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« The Garden in VILLETTE | Main | The Brontës »

Is Charlotte Brontë Jane Eyre?

The C. B. Richmond chalk portrait of Charlotte Brontë, done in 1850 (three years after JANE EYRE--here, she's thirty-four)I don’t know if you’ve been following this story, but it seems an Italian investigative journalist in New York may have solved the mystery of who Elena Ferrante is. Click here for the latest op-ed on the story from the NYTimes.

This op-ed is a great piece for us right now. It’s relatively easy to read an author’s life back into her or his work. But it’s something of a deception, if not a bald logic fault, particularly for works written in the Romantic Era (around 1800) and following. (If you want to read the original article that broke the story, it’s here.)

A powerfully imaginative work—what we would consider a great work of literature—has one significant hallmark: it creates a world unto itself. It so encapsulates experience and indeed the essence of what it is to be human that it makes its own rules, creates its own time, and spins a fabric of reality to suit itself. The author’s life is finally (and at best) tangential to the work.

Sure, every author starts with “what they know.” But great authors move quickly out and away into a vast canvas of imaginative strokes. Twain grew up near the Mississippi River and worked as a river pilot in his teenage years--but these are only small starting points for the unbelievably complex novel that Huck Finn narrates. Huck's very voice is not Twain's but an amalgam of white Southern and African-American dialects.

Notice, too, how we don’t make the same autobiographical move with painters. “Picasso painted this nose because his mother’s nose was. . . .” Or choreographers. “Mark Morris made this dance en pointe because his father once said. . . .” It seems absurd, right? It is so with books, too.

What’s more, you can always find what you’re looking for. In a long novel, you can surely find things that are replicated from an author’s life. In fact, I’ll be willing to bet you could read any novel and find things that are replicated from my life. “In Middlemarch, Dorothea Brooks cannot have a small dog because she’s so near-sighted—and I notice that Mark always wears glasses.” Absurd, no? But the point is that it’s easy to find what you’re looking for—and doing so may not in the end make a compelling, logical case for interpretation. 

Such an idea is particularly crucial for JANE EYRE. It’s tempting to read Charlotte Brontë into the book. And in some ways we sure can. In fact, in the second half of the novel, the impulse to read her life into the book will prove almost overwhelming with the introduction of one central character.

But for now, the larger “problem” beyond mere details remains the fictional world she made, a world of fury and frustration, one that in many ways does not reflect the peaceful, sometimes pastoral, and often quite happy life Charlotte lived. Of course she was unhappy at times. We all are. But her frequent, extended visits with friends around England, her devotion to her family, her education in Belgium, her high times in London, and the aching sadness she felt over the deaths of her mother and four siblings are all things apart from the great novel she wrote. The case of a Polish/German immigrant Jewish translator writing the novels we call “Ferrante’s” shows that a powerful imagination is capable of creating its own world.

The first page of the fair copy of the JANE EYRE manuscript

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