The novel Jane Eyre was originally published in London, England in 1847 by Smith, Elder & Co. The early editions of the novel were given the subtitle An Autobiography and named “Currer Bell” as the editor, not the author. The subtitle was dropped in subsequent editions of the novel. During the days when the novel was published, it was popularly believed that men and women had different duties and responsibilities. Women were encouraged to be devoted and submissive to their husbands. The ideal woman was passive, charming, self-sacrificing and pure.
Jane Eyre and other works of the Charlotte and her sisters were centred around the lives of protagonists who did not conform to these societal ideals. Thus, in order to hide their true identities and genders, the three Bronte sisters published their works under pseudonyms. These were Acton Bell (Anne Bronte), Ellis Bell (Emily Bronte) and Currer Bell (Charlotte Bronte). Despite its immediate popularity, Jane Eyre was condemned by its earliest critics as anti-Christian. These negative reviews can be attributed to the generally rebellious tone of the novel.
Through the description of the protagonist’s life, including those related to her social status and matters of the heart, the reader is presented with several social and political issues. The novel questions society’s view of women, the importance of the arts and the basis of a solid marriage. Based on the standards of the society in the days when the novel was first published, Jane Eyre as a character lead an immoral life. Jane fell in love and lusted after a married man, was proposed to by her cousin, and describes a clergymen as hypocritical and greedy.
The novel is written in such a manner that the reader empathizes with Jane, and in doing so, leads the reader to question his or her beliefs. The novel is also explicitly anti-Christian in that Jane questions the existence and importance of God. During her days at Lowood, Jane’s close friend, Helen Burns contracts tuberculosis. On her deathbed, Helen calmly reassures Jane that by dying young, she is escaping great sufferings, and will go to God. Jane remains sceptical, and asks, “Where is God? What is God? ” In the same conversation, Jane questions the existence of heaven and the ability of people to enter it.
Using contemporary standards, these questions might be considered by some to be normal and even healthy. However, in the context of the society during the time when the novel was first published, such comments would have been considered as blasphemous and grossly immoral. Critics who believed that the novel was in fact an autobiography were correct. Although the life of the character Jane Eyre is not identical to that of the author Charlotte Bronte, there are obvious parallels. For example, while attending Lowood School, one of Jane’s closest friends dies of consumption.
Similarly, while attending school at Cowan Bridge, Jane’s sisters died of the same illness. This coincidence drew comparisons between the fictional headmaster of Lowood whom Jane denounces as insincere and deceitful, and Charlotte’s own former headmaster who ran Cowan Bridge. Another parallel can be drawn between the character of John Reed and Charlotte’s brother Branwell, because both men suffered from alcoholism. Perhaps the most obvious similarity between the novel and the author’s life is the fact that both Jane and Charlotte were governesses.
In accepting Jane Eyre as the true adventures of its heroine and by branding the novel as anti-Christian, early critics were correct. Due to similarities in the personal life of Charlotte Bronte and the experiences of Jane Eyre, it can be inferred that the novel is an autobiography. Based on the standards of society during the time it was first published, the rebellious tone and the manner in which the novel questioned respected social institutions, the novel can be considered as anti-Christian.