Essay on Criticisms of Jane Eyre

The major criticisms of the novel in question to be the melodrama used by the author and the wickedness of character shown in Jane and Mr. Rochester. While most critics admired the style of writing and truth of character portrayal, they did not admire the improbability of circumstances or the characters portrayed.

Elizabeth Rigby (later Lady Eastlake) was probably the harshest critic, calling Jane Eyre “the personification of an unregenerate and undisciplined spirit.” Rigby strongly believed that, while Jane was portrayed with a great degree of accuracy, she was herself a flawed person. By making a flawed person interesting, Rigby alleged, the author was committing the greatest of wrongs. As to Jane’s character, Rigby’s main criticism was that Jane was unchristian.

“Altogether the auto-biography of Jane Eyre is pre-eminently an anti-Christian composition. There is throughout it a murmuring against the comforts of the rich and against the privations of the poor, which, as far as each individual is concerned, is a murmuring against God's appointment—there is a proud and perpetual assertion of the rights of man, for which we find no authority either in God's word or in God's providence—there is that pervading tone of ungodly discontent which is at once the most prominent and most subtle evil which the law and the pulpit, which all civilized society in fact has at the present day to contend with. We do not hesitate to say that the tone of mind and thought which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine abroad, and fostered Chartism and rebellion at home, is the same which has also written Jane Eyre.”

She expressed the popular sentiment of the time that Jane’s distrust of God and discontent with her station in life was threatening to the status quo of English society.

Indeed, other critics agreed with Rigby. In the Christian Remembrancer and the Living Age, an anonymous critic said, “Every page burns with moral Jacobinism. "Unjust, unjust," is the burden of every reflection upon the things and powers that be. All virtue is but well masked vice, all religious profession and conduct is but the whitening of the sepulchre, all self-denial is but deeper selfishness.” This critic believed that Jane was an inherently selfish and ungrateful person.

In Graham’s Magazine, another anonymous reviewer suggested that Rochester’s character was dangerous and immoral, saying, “No woman who had ever truly loved could have mistaken so completely the Rochester type, or could have made her heroine love a man of proud, selfish, ungovernable appetites, which no sophistry can lift out of lust.” Thus, he intimated that any author who would contrive to have her heroine fall in love with such a total rake would be immoral herself and unknowing of what true love is. He went one step further to say, “We accordingly think that if the innocent young ladies of our land lay a premium on profligacy, by marrying dissolute rakes for the honor of reforming them, à la Jane Eyre, their benevolence will be of questionable utility to the world.” In this, he suggested that the depiction of Jane and Rochester’s relationship would cause young women of the time to emulate Jane’s “romantic wickedness.”

In addition to questioning the morality of the characters and relationships represented in Jane Eyre, reviewers questioned the likelihood of circumstances in the novel, especially within the last volume. The critic writing for the Living Age and the Christian Remembrancer explained this perfectly, saying, “The plot is extravagantly improbable, verging all along upon the supernatural, and at last running fairly into it.” We believe he referred most particularly to Jane’s experiences after leaving Thornfield.

Even critics who praised the novel highly, principally George Henry Lewes, had criticisms for the improbable circumstances of the last volume. Lewes said, “There is, indeed, too much melodrama and improbability, which smack of the circulating-library, – we allude particularly to the mad wife and all that relates to her, and to the wanderings of Jane when she quits Thornfield.” He went on to acknowledge that these passages are well-written, however.

Lewes was not the only critic to praise Charlotte Brontë’s skill as a writer. Yet another anonymous critic writing for Harbinger said, “The picture we have here, in some respects hasty and crude, still bears the mark of the true artist's hand.” Brontë, he suggested, showed great power and potential as a writer. The critic who wrote for Graham’s added that “the work bears unmistakable marks of power and originality,” saying that Brontë’s originality in plot and realistic setting contributed to the success and power of the novel. Even Rigby, who was so scathing in her censure of Jane’s character, conceded that Jane Eyre represents “the picture of a natural heart.”

Lewes was, however, the most vocal in praise of the novel, writing four or more reviews that all extolled its virtues. He noted that even those characters who appeared briefly in the novel were well-sketched, saying, “The characters are few, and drawn with unusual mastery: even those that are but sketched—such as Mr. Brockelhurst [sic], Miss Temple, Mrs. Fairfax, Rosamond, and Blanche—are sketched with a vividness which betrays the cunning hand: a few strokes, and the figure rises before you.” We quite agree because memories of such minor characters come easily to our mind.

An anonymous critic writing for Douglas Jerrold’s Shilling Magazine said that Jane Eyre “evidently reveals the experiences of a thoughtful and reflective mind,” praising highly Brontë’s insights into the human situation. Along those lines, Lewes added that the novel is exactly as it should be: “personal,—the written speech of an individual, not the artificial language made up from all sorts of books.” He lauded the distinctive style used by Brontë to invite the reader into the experience of her main character.

The highest praise we can find of the novel also comes from Lewes, who said,

Almost all that we require in a novelist she has: perception of character, and power of delineating it; picturesqueness; passion; and knowledge of life. The story is not only of singular interest, naturally evolved, unflagging to the last, but it fastens itself upon your attention, and will not leave you. The book closed, the enchantment continues. With the disentanglement of the plot, and the final release of the heroine from her difficulties, your interest does not cease.

He even recommended that those readers who had not yet sampled the delights of Brontë’s pen go out and order this novel directly. Although we cannot say that we experience prolonged enchantment with this novel, the entertainment value of Jane Eyre is indisputable.

We, the authoresses of the above compendium of contemporary criticism of Jane Eyre, would like to clarify a point: the above supposed contemporary compendium of criticisms of Jane Eyre is, in fact, an entirely modern work. We enjoyed our little amusement and hope that you, Gentle Reader, derived the same small modicum of entertainment from it.

A Preface to the Response of Miss Brontë to Miss Rigby

Although Jane Eyre was first published with the editor named as Currer Bell, often presumed to be a man, many critics strongly believed that the writer was a woman. Elizabeth Rigby, in her article in the Quarterly Review, said, “Jane Eyre is sentimentally assumed to have proceeded from the pen of Mr. [William] Thackeray’s governess” because Thackeray had recently written Vanity Fair, which includes a governess named Becky, a character supposedly based upon Thackeray’s own governess.


Charlotte Bronte's "A Word to The Quarterly" - a response to Elizabeth Rigby's critique


Bronte attacks Rigby's notion that Currer Bell forfeited the society of women. Bronte says that she should see Currer holding silk and Belgian wool for the women he philanders for and they reciprocate their appreciation by making him scarves and slippers (Bronte 456). Bronte says that Heaven should avert such a calamity as Currer Bel forfeiting "the society of the better half of the human race" (Bronte 456). Bronte then dismisses the "rumor" that Jane Eyre came from the pen of Mr. Thackery's governess. She says that she does not know them but that they are probably like the old Athenians: telling or hearing about something new (Bronte 456). Bronte then turns to an ad hominum campaign against the use of sensationalization to add marketability to the Quarterly Review. This culminates in Bronte telling Rigby that she should go out and be a governess for two years and see how she handles it: "the experiment would do you good" (Bronte 457). 

Bronte is disturbed over her bad review by Elizabeth Rigby. She takes it personally and issues a childish response (i.e. this letter to her publisher) attacking back. While the points that Bronte brings up may be valid, it is not so much what you, as how you say it. Her angered ad hominum tactic would have alienated all but the choir of Jane Eyre supporters. 

Bibliography of Works Used

1. Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre: A Norton Critical Edition 3rd ed. Richard J. Dunn Ed. WW Norton & Co. : New York, 2001 
2. "Review of Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte." Critic (Oct. 1847): 277-8. 
3. "Review of Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte." Graham’s Magazine (May 1848): 299. 
4. "Rev. of Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte." Living Age (from the Christian Remembrancer) (1848): 481-7. 
5. "Review of Jane Eyre." Spectator. (Nov. 1847): 1074-5. 
6. "U. Review of Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte." Harbinger (April 1848): 189. 
7. "Unsigned Review of Jane Eyre." Douglas Jerrold’s Shilling Magazine (Nov. 1847): 470-474. 
8. Lewes, George Henry, "Recent Novels: French and English." Fraser’s Magazine (Dec. 1947): 689-95. 
9. Rigby, Elizabeth, "Vanity Fair—and Jane Eyre." Quarterly Review (Dec. 1848): 153-185. 

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