A ‘Critical’ Understanding of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre
“No two people could agree in their opinion of it, so full was it of contradictions. Miss A. was delighted with it, Miss B. as much disgusted – Miss C. heard it so talked of, that she was most anxious to read it; but her married sister, Mrs. D. said, ‘No woman under thirty ought to open it. Then, it was such a strange book! Imagine a novel with a little swarthy governess for a heroine, and a middle-aged ruffian for a hero.’” (qtd. in Keen 78)
Thus, was the great controversy over Brontë’s new novel Jane Eyre. Many were struggling between distinctions over whether the novel was freeing or a cheap trick, whether it celebrated the correct woman’s role or subverted it, even the title and pseudonym it was published under became the subject of many a tea-time gossip over the mysterious origin and meanings of the novels. It’s unclear as to whether Brontë was hoping for this sort of controversy, as it definitely heightened the interest and word of mouth spread over her piece, yet it also sparked many disagreements over whether the book was appropriate reading for the era.
Jane Eyre was always a controversial book, in fact, a critic once stated, “Any logical person could find something someone would disagree with on any given page,” (qtd. In Keen 81) in an attempt to warn people from the dubious book. The book was published in the guise of an autobiography written by one ‘Jane Eyre’ and edited by the mysterious Currer Bell (a pseudonym used by Brontë) and was constantly subjected to criticism and questioning over the morality and actions of the titular character. Yet, it is obvious that the book is no longer viewed quite so extremely. It has been widely accepted as a classic and is almost thought to have been a pre-feminist piece of literature by some critics in the 20th century and onward. This drastic change of criticism and understanding of Brontë’s work is emblematic not only of the change in criticism and literary appreciation but of the growth of society’s morals as a whole.
The first major critical disagreement over the book was the hotly debated origin of the mysterious brothers Bell (the Brontë sisters psuedonymic family name). These fictitious brothers Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell had already published a book of poetry together and now the new novel from a Bell only sparked more interest on the topic of the brothers. The first and most common of these were those who doubted the pseudonym and believed the writer to be an educated woman by the style of writing and the depth and explanation of female characters that male writers struggle to find the perfect way to assess. In an issue of The Christian Remembrancer asserted in line with William Thackeray that “we cannot doubt that the book is written by a female” (Synthesized by O’Hara 2-3). A second group argued just as strongly that the piece was not. A. W. Fonblanque, while he was working for...