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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

I Didn't Realize He Had an Insane Wife, Honest!!

The newest Jane Eyre film comes to Philly's Ritz Five today, with Mia Wasikowska of Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland playing Jane. I'm hoping to see it next weekend, but if anyone gets there sooner, drop a comment to let us know your thoughts--my friend expressed approval that they made Jane look sufficiently plain in the trailer, but how well the film plays out remains to be seen. However, WBUR did an interesting interview with the director and the Inquirer had a good one with Mia.

Among the Jane Eyre materials at the Rosenbach is the manuscript of the preface to the second edition.
Charlotte Bronte, preface to Jane Eyre: autograph manuscript. [27 December 1847] EL3 .B869 MS1

As Bronte explains, "A preface to the first edition of ‘Jane Eyre’ being unnecessary, I gave none: this second edition demands a few words both of acknowledgement and miscellaneous remark." She goes on to thank her Public, Press, and Publishers, and then concludes in the final 2+ pages of the 7 page manuscript by effusively dedicating the second edition to William Makepeace Thackeray. This is where Bronte ran into trouble.

Charlotte Bronte, preface to Jane Eyre: autograph manuscript. [27 December 1847] EL3 .B869 MS1

Bronte had never met Thackeray, but she admired Vanity Fair, which was published the same year as Jane Eyre. She also appreciated Thackeray's enthusiastic review of the first edition of Eyre--he had claimed to have been moved to tears when reading it. Her dedication was adulatory; among other things she claimed "I see in him an intellect profounder and more unique than his contemporaries have yet recognised; because I regard him as the first social regenerator of the day"

Unfortunately, apparently unbeknownst to Bronte, the story of Jane Eyre mirrored Thackeray's actual life a little too closely. Like Mr. Rochester, Thackeray had a wife who had gone insane after four years of marriage. After the birth of their third child, IsabellaThackeray lost her grip on reality. She tried to drown their three year old and attempted suicide. Thackeray described one of Isabella's attempts to kill herself while on a boat to Ireland: "the poor thing flung herself into the water (from the water-closet) & was twenty minutes floating in the sea, before the ship's boat even saw her. " While Mr. Rochester kept his mad wife Bertha in the attic, Thackeray sought treatment for Isabella at a series of private asylums, but ultimately lodged her in a house in London, where she was cared for by a Mrs. Bakewell.

The similarities to Thackeray's situation, along with Jane Eyre's subtitle of An Autobiography, led to speculation that the novel was more fact than fiction and that the author had been the governess to Thackeray's children. As you might expect, Bronte was shocked and embarrassed. She apologized to Thackeray and as she wrote to a friend " it may be said that fact is stranger than fiction.! The coincidence struck me as equally unfortunate and extraordinary." Eventually Bronte would, in fact, meet Thackeray, but not until 1849, two years after the publication of both of their novels.

Had the phrasing been around in her day, perhaps she should have chosen this chestnut as her preface to the third edition: "All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental."

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