When Charlotte Brontë sat down to write Jane Eyre, she didn’t yet know she was writing a major work of English literature. The gothic novel about a governess’s romance with the brooding Mr. Rochester was an instant classic in its time and is still much loved today. After all, who can resist a tale featuring a mysterious woman locked in an attic?
1. Like Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë worked as a governess.
Jane Eyre was a provincial girl hired to work as a governess among strangers. So was Charlotte Brontë. In 1839, the wealthy Sidgwick family employed Brontë to live in their country estate and educate their children. She hated the job, writing, “I had charge given me of a set of pampered, spoilt, turbulent children, whom I was expected constantly to amuse, as well as to instruct.” She became depressed and withdrawn, causing Mrs. Sidgwick to scold her.
2. The "madwoman" in the attic in Jane Eyre was inspired by real life.
That same year, Brontë visited Norton Conyers House in North Yorkshire. There she learned that 60 years before, a mentally ill woman had been confined in “Mad Mary’s Room” in the attic. The story was inspiration for Bertha Mason, Rochester's first wife. In 2004, the owners of the house discovered a blocked staircase connecting the attic and the first floor, just like the staircase described in the novel.
3. The harsh school Jane Eyre attends was also based on Charlotte Brontë's own experience.
When Brontë was 5, her mother died, leaving her clergyman husband to care for their six children. He sent Charlotte, Emily (author of Wuthering Heights), and their two older sisters to the Clergy Daughters' School at Cowan Bridge, Lancashire. It was a harsh, disciplinary environment with bad food, cold buildings, and physical abuse. Brontë later drew on these memories when creating Lowood, the school Jane attends. The cruel headmaster, Mr. Brocklehurst, was drawn from a real person, Reverend William Carus Wilson. (More on him below.)
4. Jane Eyre's friend Helen Burns is modeled on Brontë’s sister, Maria.
Like Helen Burns, Jane’s friend who dies at Lowood, Maria Brontë was neglected and abused when she got sick at school. Brontë’s biographer Elizabeth Gaskell wrote that when the child wanted to rest in bed, a teacher “took her by the arm, on the side to which the blister had been applied, and by one vigorous movement whirled her out into the middle of the floor, abusing her all the time for dirty and untidy habits.” Both Maria and the second-eldest Brontë daughter, Elizabeth, contacted tuberculosis at the school and were sent home, where they later died.
5. Charlotte Brontë wrote Jane Eyre while nursing her father back to health.
While Brontë was writing Jane Eyre, her father Patrick had an operation to have cataracts removed from his eyes. He was left blind while his eyes healed. It’s no coincidence that Rochester is blind at the end of the novel, and that he, like Brontë’s father, eventually regains his sight.
6. Before Charlotte Brontë created Mr. Rochester, there was the Duke Of Zamorna.
As a child, Brontë made tiny books with her brother Branwell they called The History of the Young Men. They were based on toy soldiers that Branwell received for his ninth birthday. The children loved these soldiers and made up elaborate worlds surrounding them. Charlotte’s invention was Alfred the Duke of Zamorna, a petulant, Byronic character with an illegitimate child from an affair—all characteristics he shares with Rochester. The British Library says that “the Duke of Zamorna can be seen as a precedent for Rochester in Jane Eyre.”
7. Love triangles in Charlotte Brontë's life inspired the one in Jane Eyre.
When Jane discovers that Rochester is married to Bertha Mason, she leaves him rather than commit bigamy. In real life, not only was her younger brother Branwell Brontë having an affair with a married woman, Charlotte herself had fallen in love with a married professor named Constantin Heger. The crush was unrequited—Heger even tore up the love letter Brontë wrote him—but the situation may have inspired aspects of Jane and Rochester’s relationship, as well as Charlotte's third novel Villette.
8. Charlotte Brontë was forced to apologize to her cruel schoolmaster.
When Jane Eyre became a success, Reverend Wilson recognized himself in the character of Mr. Brocklehurst and threatened to sue Brontë. She avoided a lawsuit by writing him an apology. Wilson’s grandson described it as a “sketch … retracting a good deal of what she had formerly written about the school in Jane Eyre.” She even gave Wilson permission to publish this sketch under her name. Curiously enough, he never did. The apology has since been lost.
9. Jane Eyre was published under a gender-neutral pseudonym.
In 1846, Anne, Emily, and Charlotte published a poetry book under the pseudonyms Acton, Ellis, and Currer Bell. They knew they would be taken more seriously if the public believed that the authors were men. Charlotte also published Jane Eyre under the name Currer Bell. When it became a bestseller, the literary world became consumed with learning more about the mysterious Bell brothers.
10. Even the publisher of Jane Eyre didn’t know its author was a woman.
Having corresponded by letter, Brontë’s publisher Smith, Elder, and Company had no idea that Currer Bell was a woman. In 1848, circumstances forced Charlotte and Anne to go to London and meet their editors in person. Charlotte wrote later:
"Neither Mr. Smith nor Mr. Williams knew we were coming—they had never seen us—they did not know whether we were men or women, but had always written to us as men. "Is it Mr. Smith?" I said, looking up through my spectacles at a tall young man. "It is." I then put his own letter into his hand directed to Currer Bell. He looked at it and then at me again. "Where did you get this?" he said. I laughed at his perplexity—a recognition took place. I gave him my real name: Miss Brontë."
In 1850, a year after Anne and two years after Emily died of tuberculosis, Charlotte Brontë revealed all three of them to be women in the preface of the combined edition of Emily's novel Wuthering Heights and Anne's novel Agnes Grey. You can read the whole biographical notice here.
For more fascinating facts and stories about your favorite authors and their works, check out Mental Floss's new book, The Curious Reader: A Literary Miscellany of Novels and Novelists, out May 25!