Jane Eyre is the third selection in the Read Great Books literary challenge. The first two were Pride & Prejudice (discussion here) and Frankenstein (discussion here). You can read the full list of books here.
Jane Eyre was written by Charlotte Bronte and published in England in 1847. It was originally published under the pen name Currer Bell.
Charlotte Bronte was the third of six children, and her mother died of cancer when she was only five years old. This left the five Bronte daughters and young son in the care of their father Patrick Bronte, and their aunt, Elizabeth Branwell. When they became school-aged, Patrick - an Irish clergyman - sent the four oldest girls to the Clergy Daughters’ School. Charlotte blamed the terrible conditions of the school for her life-long ill health, and only one year after arriving the two oldest Bronte sisters died from tuberculosis. After this tragedy, Charlotte and her younger sister Emily returned home.
Back home as the oldest of the living siblings, Charlotte and her sisters and brother spent their time creating elaborate fantasy worlds, stories that lasted for years, that were intertwined with one another, and that still exist in various unfinished manuscripts.
In her late teens and early 20’s, Charlotte Bronte became a teacher and then later a governess. In 1846, when she was 30 years old, Charlotte and her sisters began writing poems and stories for public consumption, originally self-publishing their work. They all chose to use pen names because of the inherent gender bias of the time, but they purposefully chose neutral sounding names, used the same last name as one another, and maintained their initials. The surname they used was “Bell,” after their local clergy Arthur Bell Nicholls (who Charlotte would later marry). Therefore Charlotte Bronte became Currer Bell, taking the “Currer” from the family friend Frances Mary Richardson Currer, the British Heiress who funded their local school.
After several unsuccessful literary works, Jane Eyre was published to commercial and critical success. Popularity of the novel was fueled by speculation on the author, and then soon the mystery deepened as the other “Bell” sisters were published. Wuthering Heights by Ellis Bell (Emily Bronte) and Agnes Grey by Acton Bell (Anne Bronte) made for an intriguing mystery. As speculation turned to these authors being women, so did the critical acclaim for Jane Eyre. Suddenly the writing and story was deemed “improper.”
Barely a year after the publication of Jane Eyre, Charlotte was hit with deep personal loss. Her brother and both her sisters died within eight months of one another, all from complications of tuberculosis. Charlotte Bronte had lost all five siblings to the disease.
At the age of 37, just before the publication of her third and final novel, Charlotte married Arthur Bell Nicholls. Shortly after their honeymoon, pregnant with her first child, Charlotte died. Her death certificate lists the cause as tuberculosis, but it has also been speculated to be extreme dehydration due to her pregnancy. Charlotte Bronte was just 38 years old.
Decades after her death, letters from Charlotte Bronte to a former boss and teacher named Constantin Heger revealed that she had been in love with a married man. Her biographer had kept these details hidden out of respect for her family, and the letters, once torn up by Heger, were retrieved by his wife and pieced back together. They now reside in the British museum.