Where Charlotte and Jane Meet

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Joon Mo Kang

At the University of New Hampshire in the 1970s, John Pfordresher was teaching “Wuthering Heights” when he confessed to his students that he hadn’t read “Jane Eyre.” “One of them,” Pfordresher told me, “in a voice heavy with chastisement, informed me that I’d better read Charlotte Brontë’s novel soon. I did, with astonishment.” Four decades later, Pfordresher, now an English professor at Georgetown University, has published “The Secret History of Jane Eyre: How Charlotte Brontë Wrote Her Masterpiece.”

Pfordresher matches the events of Brontë’s life with those of her heroine step by step, showing where they overlap and where they meaningfully diverge. According to him, Brontë’s “painful and devastating” yearlong experience at Clergy Daughters School at Cowan Bridge served as the inspiration for her portrayal of Lowood Institution, the school for orphans in the novel. But since Jane had a rougher early childhood than Brontë, the author’s experience at school would have been even “more terrifying, more overwhelming, more meaningless” than Jane’s.

Pfordresher goes on to analyze how Brontë drew upon her emotional ties with five men (two of them fictional) to conjure the passionate connection between Jane and Mr. Rochester. These ties included her “early adolescent love for and rivalry with” her brother Barnwell, which led to a “short, nearsighted, skinny, red-haired kid” being part of the inspiration for Jane’s formidable love interest.

Pfordresher writes: “While she insisted that her invented protagonist had little relationship to her own life, in fact, just about everything that the novel reveals about Jane comes from Charlotte’s experience.”

Quotable

“I’ve got everything against likable characters. Likable characters are usually completely forgettable and we don’t really care.” — Lawrence Osborne, author of “Beautiful Animals,” in an interview with NPR

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