This Day In Literary History
On August 24th, 1847, the legendary English writer Charlotte Bronte submitted the manuscript for her classic novel Jane Eyre to Smith, Elder, and Co. - the publisher who would finally accept it. The novel had been rejected by five previous publishers.
Jane Eyre would become an instant hit - a huge critical and commercial success during its time - and later be rightfully recognized as one of the all-time greatest works of English literature. But why was it rejected so many times before finally being published?
In Victorian England, female writers were looked down on. In fact, Charlotte Bronte had been advised by famous poets (and staunch conservatives) William Wordsworth and Robert Southey that writing was no profession for a woman.
Undaunted, Bronte submitted Jane Eyre under the pseudonym Currer Bell, as it was common for female writers to use male sounding pseudonyms.
The publishers who rejected Jane Eyre knew that it had been written by a woman, but that didn't bother them. What they found infuriating were the feminist themes in the novel.
Narrated by its title character, the story follows Jane from the age of ten through womanhood. As a young orphan girl, following her kind uncle's death, Jane escapes from her cruel aunt and cousins when she is enrolled at Lockwood School.
Unfortunately, the school is run by Mr. Brocklehurst, a nasty, hypocritical Christian clergyman who is both self-righteous and dishonest. Life at Lockwood is grim for Jane and the other students.
When a typhus epidemic exposes Brocklehurst's neglect and dishonesty, new people are brought in to supervise him and share his duties as inspector and treasurer.
Although the cruel Brocklehurst is not removed from his position due to his family's wealth and prominence, the conditions at Lockwood School improve considerably.
The novel then jumps ahead eight years, and we find Jane Eyre, having taught at Lockwood for a couple of years, taking a better job as governess to Adele, the spoiled little daughter of Edward Rochester, owner of Thornfield Manor.
Though Jane is twenty years younger, Rochester finds himself taken with her. Happy at first with her new job, Jane is soon troubled by mysterious occurrences, including strange laughter echoing through the hallways, a fire, and an attack on a guest.
When Jane, who had been keeping her feelings a secret for months, finally proclaims her love for Rochester, he proposes to her. Later, after a month of courtship, Jane finds herself stalked by a strange and savage-looking woman.
Rochester blames a drunken servant for the strange happenings, but at their wedding, Jane learns the truth. A man named Mason and a lawyer interrupt the ceremony and reveal that Edward Rochester is already married.
Rochester's wife, Bertha, is a violently insane madwoman whom he keeps confined in the attic. He hadn't known that madness ran rampant in Bertha's family when he married her. The wedding is canceled and Jane is heartbroken.
Rochester asks her to move with him to the South of France where they will live as husband and wife, but she cannot bring herself to live with him in sin. So she leaves him, fleeing Thornfield Manor in the middle of the night.
When her money runs out, Jane reluctantly turns to begging. One night, freezing and starving, she goes to a house to beg for help. The clergyman who lives there, St. John Eyre Rivers, turns out to be a cousin of Jane's.
Rivers is a fanatical Calvinist clergyman. While he is charitable, honest, and forgiving, he's also proud, cold, and controlling. When he asks her to marry him and go with him to India, where he plans to do missionary work, Jane refuses, knowing that they really don't love each other.
Rivers continues to pressure her and she finally agrees to marry him, but then she thinks she hears the voice of Edward Rochester calling her name. The next morning, she decides to go to Thornfield Manor to check on Rochester before she leaves with Rivers for India.
On her way to Thornfield, Jane learns from an innkeeper that Rochester's mad wife Bertha set the whole manor on fire, then committed suicide. Rochester saved the lives of all his servants, but lost a hand and was blinded in the process.
When Jane is reunited with him, he fears that she won't want a blind cripple and she fears that he won't want to marry again. But after they reveal their feelings to each other, Rochester proposes and Jane accepts without hesitation.
After Jane gives birth to their first child, Rochester eventually regains sight in one eye and is finally able to see his son.
Charlotte Bronte's intelligent, determined heroine left a bad taste in the mouths of prospective publishers. They found the strong feminist themes objectionable.
The fact that most of the male characters are depicted as self-righteous, dishonest, cold, and controlling yet weak at heart, didn't help either. Even Jane's true love Edward Rochester is weak until he commits his act of heroism near the end of the novel.
After Jane Eyre was published under the androgynous pseudonym Currer Bell, early reviews of the novel were scathing.
Some critics blasted the author for daring "to trample upon customs established by our forefathers, and long destined to shed glory upon our domestic circles." Still, the novel became an overnight sensation with readers.
In her preface to the second edition of Jane Eyre, (which the author dedicated to legendary English novelist and satirist William Makepeace Thackeray, who wept openly while reading it) Charlotte Bronte reminds "the timorous or carping few" of "certain simple truths":
Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last. To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns...
The world may not like to see these ideas dissevered, for it has been accustomed to blend them; finding it inconvenient to make external show pass for sterling worth - to let white-washed walls vouch for clean shrines.
It may hate him who dares to scrutinize and expose - to raise the gilding, and show base metal under it - to penetrate the sepulcher, and reveal charnel relics: but hate as it will, it is indebted to him.
Quote Of The Day
"I'm just going to write because I cannot help it." - Charlotte Bronte
Today's video features a clip from the famous 1944 feature film adaptation of Jane Eyre, starring Joan Fontaine as Jane and Orson Welles as Edward Rochester. Enjoy!