Jane Eyre


Charlotte Brontë:
Biographical Summary

Consider moments and oddities in the novel Jane Eyre as you discover disturbing elements in the life of Chalotte Brontë. What would a psychoanalytic critic point out? What would be the diagnosis precisely?

Father Patrick, age 35, married Maria Bramwell in 1812. He was an ambitious but withdrawn rector at a local parish who valued Irish strictness and hardship valued; tends to neglect family. He was a rigid Tory: anti-reform, indifferent to the woman question.

Charlotte was the third of six children:

Maria — b. 1813
Elizabeth — b. 1815
Charlotte — b. April 21, 1816
Bramwell — b.1817
Emily — b. 1818
Anne — b. 1820
Mrs. Brontë (Maria) died September 15, 1821 at 38 years old, after seven months of reclusivity and illness when Charlotte was 5 (the classic age for guilt in such circumstances). One of Charlotte’s few expressed memories was of observing her mother playing with Bramwell. Aunt Elizabeth raised the kids but the relationship was bland and the children indifferent. The children recalled fondly instead a maid, Tabby, and the youngest four, thrown back on themselves, formed an intense private group, entertaining each other with an elaborate and private fantasy world (“Juvenalia: Tales from Angria”) with ingrown energy and creative intensity. This lasted relatively late and turned into written form (when Charlotte was 20-23 years old).

In summer of 1824, Charlotte, Maria, and Elizabeth were sent off to Cowan Bridge School, and a typhoid epidemic broke out. Early in 1825 Maria came back home for a few days and died. Elizabeth died that summer (T.B.?). Charlotte and Emily were sent back to the school after summer, and came away again next winter for their health. Helen Burns is said to be a transcript of Maria, Charlotte’s older sister at Cowan Bridge School, although consumption is involved rather than typhus and Maria went home to die unlike Helen.

[Note what Helen says when Jane asks if she’s an orphan! Any literal Cowan Bridge transcription is abandoned at a certain point, and then we get the eerie deathbed scene, the moon, and “Are you warm, darling?” (113; cf. note 483f: “Maria was a mother to them all,” and Charlotte called her “a little mother among the rest.”) Miss Temple serves “in the stead of a mother” with wish-fulfillment “nectar and ambrosia,” and ends up “lost to me” when she marries a clergyman. Also, Miss Temple’s first name? Maria: Charlotte’s mother’s and substitute mother’s (or sister’s) name.]

After the death in the novel, conversation is terminated (with 8 years of silence). Similarly, Charlotte later said, inaccurately of course, that she had not grown an inch since her ten-month stay at Cowan Bridge.

At least from age 13 are traceable hysterical symptoms: headaches, backaches, insomnia, lapses in memory, food taboos, nervous terrors, obsessions with gloom. These increased with maturity. Also, Charlotte engaged in inner speech­­internal dialogues with herself­­and also heard voices (which must resemble the Gothic supernatural moments in novels; we also encounter unconscious speaking and glimpses of mother figures absent elsewhere, or displaced into supernatural locations after Lowood: the “universal mother, Nature” emerges and involves nestling and voices.)

At 15, Charlotte went to Roe Held School, and in 1832 was back at Haworth for three years. She took a position offered at Roe Held in 1835 for three years but considered it “bondage” and was back home for a year in 1838. Charlotte received two proposals of marriage from brothers of friends of hers, but said she didn’t “feel strongly enough.”

The Brontë women hated the idea of being governesses (the classic non-person in the Victorian era: not a ‘lady,’ not part of family, not among servants), but all had stints at it, Charlotte in 1839 and again in 1841. At each home she liked the man and hated the woman (how Oedipal!).

It was Charlotte’s idea to try opening school. She went to Brussels in 1842, with the support of her aunt, to learn French for school. (Emily, 6 months away, grew homesick and agraphobic; it was to be the only time she ever left home.) Charlotte developed a crush on Constantin Heger (he was 32, his wife 37; Villette dramatizes this) involving pathetic worship and endless letters circumventing any declaration of love. He didn’t answer, so eventually she stopped writing and sank into depression for two years during which time she was inaccessible. She came home in January 1844. The attempt to open the school failed when no one showed up.

Next came the further deaths of the aunt and a curate (one of Charlott’es former suitors). In 1846 all sisters published poetry pseudonymously. In 1847 Anne and Emily added a novel each to their credits. Charlotte’s The Professor was rejected, but in October 1847 Jane Eyre came out.

Late in 1848-49, T.B. from a London visit was carried to Haworth and infections followed. An alcoholic Bramwell died in September 1848 (and had been dismissed in 1845 by the father). Emily died December 1848, and Anne in May 1849.

Charlotte polarized herself between her literary work (Shirley was published in October 1849; she edited her sisters’ work in 1850; late in 1851 she began Villette slowly and finished rapidly in November 1852) and dedication to her father (despite his filial indifference) whose health was deteriorating.

In 1853, a cleric, Arthur Bell Nicholls, a curate in the father’s employ at Haworth since 1845, proposed to Charlotte who accepted, but the father had a fit and fired him. Nicholls wrote to the old man persistently and deals were cut for the couple never leaving and taking continual care of father, and he agreed to the marriage finally in April 1854. But he stayed home on the wedding day, June 29, 1854. (Indeed, when Charlotte died, Nicholls continued taking care of the old man.)

Charlotte believed in presences of “long-absent kin”­­externalized into signs and voices. She also had a recurring dream which included the image of a clinging child. It is said she never fathomed, or repressed, the relationship between mother and child. March 31, 1855 at age 38 (and 11 months; the same age as her mother when she died), Charlotte died. It turned out that this was soon after discovering she was pregnant, and a much later suggestion is that it was a neurotic psychogenic reaction to her unacceptable thoughts of her own coming role as mother.