Charlotte Brontë’s Birthday
Charlotte Brontë was born 201 years ago, on April 21, 1816. She died at age 38 but still lived longer than her five siblings. Much has been written about the often difficult lives of the Brontës, from shortly after their deaths until now. You can bury yourselves for weeks in biographies like Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1857 The Life of Charlotte Brontë or Claire Harman’s 2016 Charlotte Brontë: a Fiery Heart. And of course you can read the novels themselves. Charlotte Brontë wrote four novels. The best two are the very popular Jane Eyre and the less popular Villette.
Most people know the basic story of Jane Eyre, whose evil Aunt Reed sends her off to a cruelly and cheaply run charity boarding school. Eventually Jane gets a job as a governess to a young French girl, the ward of Mr. Rochester. Jane and Mr. Rochester fall in love, with Jane satisfyingly winning his affections over a much more beautiful and accomplished young lady. Everything is going great, and so what if there’s a mysterious fire or two, or Jane’s wedding veil is torn up. These things happen in any relationship, right? I’ll be vague about what happens next, but the wedding does not come off as planned.
If this is most of what you remember about Jane Eyre, perhaps because you saw one of the many movie or TV adaptations that left out some parts, then I especially urge you to go back and reread the book: the the less well-known parts of the plot are also wonderful. For example, after Aunt Reed dies, Jane goes to stay with her three cousins, who were terrible when they were young children and are still predictably terrible now, more than ten years later. And Jane’s relationship with her cousin St. John Rivers, after she flees Mr. Rochester, is engrossing on many levels: for example, if you weren’t sure about Jane and Mr. Rochester as a couple for the first part of the book—and there are some good reasons not to be–after the St. John Rivers part, you probably will have stronger feelings. (To avoid spoilers, I won’t say what those feelings are likely to be.)
Homage and Pastiche
Perhaps because most people are so familiar with Jane Eyre‘s basic plot, a lot of writers have written homages of various kinds to the book. For example, in Stella Gibbons’s hilarious Cold Comfort Farm, a character researches Bramwell, Charlotte Brontë’s ne’er-do-well brother, believing that a woman could not possibly have written anything as wonderful as Jane Eyre. There’s also Jane Eyre: a Counting Primer (for toddlers), Jean Rhys’s famous Wide Sargasso Sea (the back story of one of the other characters—the fire-starter I mentioned earlier), Jane Slayre (she’s a vampire slayer) and Texts from Jane Eyre : and Other Conversations with your Favorite Literary Characters, from which here is a quote:
JANE I BOUGHT YOU A DRESS MADE OF TEN THOUSAND PEARLS AS A BRIDAL PRESENT
where on earth would I wear that
YOU COULD WEAR IT ON THE MOON
that seems impractical
how would i even breathe on the moon?
I WOULD BREATHE FOR YOU MY JANE