The Brontë sisters were publicity shy. The three writers used masculine pseudonyms both to overcome the bias against female authors and to preserve their privacy as the respectable, unmarried adult daughters of an Anglican clergyman. Charlotte even continued to use her nom de plume well after the death of her sisters and the critical success of her novels. She also vehemently denied that she served as the model for her most famous heroine, Jane Eyre—even publicly scolding William Makepeace Thackeray for introducing her as “Jane Eyre.” And yet, despite these protestations, Charlotte acknowledged that every emotion that Jane experiences in the novel was also experienced by her creator.
Jane Eyre, which is subtitled “An Autobiography,” is, in many ways, also an autobiography of Charlotte Brontë. Rochester is based in part on Charlotte’s great unrequited love, Constantin Héger, and Charlotte’s sister Maria was the model for doomed little Helen Burns. But in The Secret History of Jane Eyre, John Pfordresher explores how Jane Eyre is more than a superficially autobiographical novel; it is a complex emotional self-portrait of the author. Pfordresher, a professor of English at Georgetown University, is obviously a great admirer of Charlotte, and he uses her letters, earlier work and life experiences to explore his topic. But he also uses the novel itself as a kind of treasure map to find where Charlotte has hidden herself in Jane’s story. In an especially interesting section, Pfordresher uses his expertise in Victorian art to show how Jane’s drawings, as described in the novel, express Charlotte’s deep and turbulent emotional life. The moon, used in many key scenes, is symbolic of Charlotte’s yearning for the mother taken from her at a young age.
This is a fascinating and authoritative book, written with intelligence, wit and affection, and full of surprises. Reader, I recommend it.