Charlotte & the Critics

October 16: Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre was published on this day in 1847. It was a hit with most critics, and a fast seller at the bookshops, requiring a second edition within a few months. This gave occasion for Brontë's now-famous "Preface to the Second Edition," in which she hits back at those reviewers who had attacked Jane and Rochester's extra-marital romance as "low behavior," and attacked the author for daring "to trample upon customs established by our forefathers, and long destined to shed glory upon our domestic circles." To these "timorous or carping few," Brontë (still as the pseudonymous "Currer Bell") issued a reminder of "certain simple truths":

Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last. To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee, is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns. These things and deeds are diametrically opposed: they are as distinct as is vice from virtue. Men too often confound them: they should not be confounded….

In the last paragraphs of her Preface, Brontë goes on from criticizing her critics to praising William Makepeace Thackeray, because he had highly complimented Jane Eyre and "because to him—if he will accept the tribute of a total stranger—I have dedicated this second edition." Brontë came to regret not only the criticism, which fanned the critics' flames, but the praise: Thackeray was such a total stranger that Brontë knew nothing of his private life—how his wife had gone insane after four years of marriage, and had to be confined for the next fifty years. Unlike Rochester, Thackeray remained a de facto widow for the rest of his life, despite falling in love with another Jane—Jane Brookfield, wife of Thackeray's friend, Reverend William Brookfield, who eventually censured Thackeray for the same low behavior that the critics had censured in Jane Eyre.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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