Question of the Month: What Was Your Brontë Gateway Drug?

I am puzzled by the fascination of pop culture tabloids – the racy, muddled archives of cinema and celebrity.   

Our own pop culture archives are less extensive: we delve into old books and reflect on them.  Lately I’ve been reading  the Brontës, and since we Brontë  devotees are less cultish than Jane Austen fans, I’ve been wondering: “What is the Brontë gateway drug? Does everyone start with Jane Eyre?” One dark Brontë book leads to another, and soon you’ve read the complete oeuvre – and then what?  There’s always the secondary literature!


My gateway drug, Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, is not necessarily the best of the Brontës’ books. That would be Villette, Charlotte’s mature autobiographical masterpiece. 

But almost every reader starts with Jane Eyre,  her brilliant bildungsroman about an orphan’s upbringing, work, and thorny love affair.

Passion and madness dominate Jane Eyre, which can be read as a psychological autobiography. After a rocky childhood and education at a poorly-run charity school (Charlotte attended such a school),  Jane becomes a governess and falls in love with Mr. Rochester, the master of Thornfield Hall.  He is adorable, in a sarcastic, teasing way, but there are strange doings at night at the hall.  Jane saves Mr. Rochester’s life when a strange woman sets his draperies on fire in the dead of night.   

Say what you might, you cannot marry a man who keeps a mad wife in the attic. (Rochester’s wife set the fire.)  But after Jane leaves, the novel becomes even darker:  St. John Rivers, a fanatical minister, tries to mesmerize her into marrying him and accompanying him to India, where Jane, who is not strong, would die, as his sisters, Diana and Mary, tell them both. I believe that St. John is every bit as mad and destructive as Rochester’s wife.

Some read Jane Eyre as a Gothic novel. Others read it as psychological voodoo.  Here is how the psycho stuff works. If Jane is  Charlotte, then Rochester is her moody, alcoholic brother, Branwell, and Jane’s friends, Diana and Mary Rivers, have to be Emily and Anne.  Does that make sense?  Maybe if you’re on a gateway drug! 

No, I’m joking. It does make sense.

Branwell Brontë’s portrait of his sisters.


I am fascinated by the lore of the Brontës.

The lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë  have been transformed into myth over the years. And I can’t help but think I’ve got some of it wrong myself. Did I really read that, in her governess days, Anne once tied her unruly charges to the legs of a table so she could write? It seems most improbable.

Biographers and critics, too, delve into their archives with varying reliability and appeal. Juliet Barker’s biography, The Brontës, is fascinating and scholarly, and worth dipping into even if you can’t face all 1,000 pages. But my favorite is Mrs. Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë, because Gaskell is a spellbinding storyteller. Critics grumble about her inaccuracies and mythologizing, but she had the advantage of a close friendship with Charlotte.

We readers visualize Charlotte, Emily, and Anne as prototypes of their fictional characters, walking on the windy moors, falling in love with brutes (some of their dissipated heroes, like Emily’s Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights and Anne’s Huntingdon in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, were probably modeled on their alcoholic, drug-taking brother Branwell),  and struggling to survive as poor, genteel women, working as governesses and teachers.

The Brontës, who lived most of their lives at Haworth Parsonage, published seven of the most exciting and controversial novels of the 19th century – under men’s names.  All three wrote explosive narratives about dark love and separation, though their personal experiences of romance were limited. Emily in particular was reclusive and did not thrive outside the home; both Anne and Emily worked briefly as teachers or governesses, but were too sickly to survive in the workplace.  

Charlotte, the most robust sister, drew on her experience in Brussels as well as on her home life and imagination.  Charlotte studied languages in Brussels with Emily in 1842. Then she herself returned in 1843 and  taught there.  She fell in love with M. Heger, the married owner of the school. (Her mature autobiographical novel, Villette, is based partly on these experiences.) 

Charlotte was the only sister who married.  She married her father’s curate, Rev. A. B. Nicholls, in 1854, and died the next year of an illness contracted during her pregnancy.

In their novels, they were ambivalent about marriage, and it does seem that Charlotte’s marriage killed her.

I love all of the Brontës. I am a great fan of Emily, the wildest and most poetic of the three , though I don’t admire Wuthering Heights as much as I used to. And Anne, who is in vogue now, is my least favorite. But however you rate them , they are three of the most remarkable writers of the nineteenth century.

A Psychological Bildungsroman: Love and Morals in Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre”

Jane Eyre isn’t exactly chill,” a friend said when I admitted Jane Eyre had lifted my mood.

Any shade of “chill” I ever attained has been erased by the struggles and weariness of the pandemic.  This month, I fell off the chill charts and climbed to the far edge of the intense Jane Eyre “spectrum.” Charlotte Brontë’s classic, Jane Eyre, is one of the most intense Gothic romances of the 19th century. Charlotte’s Villette is a better book, but Jane Eyre is certainly the most popular.

For most of us,  Jane Eyre proves a role model after we outgrow Little Women and Anne of Green Gables. Like Jo in Little Women and Anne (of Green Gables), Jane is intense, intelligent, passionate, ethical, honest, and has moral vision. Jane Eyre is the best of these three books; indeed, it is a perfect book.  Jane argues ethics with an intensity her fictional sisters can’t match. But what Jo and Anne have, and Jane lacks, is humor.

Charlotte Brontë herself had a sense of humor: consider the scintillating remarks of Jane’s dark, witty, worldly suitor, Mr. Rochester. The following exchange is typical.

“I only remind you of your own words, sir:  you said error brought remorse, and you pronounced remorse the poison of existence.”

…”Once more, how do you know?  By what instinct do you pretend to distinguish between a fallen seraph of the abyss and a messenger from the eternal throne–between a guide and a seducer?”

This is my copy: the Heritage Press edition (1974)

Rereading Jane Eyre is the best idea I’ve had in months. It is a book to get lost in–and I began it on a gloomy, rainy day, like the one Jane describes on the first page. “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further outdoor exercise was now out of the question.”

Brontë’s detailed account of Jane’s psychological coming-of-age follows her from an orphan bullied by her sadistic cousin John at Aunt Reed’s house, where Jane has reluctantly been given shelter; to Lowood School, a charity school for girls, where the teachers try hard but the students are starved by the appalling minister, Mr Brocklehurst, until a typhus epidemic kills the majority of students.  After Lowood is reformed, Jane becomes one of the best students, and then teaches there for two years.

But girlhood–even the extended girlhood of teaching at one’s old school–must end eventually, and Jane decides to leave when the head of the school, Miss Temple, gets married. Jane advertises in the paper for a position and becomes the governess at Thornfield Hall.

Jane is a happy governess–unlike the narrator of Agnes Grey, the autobiographical novel by Charlotte’s sister, Anne Bronte. Jane enjoys teaching her flighty charge, Adele, the daughter of a French dancer and possibly an illegitimate byblow of Mr. Rochester’s–and Jane and the housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax, become close friends.

When Mr. Rochester comes back to Thornfield Hall, there are conversations and parties. Brilliant, witty, and ugly, he is not the typical hero. But he and Jane, a plain, small, thin 18-year-old, spar back and forth and fall in love. Like Mrs. Fairfax, who says Rochester is old enough to be Jane’s father, we wonder if he’s a father figure. And yet this age difference is so common in 19th-century novels:  think of Emma and Knightley, who we assume will be happy when they marry. But then, of course, there are novels by Trollope, such as The Way We Live Now and Phineas Finn, in which an age difference in marriage has a bad psychological effect on a woman (Lady Carbury and her older husband; Laura Kennedy and Mr. Kennedy).

Lithograph by Barnett Freedman, “Jane Eyre” (Heritage Press)

Jane and Rochester believe they will be happy. And then–what could be more Gothic?– their wedding is interrupted at the altar, because someone testifies that Rochester is already married.  Rochester is forced to tell the story of his mad wife Bertha, who is locked up in the attic (from which she occasionally escapes to set Rochester’s room on fire or to rip up Jane’s wedding veil). Rochester’s well-told story is as mesmerizing as the best short stories of the 19th century. But on this reading, I noticed for the first time that Rochester admits Bertha sometimes has “lucid” spells for weeks at a time. It’s a small detail–but it does help us understand why Jean Rhys wrote her novel Wide Sargasso Sea from the point of view of Bertha. (I do not particularly admire Wide Sargasso Sea, but I do admire Rhys’s other novels and her autobiography.)

This time around, I am also appreciating the final part of the novel, when Jane leaves Rochester, starves and faints, and meets St. John, the rigid minister, and his lovely sisters, Diana and Mary. These scenes are very quiet after the excitement of Thornfield Hall. And yet I am fascinated by Jane’s new job, as teacher at a village girls’ school, where many are illiterate.  The idea of “doing good”  instead of being a pampered governess, or a beloved wife at Thornfield Hall, is preeminent.

In Jane Eyre, some characters are obviously  based on Charlotte’s family. Diana and Mary are Charlotte’s sisters, Emily and Anne Bronte. And at Lowood, Jane’s friend and role model, Helen, who dies of consumption, seems to be based on one of Charlotte’s older sisters who died at school. (N.B. I haven’t read a biography of Charlotte in years, so I am a bit fuzzy about this point.)  As for Rochester, he seems far too passionate anr rakish to correspond to any lover in Charlotte’s life, and St. John too fussy for a love object (though handsome).  But Charlotte was madly in love with  a married teacher/headmaster of a school in Brussels where she taught. (He is portrayed as M. Paul in Charlotte’s Villette.) Perhaps Charlotte decided to mix up a little Byron with the headmaster.  Why not?  It’s fiction.

Jane Eyre seems to ask, What is the best direction to take in life?  The ending is unexpected–not at all romantic, in my view, though many find it so. Jane has more determination and fearlessness than most women, as she proves as the Gothic grows more Gothic than Gothic in the final scene.   Jane’s moral decisions make us think we could run away to face poverty, hunger, and loneliness for the sake of goodness.

For Jane, it’s more than that.  Rochester broke moral and actual laws.  A happy ending or a sad ending?  It’s strange.  You decide.

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