It was Currer Bell, author of Jane Eyrewas the most sought-after—and most mysterious—writer in the world.
Even Smith, who edited and published the book, had never met the enigmatic author, a first-time novelist who had nonetheless turned down his suggestions for revision, thanking him for the advice, then announcing the intention to ignore it. Bell had been right, of course, and Smith wrong.
She was Currer Bell, she told him. She was the author of Jane Eyre. If life were like literature, Smith would have fallen in love with her then and there. If he did not love her already, he could learn: They would soon strike up a lively and close correspondence that lasted years.
And Charlotte was charmed by his good looks and his bright, open personality. It might seem like sacrilege to question the small r romanticism of Jane Eyrea story that centers on the obsessive love of a teenage governess and her decades-older boss.
Over the last years, the book has become a touchstone for passionate love, that once-in-a-lifetime spark we are taught to long for.
But when it was published, the bestselling book incensed readers even as it seduced them. And for modern scholars, its undercurrents of rage, motherlessnesscolonialismslaverycircus freakeryand even incest! Not exactly romantic themes.
To twenty-first-century eyes, it shows a woman who fights for, yet abdicates to, love. To nineteenth-century eyes, it showed a woman who should abdicate to, yet fights for, love. In either century, readers demand that Jane Eyre should do cultural labor that it steadfastly resists. Its author resists our attempts at that labor, too. But by the time her most famous book was published, Charlotte was 31 years old, and an expert in the strangling, diminishing kind of romance she bequeathed her heroine.
Asshe seemed marked for love. It was part and parcel of the fantasy world that enveloped her everyday life: a fictitious kingdom called Angria, which she wrote into being with her younger brother, Branwell. In what amounted to a competitive literary apprenticeship, they wove their fantasy land into a place of lewd thrills. Angria seethed with war, rape, rebellion, kidnapping, and revenge. It was a hotbed of the kind of love that could build a kingdom, then tear it to shreds. That vision of love was so intense that it permeated into real life. Neglected in childhood and traumatized at a school where she is humiliated and starved, Jane arrives at Thornfield ready to love.
Edward Fairfax Rochester is boorish and brutal. He engages his year-old employee in work talk that is the 19th-century version of METOO employment investigation fodder.
In one particularly repulsive episode, he messes with her mind by disguising himself as a Roma fortune teller. He intends to marry her rival, he implies. Then he changes his mind. Finally, after all but forcing her to accept his abrupt proposal, he takes her in his arms.
It is too much to bear.
The same year she turned down her first marriage proposal, Charlotte turned away from the illicit fantasies of Angria. Both she and Branwell were in their twenties now, and they had lingered together in their imaginary world for too long. Charlotte had sent the poet a poem of her own, asking whether it was worth pursuing her literary ambitions. A few years later, burned out on governessing and with no hopes of marriage, she continued her search for cooler climes.
This time, she went to Belgium. What she really wanted, though, was a change of scenery, an antidote to her restlessness.
She learned more than one language there. He encouraged her to write, to speak her mind.
She likely saved the letters as potential evidence; they might prove useful if Charlotte made trouble for the school. The author may have been hungry for crumbs, but Jane Eyre is not. They spoke almost as loud as Feeling: and that clamoured wildly.
The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. Or it may have been a reminder to move forward. Jane presses on, running away from sin and toward herself.
If she cannot be on equal footing with her partner, she will not have him at all. Even before he copped to his attic-bound madwoman of a wife, Rochester made it clear that he wanted to own Jane. As his wife, she would have been his concubine: a petted plaything, but not an equal. By the time she falls in love, Jane knows she can fend for herself.
Once again she resolves to keep in good health and not die. She does more than refuse to die; she thrives. Jane escapes Thornfield and befriends the Rivers sisters and their intolerable brother, St. John, a Calvinist minister who gives her a job as a teacher in an obscure village.
Coincidence then teaches her that not only are the Rivers siblings her cousins, she is an heiress. She shares the wealth, enjoying the money that has raised her out of obscurity. Jane has one more obstacle to overcome: St. John is arguably even more sadistic than Rochester. He expects Jane to follow him to the ends of the earth, and to do so with a cold substitute for love. But his words crack like a whip.
John would never make out with Jane beneath a tree. The principled minister finds no pleasure in his future wife. Certainly, Charlotte had stopped thinking of herself as a wife by the time she wrote Jane Eyre.
But not wives. Spinsterdom did have its uses: It allowed Charlotte to write. It could be a lonely bargain, but it was one that allowed her to create Jane Eyre. Equipped with new knowledge and a new dismissal of the skim-milk version of love he offers, she decides that sin on her own terms is preferable to virtue on St. Turning down her cousin and returning to a man who, for all she knows, is still married, is helped along when she hears Rochester calling her name.
Jane, bolstered by her own financial security and her refusal to be diminished by a man who sees her only as a source of labor, is in a different position than she was when she left Rochester for the first time. She is ready for his call. She is ready to go to him on her own terms. That return has vexed readers for years.
But is Jane really doomed to a life of subservience? Not exactly, says Pell. Gilbert, too, rejects the premise that Jane Eyre demeans herself by returning to Rochester. Inher love of Rochester is so shocking it borders on treason.
In any era, its relationship to the love it explores is uneasy, volatile.
Nearly two centuries after it was published, Jane Eyre confounds every expectation. After they met in person, Charlotte and her editor began a correspondence that can only be described as stimulating.