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BACKGROUND INFORMATION - BIOGRAPHY
Charlotte Bronte was born in 1816 in Thornton, Yorkshire. She was the third of Patrick and Maria Brontë's six children. Her clergyman father was an Irishman and the curate of Haworth from 1820 until his death in 1861. When Charlotte's mother died in 1821, the five daughters and one son were cared for by their aunt, Elizabeth Branwell. Four of the daughters were sent to school at Cowan Bridge, which is portrayed as Lowood School in Jane Eyre. Charlotte believed that their stay at Cowan Bridge hastened the early deaths of her two elder sisters in 1825. Her stay there also permanently damaged her own health. Charlotte and Emily returned to Haworth, and in collaboration with their only brother, Branwell, they became involved in a rich fantasy life, the impact of which can be seen in the novels they later published.
Charlotte studied at Miss Wooler's School at Roe Head in 1831 and 1832. She returned there as a teacher from 1835 to 1838. The Bronte sisters tried for ten years to make their living as governesses. Finding the occupation hateful, they tried to set up their own school, a project which also failed. Charlotte and Emily set off for Brussels in 1842 to learn French and German. There, Charlotte fell in love with Professor Heger, an attachment whose only fruit was literary. Back at Haworth in 1845, the sisters wrote poems and novels. Emily's Wuthering Heights and Anne's Agnes Gray found publishers. Charlotte's Jane Eyre was published in 1847 and it became an instant success. Shirley (1849), Villette (1853) and the posthumous The Professor (1857) complete the tally of her novels. She died in childbirth in 1855, a year after her marriage to the Reverend Arthur Bell Nicholls.
Jane Eyre belongs to the tradition of the Gothic novel, which narrates a macabre, fantastic and supernatural tale. Horace Walpole, M.G. Lewis, and Ann Radcliff were among the practitioners of this genre. Jane Eyre builds suspense like the traditional Gothic novel, but moves towards encouraging the reader's identification with the narrator, the unfortunate but ultimately triumphant Jane. The frequent use of symbols in Jane Eyre provides an extra infusion of poetic power. Bertha's tearing of the wedding veil, for instance, symbolizes Rochester's betrayal of both his real wife and Jane, his betrothed. For a time, the novel was criticized for portraying a strong-willed woman in a "coarse" manner, but the depiction of a woman's life in nineteenth-century England has been studied with great interest in this century.
Jane Eyre is also a coming-of-age novel, charting the life of an "average" woman in Victorian England. Jane, in this sense, is contrasted with Bertha, who can be thought of as Jane's "evil twin." Bertha is the conquered "exotic territory," gone crazy with use and neglect, much like Jane in her early rebellious stage is conquered by her domineering family. Both women experience captivity and both rebel, but the exotic Bertha must (in an imperialistic Victorian novel) die. Jane, meanwhile, learns to play by society's rules and is rewarded with a suitably comfortable life.
A popular book in its time, Jane Eyre is still read as an example of Gothic, Victorian and feminine writing in Britain in the mid- nineteenth century. It is often compared to the works of the other Bronte's, George Eliot, George Sand and the American Victorians. Jane, as a character, has been vilified and celebrated by a wide variety of readers over the past two centuries.