hempstead High School, Hempstead, New York

Lawrence J. Epstein, Associate Professor of English
Suffolk County Community College, Selden, New York

Leonard Gardner, Lecturer, English Department
State University of New York at Stony Brook

Beverly A. Haley, Member, Advisory Committee
National Council of Teachers of English Student Guide Series
Fort Morgan, Colorado

Elaine C. Johnson, English Teacher
Tamalpais Union High School District
Mill Valley, California

Marvin J. LaHood, Professor of English
State University of New York College at Buffalo

Robert Lecker, Associate Professor of English
McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

David E. Manly, Professor of Educational Studies
State University of New York College at Geneseo

Bruce Miller, Associate Professor of Education
State University of New York at Buffalo

Frank O'Hare, Professor of English
Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio

Faith Z. Schullstrom, Member of Executive Committee
National Council of Teachers of English
Director of Curriculum and Instruction
Guilderland Central School District, New York

Mattie C. Williams, Director, Bureau of Language Arts
Chicago Public Schools, Chicago, Illinois




Basch, Francoise. Relative Creatures: Victorian Women in Society and the Novel. New York: Schocken Books, 1974. Contains a useful chapter on "Revolt and Duty in the Brontes."

Bentley, Phyllis. The Brontes and Their World. New York: Viking Press, 1969. An illustrated look at the places and people associated with the Bronte sisters' lives and works. Bentley is also the author of a good short biography of the Bronte sisters.

Cecil, David. "Charlotte Bronte" in Early Victorian Novelists. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958, pp. 100-135. Although he admires some aspects of Jane Eyre, Cecil concentrates on the novel's weaknesses.

Craik, W. A. The Bronte Novels. London: Gethuren, 1968. Defends the characterizations of Rochester and St. John.

Ewbank, Inga-Stina. Their Proper Sphere: A Study of the Bronte Sisters as Early Victorian Female Novelists. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966.

Gaskell, Elizabeth Cleghorn. Life of Charlotte Bronte. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1908. An early biography by a woman writer who was a close friend of Charlotte Bronte. Well worth reading, even though not all of Mrs. Gaskell's facts and opinions are accepted today.

Gerin, Winifred. Charlotte Bronte: The Evolution of a Genius. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967. The most complete and thoroughly researched biography of Charlotte.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic. A Study of Women and the Literary Imagination in the Nineteenth Century. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979.

Gregor, Ian, ed. The Brontes: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970. A good source book.

Knies, Erik A. The Art of Charlotte Bronte. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1969.

McCullough, Bruce. "The Subjective Novel" in Representative English Novelists. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1946, pp. 169-183. Sees Jane Eyre as an example of romanticism.

Martin, Robert Bernard. The Accents of Persuasion: Charlotte Bronte's Novels. New York: W. W.. Norton, 1966. Very useful on imagery, the supernatural, and the religious and moral themes of the story.

Moglen, Helene. Charlotte Bronte: The Self Conceived. New York: W. W. Norton, 1976. Good on the Byronic hero and the fairytale aspects of Bronte's novels.

O'Neill, Judith, ed. Criticism on Charlotte and Emily Bronte. Coral Gables, Florida: University of Miami Press, 1979.

Ratchford, Fannie E. The Brontes' Web of Childhood. New York: Russell & Russell, 1964. An interesting look at how Charlotte Bronte's childhood fantasies and writings influenced her mature novels.

Showalter, Elaine. A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Bronte to Lessing. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977. A perceptive feminist critique.

Thorslev, Peter L. The Byronic Hero. Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 1962.

Tillotson, Kathleen. "Jane Eyre" in Novels of the Eighteen Forties. London: Oxford University Press, 1965.

Winnifrith, Tom. The Brontes. New York: Macmillan, 1977.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1957. (Originally published in 1929.)


_____. Shirley. London: Oxford University Press, 1969. A tale of love and social unrest, set in England during the Napoleonic era.

_____. The Professor. London: Oxford University Press, 1967. Bronte's first novel, not published until after her death, tells the story of an English schoolmaster in France who must choose between a well-to- do woman and the young student teacher he loves.

_____. Villette. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971. Besides Jane Eyre, the only Charlotte Bronte novel still much read today. The novel draws on Charlotte Bronte's experiences in Belgium; its heroine Lucy Snowe, is in some ways a darker more complex version of Jane Eyre.

Shorter, Clement. The Brontes: Life and Letters. 2 vol. New York: Haskell House, 1969. Charlotte Bronte's letters are filled with illuminating insight into the art of Jane Eyre as well as the author's own life. (Note: There are several other editions of the letters, and you will also find selections from them in a number of biographies and critical studies.)