Charlotte Bronte and Jane Eyre

Its been common for people to assume that Jane Eyre is somehow a literary manifestation  of Charlotte Bronte ,that Jane’s thoughts echo Charlotte’s ,her tastes are Charlotte’s tastes and her  views and morals are Charlotte’s. I believe this is for the most part wrong and that the linking  of Charlotte with Jane, alongside the biography by Mrs Gaskell has created a version of Charlotte at odds with the reality .

One problem we have with Charlotte is there’s no surviving sibling to write about her  and we base much of what we know on letters written to Ellen Nussey ,who was an almost lifelong friend of Charlotte’s,yet Charlotte did not share the secret of her authorship of Jane Eyre with Ellen until the secret was out and beyond denial.


We know what we do of Charlotte from Ellen because Ellen against Charlotte’s wishes kept all her letters.On the other hand Mary Taylor who Charlotte did eventually tell about her literary career destroyed all her letters.So we can never be sure if the Charlotte of Ellens letters is a perfect reflection of Charlotte .

It was clear from the Novels earliest days that there is a fair bit of Charlotte s life reflected in  Jane Eyre ,it didn’t take too long for people who had been there to recognise Cowen Bridge in the fictional Lowood,nor was it beyond the realm of possibility to guess that the authoress of Jane Eyre had been a governess .I am in fact always bemused that more people didn’t immediately guess that Currer Bell was a woman.Clearly Janes physical appearance is modeled on Charlottes.But whereas Charlotte was “small and Plain ” and hated it ,Jane isnt really over concerned about it except in so far as it would have aided her (along with money) to have won Rochester away from Blanche Ingram .

I normally hark back to physical evidence ,artifacts or  records of purchases etc  when writing about the Brontes and this post will be no different.I am convinced Jane and Charlotte are two separate beings that have only superficial similarities   because of their taste in clothes.


paisly gown top cb

Its a fundamental part of who Jane is ,even when given a choice and more or less limitless budget she buys plain fabrics for plain gowns and few of them,by contrast Charlottes trousseau was quite extensive .Jane doesn’t even want an embroidered wedding veil ,while at least two bonnet veils survive both with heavy embroidery .Charlotte made a point of buying laces etc from Brussels prior to leaving and there are a number of bows ,lace mittens ,collars and cuffs in the museum’s collection .

I cannot for one minute under any circumstances imagine Jane wearing this.Its a very bright pink wrapper gown

By far the most common colours in the Bronte museums collection of clothing and dress fragments are Cream,lilac or Mauve,green ,pink and blue ,with pink featuring in the most different items and the dominant colours usually being cream or mauve /lilac(I dont think the mauve items are linked to mourning as they are not plain mauve) .Frills ,flounces, fake flowers,bows  and ribbons also feature on several items ,one or two I am not certain of but which I assume are bonnets.

Description cream silk, many small tight ruffles, ribbons & bows; complete; h 185 x dm brim 580; silk, lace, stiffening; cream; fair, fragile, disintegrating; ribbon tie with design of roses, trimmed inside brim, bow at nape frilled, frill round back

NOr  can I imagine Jane wearing this


Nor would jane have worn a hair piece,which we know Charlotte dis ,at least for one London visit .Nor would Jane have added little boosters to the bust of her corset.

padded cup corset

These might seem superficial ,but whereas as Jane is perfectly content with her looks ,doesn’t like fashion ,doesnt seem drawn to feminine or particularly pretty ,cheerful colours or fabrics ,Charlotte was an intensely feminine woman ,she loved pretty clothes, she seems to have taken an interest in fashion.The sisters first trip to London is often cited to show that they had no fashion sense and its true Charlotte is occasionally referred to as old-fashioned ,but  she was originally  constrained by her income and by being in deep mourning for at least one visit .Mourning clothing was probably that bought ,or made  either after their Aunts or more likely after Branwells death and its unlikely Charlotte felt like buying clothing in the aftermath of Emily and Annes death .On later visits we see she has bought much more up to date accessories and wears much more up to date clothes ,Despite her claims to the contrary in her letters ,she also clearly bought more gowns ,bonnets etc than was strictly necessary ,,there are at least two barely worn gowns in the Bronte Parsonage Museums collection that are fashionable and very pretty .They are probably London gowns ,though they may be trousseau items it seems unlikely as they are not particular suitable for wearing in winter.

There is also a delightful pair of black satin evening shoes, which I doubt have been worn outside ,if at all ,these little satin shoes were like kid gloves essentially disposable items ,a little like our stockings and tights .It would certainly need disposable income to buy a pair of  flimsy satin shoes which would  become damaged very easily  by dust ,rain ,or general scuffing and clearly be useless in the cold parsonage .

shoes cb

Image from the excellent

Another radical  difference is  Charlotte never seems to have been fond of children and though she became fond of some it was the exception ,she also hated being a governess.Jane seems to like her charge Adel and doesnt seem entirely dissatisfied with being a governess until Rochester cruelly exposes her to the contempt of his elegant rich visitors .These attitudes are immensely different, Charlotte rebelled against taking orders ,living according to the rules and regimes of her employers ,she has for the most part nothing but contempt for her charges and took very little pleasure in teaching.Jane is in many respects much more  at peace, more passive and more willing to accept her lot than Charlotte .Jane has no inner world ,despite her unorthodox  and imaginative drawings Jane has her feet grounded firmly in the real world .

I am not even entirely certain Charlotte liked Jane as much as her readers have ,Charlotte was perfectly capable of creating heroines she didnt  particularly like,Lucy Snow for instance .But these women she then places in situations from her life ,she gives them some of her feelings and some of her actions.The burning anger felt by Jane at Helen Burns treatment is clearly that of Charlottes seeing her sister maltreated .But In Shirley neither Caroline of Shirley act in ways Charlotte would have ,indeed Shirley is based on Emily.While Caroline is far too passive as heroine for her to  share much of her creators personality .

I think its in many ways much harder to  work out Charlotte’s feelings and character than Emily’s or even Annes because her poetry lacks the personal input of Emilys.By contrast with Emily who had few if any friends outside of her family and who among strangers didnt make any effort to be different to who she really was ,Charlotte had close friends and made many less close friends ,but their input means while we have more information about Charlotte it may sometimes be misleading ,often  Charlotte is a different person depending on who she writes to and we have so much of this misleading half truth that finding the real person is harder because its tempting to just take her letters at face value .

We are all different people to the person our parents, our teachers ,even some of our neighbours or friends might perceive us to be .




























About hathawaysofhaworth

I am a Historian and author living in the north
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