Charlotte Brontë at 200: it’s time to look beyond Jane Eyre

The Professor, Villette, Shirley: there’s so much more to her work than just Mr Rochester.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The celebrations among literature lovers for Charlotte Brontë’s 200th birthday on 21 April popularly seem like celebrations for one book. Jane Eyre is a Bible for bookish teenage girls, and much-loved by adult readers, but Brontë’s other books don’t have the same compelling power. However, reading them is not only necessary for understanding her life’s work and how she saw the changing society she lived in, but also offers many hidden delights.

Brontë wrote from an early age, creating the fictional kingdom of Angria in a sometimes-fraught collaboration with her brother Branwell. Her juvenilia shows the origins of tropes that would fascinate her for the rest of her life, such as the many love affairs of her Byronic hero the Duke of Zamorna, an energetic and tempestuous leader who inspires borderline masochistic devotion in women. The juvenilia is melodramatic, but in a way that feels more purposeful than immature romanticism. Instead, Brontë exaggerates the ideals of masculine strength and feminine submissiveness until it seems like she was beginning to question their limitations.

The exploration of gender roles continues in Brontë’s first novel – the only one with a male protagonist – the posthumously published The Professor. It was written after Brontë’s time as a pupil and later teacher in Brussels, in which she gained a taste of both new independence and restrictions, and developed intense, unreturned feelings for the headmaster Constantin Heger. The experience was to mark the rest of her life. When she first tried to represent it in fiction, however, she projected it onto a male character – William Crimsworth, the narrator of The Professor, a penniless Englishman who, after being cast out by his despotic industrialist brother, finds a teaching position in Belgium. One of the reasons why the novel has never been as popular as Jane Eyre is that Crimsworth is, frankly, a bit of a prig. He’s strongly critical and judgemental of the, as he sees it, stupidity, selfishness and deceptiveness of the Europeans, especially Catholics, he meets – a vein of nationalistic and religious prejudice that unfortunately recurs throughout Brontë’s writing.

The most interesting aspect of the novel, however, is that many of Crimsworth’s problems are really those of a middle-class single Victorian woman. His complaints about drudging work, loneliness, feeling socially and romantically overlooked because of his lack of charisma and connections, poignantly illustrate how bleak nineteenth-century society, both in England and abroad, looked from the perspective of the outsider. Another side effect of Crimsworth’s feminisation is that his relationship with his friend Yorke Hunsden, a political semi-radical who keeps reappearing to alternately needle him and do him huge favours, at times seems almost homoerotic in its unacknowledged emotional intensity, adding another view of sexuality in Charlotte Brontë’s work outside the all-consuming heterosexual love story of Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester.

Shirley, Brontë’s follow-up to Jane Eyre, is set in a northern mill town poised between agriculture and industrialisation. It acknowledges class barriers more explicitly than in Brontë’s other book, although without much sympathy for the workers. The failure of the revolt against the strict mill owner, Robert Moore, is depicted as the triumph of order. However, the novel expresses a sense of unease about how the growing prosperity of Victorian England was founded on the destruction of nature, of a way of life and on human suffering. It is also Brontë’s most angry and complex consideration of relations between genders. “I perceive that certain sets of human beings are very apt to maintain that other sets should give up their lives to them and their service,” says her heroine Caroline, whose options are so limited that after being rejected by Robert she faces an emotionally barren life as an old maid. The other heroine, Shirley, has the economic and political freedom of a wealthy landowner and boldly speaks out against gender and social conventions, incorporating “a touch of manhood” into her persona. Her and Caroline’s friendship is the richest relationship in the novel and, again, the intense subtext is easy to read as romantic.

Brontë’s final and arguably greatest novel, Villette, realises her genius for writing flawed characters. The narrator, Lucy Snowe, another British teacher in Belgium, is prickly and isolated, but her struggle to find meaning in her life and a place where she can be accepted – which doesn’t mean bending to accommodate how her friends, colleagues and romantic interests want her to be – is one of the most heart-wrenching stories in literature, and the greatest example of Brontë’s sharpness and compassion in writing about unglamorous and overlooked lives.