Filling/Falling in the Gender Gap: Jane Eyre’s Early Readers

by Harry Heuser

Today’s readers may comfortably approach Jane Eyre as a fiction of female development written, the book cover informs us, by a woman named Charlotte Brontë.  I say “comfortably” because, as the initial reception of Jane Eyre illustrates, readers like to judge a book by its cover and often depend on the three basic interpretative signposts it provides: author (Brontë), genre (novel), and subject matter (someone called Jane Eyre).  Those three signposts were cancelled out or knocked out of place in the first edition, which, as Jerome Beaty reminds us, was introduced by the title page “Jane Eyre: An Autobiography.  Edited by Currer Bell” (169).  And even though Jane Eyre, which frequently comments on the reader-text-author relationship, comes fully equipped with a set of instructions for the text play it cocreates with the reader, many of Brontë’s contemporaries engaged instead in text play defined primarily by the societal context and literary conventions of Victorian England.

Reading Life-Writing

The novel, as David Madden points out, has traditionally half-denied its own existence—or always proved its protean form—by pretending to be what it is not: documentary.  To be sure, considering Jane Eyre’s gothic elements and melodramatic plot twists, the subtitle “Autobiography” alone does little to increase the verisimilitude of the story.  Instead, “Autobiography” signals a way of reading.  In “Autobiography as De-facement,” Paul De Man suggests that autobiography “is not a genre or a mode, but a figure of reading or of understanding that occurs, to some degree, in all texts” (921).  Autobiography places readers in the position of listener to—rather than actor in—a story.  The autobiographical pact is based on the listener’s trust in the speaker’s sharing of her secrets.

Continue reading