What is Jane Eyre?

Jane Eyre is a brilliant novel by Charlotte Brontë. It was published in 1847.

It’s about a girl who grows up and tells her story in her own voice. The power and independence of that voice are one thing that is great about the book. When it came out, in the Victorian period, a conservative review denounced Jane’s revolutionary ‘tone of mind’, the way she says what she thinks and stands up for her rights. But millions of readers have loved this strong voice ever since.

As a child, Jane is bullied by her older cousin John who is backed up by his mother. She resists, and tells them what she thinks of them. ‘You are like a murderer—you are like a slave-driver—you are like the Roman emperors!’ Here is an illustration of her standing up to John’s mother (it was made by F. H. Townsend in 1897):

Jane is sent away to a boarding school where she comes up against other kinds of oppression but also makes some friends. When she has finished school, she gets a job as a governess at a country house somewhere in Yorkshire.

There, she meets her employer Mr. Rochester. He is a clever, blunt, energetic man. She finds she can talk to him freely and this too is part of the revolutionary power of the book in its time: that it shows a young woman with no money or status being able to talk on equal terms with a wealthier, older man. Here’s an example:

‘You examine me, Miss Eyre,’ said he: ‘do you think me handsome?’
… ‘No, sir’

Jane and Mr. Rochester get more and more attracted to each other. But there is a problem. I won’t put in a spoiler here: if you want to find out what happens next, and read more about the book in general, go here for the BBC Bitesize guide.

But Jane Eyre is not only the book that Charlotte Brontë wrote. It is also all the ways the story has been re-imagined and re-made in films, paintings, translations, comic books, TV series and many more novels and stories that have been inspired by it.

The book that Charlotte Brontë wrote is enthralling but it can also seem problematic in some ways to modern eyes. Its ideas about gender, empire and religion are all different from those that many people hold today. These sources of tension play out in the later adaptations and translations. When you get involved in a book imaginatively sometimes you want to make something different out of it, to make it more your own. Writing something inspired by a book, or doing a translation of it, can be a kind of tribute – but it can also be a way of working out a disagreement, of joining in a frank conversation with Jane just as she does with everyone around her.

Find out more about adapting and translating here.

Text by Matthew Reynolds