Charlotte Bronte and the novel

Jane Eyre and the literary tradition

Charlotte Brontë was a member of one of the first generation of novelists to benefit from the enhanced status of the novel and its authors. She also drew fruitfully on the many different traditions of fiction to create her own novels:

  • Her sources included fairy stories and folk tales, so that, at one level, her appeal was to a love of story-telling that might re-connect readers with their childhood. In many respects, for instance, Jane Eyre resembles the fairy stories Cinderella and Bluebeard
  • She was also influenced by the Bible and other Christian texts
  • In particular, John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress helped to determine both the shape of her narrative and the way in which Jane is beset by dangers and temptations from which she is often rescued by the intervention of some providential event
  • In the characterisation of Rochester, she also makes use of John Milton's Christian epic Paradise Lost (1667) (see Characterisation: Rochester)
  • She had an interest in social issues that for many readers gave her novels an added urgency and contemporary relevance.

The heritage of Gothic fiction

Horace WalpoleGothic fiction emerged in the late eighteenth century as a sub-genre within the larger field of the novel. Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764) is usually regarded as the first Gothic novel:

  • Gothic fiction because it employed settings and/or plots that were associated with the medieval period, when the Gothic style of art and architecture developed
  • It was usually set in a remote country and in the past
  • It described events that were often fantastic or supernatural
  • Its heroes and heroines were usually young women threatened by tyrants, rescued from their fate by determined and brave young men, usually acting alone against overwhelming odds
  • In some Gothic novels, the heroine is responsible for her own fate and these books include some of the earliest strong female characters in English fiction
  • The villains were usually powerful men: cruel and tyrannical aristocrats or corrupt priests
  • The novels were set in castles or large houses full of dungeons and secret passages
  • The atmosphere of the novels was gloomy and claustrophobic and the action often included physical and sexual violence
  • The plots usually revolved around issues concerning wills, inheritance and dynastic marriages
  • Such novels were often seen as providing readers with a kind of thrill, a delight in being frightened that is perhaps similar to that derived from contemporary horror films
  • Jane Austen, who enjoyed reading Gothic novels, satirises them in Northanger Abbey (1818).

Elements of the Gothic in Jane Eyre

North Lees Hall, the inspiration for Thornfields Hall. Photo by J147, available through Creative CommonsJane Eyre contains too much contemporary realism to be regarded as a fully Gothic novel, but it borrows certain devices from the earlier form:

  • The setting at Thornfield has some elements of the remote and mysterious houses of Gothic fiction
  • The mysterious noises from the upper floor resembles the devices used to create tension and mystery in Gothic novels
  • Jane, as heroine, often finds herself alone in determining her own fate
  • There are elements of the ghostly and magical
  • The existence of a central mystery (such as that of Rochester's mad wife) echoes a common motif in Gothic fiction.

Sensation fiction

Jane Eyre could also be seen as anticipating sensation fiction which became a popular literary sub-genre in the 1860s and 1870s. The Woman in White (1860) by Wilkie Collins is usually regarded as the first sensation novel.

  • Sensation fiction is sometimes regarded as domesticated Gothic, in that it uses many of the devices of the Gothic novel, but places them in a contemporary English setting
  • Women (usually wives) suffer at the hands of men (usually husbands); however, the heroes are young men who are sometimes helped by resourceful women
  • Their plots concern issues of identity and inheritance
  • Insanity (real or supposed) plays a large part in the plot, with the private lunatic asylum taking the place of the locked room or dungeon in a Gothic novel, and the use of drugs taking the place of physical cruelty
  • As with Gothic novels, sensation fiction aims to thrill and frighten the reader.
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