Lifestyle & Culture

Weekend Reading: The Secret History of Jane Eyre

We’ve all read Jane Eyre, but do we all know the story behind the classic novel? In The Secret History of Jane Eyre: How Charlotte Brontë Wrote Her Masterpiece, Georgetown University professor John Pfordresher recounts the drama that propelled Brontë into producing the story, which she then vehemently denied having written in part because, as Pfordresher shows, the plot followed some of the drama in her own life, including her unrequited love for a married man. W. W. Norton published the book last week, and Pfordresher will appear at East City Bookshop on Capitol Hill in Washington DC on Monday, July 17. You can purchase the book there, or here or here.


WE BEGIN with a mystery. Let’s imagine that it is October 19, 1847. A new book has just been published in London. The first reviews are rapturous.

On October 23 the Atlas finds the novel has “all the freshness and some of the crudeness of youth about it,” and yet credits the author with a knowledge of “the profoundest springs of human emotion,” the kind of wisdom usually achieved only after “years of bitter experience.” The critic, while enthusiastic, is clearly curious about the identity of the author. Is this writer young or old? Freshly youthful or seasoned by years of difficulties overcome? The review then proclaims that this “is one of the most powerful domestic romances” to have appeared in many years. It’s an innovative work, with “little or nothing of the old, conventional stamp upon it.” Indeed, summing up, the Atlas concludes that this “tale of passion” is “a book to make the pulses gallop and the heart beat, and to fill the eyes with tears.”

But where did this book—so unlike the work of the known writers of the day—come from?

Curious readers would find on its laconic title page the following: “Jane Eyre. An Autobiography. Edited by Currer Bell.”

Who were these two people? Even the book’s publisher, Smith, Elder, didn’t know. And was it an “autobiography”? The Atlas called it a powerful domestic romance. Was it fact or fiction?

The relationship of the publishers at Smith, Elder in London with the author was conducted entirely by post. They found themselves writing to someone from Haworth, a small town in the north of England, who signed correspondence “C Bell”; the replies from London were to be delivered “Under cover to Miss Brontë.”

For half a year, during months of growing success for the book, the mystery continued. Speculation was rife—A man or a woman? Young or old?—nobody knew who this Bell person was, or whether this was an edited autobiography or a work of fiction.

Then a disreputable London publisher named Newby floated a rumor that he had the manuscript of a new Currer Bell

Author John Pfordresher. / Photo by Corinn Weller.

novel soon to be published. Needless to say this troubled the people at Smith, Elder, who then wrote the author asking what was going on. A day later, two young women from Yorkshire, a little staggered after an all-night train ride, arrived on the morning of Saturday, July 8, 1848, at Smith, Elder’s London offices. Charlotte and Anne Brontë stood before them. Jane Eyre, it seemed, was not an edited autobiography, but a novel, written by Charlotte.

This was not the end of the story. Charlotte Brontë took her editors into her confidence but insisted on maintaining her identity secret. Despite the efforts of the London literati, she largely succeeded in keeping it a mystery until the end of 1850.

Then, in a “Biographical Notice” prefacing new editions of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, Charlotte, in mourning for her lost sisters, divulged that the authors of those two novels were, respectively, Emily Brontë, who had died December 19, 1848, and Anne Brontë, who had died May 28, 1849. In Charlotte’s words, “The little mystery, which formerly yielded some harmless pleasure, has lost its interest; circumstances are changed.” The phrase “little mystery” suggests that her wish to conceal her authorship was a playful whim. Actually, matters were far more complicated.

Now that readers knew that Currer Bell was actually Charlotte Brontë, how much could they learn about her? More to the point, how might one account for the ability of this reclusive young woman, living in isolation in the West Riding of England, to write an utterly new and powerful “tale of passion”? And furthermore, what was the relationship of the author, called “Editor” on the novel’s title page, to the character Jane Eyre?

Brontë denied that there were significant similarities between her life and that of her first-person narrator and heroine. In a particularly funny episode, as late as May 29, 1851, William Makepeace Thackeray enraged her when at the end of a public lecture he cried out, “Mother, you must allow me to introduce you to Jane Eyre!” Charlotte was so angered by his very public announcement that she was the author of the novel and that the protagonist and narrator were based on her, that she sought out Thackeray the next afternoon to upbraid him. Her publisher, George Smith, accidentally walked in on them as she was dressing down the celebrated author of Vanity Fair and was amazed, as he put it, by “[t]he spectacle of this little woman, hardly reaching to Thackeray’s elbow, but, somehow, looking stronger and fiercer than himself, and casting her incisive words at his head, resembled the dropping of shells into a fortress.”

The vehemence of her denial was nothing new. Throughout the months after Jane Eyre first appeared, Charlotte persistently lied about her authorship. In May of 1848 her dear friend Ellen Nussey relayed to Charlotte that she heard a rumor that Charlotte had published something. She replied venomously that to say so would be “an unkind and an ill-bred thing.” She insisted that “profound obscurity” was infinitely preferable to a “vulgar notoriety” and that she repelled and denied every such “accusation.” Charlotte’s language voices an angry fear. Why would suggesting she has written a book be an “accusation”? How might being the author of a popular novel imply that she was guilty of something? The “little mystery” appears, at moments such as this, immensely important to Charlotte; important enough for her to threaten Ellen that anyone who says she has published is “no friend of mine.”

If she was so concerned about preserving her anonymity that she lied about the publication of the novel to close friends, why did Charlotte Brontë write Jane Eyre in the first place? And why was she so keen on maintaining the secret of her relationship to the novel?

There are many reasons. Perhaps the most important is that this was a book born from a series of calamities that led to a crisis in Brontë’s life: what she called “an almost unbearable inner struggle.” Her heart, “constantly lacerated by searing regrets,” led Brontë to the discovery that “[o]ne suffers in silence so long as one has the strength and when that strength fails one speaks without measuring one’s words too much.” In Jane Eyre Brontë found those words, a way to voice her struggle and her pain. She seized upon those things that had hurt, shamed, angered, and compelled her, as well as those desires that she could not control, and transformed them into a fiction which was so profoundly intimate that this publicly reserved, proper, and proud young woman didn’t want anyone to know they were hers. In the pages that follow, we will learn how and why she did this, and as we do, we will come to understand more completely some of the sources for this novel’s compelling power, something felt by its first readers 170 years ago, and felt still by twenty-first-century readers.

—John Pfordresher

Excerpted from The Secret History of Jane Eyre by John Pfordresher. Copyright © 2017 John Pfordresher. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.