Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel Jane Eyre continues to enchant modern readers for various reasons: its intriguing blend of realism and Gothic elements; the tumultuous central romance; its keen critiques of unfair social institutions; and the eponymous narrator’s original voice, which veers between submission and rebellion, passion and restraint. The book follows Jane’s life from childhood, from her period at an inhospitable aunt’s house through her crucial years at school, on to Thornfield Hall as a governess where she meets her volatile employer Mr Rochester. As Jane is an avid reader, books appear frequently throughout the novel, often at formative moments. This blog aims to highlight the wealth of material referenced in Jane Eyre which is available at the University of Glasgow’s Special Collections.
The first, and perhaps most memorable, mention of another book in the novel appears at the very beginning, when the ten-year-old orphan Jane is living with distant relatives. Jane is treated as an outsider by her cold Aunt Reed, and is often tormented by her cruel cousin, John. The novel’s opening episode sees Jane attempting to elude John by veiling herself in a window recess, escaping into a fantasy world through books. Her reading of choice is Bewick’s A History of British Birds. Jane confesses that she cares little for the letterpress, but she is enthralled by the introductory pages, which allow her to form ideas of her own: “shadowy, like all the half-comprehended notions that float dim through children’s brains, but strangely impressive.” The book’s illustrations alternately delight and distress her: “two ships becalmed on a torpid sea” are transformed into “marine phantoms” to Jane, and the image of a black-horned thing surveying a gallows becomes “an object of terror.”
John’s discovery of Jane interrupts her reverie, provoking an argument in which John hurls Bewick’s History at Jane.The two-volume edition of the book housed at Special Collections allows readers to view the intriguing pictures described by the young narrator, and the evocative passages which capture Jane’s imagination. Bewick intersperses his representations of birds with tailpieces that illustrate certain aspects of country life, ranging from comic through to melancholy and the macabre. Volume 2, on Water Birds, features many seascapes with ghostly ships, and both volumes include odd images which often have no relation to the birds in question. The “fiend pinning down the thief’s backpack” described by Jane is just one of the engravings invoking violence or death, countered by humorous depictions of men urinating or vomiting. Readers will also feel even more animosity towards John Reed when they feel the weight of Bewick’s tomes!
Another literary reference appears soon afterwards in Jane Eyre, when the protagonist is sent to Lowood school for her apparent transgressions. Here, she meets the slightly older Helen Burns, whose religious placidity has a soothing effect on fiery Jane. Their first encounter takes place as Helen is reading Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas. Timid Jane feels an affinity with Helen because she too enjoys reading, and asks to see Helen’s book. Jane writes that:
“I hardly know where I found the hardihood thus to open a conversation with a stranger; the step was contrary to my nature and habits: but I think her occupation touched a chord of sympathy somewhere; for I too liked reading, though of a frivolous and childish kind; I could not digest or comprehend the serious or substantial.”
Helen passes over the volume, and Jane confesses that the book “looked dull to my trifling tastes” because of the absence of fairies, genii, and bright variety. Nonetheless, this conversation with Helen forms the basis for perhaps the most influential of Jane’s female friendships.
When Jane is a young woman and has experienced great trials, she is pleased to receive a copy of a book from her friend St John Rivers. St John worries that Jane will be lonely in her small lodging and so brings her a copy of Sir Walter Scott’s Marmion for “evening solace”. This gift encourages the older narrating Jane to reflect on the state of modern literature:
“[H]e laid on the table a new publication — a poem: one of those genuine productions so often vouchsafed to the fortunate public of those days — the golden age of modern literature. Alas! the readers of our era are less favoured. But courage! I will not pause either to accuse or repine. I know poetry is not dead, nor genius lost; nor has Mammon gained power over either, to bind or slay: they will both assert their existence, their presence, their liberty and strength again one day.”
Special Collections houses two 1808 editions of Scott’s text, one of which has been defaced by earlier readers. Oddly, the title page for the first canto appears to present a quarrel between two readers ironically complaining about others writing on the book. The following poem has been crossed out:
Let him who scribbles in this book
Beware of what he’s doing
The same desire which prompts him thus
May lead him onto ruin.
Satan reproving sin!
Above this, a different hand has scrawled: “In honor of the University, scribble here no more. Russell is a fool.” I doubt Jane Eyre would approve of this graffiti!
Special Collections also houses an early three-volume edition of Jane Eyre published under Charlotte Brontë’s male pseudonym. The book originally appeared as authored by ‘Currer Bell’ alongside novels by her sisters Anne (‘Acton Bell’) and Emily (‘Ellis Bell’). This process of veiled authorship – common during the Victorian period – led to much speculation as to whether the authors were male or female, and whether all three had been produced by the same hand. Readers who have enjoyed Jane Eyre may also be interested in viewing Charlotte Brontë’s other works housed at Special Collections (Shirley, Villette, and The Professor), as well as novels by Anne (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Agnes Grey) and Emily (Wuthering Heights).
Thomas Bewick, A History of British Birds (BD6-c.20-21)
Samuel Johnson, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia (Sp Coll 122)
Sir Walter Scott, Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field (DH.6.18)
Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (RB 2762, Vols. 1-3)
Charlotte Brontë, Shirley (Sp Coll 1189-1191)
Charlotte Brontë, Villette (Sp Coll 1196-1198)
Charlotte Brontë, The Professor (Sp Coll 1199-1200)
Anne Brontë, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (z10-m.5)
Anne Brontë, Agnes Grey (Sp Coll 1192)
Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (Sp Coll 1201-1202)