Here’s a seemingly uncontroversial statement: in 1847, a novel called Jane Eyre was published; the author was Charlotte Brontë. One of the most famous things about Jane Eyre is that the male love interest, Mr Rochester, has locked his first wife, Bertha Mason, in the attic of his house.
Whilst this statement is fine as far as it goes, there are several things we might question about it. But we’ll come to those in our textual analysis of the novel. First, let’s briefly summarise the plot of Jane Eyre, which is now regarded as one of the great Victorian novels: not bad for an author whose school report had once said that she ‘writes indifferently’ and ‘knows nothing of grammar, geography, history, or accomplishments’.
Jane Eyre: plot summary
Jane Eyre is perhaps the original ‘plain Jane’: ordinary-looking rather than beautiful, and a penniless orphan, she lacks the two things, beauty and wealth, which would greatly improve her marriage prospects in adulthood. Her uncle, Mr Reed, had taken her in when her parents died, but upon his death she fell under the care of Mrs Reed, who disliked Jane and treated her differently from her own children.
After Jane strikes out at her step-brother, John Reed, when he bullies her, she is locked in the ‘red room’ of the house, in which her uncle died. She is then sent away to Lowood, an orphan asylum run by a strict Calvinist clergyman named Mr Brocklehurst. There, Jane makes friends with Helen Burns, but Helen dies of typhus soon after. Conditions at the school subsequently improve and Jane stays on as one of the teachers, but when the teacher who had shown her kindness, Miss Temple, leaves the school, Jane decides to apply to become a governess.
Jane is offered the post of governess at Thornfield Hall, owned by Mr Edward Rochester, who is away on business. Mrs Fairfax, the housekeeper, introduces Jane to the young girl she will be teaching and looking after, who is a ward in Mr Rochester’s care. Mr Rochester returns and Jane is attracted to this brooding, haunted, Byronic figure. One night, she sees smoke coming out of his bedroom and rescues him from being burnt to death. He tells her that Grace Poole, a sewing-woman who lives in the house, was probably responsible for the fire.
When Mr Rochester brings home the beautiful Blanche Ingram, Jane realises she has been deluding herself with thoughts that he might love her, plain governess that she is. A man named Mr Mason from the West Indies arrives at Thornfield Hall and is attacked while in the upper portions of the house; once again, Jane assumes that Grace Poole was responsible. Mr Rochester announces to Jane that he plans to marry Blanche Ingram.
Jane is summoned by Mrs Reed, who is dying. Mrs Reed confesses to Jane that another of her uncles, Mr Eyre, had written to her because he wanted to make Jane his heiress. Mrs Reed had lied to him, writing back that his niece was dead. And then, when Jane returns to Thornfield, she discovers that Mr Rochester isn’t going to marry Blanche but wants her to be his wife instead. Jane accepts, but she also writes to her uncle to tell him that she is alive, in the hope that she will receive her inheritance and, with it, some financial independence.
Before the wedding, a mysterious woman enters Jane’s bedroom and tears her bridal veil in two. Then, on the day of their wedding, the ceremony is interrupted by Mr Mason, who declares that Rochester is already married, and his wife is concealed within Thornfield Hall. Jane discovers that Rochester had married this woman, Bertha Mason, while out in Jamaica, under pressure from her family to do so. There’s a history of insanity in the family, and it was Bertha who set fire to Rochester’s bed and tore Jane’s bridal veil. Grace Poole is the one who keeps watch over Bertha, not the one responsible for these crimes.
Jane doesn’t want to be Rochester’s mistress, so she leaves Thornfield Hall and falls into poverty, almost starving to death until she is taken in by a clergyman named St John Rivers and befriended by his sisters, who live on the brink of poverty. Although Jane conceals her true identity, St John discovers the truth after reading in the papers that her wealthy uncle has died, leaving her his fortune. By (rather far-fetched) coincidence, it turns out that St John Rivers’ sisters are Jane’s cousins, and Jane promises to share her inheritance with them.
St John wishes to travel to India as a Christian missionary, but before he leaves he proposes marriage to Jane, not out of love for her but because he wants to enlist her to his cause. In a romantic plot line that mirrors Rochester’s wooing of her, St John gradually wears her down until she is on the verge of accepting his offer. But then, from outside, she hears a voice calling her name: it’s Mr Rochester.
Jane returns to Thornfield Hall to discover that Rochester has been living as a recluse since the revelations came out on their wedding day. Bertha set fire to the house, destroying it, and fatally falling from the roof in the process. Rochester went to live at another house, having become blind in the fire.
Jane marries Rochester and nurses him back to health. He partially recovers his sight and Jane gives birth to their first child. Jane hears from St John Rivers in India, where he is pursuing his Christian mission with zeal.
Jane Eyre: analysis
Jane Eyre is, like Wuthering Heights, a novel which bears the influence of Gothic fiction: the haunted castle has become a country house, the ghost has become the (still very much alive) madwoman, Rochester’s first wife; and, in true Gothic fashion, there is a secret that threatens to destroy the house and its inhabitants if (or when) it comes to light. Brontë fuses these Gothic elements with the genres of romance and melodrama, with Jane’s two suitors representing erotic love and Christian fervour respectively.
As Gilbert Phelps observes in his analysis of Jane Eyre in Introduction to Fifty British Novels, 1600-1900 (Reader’s Guides), the fire at Thornfield is symbolic, mirroring Jane’s own act of purgation as she rejects relationships founded on both the body and the soul at the expense of the other, until she and Rochester are ready to be together.
Curiously, the namesake of Edward Rochester, the Earl of Rochester, was one of the most erotic poets in English literature (we have gathered some of his most famous poems together here). Lord Rochester was a kind of Byronic hero before Byron himself even existed, with his work dominated by the physical and sensuous side of love and relationships. St John Rivers, by contrast, has a name derived (in rather heavy-handed fashion, it must be said) from the Christian Evangelist, so we can never forget what he represents.
Jane’s journey of self-knowledge and experience leads her to understand that she must reject both extremes: to be Rochester’s mistress is to privilege the physical at the expense of the spiritual (because their union is unlawful in the eyes of God), but to marry St John when he does not love her nor she him would be a betrayal of the physical and romantic love that Jane realises is equally important.
But in terms of its central romantic plot between the plain, poor orphan girl and the rich, noble male protagonist, Jane Eyre owes something to the fairy tales of Cinderella, Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, and, in a more sinister turn, Bluebeard, with his castle concealing his (dead) wives. Brontë weaves together these various influences into a largely successful whole, even if the plot hinges (as noted above) on some pretty wild coincidences.
In his study of plot, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, Christopher Booker goes so far as to categorise Jane Eyre as a ‘rags to riches’ story, comparing it with the tale of Aladdin. Both are poor children who attain a romantic partner above their social station, only for the presence of some other (Bertha Rochester; the sorcerer in the Aladdin story) to bring their plans crashing down. They must then rebuild everything until they can legitimately attain the life they want.
To conclude this analysis, let’s return to where we started, with those opening statements about Jane Eyre. Of course we know the author of the novel now as Charlotte Brontë, but that wasn’t the name that appeared on the title-page of the first edition in 1847. There, the book was credited to Currer Bell, the androgynous pseudonym chosen by Brontë, much as her sisters Anne and Emily published as Acton and Ellis Bell respectively. The novel soon won her the respect of a number of high-profile literary figures, including her hero William Makepeace Thackeray, who was reportedly so moved by Jane Eyre that he broke down in tears in front of his butler. Brontë would dedicate the second edition of the book to the Vanity Fair author and later met Thackeray (in 1849).
And speaking of names: Bertha Rochester – she is technically married to him, so we should use her married name rather than call her Bertha Mason – may be a ‘madwoman’, but she is not a ‘madwoman in the attic’ (the title Gilbert and Gubar gave to their landmark work of feminist literary criticism, the hugely readable The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-century Literacy Imagination). Mr Rochester tells Jane as much:
To England, then, I conveyed her; a fearful voyage I had with such a monster in the vessel. Glad was I when I at last got her to Thornfield, and saw her safely lodged in that third-storey room, of whose secret inner cabinet she has now for ten years made a wild beast’s den – a goblin’s cell.
‘That third-storey room’, not ‘that attic’. And Jane makes it clear that the attic of the house is above the third storey of the house: ‘Mrs. Fairfax stayed behind a moment to fasten the trap-door; I, by dint of groping, found the outlet from the attic, and proceeded to descend the narrow garret staircase. I lingered in the long passage to which this led, separating the front and back rooms of the third storey’ (emphases added).