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Jane Eyre | Context

Victoria Elliott | Wednesday September 07, 2011

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Jane Eyre was published in 1847 and was the first of Charlotte Brontë’s novels; it was written in the same year as her sister, Emily Brontë’s, only novel, Wuthering Heights.

Charlotte (born 1816), together with Emily and Anne, lived at Haworth Parsonage, in North Yorkshire, where between them, they created complicated make-believe worlds as children before growing up to write.

Their mother died when Charlotte was just five, and when she was only 9, she found herself the eldest child, looking after the family, including her brother and father.

All three sisters adopted male pseudonyms under which to publish their novels, so that the world knew them not as the Brontës but as Acton, Currer and Ellis Bell. By 1850, however, it was revealed (in Charlotte’s introduction to the posthumous edition of Wuthering Heights) that all three had been women.

Charlotte drew on her own experiences as a teacher, from the age of 18 to 23, and as a governess, from 23 to 25, to write Jane Eyre and her later novels. At that time, an educated middle class woman was able to earn her own living as a teacher or governess and remain ‘socially acceptable’; it was virtually the only way, apart from marriage, that a woman could respectably leave her father’s roof (although it was not often a positive choice, being rather the result of impoverishment or being orphaned). Situations were often found through recommendations from the school the governess had attended herself, or through advertisements in The Times. Young women would travel, often substantial distances, to live in the houses of the families who employed them, away from their family and friends.  But these young women could be quite vulnerable: alone in a stranger’s house, they had a very uncertain status, not quite servant, but not family (in Jane Eyre, see the Ingrams’ harsh discussion of the faults of governesses, and Blanche’s descriptions of how they used to tease them). The...


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