Turn of the nineteenth century

Imagine a girl growing up around the turn of the nineteenth century; an orphan. She has no family or friends, no wealth or position. Misunderstood and mistreated by the relatives she does have, she is sent away to a school where the cycle of cruelty continues. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte is written in autobiographical form but it does not suggest that the Jane Eyre the narrator is the same as the writer Charlotte Bronte. However, Charlotte is not disclosing her life in this novel; instead it is a novel about an orphan girl and the difficulties she faces. Some critics have referred to it as merely a romantic story, but a deep reading would suggest that this novel has serious themes from Charlotte's life underlying the main plot. While many influences inspire this work of literature, it is clear that experiences from Charlotte Bronte's own life served as her muse when she composed Jane Eyre. The novel's reverent tone toward religion, as well as its jaded tone toward romance, offers insight regarding Bronte's attitude toward these same subjects. Furthermore, the obvious parallels between Bronte's life and the character of Jane offer undisputable proof of a biographical influence. Charlotte Bronte used her life experiences to write Jane Eyre as evidenced by the novel's tone toward religion, its jaded stance on romance, and most importantly the characters of the novel.

Charlotte Brontë was born April 21, 1816. Charlotte was the daughter of an Anglican clergyman who had moved with his family to Haworth amid the Yorkshire moors in 1820. She was one of five daughters born to Reverend Patrick Brontë and Maria Branwell Brontë. As a child Charlotte lived a sheltered life. She spent most of her childhood confined to her house, Haworth Parsonage. With Charlotte's limited knowledge of the world it comes as no surprise that the plot of her first published novel, Jane Eyre, contains numerous parallels to Charlotte's own life. Some were likely intentional, while others may have been subconscious or just coincidental. Regardless of her intentions while writing Jane Eyre, it is clear that Charlotte Brontë relied heavily on her own personality and experiences as she created the character, Jane.

The childhood of Jane Eyre seems to have been modeled after Brontë's. Like Charlotte's father, Jane's father was "a poor clergyman" (Brontë 26). Jane's parents both died when she was ababy; whereas Charlotte's mother died when she was five years old. After Mrs. Brontë's death, her unmarried sister, Elizabeth Branwell, moved in with the family to care for the six Brontë children. Pauline Nestor, in her biography Charlotte Brontë, describes Elizabeth Branwell as "a severe character, ill-suited to the role thrust upon her", and makes mention of the role "her strict Calvinism" played in raising the children (Nestor 3). Likewise, Maureen Peters, in her book An Enigma of Brontës, describes Aunt Branwell's sacrifice in raising her sister's children: "As a strict Methodist, Aunt Branwell knew where her duty lay, but she appears to have derived neither pleasure nor contentment from the doing of it" (17). In Jane Eyre, Jane is raised by her Aunt Reed, who, like Charlotte Brontë's Aunt Branwell, does so reluctantly and out of a sense of duty. When the grown Jane returns to visit her aunt on her deathbed, Mrs. Reed rambles deliriously about Jane as a baby and the contempt she still feels toward her: "I hated it the first time I set my eyes on it...and but an hour before he [Mr. Reed] died, he bound me by vow to keep the creature" (Brontë 232). The parallels between Aunt Branwell and Mrs. Reed continue into adulthood; Jane's return during Mrs. Reed's illness appears based off of Charlotte and Emily Brontë's summons home from school in Brussels when their aunt fell ill. Even though Aunt Branwell likely was the inspiration for Mrs. Reed, it seems more probable that Mrs. Reed was an exaggeration of Aunt Branwell, rather than an authentic copy.

Some parts of Jane Eyre's childhood were taken directly from Charlotte Brontë's memories; no matter how extreme the conditions seemed at Lowood, the school is, in fact, intentionally modeled after Charlotte's own experiences at Cowan Bridge. In her biography, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell, a friend and a fellow writer of Brontës', said of the relationship between the two schools: "Miss Brontë more than once said to me, that she should not have written what she did of Lowood in Jane Eyre, if she had thought the place would have been so immediately identified with Cowan Bridge, although there was not a word in her account of the institution but what was true at the time when she knew it" (Gaskell 51). As Lowood was obviously meant to be Cowan Bridge, despite Brontë's reluctance to have others aware of it, the similarities between the two schools deserves further investigation.

Gaskell describes the Cowan Bridge School as a charity school for daughters of poor clergyman, that they might be educated as befitting their station. The school was established by "a wealthy clergyman...the Reverend William Carus Wilson," who "devised a scheme, by which a certain sum was raised annually in subscription, to complete the amount required to furnish a solid and sufficient English education, for which the parent's payment of £14 a year would not have been sufficient" (Gaskell 52). The Lowood School depicted in Jane Eyre is also "partly a charity-school", as Helen Burns tells Jane (Brontë 50). However, instead of being a school for clergyman's daughters, as was Cowan Bridge, Lowood is "an institution for educating orphans" (Brontë 50). Like Cowan Bridge, each student at Lowood must pay only £15 a year, while the rest is paid for by subscription (Brontë 50).

The similarities continue, the conditions at Lowood are also strongly supported by the Charlotte's memories of Cowan Bridge. The food, or lack of it, seemed to be a point of contention with Charlotte. Peters describes Cowan Bridge: "They slept in long, narrow, unheated dormitories and ate food so badly cooked as to be almost inedible. All her life Charlotte remembered, with loathing, the burnt oatmeal, the stews with lumps of rancid fat and the sour rice pudding" (Peters19). The food at Cowan Bridge scarred Charlotte's memory so badly, that she describes through Jane, the food at Lowood quite vividly: "Burnt porridge is almost as bad as rotten potatoes; famine itself soon sickens over it... Breakfast was over, and none had breakfasted" (Brontë 46). And then dinner: "The odor which now filled the refectory was scarcely more appetizing than that which had regaled our nostrils at breakfast: the dinner was served in two huge tin-plated vessels, whence rose a strong steam redolent of rancid fat" (Brontë 51). And then, finally a small though edible meal: "I devoured my bread and drank my coffee with relish; but I should have been glad of as much more - I was still hungry" (Brontë 52). As horrifying and incredible what Jane's accounts are of the offensive food and unyielding hunger at Lowood, it is still more horrific to realize that these scenes were written from Charlotte Brontë's own memory.

The foundation for Mr. Brocklehurst, the headmaster of Lowood, was the headmaster of Cowan Bridge. The Reverend William Wilson ran the Cowan Bridge School, and is described by Peters as having deliberately put the children through hardships in order to make them into "responsible, God-fearing adults" (Peters 19). With this goal in mind the children's treatment was justified as the means to a righteous end. Similarly, when Mr. Brocklehurst finds out that Miss Temple has fed the children with bread and cheese when their breakfast has been inedible, he protests, "You are aware that my plan in bringing up these girls is, not to accustom them to habits of luxury and indulgence, but to render them hardy, patient, self-denying. Should any little accidental disappointment of the appetite occur, such as the spoiling of a meal, the under or the over dressing of a dish, the incident ought not to be neutralized by replacing with something more delicate the comfort lost, thus pampering the body and obviating the aim of this institution; it ought to be improved to the spiritual edification of the pupils, by encouraging them to evince fortitude under the temporary privation" (Brontë 62-62). By comparing the records of Reverend Wilson's treatment of the children, and his goals for raising them, with Jane's accounts of the headmaster at Lowood, it is clear that Charlotte Brontë replicated Wilson's character in Mr. Brocklehurst.

In honor of the elder Brontë sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, who fell ill under the conditions at Cowan Bridge and immediately died following their return home, Charlotte, created the character of Helen Burns. Gaskell points out, "I need hardly say, that Helen Burns is as exact atranscript of Maria Brontë as Charlotte's wonderful power of reproducing character could give." Maria is described as being "far superior in mind to any of her play-fellows and companions, and was lonely amongst them from that very cause; and yet she had faults so annoying that she was in constant disgrace with her teachers, and an object of merciless dislike to one of them, who is depicted as "Miss Scatcherd" in Jane Eyre" (Gaskell). The real-life Miss Scatcherd, a woman by the name of Miss Andrews, appears to have been the instigator of the harsh punishment Maria suffered. None of the Brontë girls complained about their treatment, perhaps because Maria persuaded her younger sisters to endure their treatment in silence (Peters 20). Having watched Maria suffer harsh discipline and her worsening illness without complaint, Charlotte no doubt remembered her older sister with an impression of saintliness, with which she imbued the character of Helen Burns. Like Maria Brontë, Helen is depicted as being intelligent and isolated; Jane's first introduction to Helen is during an outdoor recess, where Helen is shunning the company of other children in order to read (Brontë 49). Later, in class, Jane observes Miss Scatcherd's apparent dislike of Helen, commenting that "Miss Scatcherd continued to make her an object of constant notice" (Brontë 53). Despite Miss Scatcherd's treatment of her, Helen refused to criticize her, saying instead that she deserved to be punished for her faults. Helen admonishes Jane's fiery temper and desire to fight back: "It is far better to endure patiently a smart which nobody feels but yourself, than to commit a hasty action whose evil consequences will extend to all connected with you - and, besides, the Bible bids us return good for evil" (Brontë 55). Given that the character of Helen Burns is acknowledged to be a faithful representation of Maria Brontë, it can only be assumed that this was indeed Maria's view of their situation at Cowan Bridge.

The fever that is described in Jane Eyre is also based off of events at Cowan Bridge. The girls at Cowan Bridge, like the girls of Lowood, were vulnerable to the spread of the fever, most likely typhoid; in the confusion created by the spread of the fever, Maria's symptoms of worsening consumption were overlooked, or perhaps intentionally ignored or blamed on her laziness. By the time the seriousness of her condition was understood, the constant hunger and cold had taken its toll, and Maria died shortly after returning home, soon to be followed by Elizabeth. The fever, which Brontë describes as "typhus", is reproduced in the pages of Jane Eyre (76). Similar to the discussion of Cowan Bridge by Gaskell and other biographers of Charlotte Brontë, Jane blames the impact of typhoid on the conditions at Lowood: "Semi-starvation and neglected colds had predisposed most of the pupils to receive infection" (Brontë 76). In this environment, Helen Burns worsens, and finally dies, like Maria, of consumption. When Helen is on her deathbed Jane questions Helen about God and heaven. After her death Jane begins her spiritual journey.

Jane struggles with wanting to know the true religion; she desires a religion that resonates most with her views just as Charlotte Bronte did. "In view of Charlotte Bronte's ardent and idealistic personality, it would have been natural to expect her to take up arms under the banner of the combatant with the greatest claim on her loyalties; but her dedication to the truth made adherence to a party impossible and caused her to move freely on territories far away from the heartland of the Anglican orthodoxy" (Thormahlen 47). Charlotte was greatly influenced by her father, her aunt, and Reverend Wilson who each represented different views of religion, and she decided she was going to find the true meaning of religion to herself. Charlotte was constantly surrounded by religion. Her father was a clergyman of the Anglican faith and imparted his views on his children. Her Aunt Branwell was of Calvin faith and raised the Bronte children as a duty, influenced by Calvinism. Reverend Wilson was a hypocritical character, indulging himself while allowing no luxuries or even simple needs to be felt by the students in his school. Jane experiences similar characters. Especially Mr. Brocklehurst, "Throughout the novel, Bronte, presents contrasts between characters who believe in and practice what she considers true Christianity and those who pervert religion to further their own ends. Mr. Brocklehurst, who oversees Lowood Institution, is a hypocritical Christian. He professes charity but uses religion as a justification for punishment"(Unknown). The novel has many hypocritical characters. These characters, mainly Mr. Brocklehurst, pervert or practice Bronte's view on Christianity on what she believes to be right and true.

Although the strongest parallels between Charlotte Brontë's life and Jane Eyre occur in childhood, the similarities continue throughout the rest of the novel as well. Charlotte created Jane after her own image of herself, allegedly telling her sisters, "I will show you a heroine as plain and as small as myself, who shall be as interesting as any of yours" (Gaskell). Elizabeth Gaskell describes Charlotte as having a "grave serious composure" and her features as being "plain, large, and ill set" (Gaskell). Likewise, Jane is described by Rochester as having "the air of a little nonnette; quaint, quiet, grave, and simple," while her cousin St. John calls her "not at all handsome" (Brontë 131, 339). Jane takes on not only Charlotte's thoughts and memories, but her appearance as well.

Jane's choices of work also reflect Charlotte Brontë's own experiences withwhat work the Victorian world provided for women. Nestor describes the Brontë girls' upbringing as establishing "the expectation that they would need to earn their ownliving" (3). Besides marriage or remaining a dependent of the family, the only option available to women was teaching. As a result, even though she disliked children, Charlotte worked as a teacher, at Miss Wooler's school at Roe Head and at the Pensionnat Heger, as a governess twice, each time for a period of only months, and attempted to open a school at Haworth Parsonage with her sisters. Being familiar with these trades, it is no surprise that Jane finds the same sorts of work: first as a teacher at Lowood after finishing her studies, then as a governess for Mr. Rochester, and finally as the teacher of a little school for farmers' daughters at Whitcross.

When, as in Charlotte's own life, Jane is summoned to attend the deathbed of her aunt, she learns of the disgraceful life that her cousin John Reed has led, up until his recent suicide. The Gateshead servant, Robert, who has come to fetch her, tells Jane, "His life has been very wild: these last three years he gave himself up to strange ways; and his death was shocking (Brontë 221). The last three years of his life, the young Mr. Reed spent drinking, gambling, and otherwise squandering the family estate. Whether it is coincidence or based in the reality that Charlotte knew, her brother Branwell spent the last three years of his life as an alcoholic and an opium addict, dying the year after Jane Eyre was published (Gaskell). Although Charlotte could not have known that her own brother would die after three years of misconduct, surely her experiences of watching Branwell's disintegration contributed to the fate of her character John Reed. Indeed, Lucasta Miller states that "Branwell's fall" began shortly before Charlotte commenced writing Jane Eyre (78). The timing of Branwell's disgraceful behavior clearly argues for the influence he had on the course of the novel's subplots.

The relationship between Jane and her employer, Mr. Rochester, may have also been suggested by events in Charlotte's own life. During her stay in Brussels, Charlotte apparently fell in love with M. Heger, who was first her teacher, and then her employer, as she accepted a teaching position at the school at the end of her studies there. The basis for her feelings for M. Heger was apparently intellectual, as she described him to her friend Ellen Nussey as "a little, black, ugly being" (Peters 86). Charlotte's infatuation for M. Heger distanced her from his wife and eventually made her unwelcome in their home or at their school. Of her departure from Brussels, Charlotte wrote, "I think, however long I live, I shall not forget what the parting with M. Heger cost me" (Gaskell). Charlotte wrote to M. Heger for some time after her return home; the "unquestionably passionate" nature of her letters leaves no doubt of her feelings for him. Charlotte's secret unrequited love led to the creation of her first novel, The Professor, but the influence it also had on Jane Eyre is undeniable. Jane says of Mr. Rochester, "I am sure most people would have thought him an ugly man," and she continually describes him as being dark or black, much like Charlotte's description of M. Heger's physiognomy. Despite Rochester's appearance, however, Jane falls in love, and is soon engaged to be married to him, until she finds out that he is already married to the crazy woman he keeps locked up in the attic. Jane decides she must leave Rochester, lamenting as she runs away, "With agony I thought of what I left... I longed to be his" (Brontë 321). Jane's grief at leaving reflects the distress Charlotte wrote about after leaving M. Heger. One can only imagine that the happy ending of Jane Eyre is also a reflection of Charlotte's thoughts - perhaps the expression of her fantasies regarding M. Heger.

Before Jane earns her happy ending, however, she must first show that she is desirable, despite her plain face - much as Charlotte herself showed by turning down proposals from three different men, two of them before ever meeting M. Heger. The first man to propose to Charlotte was Reverend Henry Nussey, the brother of one of her closest friends, Ellen (Everett). Henry Nussey dreamed of being a missionary and had chosen Charlotte because he thought her appropriate for a missionary's wife (Peters 41). Charlotte refused, feeling that she was "ill-suited" to be the wife Henry wanted, and not wishing to marry without love (Nestor 10). Charlotte wrote: "I had a kindly leaning towards him, because he is an amiable and well-disposed man. Yet I had not, and could not have, that intense attachment which would make me willing to die for him; and if I ever marry, it must be that light of adoration that I will regard my husband" (Gaskell). Also expressing her sense that they were not suited for one another, Charlotte said, "Why! it would startle him to see me in my natural home character... I could not sit all day long making a grave face before my husband" (Gaskell). Jane must also overcome such a proposal, from her cousin, St. John, a clergyman who also dreams of being a missionary. St. John asks Jane to accompany him to India as his wife, saying, "You are formed for labour, not for love... I claim you - not for my pleasure, but for my Sovereign's service" (Brontë 402). Jane imagines her fate as St. John's wife: "always restrained, and always checked - forced to keep the fire of my nature continually low" (Brontë 408). Just as St. John proposes to Jane with a purpose that mirrors Henry Nussey's, Jane refuses him for much of the same reasons that Charlotte refused Henry. Having confirmed her inalienable right to make her own choice of a husband, Jane returns to Rochester, thereby playing out a fantasy ending for Charlotte's own experiences.

That Charlotte Brontë drew on her own limited life experiences in the creation of Jane Eyre is demonstrated by the many parallels between Charlotte's life and her heroine's. Jane evinces many of the characteristics of her creator, to the point that Jane Eyre is a portrait of Charlotte herself. It is clear that Charlotte Bronte put not only her heart and soul into her writing, but her very life.

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