Contemporary Reactions to Charlotte Brontë’s ‘Jane Eyre’
Following its publication in 1847, Jane Eyre was a hugely popular, bestselling novel. It went through three printings in its first year alone. As such, it was a frequent topic of discussion for the literary critics and editorial writers of the time.
Jane Eyre was met with a mixture of reactions. Some hailed it as a thrilling, original tale of passion and drama. Others lambasted its coarseness (Victorian speak for “too sexy”) as well as its criticisms of the contemporary social order. Jane’s frankness in confessing her attraction and love to Rochester, physical intimacies such as sitting on his lap and sharing a kiss, as well as Rochester’s acknowledgement of a mistress on the continent and his possible illegitimate daughter, Adele, were seen as horribly base and crude by many reviewers. Furthermore, Jane’s outspoken demands for respect and intellectual freedom were seen by many as dangerous to the standing social order.
Initially, reviews were generally enthusiastic for the novel. George Henry Lewes, an English critic of Literature and Theatre, declared it “the best novel of the season”. Others agreed. Common praise stressed the novel’s freshness, its innovative subject matter, and the intensity with which the emotional aspects were portrayed. The Atlas, one of the first papers to review Jane Eyre, praised the novel, saying, “It has little or nothing of the old conventional stamp upon it…but is full of youthful vigor…the passion rises at times to a height of tragic intensity with is almost sublime.”
Whether positive or negative, reviewers commonly speculated on the author’s sex, most agreeing that the novel had to have been written by a woman. William Makepeace Thackeray, whose own novel, Vanity Fair, had published in the same year and to similar popularity, had this to say about the author of Jane Eyre:
Who the author can be I can’t guess — if a woman, she knows her language better than most ladies do, or has had a ‘classical’ education…I don’t know why I tell you this but that I have been exceedingly moved & pleased by Jane Eyre. It is a woman’s writing, but whose?
But the reviews weren’t all positive. Elizabeth Rigby, Lady Eastlake, an author and art critic, and the first woman to write for the Quarterly review, wrote in 1848 in said periodical that, if the book was by a woman, “she had long forfeited the society of her own sex.”
Most detractors followed a common theme, criticizing the novel for being vulgar, improper, anti-christian, as well as politically inflammatory. However, Rigby’s review was an especially harsh one. She condems the book for its “coarseness of language and laxity of tone.” Offended by unflattering depictions of the aristocracy, Rigby accuses the author of a “total ignorance of the habits of society.”
Additionally, Rigby explicitly compares the contemporary issues of civil unrest (the Chartists, a movement calling for extending the vote to all men) to the independent spirit of Jane Eyre’s titular character.
Rigby isn’t the only detractor to conflate Jane Eyre’s independent heroine with civil unrest. Ann Mozley, writing for the Christian Remembrancer in 1848, writes “Never was there a better hater. Every page burns with moral Jacobinism.” The Jacobins were French revolutionaries who aimed to abolish the monarchy and do away with class distinctions, as well as instituting a universal vote, an idea abhorrent to upper class, Anglican Britons.
Despite her objections, Rigby couldn’t deny that it was “a very remarkable book” and that it was “impossible not to be spellbound with the freedom of the touch.” Even so, Charlotte Brontë was deeply hurt by Rigby’s review and penned an angry response.
While many viewed the book as immoral and dangerous, their harsh condemnation obviously had little effect on sales. Jane Eyre was a best seller in its day and continued to be read and reinterpreted for stage and film consistently since its publication. To date, there have been more than 50 stage versions and 30 film versions of the novel. There is no cohesive record of how many copies of Jane Eyre have been sold since its initial publication, but its estimated to be in the millions.
Love her or hate her, Charlotte Brontë has certainly left her mark.
Lodge, Sara. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë. New York: Palsgrave Macmillan, 2008. Print.
Shuttleworth, Sally. “Jane Eyre and the 19th-century Woman.” Discovering Literature: Romantics and Victorians. The British Library. Web. February 12, 2016.
Rigby, Elizabeth. “Vanity Fair — and Jane Eyre.” Littell’s Living Age (1848): 497-511. Print.
McCauley, Mary Carole. “Exploring the many faces of ‘Jane Eyre’.” The Baltimore Sun. (August 19, 2007). Web. February 12, 2016.