Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë is an excellent classic to take a look at during Banned Books Week (September 24 – 30). Originally published in 1847, Jane Eyre was written at a time when women rarely played a large public role, with restrictions in place for universities, government, and most careers. The women’s suffrage movement which won women the right to vote wouldn’t take off until decades later. Brontë wrote the work under the gender-neutral pseudonym of Currer Bell to avoid additional criticism because of her sex. Initially published as Jane Eyre: An Autobiography, Brontë’s work presented itself as a true story advocating radical feminist ideals and advertising individual expression. These were highly controversial opinions for the mid-nineteenth century, which resulted in the novel being banned in various locations, and cited as dissentious, anti-Christian literature unfit for young ladies.
Jane Eyre provides a first-person narrative of the life of a fictional young woman, Jane Eyre, in northern England in the early 1800s. The book begins by describing Jane’s unhappy childhood and stressing her rebellious, outspoken nature. Orphaned from a young age, Jane is brought up by her spiteful aunt, and is sent off to boarding school at age ten. After eight years at school, Jane’s adventurous spirit remains unquenched, and she begins to seek work elsewhere as a governess. Several months later, Jane begins working as a governess for Adele Varens, a young French girl under the charge of the mysterious Mr. Rochester. Rochester and Jane spend time together, often discoursing on a variety of intellectual topics, and each develop feelings for the other. As the novel is written as a narrative, it focuses solely on Jane’s feelings and her brazen approach to love, which is considerably out of place for the time. Rochester and Jane soon plan to be married, but the wedding is called off when it is revealed that Rochester is already married. Jane, proud of her morals, cannot bear to be in unlawful matrimony and flees, endeavoring to make her own way in the world once more. After some time, and a marriage proposal by another man, Jane begins to pine for Rochester once more. Upon her return, she finds Rochester’s wife dead and him half-crippled, and pledges herself to him with the two eventually marrying.
For 1847, Jane Eyre presented a strikingly radical opinion on how young women could behave. Jane’s ability to make decisions independent of what everyone else was telling her and stick to her moral convictions cause her to stand out as an impressive fictional role model even today. While progressive for its time, Bronte’s work helped influence future feminist movements and the emergence of more women authors. I believe that Jane Eyre is still relevant and worth reading today – and certainly should never be banned. Jane Eyre showcases individual thought and active questioning, as well as maintaining one’s morals and coming to understand love. This first edition of this powerful book is now on display in Lindeman Library as part of the exhibition: Jane Austen and the Rise of Feminism. Jane Eyre is also available at Lehigh in older editions held by Special Collections, and in newer editions on Linderman Library’s third floor.