Charlotte Brontë published Jane Eyre, a three-volume novel, in 1847 under the pseudonym Currer Bell. The novel tells the story of a young woman who, orphaned as a child, must become first a teacher and then a governess to survive. In her first post as a governess, Jane Eyre develops a romantic fondness for her employer, the craggy, rough-mannered Mr. Rochester, but she also discovers that his country estate holds mysterious and frightening secrets.
Like Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, Jane Eyre is a classic Victorian bildungsroman, or "novel of development." Jane Eyre and David Copperfield are also both famous for using autobiographical material from the author’s life in a fictional context. In Jane Eyre, for example, Brontë draws on her own experiences of teaching and nursing the terminally ill, of watching her sister Maria sicken and die, and of falling in love with her supervisor while at a school in Brussels.
The most successful of the various novels by the three Brontë sisters (Charlotte, Emily, and Anne), Jane Eyre was an instant bestseller and has been continually in print since its first publication. Charlotte Brontë’s willingness to engage, not only the titillating tropes of Gothic fiction and the difficulties facing unmarried middle-class women, but also the problems of empire and colony in 19th century England, has created a hybrid text that remains relevant and interesting for 21st century readers. Readers can focus on anything from the details of interpersonal relationships and romances to the fear and suspense of the Gothic genre or the problems of nationalism.
Viewing audiences have also embraced the story; Jane Eyre has been adapted for film and television more than two dozen times over the last century, from a 1910 silent version to the 2009 film currently in production, and has also been transformed into a musical, a ballet, and an opera.
Why Should I Care?
When you look at Jane Eyre, you might just see a long novel about a gal in an ugly gray dress whose life – a lot of the time – totally sucks. Whether she’s gagging on burned porridge at her horrible boarding school or discovering that her fiancé is already married to someone else or wandering around on the moor starving to death, life is often painful for Jane.
The thing is, it’s not painful to read about it. In fact, we start to get kind of obsessed with all the gory details after a while. Did Jane and Rochester's wedding really get interrupted at the altar just now? When did Rochester decide to keep his wife locked in the attic? How many mistresses did he have? Is he Adèle's dad or not? Will Jane marry her cousin or agree to bigamy? Is there a ghost at Thornfield Hall or is it a vampire? They could make a reality show out of this; it would be like Supernanny + The Bachelorette + Ghost Hunters.
Of course, apart from the whole thirst-for-voyeurism thing that we all have, Jane Eyre also about something else: The Man getting you down. Over and over, Jane’s put into situations where she’s too young, too poor, or too powerless to win, but she has to try anyway, and we all know about that. We’ve all been the kid who was completely mistreated by some random adult like Mrs. Reed or Mr. Brocklehurst just because that person has a stick up you-know-where. We’ve all had to accept that everyone would believe the adults just because they are adults, so they get away with it. Maybe some of us have also been the young employee who gets pressured to do something immoral by our boss. Or the girlfriend who finds out that her boyfriend’s taking someone else out on Friday night. That "someone else" might not be an insane vampiric arsonist, but hey, parallels only go so far.
What we’re trying to say is: half of Jane Eyre is pure get-the-popcorn omigosh-she-didn’t spectacle, and the other half is looking pretty familiar.