Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Adventure classics -- Will the real Mr. Rochester stand up?

Jane Eyre

by Charlotte Bronte


The good thing about a bad childhood is it gives you plenty to write about. So once Charlotte Bronte tried to exorcise her passion for a married man by writing her first novel, she turned to an examination of what has to be one of the worst childhoods ever suffered by a literary genius.

The first novel was a flop, the second a wild success. Only trouble was, that love for a married man came back to haunt her.

While skimming through her correspondence with her publisher, this sentence made me do a double take: “Your objection to the want of varied interest in the tale is, I am aware, not without grounds.. . . .”

Wasn’t it just like a stodgy publishing company to turn down a story about a plain, penniless orphan, I thought. And then I noticed the title of the rejected story¾ not Jane Eyre but The Professor. A professor?

And because so much in Jane Eyre is based on Charlotte’s own life¾ her status as a semi-orphan, banishment to a boarding school of Dickensian grimness, starvation work as a governess¾ the inevitable question was, could a professor have been the model for Mr. Rochester?

Here’s the story: while still in her teens, Jane Eyre takes a job as governess in an English country house. The house’s absentee owner, Edward Rochester, visits and is promptly thrown from his horse almost at Jane’s feet. Forced into each other’s company in the isolated house, Jane and Rochester fall in love. He offers marriage. She joyfully accepts.

Unfortunately, Rochester neglects to mention that he is already married, a fact that
doesn’t come to light until he and Jane are actually at the church. Or that his wife’s insanity prevents him, in that era, from getting a divorce. Crushed but still desperately in love, Jane flees.

Don’t worry; all will be well. At least after the murderous mad wife burns the house down, killing herself in the process and leaving her husband blind, but reunited with Jane at last.

Although Charlotte knew nothing personally about Victorian novelist William Thackeray, she admired his writing so much that she dedicated the second edition of Jane Eyre to him.

Unfortunately, she didn’t know that Thackeray was separated from his own mentally ill wife and seeking the company of other women. Or that her dedication had prompted waves of gossip, including a review that said, “Jane Eyre is sentimentally assumed to have proceeded from the pen of Mr. Thackeray’s governess¼ who, in mingled love and revenge personified him as Mr. Rochester.”

Charlotte’s mortification could only have been confounded by the remembrance of her own Mr. Rochester, the professor.

He was Belgian professor Constantine Heger, whose school Charlotte and her sister Emily attended in the early 1840’s. Of course, he was married. Charlotte left the school, she and Heger wrote letters, passionately on her side, dispassionately on his. He remained married. When he at last tried to destroy Charlotte’s letters, it was his wife who saved them, preserving the correspondence of her husband’s little English student for posterity. Thank you, Mrs. Rochester.

For Charlotte’s correspondence with her publishers and the infamous review of Jane Eyre, I referred to the Norton third edition of Jane Eyre, edited by Richard J. Dunn. For more about Charlotte and the professor, I liked and

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics ends a September of young adventurers with J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Really, I meant to write more today about Jane Eyre‘s childhood, but the professor got in the way.)

No comments:

Post a Comment