This is a contemporary review of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, published in Fraser’s Magazine in 1847. Although it is unsigned, Charlotte’s correspondence identifies its author as George Henry Lewes, author and critic.
Lewes begins by urging the reader to obtain a copy of the novel and read it immediately. Although Lewes critiques ‘some defects’ (p. 692), mainly in the scenes involving Bertha Mason, the review continues positively. He particularly praises the novel’s realism, noting that ‘Reality – deep, significant reality – is the great characteristic of the book’ (p. 691). In reference to a specific passage, he continues, ‘It reads like a page out of one’s own life; and so do many other pages in the book’ (p. 692). The novel’s realism, Lewes argues, is best achieved in its representation of the governess which is ‘not only accurate, but accurate in being represented from the governess point of view’ (p. 692). This latter point suggests that Jane Eyre introduced a new kind of female consciousness to the British novel. Reinforcing this idea, Lewes describes Jane as ‘a woman, not a pattern’ (p. 692).
More generally, Lewes draws attention to the skilled composition of the characters, noting that they are ‘drawn with unusual mastery’. Like other contemporary reviews, Lewes comments on how different the novel is to past or current novels: ‘The style of Jane Eyre is peculiar’ (p. 693).
We now view Jane Eyre as canonical; these reviews help to remind us just how great an impact this curious and unconventional novel had on the 19th-century literary and social landscape. Linked to this, Lewes taps into the power the novel held over the public’s imagination, describing how it ‘will not leave you’, and ‘The book closed, the enchantment continues’ (p. 691).
‘The writer is evidently a woman’
What was the implication of Lewes identifying Jane Eyre’s author as a woman? In a letter to Lewes, Charlotte Brontë expresses her disappointment at the review’s insistence that, ‘The writer is evidently a woman’ (p. 690). For Brontë this was unnecessary speculation, verging on gossip, that distracted the public, as well as critics, from judging her work without bias. Some of Lewes’s speculations may also have had the potential to damage Brontë ’s character. Lewes argues that all great novels must spring from ‘an abundant source’ of real experiences lived by the author. He writes that ‘To have vitality, it must spring from vitality’. Thus, when musing, ‘Has the author led a quiet, secluded life, uninvolved in the great vortex of the world, undisturbed by various passions, untried by strange calamities?’, Lewes implies that the author has indeed experienced ‘various passions’ and ‘strange calamities’ (p. 691) – both of which were considered by many to be improper for a middle-class woman.
- Article by:
- Carol Atherton
- The novel 1832–1880
Carol Atherton explores the character of Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre through ideas of the ‘Other’, Charlotte Brontë’s narrative doubling and 19th-century attitudes towards madness and ethnicity.
- Article by:
- Sally Shuttleworth
- The novel 1832–1880, Gender and sexuality
Professor Sally Shuttleworth explores how Charlotte Brontë challenges 19th-century conceptions of appropriate female behaviour through the creation of a heroine who works, demands respect and combines self-control with passion and rebellion.