The Secret History of Jane Eyre: How Charlotte Brontë Wrote Her Masterpiece by John Pfordresher
W. W. Norton & Company, 2017, 256 pages
In The Secret History of Jane Eyre: How Charlotte Brontë Wrote Her Masterpiece by John Pfordresher, the Georgetown University professor posits that Jane Eyre is a largely autobiographical work written in response to an affair that wasn’t in Brontë’s life. I came upon The Secret History of Jane Eyre through an event at the Arlington Public Library in Arlington, VA in September 2017. The library would host Pfordresher in his lecture on the book at the Central Library. I read the book in preparation for the event and was gravely disappointed. Reader, it was absurd.
While I no doubt agree that writers inform their work with their personal lives, claiming that Charlotte Brontë and Jane Eyre are the same is ludicrous. In my years of English classes — including a Bachelor’s degree in English from Hollins University and, too, a Master’s degree in Library and Information Science from San José State University for which I further examined literature from a scholarly perspective — I likely fell into the trap of comparing the author to the narrator or main character. I can’t recall a particular time I might have done this, but I am certain it was whipped out of me quickly. Ascribing intent, as Pfordresher does here, in a writer’s work is literary criticism suicide. We can, by all means, suggest that a piece of literature can be read in such-in-such a way or that a piece of literature can be interpreted thusly, but to straight out assert that Jane is Charlotte and vice versa is a leap most educators would not find acceptable in a midterm paper, let alone a published work. I happen to agree.
On top of a rather ridiculous premise, Pfordresher fails to really support his ideas. Though the organization of his work is solid — he chronologically exhibits both events from the novel and events from Brontë’s life side-by-side, lending the only credibility to his claims I was able to find — the evidence is weak at best. The majority of Pfordresher’s evidence relies on speculation and emotional projection. For example, he supposes Jane’s low moods, especially reflected in a cold and barren opening scene, are reflective of Brontë’s feelings of entrapment as she tended to her temporarily-blind father after he had eye surgery. Surely, he asserts, Brontë felt sad and cooped up, and so she wrote Jane the same. While letters from Brontë to friends might suggest these feelings, to then assume these emotions were all-consuming and, what’s more, the basis for her novel is, again, a leap. Self-insertion narratives exist, no doubt, but we cannot make that kind of claim here without more evidence, at least. How many letters have I written to friends about how I’m hankering for a sandwich? And later, how often do I mention a sandwich in my own fictional pursuits? Often enough, I suppose, but this does not mean that my characters are me, nor does it mean I am utterly enthralled with sandwiches. We don’t write just about things we obsess over: we write about the everyday, too, and Pfordresher ignores this fact in his points. Pfordresher may suppose Brontë felt sadness at being bound to her father, but how much is he supposing based on how he expects he would feel in the same situation? The language he uses in this particular example seems to indicate, even, that he is projecting his own experiences onto Brontë, who, according to him, is projecting onto Jane.
Other outlandish assertions include Jane’s love interest, Mr. Rochester, being modeled primarily off of Brontë’s brother and father (along with the man from her affair-that-wasn’t); that Brontë was interested in domineering men (though Pfordresher provided contrary evidence in that she referred to her own husband as “my boy”), thus explaining Mr. Rochester’s character to a greater degree; and that St. John Rivers was not modeled after anyone (which, while I might agree with that, it seems a copout to write an entire book stating that Jane and Charlotte are the same without, again, supporting it in every facet). These are only a few of the big jumps Pfordresher makes, always within the frame of intent, as opposed to possible interpretation.
When I confronted Pfordresher about his premise and evidence at the Arlington Public Library event, I simply stated I wasn’t convinced. He agreed that other critics and readers had pointed out his evidence was insufficient for them, but that he stood by his thesis. I asked for further evidence and his primary source of confidence, he said, was a letter Brontë wrote to George Henry Lewes in which she alluded to the combination of nature, truth, and imagination in her writing. Still, without documentation from Brontë herself stating that Jane is truly herself, this letter means nothing more than that Brontë was perhaps influenced and informed by her own life in her writing.
In terms of prose, Pfordresher has a slow and tedious style with little sentence and vocabulary variation to keep things running. Though it’s fairly readable — and he admitted the book had been rewritten after original criticisms that the first go was too academic for a mainstream audience — it is still not exactly pop literary criticism, leaving the book in this odd place between popular and academic writing. Combined with the barely-there evidence, this style renders the book practically useless. (No personal offense to Professor Pfordresher, and I do mean “practically” here in the sense of the word “practice.”) There is no useful application for this material excerpt, I suppose, as an opportunity to publish material that argues against it, and I suspect it could be done very, very successfully.
Though Pfordresher explained the origins of the book came from a woman who heard his interview with Diane Rehm some years back and requested a text on how Charlotte Brontë came to write Jane Eyre, the book ends up feeling like the result of pressure to publish as a working professor. That is a kettle of fish I really know nothing about, though at first glance I worry that this is often the result of arbitrary publication rules around tenure and careers of teaching. Pfordresher, in his lecture, noted that he had not already drawn his conclusion at the time he started his research, perhaps as a way to placate my concerns over his lack of evidence — if he had been swayed throughout his time working on the book, certainly I could be by what he presented. If the evidence is there, Pfordresher does a poor job at selling it — but, frankly, I don’t think the evidence is there to begin with.
The Secret History of Jane Eyre doesn’t add anything new to the canon of literary criticism, relies on outdated and unreliable sources for evidence, and spends a lot of time turning supposition into fact. It’s not something I can imagine any professor I’ve ever had accepting as an idea for a paper, let alone as the paper itself. Unless you’re interested in preparing a rebuttal (I’ll edit!) to this work, it’s not worth the time. Skip it.
❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤