On this day Charlotte Bronte was born in 1816, one of six children of a clergyman in Yorkshire. She wrote often, even as a young person, perhaps as an escape from a rather dreary life. In adulthood she wrote under the name Currer Bell. Her greatest work, of course, is Jane Eyre.
I often teach Jane Eyre to freshmen, and I would have to say that it is the most underestimated and unappreciated work of all the literature that I teach. The young people, in general (despite a few fans in every class), cannot seem to relate to Jane Eyre, and yet I wonder why. It's wonderfully Gothic, and young people still appreciate the Gothic elements in their books and movies; it has a touching love story, a strong sense of mystery, a focus on the underdog--the very plain Jane. Yet it often leaves them cold.
I suppose the difference is that many young people can no longer stomach the style--the long sentences, the formal diction (much of which they don't know and often refuse to look up), the antiquated sensibility. This is about a girl, then a woman, who is continually oppressed. What the girls don't always see, however, is the gradual journey Jane makes: from weakness to strength, from ignorance to awareness, from anger to enlightenment. It's a remarkable work, and my continuing job as a teacher is to try to make them see that.
I first discovered Jane Eyre on my mother's bookshelf when I was very young--eleven or twelve,perhaps. I wanted to read it because it looked very adult: it was big, leatherbound, and intimidating. But when I opened it and found Jane sitting behind a curtain at Gateshead, hiding from her horrible adopted family and looking out at the dreary November day, I was hooked. Bronte was a brilliant storyteller, and Jane is such a worthy protagonist that reader can't help but be drawn into her life and to root for her success.
And of course one of my favorite things about Jane Eyre is its mystery; the wonderful sense that there is something going on that Jane doesn't understand, which creates tension for long portions of the book. I don't wish to spoil anything for those of you who might now be inspired to pick up Jane Eyre in honor of Charlotte's birthday, so I'll just say that the mystery itself has made an indelible imprint on our literary culture, and Jane Eyre remains as a beloved work of English literature.