Upon its initial publication, Jane Eyre was a controversial novel, creating a lot of buzz and receiving diverse reactions from readers and critics.
By Iona Mathis McWhinnie (2021)
Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre was first published on October 16th of 1847 by Smith, Elder and Co. as an autobiography under her pseudonym, Currer Bell. The novel is written from the perspective of Jane Eyre, an orphan abandoned by her relatives. She attends a harsh boarding school and becomes a governess to the ward of the mysterious Mr. Rochester, whom she falls in love with. Although certainly not an autobiography, the novel incorporates Brontë’s own experiences and was received and criticized as one. Brontë, born in 1816, attended the Clergy Daughter’s School at Cowan Bridge in Lancashire after her mother’s death when she was five. She taught at a girls’ school and studied languages and school administration in Brussels in the hopes of opening a school with her sister Emily. She began her literary career in 1846 when she and her sisters published a book of their poems (Editors 2009). From its first printing, Jane Eyre was highly controversial, attracting the attention of readers and critics, whose opinions on the novel were divided (Harrison 2015). This paper discusses how Jane Eyre was received, reviewed, and criticized by literary critics in the 19th century upon its initial publication and the reasoning behind these various perspectives. It will consult two positive and two negative reviews of the novel, with a focus on reviewers’ opinions regarding religion, character, writing technique/style, selected scenes, and the author’s sex, and also Brontë’s response to initial criticism. First, points of praise will be discussed and contextualized, and then the same will be done for points of criticism. In doing so, this essay will touch on why Jane Eyre is considered to be a powerful and revolutionary novel. In the 19th century, critics were strongly divided in their opinions of Jane and her story, but all could agree that the novel was remarkable and spellbinding because of its great narrative power, originality, and Jane’s freedom of expression, which caused her to break free from conventional societal standards.
Reviewers praised Jane Eyre for its originality, freedom of thought and expression, realism, accuracy, and character composition. Author and critic George Henry Lewes wrote a positive review for Jane Eyre, citing its realism, well-developed characters, and descriptive writing. He began his review by urging readers to buy the book and emphasizing how it will stay with them. This 1847 December issue described how the novel contained a few characters, though the few it had were drawn well. Lewes enjoyed Jane’s character because she is a realistic woman, not intelligent or overtly moral. With her plainness, she is made loveable by the personality, strength, and honesty she exhibits throughout the novel. The character of Mr. Rochester is also well-written, despite his imperfections, though Lewis believes he is not as realistic as Jane. Perhaps, Lewis posits, this difference is because Brontë is a woman. Lewis attributes the success of Jane’s character to the autobiographical nature of the novel, as the author is “unquestionably setting forth her own experience” (Lewes 1847). Brontë’s own experiences give Jane a realistic charm and cause the novel to uniquely impact the reader with its personal language.
Lewes praised Brontë’s writing technique – specifically, her worldly knowledge, character perception and manipulation, passion, description, and the novel’s realism. To exhibit Brontë’s mastery of description, he includes a scene from Jane’s childhood in which she describes the bedroom that Jane has been locked in. In fact, Lewes favors the descriptive aspects from Jane’s childhood. From the beginning of the review, Lewes correctly assumes the writer is a young, nascent female and a new author because of his belief that such great work must come out of real experiences. He thus implies that Brontë herself had experienced Jane’s improper passions and plights. Although this assumption had no negative effects on the review, Brontë didn’t appreciate such speculations because of their distracting nature and potential damages to her character (Lewes 1847). In short, Lewes praised the novel for its realism, accuracy, and character composition.
An anonymous review in The Era from November of 1847 was similarly positive, praising the originality and morality of the novel. The review recommended the novel and highlighted its brilliant originality. It stated that “the story is…unlike all we have read…” (“Review of Jane Eyre from the Era” 1847). The reviewer believed that the novel is morally sound. Jane’s “trials and temptations” highlight the importance of correct morals and obeying the laws of man and of God, no matter the circumstance. This respect of human and divine law will ultimately lead to happiness, though the path may be treacherous. Similar to Lewes, this review believes the characters are lifelike, truthful, and well-fashioned. They are described as “Cartoons of Raphael” because they convey such great realism while lacking extensive elaboration (“Review of Jane Eyre from the Era” 1847). He is, however, more focused on the uniqueness and power of the story itself rather than the characters, so no strong reactions to or descriptions of Jane and Rochester are highlighted. The reviewer believes the story is natural and true. Unlike Lewes, he doesn’t find the latter parts of the novel to be too improbable or inferior to the beginning. The expression and power of thought are what make the novel revolutionary and engaging. Further, consistent with the prominent sexism of the 19th century, the reviewer believed that the author couldn’t be a woman because of the novel’s incredible power and uniqueness. He instead thought that the tale expanded upon other written inventions of the male mind in its romance and conflicts (“Review of Jane Eyre from the Era” 1847). Overall, the reviewer recommended the novel because of its uniqueness, well-developed characters, and freedom of thought and expression.
A common differentiation between positive and negative reviews was the degree to which the reviewers and the places in which they published were conservative and religious. As will be seen in the discussion of two critical reviews, religious and conservative reviewers were more likely to criticize Jane Eyre, citing immorality and anti-authoritative and anti-religious views in the novel. Reviewers who praised the novel didn’t find it anti-authoritative, anti-Christian, or immoral and found the character depictions to be realistic. Neither Lewes nor the anonymous Era reviewer found the novel to be particularly immoral. Lewes found Jane’s passion, which religious reviewers frowned upon, to be part of her character’s appeal and realism (Lewes 1847). The anonymous Era reviewer believed that the challenges Jane faced and her resulting responses highlighted the importance of obeying religious and manmade laws in order to achieve happiness (“Review of Jane Eyre from the Era” 1847). With respect to the writing, reviewers were pretty consistent as to what they liked or didn’t like, and most could not find fault with the writing style. All reviewers agreed that it was a remarkable and powerful novel and that the author was skilled (Harrison 2015). Ironically, the very societal contradictions that made more conservative reviewers despise the novel for being rude and uncultivated, were also caused those reviewers to admit that the novel was “spell-binding,” original, and true (Harrison 2015). The writing in the beginning, which focused on Jane’s childhood and boarding, was realistic and beautiful, appreciated by the praiseful and critical reviewers alike. Realism in portions of the novel, authenticity of character, especially Jane’s, and uniqueness were common points of praise. The freedom of expression and narrative power made the novel very unique, capturing even the most critical reviewers, such as Elizabeth Rigby, who stated that “it is impossible not to be spell-bound with the freedom of the touch” (Rigby 1848). Jane’s character was powerful and original because of her deviations from conventional societal rules. Her narrative voice in combination with the marketing of it as an autobiography caused many readers to mistakenly take the account as factual, which further emphasizes the authenticity of the character (Prior 2016). Historical context is arguably unnecessary to justify the fact that Jane Eyre received positive reviews with respect to writing style/technique which continues to be praised, but it does justify the excitement and surprise regarding Brontë’s narrative style and originality, which were new for that time period (Harrison 2015). Overall, Jane Eyre was praised because of its originality, freedom of thought and expression, and Brontë’s skill.
Reviewers criticized Jane Eyre for its unconventionalism, immorality, passionate exchanges, anti-authoritative and anti-Christian tendencies, and improbabilities within the storyline. An anonymous review published in The Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction in December of 1847 had a critical and negative reaction, citing anti-Christian and anti-authoritative sentiments. The reviewer stated that “it would be no credit to anyone to be the author of Jane Eyre”(“The Last New Novel [Unsigned review of Jane Eyre]” 1847). In their opinion, the novel blatantly violates contemporary moral and social codes and aims blows against political, religious, and social institutions at every opportunity. The novel completely lacks morality, but in a peculiar way, as it speaks strongly against vices while also telling a story that makes love of man seem irreconcilable with love of religion. The author attempts to persuade the reader that happy people only occasionally think of God, and in times of trouble especially, thus lacking in a depiction of true religion that would be satisfactory to the reviewer. The reviewer dislikes Brontë’s depiction of clergymen, St. John Rivers, because he is ill-formed, cold, stoic, and unfeeling. The reviewer posits that there is not a single natural character, and every depiction is despised, especially the clever and not handsome Jane because “the heroine herself is a specimen of the bold daring young ladies who delight in overstepping conventional rules” (“The Last New Novel [Unsigned review of Jane Eyre]” 1847). The reviewer even dislikes her character as a child because of her un-childlike bold and confrontational nature. Rochester does not escape this criticism or receive any redeeming characteristics, and the reviewer sees no reason as to why Jane would fall for him and he for her. Another point of contention is the depiction of high society in the form of Blanche Ingram: the reviewer states no lady would ever be so rude to a footman. Though the reviewer is not a fan of the novel, he could not deny that “the extraordinary daring of the author kept [him] awake” (“The Last New Novel [Unsigned review of Jane Eyre]” 1847). This daring comes in the form of unrealistic storylines, foolish beliefs, and inadequate characters. Some unrealistic scenes that the reviewer found particularly revolting include the revelation of Bertha Mason, the description of her suffering, and the story of how Rochester’s home was burned down. Such extravagance overpowers the few good scenes in the novel, such as Jane and Rochester’s reunion. The reviewer believed that the author was a young female because of the immoral and immodest tendencies of the novel and the desire of young female writers to write startling and freedom-depicting novels (“The Last New Novel [Unsigned review of Jane Eyre]” 1847). The reviewer’s values were challenged by the female author and her representation of women, so the criticism is largely spiteful in its claims.
A combined review of Vanity Fair and Jane Eyre published in the Quarterly Review in December of 1848 by Elizabeth Rigby is similarly scornful of the novel. The review attacks the book’s morality yet acknowledges its remarkability (Rigby 1848). In Rigby’s eyes, Jane mimics the titular character of Pamela in her attachment to her master and in using her character and principles to conquer the romantic temptations of her beloved master but with a relaxed tone and harsh language that are not societally justified. Rigby also thinks the novel completely anti-Christian because of the expressed discontent against both ends of society, in addition to law and religion. The moral offense of Jane and Rochester’s illegitimate romance and the fact that the novel’s popularity is partially owed to the reader’s love of that romance is also against religious and manmade laws. With respect to character, Rigby finds Jane uninteresting and inconsistent at the fault of the author, who makes her one person to other characters and another to the readers especially through the discrepancies between what Jane thinks and what she does. She lacks the conventional attraction of heroines. One might think that Jane’s moral strength in leaving Rochester would please Rigby, but it further infuriates her because it seems to be done out of pride and the laws of her own mind rather than religion, and the lack of former acquaintances that Jane has to turn to seems unrealistic. Rigby includes scenes from the latter portions of the novel for the purpose of analyzing and criticizing Jane’s character. Mr. Rochester’s character is consistent and intellectual, but he speaks of his immodest past without filter and more seeks to violate the laws of God and man with his illegitimate proposal of marriage. Rigby is disgusted by the fact that some readers are so drawn in by characters as ungodly, uninteresting, and unworthy as Jane and Mr. Rochester. With respect to writing, the moral, religious, and literary deficiencies overpower beautiful and powerful passages, but Rigby cannot deny the author’s power. Rigby is also certain that the author is a man, not because of the power or vulgarity of the writing, but because of the mistakes made in descriptions of womanly works and clothing (Rigby 1848). Overall, Rigby dislikes the novel because of its moral faults, but she concedes that it is powerful and spellbinding because of Brontë’s free writing style.
In 1848, Brontë released a preface with the second edition of Jane Eyre with the main purpose of defending the novel against criticism, while also acknowledging its success and thanking the press, public, and publishers. These criticisms held the aforementioned beliefs of Elizabeth Rigby and the anonymous Mirror review, despising the novel for its immorality and anti-religious sentiments. Such was found in the portrayal of Jane and Rochester’s relationship, her outspoken and strong opinions, and the unconventional Christian ideas presented throughout the novel. Brontë challenges the relationships between conventionality and morality, self-righteousness and religion, and calls upon the reader to separate them and scrutinize present injustice. Brontë ends by dedicating the edition to William Thackeray, author of Vanity Fair, which was also heavily criticized by Elizabeth Rigby, because of his social reformation (Brontë 1848).
The roots of criticism were largely immorality and deviation from societal expectations, which can be justified by the time period, and improbabilities within the latter half of the story were also disliked. The novel was interpreted as anti-authority/anti-Christian because Jane achieves happiness on her own, seemingly without the help of man or god. These reactions were source-dependent, so stronger criticisms of such basis would be seen in Christian periodicals and conservative sources – such as in Rigby’s article in the Quarterly Review, while other reviews wouldn’t have any moral or convention-based qualms (Harrison 2015). Her unwomanly stubbornness and independence and her war against her conventional social destiny were radical for the time and, for some, were even more disturbing than the passionate exchanges she had with Rochester (Harrison 2015) (Prior 2016). With the conclusion that the author was a woman, critics were eager to attack the novel for immorality and coarseness because that type of writing was not considered appropriate for a young woman (Miller 2016). Critics who did not believe that the author was a woman attributed it to the skill of the writing and their beliefs that women needed to be happy and successful in their domestic roles rather than through an external career (Harrison 2015). For religious reviewers, much of their dislike for Jane comes from her so-called anti-religious traits (Harrison 2015). Jane’s character was assertively a feminist and through her inward reflections introduced readers to a new notion of self (Prior 2016). Those who dislike Rochester’s character blame his grooming and exploitative behavior towards Jane (Miller 2016). Gender standards also came into play, as Rochester’s intellect is redeeming, while Jane’s is a fault (Harrison 2015). Based on the contrast between discussed reviews, it seems that critics who believed the novel to be anti-religious and anti-authoritative similarly found the characters to be displeasing, unrealistic, and improbable, while reviewers who saw no such thing instead found the characters to be incredibly well-drawn and realistic (Harrison 2015). The latter parts in Thornfield were generally disliked, or at least not as favored as the beginning, because of drama and improbability (Harrison 2015). The main faults were the presence of some improbabilities even if believed to be well-written, which “smack of the circulating library,” which was not considered high quality, and those centered around mad Bertha Mason and the melodrama present at Thornfield, and such passages were included by some critics to highlight the novel’s flaws (Harrison 2015). Even praiseful Lewes finds that the melodramatic, improbable mad wife and wild wanderings pale in comparison to the rest of the novel because these aspects lack realism (Lewes 1847). Overall, reviewers criticized Jane Eyre for immorality, passionate exchanges, societal deviations, and improbabilities within the storyline.
Upon its initial publication, Jane Eyre created a significant divide in reactions among 19th-century critics with respect to characters, the portrayal of religion and authority, writing style, scene selections, and the author’s sex, but critics were in agreement that the novel was remarkable and spellbinding because of Jane’s freedom of expression and Brontë’s narrative power, both of which were unconventional at the time. The diversity of viewpoints can be seen among the four reviews discussed. George Henry Lewes loved Jane Eyre for its realism and character composition, especially in the description of Jane’s childhood, and he urged his readers to get their hands on a copy (Lewes 1847). The anonymous reviewer in The Era praised the engaging novel for its originality, morality, and well-fashioned characters (“Review of Jane Eyre from the Era” 1847). The anonymous reviewer in The Mirror strongly disliked the book for its anti-authoritative, anti-Christian, and morally unsound sentiments but could not deny that the author’s daring choices kept the novel engaging (“The Last New Novel [Unsigned review of Jane Eyre]” 1847). Elizabeth Rigby similarly disliked its anti-authoritative and anti-Christian nature and was also engaged by the Brontë’s freedom in her writing (Rigby 1848). Brontë’s response against critics was to call upon readers to scrutinize modern conventions and redefine morality and religion instead of living in injustice (Brontë 1848). Overall, Jane Eyre received such a variety of strong reactions because of its narrative power, unique strong feminist heroine, and deviation from societal conventions.
Brontë, Charlotte. 1848. Jane Eyre : an autobiography / by Currer Bell. 2nd ed ed. London: London : Smith, Elder and Co., 1848.
Editors, History.com. 2009. “Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre” is published in London.” A&E Television Networks. Last Modified October 19, 2020. Accessed March 27, 2021. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/jane-eyre-is-published.
Harrison, Kelly. 2015. “Jane Eyre as Seen Throughout the Times: A Critical Reception History of Jane Eyre in the 1850s and the 1960s and 70s.” BA in English Literature, The Department of English Language and Culture, Radboud University (4154479).
“The Last New Novel [Unsigned review of Jane Eyre].” 1847. The Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction, 376-380.
Lewes, George Henry. 1847. “Recent Novels: French and English.” Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country, 690-694.
Miller, Lucasta. 2016. “The Victorians regarded Charlotte Brontë as coarse and immoral – and deplored Jane Eyre.” Independent Digital News and Media Last Modified March 10, 2016. Accessed March 21, 2021. https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/victorians-regarded-charlotte-bronte-coarse-and-immoral-and-deplored-jane-eyre-a6923616.html.
Prior, Karen Swallow. 2016. “‘Jane Eyre’ and the Invention of the Self.” Atlantic Media Company. Last Modified March 3, 2016. Accessed March 21, 2021. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/03/how-jane-eyre-created-the-modern-self/460461/.
“Review of Jane Eyre from the Era.” 1847. The Era, 1847, 9.
Rigby, Elizabeth. 1848. “Vanity Fair-and Jane Eyre.” Quarterly Review, 153-185.