Charlotte Brontë (1816 – 1855)

Charlotte Brontë (1816 – 1855)

The Victorian Period

Historical Background

Queen Victoria, daughter of the Duke of Kent (1767-1820) came to the throne of England at the age of eighteen (1837) and succeeded in restoring the image of the monarchy with her wisdom, gaining the respect of her subjects with her private life: an adored husband, Prince Albert, and nine children.

Her pattern of life was ruled by sobriety and hard work, in a word, by ” respectability”. As a consequence the Victorian Period was based more on exteriority than on spiritual values, on conformism and, often, on hypocrisy.

As to political and social life, England lived a period full of changes and extensions in every field.

Queen Victoria died in 1902. Her son Edward came to the English throne trying to follow his mother’s steps.

Social Achievements

The Parliament had to face the problems of the workers with a series of Acts ( The Factory Act, The Ten Hours’ Act; The Mines Act; The Public Health Act) to improve the working conditions, limit the hours of work and the exploitation of the children and women.

In 1884 the Third Reform Bill enlarged the suffrage to all male workers.

Foreign Policy

  • Ireland found his leader In C. Parnell that demanded the Home Rule in 1880, but it was not approved till after the First World War

  • In 1887 Queen Victoria became Empress of India and the Empire enlarged its dominions to Australia, New Zealand, Ceylon, Canada, Singapore, Hong Kong, Gibraltar, Malta, Cyprus and parts of Africa.

  • In 1899-1902 the Boer War burst out in Orange and Transval

  • In 1854-56 the dispute on the borders between Russia and Turkey originated the Crimean War, during which Florence Nightingale founded the Red Cross.

Literary Background

Under the reign of Queen Victoria, literature developed thanks to the improved ways of communication and a new printing system; it became a means to confute ideas and reveal thoughts.

This period can be divided into three stages:

Early Victorians

Fiction: the writers identified themselves with their own age; they wrote long books published in serial instalments and structured every episode as a plot. They tried to attract the masses with suspense and the appeal to the sensational. Their motto was to make them (the readers) wait, cry and laugh.

Main authors: C. Dickens ; W. Thackerey; The Brönte Sisters.

Poetry: The poets at first followed the Romantic way of writing, but soon they reflected a sense of uneasiness. They developed the Dramatic Monologue in which a persona reveals his thoughts and feeling unconsciously to a silent listener.

Main authors: Lord A. Tennyson and R. Browning.

Mid Victorians (or Anti Victorian Reaction)

Fiction: a sense of dissatisfaction and rebellion, caused by new scientific and philosophic theories (Darwin‘s Origin of the Species) pervades this period.

The realism of the works mirrors the clash between man and environment, illusion and reality, leading to Naturalism: man is no longer responsible for his actions since they are determined by forces beyond his control. The writer’s task is to record events objectively, without comments.

Main Authors: George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans ) and Thomas Hardy.

Poetry: The writers followed J. Ruskin’s theories (1819-1900) against the massification and the materialism of the society; The Pre-Raphelite Brotherhood proclaimed a return to simplicity and nature as an escape from this world, idealising and beautifying the reality.

Main authors: D. G. Rossetti and his sister Cristina.

Late Victorians

Fiction: The writers searched for an escape “travelling” in their self and putting in evidence the contrasts between classes and races and the contradictions of colonialism.

Aestheticism brought to the extreme every attempt to escape from the real world supplying a way to avoid frustrations and uncertainties, reacting against Utilitarianism and moral restrictions, and breaking the social conventions by means of free imagination.

Main authors: R. L. Stevenson.(wrote about the duality of man); R. Kipling (dealt with the problem of colonialism) and O. Wilde (was the mouthpiece of Aestheticism)

Poetry: Aestheticism was fervent among the poets followers of the Rossettis, but the most original voice was the one of an isolated poet, G. M. Hopkins, who combined lyric passion with his true religious faith and used a musical and sensuous language, identifying matter and form.

Drama: The stage had suffered a long period of sterility due to the lack of new ideas and to the audience’s requests. The public, in fact, demanded amusing comedies, great effects and famous stars. The rebirth of the 1890s occurred thanks to the influence of French and Russian playwrights that focussed their attention on the psychological study of the characters, in particular, of women. From Norway, instead, came the new form of drama written by H. Ibsen that analysed the social world and used the retrospective method.

Main authors: O. Wilde and G. B. Shaw.

Charlotte Brontë

Life and works

Charlotte Brontë was born at Haworth, Yorkshire, in 1816, the third daughter of the Rev. Patrick Brontë. She soon lost her mother and her two older sisters.

In 1831 Charlotte attended the Roe Head school for one year and returned there in 1835 as a teacher. Between 1839 and 1841, she accepted the position of governess in various families, until she and her sisters Emily and Anne decided to open their own school (1842). So in 1842 Charlotte and Emily went to Brussels to complete their studies, but only Charlotte remained there until 1844.

The sisters started publishing poetry and stories under the pseudonym of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. Only two years later, in 1848, Charlotte and Ann visited their publishers in London, and revealed their true identities. In the same year their brother, Branwell Brontë, an alcoholic and a drug addict, died, soon followed by Emily and Anne.

In 1849 Charlotte visited London and began to attend literary circles, where she met Thackeray and Mrs Gaskell. In 1854 she married Rev. A. B. Nicholls, curate of Haworth, against her father’s will, but she died the following year while expecting a child.

Her main works are: The Professor: A Tale (1857), about a young man, his maturation, loves, and career as a Professor at a girls’ school. The story is based upon Charlotte Brontë’s experiences in Brussels.; Jane Eyre (1847), first example of feminist novel as the heroine gets her own living without being oppressed by male authority; Shirley (1849), a social novel published set in Yorkshire, during the industrial depression and the Luddite riots (1811–1812) and defends women’s right for more socially useful occupations; Villette (1853), a gothic novel about the life of a poor friendless girl who, after being a teacher in a girls’ school, becomes its headmistress.

Jane Eyre (1847)


The first title was Jane Eyre: An Autobiography and was still published under the pseudonym of Currer Bell.

It is a first-person narrative of the life of Jane, a small, plain-faced, intelligent, and passionate English orphan girl: her childhood at Gateshead, where she is abused by her aunt and cousins; her education at Lowood School, where she acquires friends and role models but also suffers privations; her time as governess at Thornfield Manor, where she falls in love with her Byronic employer, Edward Rochester; her time with the Rivers family where her cold clergyman-cousin St. John Rivers proposes to her; and her reunion with and marriage to her beloved Rochester.

It is a sort of Bildungsroman, a novel that tells the story of a child’s maturation. Partly autobiographical, the novel focuses on the emotions and experiences that lead her maturity and abounds with social criticism and sinister Gothic elements.

The novel was an immediate critical and popular success. William Makepeace Thackeray particularly showed his appreciation Charlotte Brontë dedicated to him the novel’s second edition, illustrated by F. H. Townsend.


The story takes place in the English countryside, exactly in few different parts of the Midlands and Northern England. These places are connected with 6 houses and their estates. All the houses appear in chronological order. Jane leads her life in each one, knows every character inside them.

Gateshead Hall: here Jane spends her childhood with Mrs. Reed. Its is a rich, large country house, probably in Yorkshire. The fact that Jane is miserable there, is not an evidence that the place in uncomfortable or unattractive.

Loowood: it is a charity school for girls of good families, in the countryside probably between Yorkshire and Lancashire. It is similar to a prison: the rooms are bare, scarcely furnished and comfortless. The surroundings are beautiful , but the climate is quite rigorous. The building is then rebuilt and it becomes a healthier place.-

Thornfield Hall: it is a rural, large manor like Gateshead. There is a church and few cottages around and the nearest towns are at 2 and 6 miles respectively.

Moor House : it is her cousin’s home, quite far from the other houses, a modern country cottage.

The Teacher’s cottage: is a simple kitchen living room with a single bedroom without sanitations.

Ferndean Monor: it is where Jane and Mr. Rochester meet after a long time.

Even if it is the period of the Industrial Revolution, the writer describes the action of the novel in the countryside, unaffected by political and commercial affairs.

The setting marks the difference between town and country and shows that people living in the country are not numerous and still governed by a landlord.

The story is told following the chronological order of events. Of course the last ten years are cut short telling the reader just the most important events.


Jane Eyre: The protagonist and title character, is not really attractive: she is humble about her appearance and personal charm. She regrets she is not beautiful, but there is no hint she is unattractive. She thinks it is a misfortune to be little, pale and plain, with irregular, marked features. Her plainness is reflected in her dresses, too. Her dresses are simple but tidy.

She is not rich: she is the daughter of a poor clergyman and her mother sacrificed her family, and money to marry him. They both died in poverty when Jane was still a baby. Then Jane was adopted by her uncle Reed and considered always less important than a servant. She has money only when she inherits it from her uncle. She dislikes poverty and lower classes. She feels superior to servants, peasants or cottagers without being ill-disposed towards them.

At Thornfield she is glad to feel herself of the same class of the housekeeper, Mrs Fairfax, genteel in origin but obliged to work.. She accepts she is inferior to Mrs Ingrambut clings at her own independence. She is a reserved but talented, sympathetic, hard-working, honest (not to say blunt), and passionate girl. Skilled at studying, drawing, and teaching, she works as a governess of Adele at Thornfield Manor and falls in love with her wealthy employer, Edward Rochester. But her strong sense of conscience does not permit her to become his mistress, and she does not return to him until his insane wife is dead and she herself has come into an inheritance.

Edward Rochester: The owner of Thornfield Manor, and Jane’s lover and eventual husband. He possesses a strong physique and great wealth, but his face is very plain and his moods mutable. Impetuous and sensual, he falls in love with Jane because her simplicity, directness, and plainness contrast so much with those of the shallow society women he is accustomed to. But his unfortunate marriage to the maniacal Bertha Mason postpones his union with Jane, and he loses a hand and his eyesight while trying to rescue his mad wife after she sets a fire that burns down Thornfield. He is what is referred to as a Byronic hero.

Minor Characters

St. John Eyre Rivers: A clergyman who is Jane Eyre’s cousin on her father’s side. He is a devout, almost fanatical Christian of Calvinistic leanings. He is charitable, honest, patient, forgiving, scrupulous, austere, and deeply moral; with these qualities alone, he would have made a saint. However, he is also proud, cold, exacting, controlling and unwilling to listen to dissenting opinions. He was in love with Rosamond Oliver, but did not propose to her because he felt that she would not be a ‘suitable’ wife for him. Jane venerates him and likes him, regarding him as a brother, but she refuses to marry him because he doesn’t love her and is incapable of real kindness.

Bertha Mason: The violently insane secret wife of Edward Rochester. From the West Indies and of Creole extraction, madness is in her family’s vein. Rochester did not know about it until after their marriage. Her insanity manifested itself in a few years, and Rochester had to imprison her in the attic of Thornfield Manor. But she escapes four times during the novel, and on each occasion causes disorder in the house, the fourth time it provokes the fire that is lethal to her.

Helen Burns: An angelic fellow-student and best friend of Jane’s at LowoodSchool. Several years older than the ten-year-old Jane, she accepts all the cruelties of the teachers and the deficiencies of the school’s room and board. She refuses to hate or to complain, believing in the New Testament teaching that one should love one’s enemies and turn the other cheek. Jane admires her for her profound Christianity; she herself believes that resisting evil is means win the evil itself. Helen dies of consumption in Jane’s arms.

Mrs. Sarah Reed: Jane’s aunt, who resides at Gateshead. Reed adopts Jane but she neglects and abuses the girl. Mrs Reed is convinced Jane cannot be considered a relative because of her parents’ guilt, but wants to appear a benefactress to her friends’ eyes. At the age of ten, Jane is sent away to school. Years later, Jane attempts to reconcile with her aunt, but Mrs. Reed rejects her, as she thinks her husband loved Jane more than his own children.

Mr. Brocklehurst: The arrogant, hypocritical clergyman who serves as headmaster and treasurer of LowoodSchool. He steals the school’s funds in order to pay for his opulent lifestyle. At the same time, he preaches Christian austerity and self-sacrifice to everyone. When his dishonesty is brought to light, he falls in disgraced.

Adèle Varens: A naive, vivacious, rather spoiled French child whom Jane is governess to at Thornfield. She is Rochester‘s ward because her mother, Celine Varens, an opportunistic French opera dancer and singer, was Rochester‘s mistress. However, Rochester does not believe himself to be Adèle’s father. Although not particularly fond of her, he extends the little girl the best of care. In time, she grows up to be a very pleasant and well-mannered young woman.

Mrs. Alice Fairfax: An elderly widow and housekeeper of Thornfield Manor. She treats Jane kindly and respectfully, but she disapproves of Jane’s engagement to Mr. Rochester. She believes that marriages should be limited to within one’s own class.

Miss Maria Temple: The kind, attractive young superintendent of LowoodSchool. She despises Mr. Brocklehurs, and treats Jane and Helen with respect and compassion. She helps clear Jane of Mrs. Reed’s false accusation of dishonesty.

Richard Mason: A strangely blank-eyed but handsome Englishman from the West Indies, he stops Jane and Rochester’s wedding with the proclamation that Rochester is still married – to Bertha Mason, his sister.

Diana and Mary Rivers: St. John’s sisters and Jane’s cousins, they are kind and intellectual young women who lead an independent life and their intelligence, purity, and sense of meaning in life. Diana warns Jane against marrying her icy brother.

Grace Poole: Bertha Mason’s keeper, a plain middle-aged woman. She drinks gin immoderately, and occasionally gives Bertha a chance to escape. Rochester and Mrs. Fairfax attribute all of Bertha’s offenses to Grace Poole.

Rosamond Oliver: The rather superficial and coquettish, but beautiful and good natured daughter of Morton’s richest man. She gives the funds to start the village school because she is in love with St. John. However, as St John refuses her, she becomes engaged to the wealthy Mr. Granby.

Georgiana Reed: One of Mrs. Reed’s daughters and Jane’s cousin. Plump, pretty, and vapid, she seems to spend most of her time both having and talking about love affairs. After Mrs. Reed’s death, she marries a wealthy but worn-out society man.

Eliza Reed: Mrs. Reed’s other daughter and Jane’s cousin. Bitter because she is not as attractive as her sister, she devotes herself to Catholicism. After her mother’s death, she enters a French convent, where she eventually becomes the Mother Superior.

Blanche Ingram: A beautiful, wealthy but very superficial girl Rochester appears to court in order to make Jane jealous. She despises the rather plain Jane, as Jane is a governess.

Bessie Lee: The maid at Gateshead. She is the only person in the house to treat Jane kindly, telling her stories and singing her songs. Later she marries Robert Leaven, the coachman, who brings Jane the news of Mrs. Reed’s stroke.

Mr. Lloyd: A compassionate apothecary who recommends that Jane be sent to school. Later, he writes a letter to MissTemple confirming Jane’s account of her childhood and thereby clearing Jane 8/8of Mrs. Reed’s charge of lying.

Miss Scatcherd: A bitter and vicious teacher at Lowood. She behaves with particular cruelty toward Helen, using her as a scapegoat for anything and everything

Uncle Reed: Mrs. Reed’s late husband, he made his wife promise to raise the orphaned baby Jane as her own child.

John Eyre: Jane’s uncle, who leaves her his vast fortune of 20,000 pounds. He never appears as a character. He is a relative of St. John.. Jane divides her 20,000 pounds amongst the four of them (St. John, Mary, Diane and herself) leaving each of them with 5,000 pounds.


Jane tries to find an equilibrium between moral duty and earthly happiness. She both rejects St. John Rivers’s Puritanism and Rochester’s libertinism, neither can she bring herself to emulate Helen Burns’s turning the other cheek. She tries to work out a morality expressed in love, independence, and forgiveness. She finds a middle ground in which religion serves to curb her immoderate passions but does not repress her true self. Jane never surrenders her independence to Mr. Rochester, and marries him when he is more dependent on her than she on him.

  • Jane’s ambiguous social position – a poor, learned orphan from a good family—leads her to criticize discrimination based on class. She a paid servant of low social standing, therefore powerless. This is why she hesitates to marry Rochester; it is not a marriage of equals but of master and servant. Nevertheless, she possesses certain class prejudices herself.

  • A particularly important theme in the novel is patriarchal system and Jane’s efforts to assert her own identity within a male-dominated society. The three main male characters, Brocklehurst, Rochester, and St. John, try to keep Jane in a subordinate position and prevent her from expressing her own thoughts and feelings. She only marries Rochester once she is sure that theirs is a marriage between equals showing her refusal of Victorian stereotypes about women, and expressing a quite radical feminist philosophy. Women need exercise for their faculties.

  • C. Brontë describes the personality of a woman who is far from the average and ahead of her time because of the character, the conviction and the depth of her thoughts. In a period when literary heroines were chosen for their high social standing, beauty and interacting character, Jane Eyre is described as a simple woman who is neither rich, or beautiful nor lucky, but she is fair and educated. This book is uncommon, because it does not reflect the model imposed by the society. For the first time, in literature, a female character chooses her fate, refuses a marriage proposal and decides how to live according to her beliefs. Jane is the first female protagonist able to build her life day by day, fighting against an adverse destiny, relying only on the force of character and on her education.

  • Another important aspect is the use of supernatural. The nightmare visits of Bertha Mason to Jane’s bedroom two nights before the marriage and the telepathic appeal that Jane receives from Rochester at the end, also show a strict connection with the Gothic genre that was in fashion in that period.

  • C. Brontë’s way of writing is very clear and consistent. She represent the theme of women in an unordinary way: as an autobiography it appears true and realistic, and though Jane is not a dominant personality, she wins on the other male characters.


Charlotte Brontë works are autobiographical, inspired by her experiences as governess and student in college.

The early sequences, in which Jane is sent to Lowood, a harsh boarding school, are derived from the author’s own experiences. Helen Burns’s death from consumption recalls the deaths of Charlotte Brontë’s sisters Maria and Elizabeth, who died of tuberculosis in childhood as a result of the conditions at their school, the ClergyDaughtersSchool at CowanBridge, near Tunstall in Lancashire. Mr. Brocklehurst is based on Rev. William Carus Wilson (1791-1859), the Evangelical minister who ran the school, and Helen Burns is likely modelled on Charlotte‘s sister Maria. Additionally, John Reed’s decline into alcoholism and dissolution recalls the life of Charlotte‘s brother Branwell, who became an opium and alcohol addict in the years preceding his death. Finally, like Charlotte, Jane becomes a governess. These facts were revealed to the public in The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857) by Charlotte‘s friend and fellow novelist Elizabeth Gaskell.[2]

The Gothic manor of Thornfield was probably inspired by North Lees Hall, near Hathersage in the Peak District. This was visited by Charlotte Brontë and her friend Ellen Nussey in the summer of 1845 and described by Ellen Nussey in a letter dated 22 July 1845. It was the residence of the Eyre family and its first owner Agnes Ashurst was reputedly confined as a lunatic in a padded second floor room.