Jane Eyre is rightly seen as a classic of English Literature and its popularity never diminishes. The book is still in print and film and TV versions of the story continue to be made. It was originally printed and published in three volumes, a popular format in the mid nineteenth century. It is a thematic novel combining many elements. Essentially it is a story about one girl’s journey through life, overcoming many difficulties while maintaining her honesty and integrity and never sacrificing her beliefs and values. It is a story about a number of journeys. There are four key sections in the book and I intend to examine each in turn and seek to find the inspiration for the characters, the buildings and the landscapes.
Book Characters, their origins or inspiration. Chapters 1-4
The novel begins within Gateshead Hall, a substantial house owned by the Reed family. Jane Eyre is ten years old and an orphan and in the care of the Reeds who are her relatives. She is not made to feel at home by Mrs Reed who objects to her behaviour and manners. Jane feels excluded from the family. In the opening four chapters she is clearly angry and rebellious and is quickly in trouble when she stands up for herself and her beliefs.
The central character is most clearly based on CB herself, indeed the early editions of Jane Eyre identify the story as a Biography. Like CB, Jane has no mother. She is an unhappy little girl who feels isolated and unwanted and finds comfort in reading books –and what strange books this ten year old girl was already reading. Jane Eyre feels like an outsider in the company of others. Jane is also the daughter of a poor clergyman just like CB.
“On that same occasion I learned, for the first time, from Miss Abbot’s
communications to Bessie, that my father had been a poor clergyman; that
my mother had married him against the wishes of her friends, who
considered the match beneath her.”
This sounds very much like CB’s real life parents. Maria Branwell was the daughter of a wealthy Cornish merchant from Penzance. Patrick Bronte was indeed a poor clergymen unlikely to rise above his curacy in Yorkshire. He would not have been seen as a good match.The depth of Jane’s unhappiness is revealed in a paragraph in Chapter two.
“I was a discord in Gateshead Hall: I was like nobody there; I had nothing in harmony with Mrs. Reed or her children, or her chosen vassalage. If they did not love me, in fact, as little did I love them. They were not bound to regard with affection a thing that could not sympathise with one amongst them; a heterogeneous thing, opposed to them in temperament, in capacity, in propensities; a useless thing, incapable of serving their interest, or adding to their pleasure; a noxious thing, cherishing the germs of indignation at their treatment, of contempt of their judgment.”
This paragraph could have been inspired by CB’s very real experience of working for the Sidgwick family at Stone Gappe in North Yorkshire for a few months in 1839
Jane Eyre also seems to be afflicted with an identical malady to CB.
“My habitual mood of humiliation, self-doubt, forlorn depression, fell damp on the embers of my decaying ire.”
Elizabeth Gaskell wrote the first biography of Charlotte Bronte and hinted she did indeed suffer from a malady we call depression today. This seems to have become worse when she left the security of the Haworth Parsonage.
Finally Jane is short in stature just like CB, who was the smallest child in her own family
“……and humbled by the consciousness of my physical inferiority to
Eliza, John, and Georgiana Reed.”
The boy sounds very much like one of Charlotte Bronte’s first charges, Master John Benson Sigdwick. From May to July 1839 CB was employed by the Sidgwick family at their summer residence, Stone Gappe, in Lothersdale, She was employed to be governess to the two younger children Matilda and John. The family had three older children and Mrs Sarah Sidgwick was pregnant with another child. John was apparently an unruly child who on one occasion threw a bible at CB. That would seem a likely inspiration for the book throwing incident.in the first chapter of Jane Eyre though it was “Bewicks History of Birds” and not the bible. Charlotte Bronte did not find her new job as a governess to her liking. She wrote a letter to her sister, Emily, on June 8 1839
“The country, the house and the grounds, as I have said, divine. The children are constantly with me and more riotous, perverse, unmanageable cubs never grew.
“As for correcting them, I soon quickly found that was entirely out of the question: they are to do as they like.”
She asked that Emily should not show the letter to anyone except, Branwell their brother.She also added: “I complain to you because it is a relief and really I have had some unexpected mortifications to put up with.”
“However, things may mend, but Mrs Sidgwick expects me to do things that I cannot do – to love her children and be entirely devoted to them.
It seem likely that the John Reed character is also at least partly based on her own brother Patrick Branwell Bronte. Brothers and sisters do occasionally fight and there is some evidence to show that Aunt Branwell favoured Branwell over the girls. Branwell like John was the only brother in a family of sisters. Like John he was also spoiled and indulged and always forgiven no matter what his sins. Later in the book we learn the fate of John Reed,
“But Reed left children?–you must have cousins? Sir George Lynn was talking of a Reed of Gateshead yesterday, who, he said, was one of the veriest rascals on town;…………John Reed is dead, too, sir: he ruined himself and half-ruined his family, and is supposed to have committed suicide.”
This cannot be based on young master Sidgwick who would still be a young man when CB wrote Jane Eyre. It does however seem to be a perfect match to Branwell Bronte. He was sacked from his post as a tutor to the Robinson family of Thorp Green after conducting an affair with Mrs Lydia Robinson in July 1845. He returned to Haworth and sank into self-pity, seeking comfort in drink and opium. He had failed in work. Even before Thorp Green, he had failed as a portrait painter, been sacked from a job as tutor with a family in Westmoreland, and then dismissed as clerk-in-charge at Luddenden on the Leeds-Manchester railway. He had also failed in love. He died of tuberculosis in September 24th 1848.
CB had an unhappy relationship with Mrs Sidgwick and she seems a very good fit for the Mrs Reed character. Mrs Sidgwick would hear no complaints about her own children. CB considered her to be unjust and very demanding. In particular Mrs Sidgwick expected CB to produce “oceans of needlework”, probably not a job that she expected to be doing as a governess.
CB thought better of Mr Sidgwick “kinder, less condescending, with less profession than his wife and not so excessively indulgent to his children” Indeed she seems to have considered Mr Sidgwick to be a proper English gentleman. “he strolled through his fields with his magnificent Newfoundland dog”. No character resembling the very real Mr Sidgwick appears in the first part of the book….but he certainly sounds like a very important character we meet later in the story.
The nurse at Gatehead Hall sounds very much like the young Tabitha Ackroyd, servant at the Haworth Parsonage. Jane Eyre is locked in the mysterious red room as a punishment for upsetting the family and as she crosses the room she catches her reflection in a large looking glass,
“I thought it like one of the tiny phantoms, half fairy, half imp, Bessie’s evening stories represented as coming out of lone, ferny dells in moors, and appearing before the eyes of belated travellers.”
Prior to being locked up Jane was sitting by herself and engrossed in “Bewicks History of Birds” She is fascinated by the illustrations in some of the vignettes..
“Each picture told a story; mysterious often to my undeveloped understanding and imperfect feelings, yet ever profoundly interesting: as interesting as the tales Bessie sometimes narrated on winter evenings……. fed our eager attention with passages of love and adventure taken from old fairy tales and other ballads; or (as at a later period I discovered) from the pages of Pamela, and Henry, Earl of Moreland.
In real life it was the young Tabitha Ackroyd, household servant who told the young Bronte children fairy tales by the fireside back at the Haworth Parsonage.
Jane suffers a fit and faints when locked in the red room and Mr Lloyd the apothecary is called.He is portayed as a sympathetic and kind character and someone who Jane trusts.
“……he departed; to my grief: I felt so sheltered and befriended while he sat in the chair near my pillow; and as he closed the door after him, all the room darkened and my heart again sank: inexpressible sadness weighed it down.”
Mr Lloyd asks Jane if she would like to go to school. This starts her thinking..
“Again I reflected: I scarcely knew what school was: Bessie sometimes spoke of it as a place where young ladies sat in the stocks, wore backboards, and were expected to be exceedingly genteel and precise: John Reed hated his school, and abused his master; but John Reed’s tastes were no rule for mine, and if Bessie’s accounts of school-discipline (gathered from the young ladies of a family where she had lived before coming to Gateshead) were somewhat appalling, her details of certain accomplishments attained by these same young ladies were, I thought,equally attractive. She boasted of beautiful paintings of landscapes and flowers by them executed; of songs they could sing and pieces they could play, of purses they could net, of French books they could translate.
You can almost imagine the three sisters Charlotte, Emily and Anne talking with Tabitha Ackroyd back at the Haworth Parsonage about their various experiences of school.
Bessie Lee and Mr Lloyd are the only adults in Chapters 1-4 who show Jane any kindness. I have yet to find the original or inspiration for Mr Lloyd the apothecary but have no doubt he was based on someone CB knew well, possibly a doctor who visited the Parsonage.
In Chapter 4 Mr Brocklehurst arrives at Gateshead Hall, apparently summoned by Mrs Reed and Jane is taken to meet him as Mr Lloyd has suggested Jane be sent off to school..
“He_, for it was a man, turned his head slowly towards where I stood, and having examined me with the two inquisitive-looking grey eyes which twinkled under a pair of bushy brows, said solemnly, and in a bass voice,”Her size is small: what is her age?”
Mr Brocklehurst begins asking Jane some questions,
“No sight so sad as that of a naughty child,” he began, “especially a
naughty little girl. Do you know where the wicked go after death?”
“They go to hell,” was my ready and orthodox answer.
“And what is hell? Can you tell me that?”
“A pit full of fire.”
“And should you like to fall into that pit, and to be burning there for
More questions follow,
“Do you say your prayers night and morning?” continued my interrogator.
“Do you read your Bible?”
“With pleasure? Are you fond of it?”
“I like Revelations, and the book of Daniel, and Genesis and Samuel, and
a little bit of Exodus, and some parts of Kings and Chronicles, and Job
“And the Psalms? I hope you like them?”
Mr Brocklehurst is actually the proprietor of Lowood school and it is arranged that Jane will be sent there to study. Before he leaves for his home Brocklehurst Hall. The gentleman hands Jane a curious pamphlet,
“Little girl, here is a book entitled the ‘Child’ Guide,’ read it with prayer, especially that part containing ‘An account of the awfully sudden death of Martha G—, a naughty child addicted to falsehood and deceit. With these words Mr. Brocklehurst put into my hand a thin pamphlet sewn in a cover, and having rung for his carriage, he departed.
There can be absolutely no doubt as to the identity or original of Mr Brocklehurst as it was explained in Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of CB. The character is most clearly based on the real life Rev Carus Wilson of Casterton Hall. He established a small school for the daughters of poor clergymen at Cowan Bridge just south of Kirby Lonsdale.He was noted for his fire and brimstone sermons and his strict attitude and beliefs concerning children as well as his autocratic running of his very real school.
CB herself confirms the identity in a letter written to her publisher W S Williams. She describes overhearing a clergyman talking about having read Jane Eyre and relates the conversation,
“Why, they have got Cowan Bridge School, and Mr. Wilson here, I declare! and Miss Evans.” She says, “He had known them all. I wondered whether he would recognise the portraits, and was gratified to find that he did, and that, moreover, he pronounced them faithful and just.
Carus Wilson apparently took legal advice about defamation but did not bring proceedings against CB. This might have been due to the fact that CB published Jane Eyre under the alias of Currer Bell. She also wrote a letter of apology to Carus Wilson
Locality and Buildings
The opening four chapters are all set in a fine house named as Gateshead Hall. There seems little doubt that we are in the County of Yorkshire and it was here that CB took up her first post of governess at Stone Gappe at Lothersdale. This impressive building still stands today and has a central canted bay. Interestingly the room occupying the central canted bay is still identified as a drawing room on modern plans. If you recall the book mentions a drawing room……
“The said Eliza, John, and Georgiana were now clustered round their mama
in the drawing-room: she lay reclined on a sofa by the fireside, and with
her darlings about her….”
After being scolded by Mrs Reed Jane retreats to an adjoining room…
“A breakfast-room adjoined the drawing-room, I slipped in there. It
contained a bookcase: I soon possessed myself of a volume, taking care
that it should be one stored with pictures.”
Back in the real world there are two rooms that adjoin the drawing room at Stone Gappe House, sitting room and a dining room. Both have windows allowing views down over the estate.. CB would have had access to most of Stone Gappe house and would have known it well. I don’t think there could be a better fit for Gateshead Hall. I think we can totally rule out Upperwood House at Rawdon where CB took her final post as governess in 1841 for the White family. Writing to her great friend Ellen Nussey she described it thus..
“the house is small but exceedingly comfortable and well regulated”.
Upperwood House was demolished in 1878. The only other possible contender for Gateshead Hall is Roehead where she was a pupil and then later a governess . It fails to match the description. In short then I think there can be little doubt that Gateshead Hall and events described therein was inspired by CB’s stay at Stone Gappe for a few very unhappy months in 1839………
Copyright@ Mike Sheridan 2016
Bronte fans my be interested in one of my earlier blogs where I have identified the original for Thornfield Hall later in the book……