The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 2. Jane Eyre
Yet, this relief was not found at once, nor was the unconscious attempt to supply it at first successful. In the poems which, with others by her sisters, were published in 1846 and in her first serious attempt at a novel, The Professor, traces of a recent loss are too evident, the transcription of emotional experience is too literal. The substance of the art-work is not yet just a number of things that had happened, ready for the free handling of the artist. The authoress is, obviously, trying to solve a riddle in her past, and it was not till 1847, when Jane Eyre was published, that, though still carrying her burden of experience, she found relief in imagination. The love-story which Charlotte Brontë tells in Jane Eyre is a more beautiful one than that which Mrs. Gaskell has pictured in Cousin Phillis. It is finer because it is as innocent and yet it is not withered. In Jane Eyre, it dances before us dignified with the joy of living. Here, at last, the artistic problem solved itself, freely, without effort almost, the tangle of the real and the ideal, as it were, merely unrolling. In the midst of her care for her ageing father, now threatened with blindness, with the Poems fallen dead from the press and the little light she had known a memory only, the vision came to her, as it came to Thackeray, for “behold, love is the crown and completion of all earthly good.” Some concession, doubtless, had to be made to the requirements of the prevailing art of fiction. As novels were understood in the middle of the nineteenth century, they were always love-stories in the common or vulgar sense. You did really fall in love with someone and want to marry. The love in question was by no means simply a great and noble affection, an overflow of being, rather the contrary. There had to be a basis which people could understand. Esmond had really to marry Lady Castlewood, though, of course, in that instance, the love of which Thackeray wrote was not a love that dreams of marriage. These things happen in fableland, or, at least, they thus happened in the fableland of the midcentury.
What Charlotte Brontë had to tell was a tale of the heart’s realisation through another, and of the loss of what seemed to be realised. Because it was a novel she was writing, the loss had not to be final, but, because it was a story of loss, there had to be a bar. “The plot of Jane Eyre,” writes Charlotte to Mr. Williams in the autumn of 1847, “may be a hackneyed one. Mr. Thackeray remarks that it is familiar to him, but having read comparatively few novels, I never chanced to meet with it, and I thought it original.” Charlotte Brontë’s possible forgetfulness, if she had seen the story, and Thackeray’s dim memory are equally explicable. The tale of actual and intended bigamy which Sheridan Le Fanu contributed to The Dublin University Magazine in 1839 was just one of those stories eminently adapted for floating in the back of the mind. In the strange fictions of Le Fanu, the reader’s feelings are sympathetically and deeply moved without his either seeing the actual occurrences face to face or believing them to be real. The atmosphere, which is, generally, charged with suggestions from the supernatural, has something of smoke in it and our memory of the stories is often but the memory of a dream. But that Le Fanu’s tale suggested the plot of Jane Eyre is decidedly possible.
If so, Sir Leslie Stephen’s query why the pleasing Rochester should have embarked on an intended bigamy is sufficiently answered. The original hint was a story of bigamy, and Charlotte Brontë altered and softened it to meet her purpose, like Shakespeare, moulding (but not entirely reversing) her plot, to make it correspond more nearly with her characters. If, on the contrary, she had not read Le Fanu’s tale, one must admit that, with no hint to constrain her, she was guilty of one inconsistency of invention. There was, perhaps, another reason. Odd as it may seem, the fact that Rochester had bigamous intentions took away any impropriety from Jane’s reception of unrealisable advances on his part. Not that it greatly matters; for all this was merely machinery and was only of value as enabling Charlotte Brontë to give her outflow of heart a wholly fictional setting.
So novel, indeed, was this outflow that even Mrs. Gaskell feels herself obliged to begin the long chorus of apology for occasional coarseness in the novel. There was never any need for it. Jane Eyre was a unique Victorian book because in it, whatever the age might think it right to say, it was made plain to the most unwillingly convinced that purity could be passionate and that a woman could read the heart. The scene in the garden with Rochester, the equally touching farewell and the joy of final meeting—these are love passages which truly introduced “a new vibration into literature.” “Childish and slender creature! It seemed as if a linnet had hopped on my foot and proposed to bear me on its tiny wing.”