“The Secret History of Jane Eyre: How Charlotte Bronte Wrote Her Masterpiece” by John Pfordresher

I wanted to love The Secret History of Jane Eyre: How Charlotte Bronte Wrote Her Masterpiece by John Pfordresher very much. Jane Eyre is perhaps my favorite book. I’ve read it several times and done a fair amount of research into Bronteiana. Further, I studied with Dr. Pfordresher when I was an undergrad at Georgetown. I was a business student and only had to take one English class. I took Dr. Pfordresher’s class, and we only read three texts that semester: The Iliad, War and Peace, and Hemingway’s In Our Time. We dove deep into each book and the class was one of my favorite college experiences.

When I saw that Pfordresher had written a book on Jane Eyre and that it was well reviewed in Publisher’s Weekly and The Washington Times, I was pleased to see two pieces of my life overlap and eager to read the book. My zeal dissipated quickly. The subtitle should have warned me. Jane Eyre, while one of my favorite books, is not necessarily regarded by most scholars as Charlotte’s masterpiece. That honor goes more often to her final book, Villette. As Pfordresher goes to some lengths in his book to demonstrate, Jane Eyre is the work of a well read and imaginative but unworldly young woman. Much of Jane’s fictional story comes from the fanciful stories Charlotte and her siblings wrote growing up, drawn from the inner life of the imagination, not from real, lived experience. Villette, on the other hand, was written after Charlotte had earned fame for Jane Eyre and suffered the deaths of her three closest siblings, Anne, Branwell, and Emily. Villette is a darker, more complex and mature work that reflects how life changed for Charlotte after Jane Eyre was published.

My discomfort at the simplification of referring to Jane as Charlotte’s masterpiece was not eased as I began the book. Pfordresher presented the Bronte’s early life as simple and sequestered, buying into the romantic portrait that modern biographers have done much to dispel, as Lucasta Miller details in her metabiography The Bronte Myth. Further, he presents excerpts from Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte and presents them without question or qualification, while recent scholarship has called Gaskell’s reliability as a narrator into question. Was Patrick Bronte a loving supportive father, or a demanding tyrant? Gaskell, and Pfordresher based on her, choose the latter portrayal, but couldn’t the answer be both?

A more uncomfortable interpretation that Pfordresher presents is about Patrick Bronte’s influence on the character of Rochester. In noting the influence of Charlotte’s former teacher Constantin Heger on Rochester, Pfordresher notes:

In many ways [Constantin] resembled Patrick Bronte and anticipated Charlotte’s projection of him in Mr. Rochester. Constantin, like Patrick, was strong-willed and courageous, a man with a considerable sex drive who knew how to handle a gun, and yet also a tender and thoughtful teacher and father.(133)

That both Heger and Bronte have strong sex drives because they fathered several children, and that they were then the models for Rochester’s sex drive, is a reach to me, and one that smacks of a simplistic Freudian reading. Because Pfordresher’s premise is that Jane Eyre was based on details from Charlotte’s real life, he uses this as evidence, where others have more convincingly argued that Charlotte’s reading of Byron and stories from Blackwood’s Magazine are more fitting predecessors to Rochester.

Though Pfordresher doesn’t reference Freud specifically in the analogy he draws between Patrick and Rochester, he does quote Freud later on the subject of the uncanny, arguing that Charlotte had both rage and passion in her real life that she concealed but that yet come to light. He offers Bertha’s unearthly laugh that Jane overhears on her tour of Thornfield as an echo of Charlotte’s suppressed rage and passion in real life. I’m perplexed why Pfordresher would reference Freud, though, whose scholarship and influence has fallen out of favor, when there is a more recent and better respected reference, which is Gilbert and Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic, a comprehensive work with an entire segment devoted to Bertha as a shadow side to Jane.

I was also vexed with small errors throughout the text. Typos are inevitable, but I found it puzzling that Pfordresher refers to Rochester as Fairfax Rochester, as if his first name is Fairfax, where it’s Edward, or as if the last name is compound, which I don’t believe it is. When the characters of the Rivers sisters are named, Mary is often referred to incorrectly as Maria, which is confusing given that Maria was the name of Bronte’s mother, a sister, and the first name of the character of Miss Temple in Jane Eyre. Mary versus Maria seems like an easy mistake to make, yet it is an important distinction, yet it’s missed more than once. Also, while the biographers Juliet Barker and Claire Harman are mentioned in the acknowledgements and included in the bibliography, Barker is misidentified as Julia in the bibliography, Harman is spelled Harmon in the acknowledgements, and Claire is misspelled Clare in the bibliography. For a work of scholarship, this does not give me confidence in either the author or his editors.

This book works best as a close reading of Jane Eyre, and ties details to many from Charlotte’s Angrian tales that she wrote with Branwell in her youth. This was the aspect that interested me most, since I’m not very familiar with details from the juvenilia. There is also an intriguing analysis of Jane’s paintings as she shows them to Rochester (147-148). I also appreciated Pfordresher’s identification of the moon as a recurring symbol in the novel for the feminine as a guardian figure, which I have previously interpreted as Bronte putting a feminine face on God.

But by trying to forge such direct connections between Charlotte’s life and details in Jane Eyre, I felt Pfordresher was often shoehorning complex realities (like the temperament of Patrick Bronte) into tidy boxes in service of a theory that few would contest: that Charlotte based her book on reality and embellished from imagination.

A more interesting question, to my mind, would be the contrast between Jane Eyre’s more conventional Cinderella story written in anonymity, and that of Lucy Snowe of Villette, written after Charlotte’s authorship was revealed, she’d endured the deaths of her siblings, and she’d received acclaim.

5 Responses to ““The Secret History of Jane Eyre: How Charlotte Bronte Wrote Her Masterpiece” by John Pfordresher”

  1. Amy Says:

    Unfortunate. But I agree from the get-go–as much as I love Jane Eyre, Villette is really Charlotte’s masterpiece.

  2. girldetective Says:

    Can’t books be like children–each has its strengths? Both Jane and Villette are masterful, and I wouldn’t wish for a world in which I had to pic just one.

  3. Amy Says:

    Oh, sure, but still…..

  4. Janet Says:

    Welcome back!

    Does this mean you will be blogging a little more these days? I always get good reading ideas from your blog.

    I have never read Villette, and am adding it to my list. :)

  5. girldetective Says:

    Janet, I want to get back into a rhythm of blogging again. Facebook and Goodreads have drained some of the time I used to devote to it, but I miss it and miss interacting with readers! I recommend reading Villette in November, which is a good month to read Brontes!