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:
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
Sandra Dunn, English Teacher
Lawrence J. Epstein, Associate Professor of English
Leonard Gardner, Lecturer, English Department
Beverly A. Haley, Member, Advisory Committee
Elaine C. Johnson, English Teacher
Marvin J. LaHood, Professor of English
Robert Lecker, Associate Professor of English
David E. Manly, Professor of Educational Studies
Bruce Miller, Associate Professor of Education
Frank O'Hare, Professor of English
Faith Z. Schullstrom, Member of Executive Committee
Mattie C. Williams, Director, Bureau of Language Arts