In Jane Eyre (1847), Charlotte Brontë created ‘a heroine as plain, and as small as myself, who’, she told her sisters, ‘shall be as interesting as any of yours’. Though Emily and Anne Brontë had already completed their first novels when Charlotte began writing her story of the headstrong governess, it was Jane Eyre that was the first of the sisters’ novels to be accepted for publication. Charlotte took a year to write the manuscript, submitting it to publishers Smith, Elder and Co in August 1847. It appeared in print two months later, to great acclaim (mixed with some controversy over the perceived immorality of the central character).
How did Charlotte Brontë compose the novel?
The manuscript shown here is Brontë’s autograph fair copy. It is remarkably neat, with very few corrections: ‘She would wait patiently’ her biographer Elizabeth Gaskell noted, ‘searching for the right term, until it presented itself to her’. Of the few revisions that Brontë made, the most significant serve to emphasize Jane’s strength of will in her encounters with Rochester.
For instance, Brontë chose to play down Jane’s physical imperfections, crossing through Jane’s self-deprecating comparison of her physical form with Blanche Ingram’s, and deleting Rochester’s corresponding remark: ‘I will graciously excuse deficiencies’. Also cancelled is a line further on, in which Jane declares Rochester to be her ‘alpha and omega of existence’. In another scene she hastily withdraws her hand from contact with Rochester’s, but in the revised passage she crushes his hand ‘and thrust it back to him red with the passionate pressure’. These changes underline Jane Eyre’s refusal to be subjugated to anyone, even Rochester.
What else does the manuscript reveal?
At the top of the title page can be seen Brontë’s pen name, ‘Currer Bell’. She expressed a number of reasons for wishing to be anonymous. Firstly, that it would ‘fetter me intolerably’ when writing, to know that acquaintances would read the works, and perhaps identify the real people and places behind their fictional counterparts. She was also conscious of a ‘vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked upon with prejudice’.