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Critical Overview

(Novels for Students)

When it was published in October, 1847, Jane Eyre attracted much attention, and the novel became an almost instant commercial success. So high was demand for the book that the publisher issued a second edition within three months, followed by a third edition in April, 1848. The influential novelist William Makepeace Thackeray was one of Jane Eyre's earliest admirers. He wrote to the publisher, saying that he was "exceedingly moved & pleased" by the novel. He also asked the publisher to express his admiration to the author. Bronte subsequently dedicated the second edition of the book to Thackeray.

Jane Eyre was reviewed in some of Britain's leading newspapers and literary journals. Most early reviewers were enthusiastic. The Edinburgh Review pronounced it "a book of singular fascination." The critic for the London Times newspaper called it "a remarkable production" and noted that the story "stand[s] boldly out from the mass." The Westminster Review noted that the book's characters were astonishingly lifelike (However, a reviewer in Spectator took the opposite view, saying that the characters did not behave like people in real life.) Fraser's Magazine gave a resounding endorsement and helped to spur sales by encouraging readers to "lose not a day in sending for it."

Contrary to this general praise, a handful of reviewers professed to be shocked by the passions expressed in the novel. A writer in the Christian Remembrancer regarded the book as an attack on Christianity and an example of "moral Jacobinism." Elizabeth Rigby (Lady Eastlake) denounced it in her unsigned notice in the Quarterly Review, calling it "pre-eminently an anti-Christian composition" and an attack on the the English class system. Perhaps unconsciously echoing Mrs. Reed, she condemned the title character as "the personification of an unregenerate and undisciplined spirit." The identity of Jane Eyre's author was still unknown, but Rigby commented that if it was a woman, she "had forfeited the society of her sex." However, unknown to Bronte and to the public, the book received the ultimate Victorian seal of approval: Queen Victoria privately referred to Jane Eyre as "that intensely interesting novel" and read it to Prince Albert.

Of Bronte's four novels, Jane Eyre has continued to be the most popular and has received the most attention of critics and scholars. Writing in the mid-twentieth century, the critic M. H. Scargill noted in the University of Toronto Quarterly that Jane Eyre marked a turning point in the English novel, away from external concerns and toward personal experience. Scargill called the novel "a profound, spiritual experience" in which fiction approaches the condition of poetry. Modern feminists see Jane Eyre as one of the first feminist novels. In her biography of Bronte, entitled The Brontes: Charlotte Bronte and Her Family, Rebecca Fraser remarks that it was "Charlotte's protest against the stifling convention society imposed, which never allowed true feeling to be voiced." However, Scargill notes that "Jane Eyre may speak for women, but it speaks also for all humanity. . . ."

Much discussion centers on just what makes Jane Eyre such a compelling work. Critics have noted that the book succeeds in spite of some obvious weaknesses, particularly its episodic structure and a plot that in places defies...

(The entire section is 809 words.)