The First Faltering Steps of Jane Eyre

by Ray Setterfield

Event Date: August 15, 1847
Location: Haworth, Yorkshire, United Kingdom

Charlotte Brontë sent her manuscript of Jane Eyre to a publisher in London on this day from the little railway station near her home at Haworth in the north of England. Fearing prejudice against a female author, Charlotte chose the pen name of Currer Bell.

Her almost apologetic note to the publisher, Smith, Elder & Co, read:

“I now send you per rail a MS entitled Jane Eyre, a novel in three volumes, by Currer Bell. I find I cannot prepay the carriage of the parcel, as money for that purpose is not received at the small station-house where it is left.

“If, when you acknowledge the receipt of the MS, you would have the goodness to mention the amount charged on delivery, I will immediately transmit it in postage stamps.”

The novel had already been rejected five times, but Smith, Elder & Co. decided to take a chance and quickly found they had a controversial hit on their hands.

A mixed review came in 1848 from the prestigious Quarterly Review which admitted that “this is a very remarkable book”. But it added: “We are painfully alive to the moral, religious, and literary deficiencies of the picture, and its passages of beauty and power cannot redeem it, but it is impossible not to be spell-bound with the freedom of the touch.

“It would be mere hackneyed courtesy to call it ‘fine writing.’ It bears no impress of being written at all, but is poured out rather in the heat and hurry of an instinct. As regards the author’s chief object, however, it is a failure – that, namely, of making a plain, odd woman, destitute of all the conventional features of feminine attraction, interesting in our sight.

“The author has not succeeded in this. Jane Eyre, in spite of some grand things about her, is totally uncongenial to our feelings from beginning to end.

“We acknowledge her firmness – we respect her determination – we feel for her struggles; but, for all that the impression she leaves is that of a decidedly vulgar-minded woman – one whom we should not care for as an acquaintance, whom we should not seek as a friend, whom we should not desire for a relation, and whom we should scrupulously avoid for a governess.”

Other reviewers attacked "Currer Bell" for daring “to trample upon customs established by our forefathers, and long destined to shed glory upon our domestic circles”, but many applauded the work, particularly women, and the author William Makepeace Thackeray was so moved by it that he wept in front of his butler.

So have many others in the 170 years since the book was written. Turned into plays and films over the years, it has remained consistently in the bestseller lists and claims an affectionate place in bookshelves across the world.

Published: July 1, 2016

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