Charlotte Bronte’s* Jane Eyre is considered a classic in literary history, and rightly so. Its themes of dying of easily preventable diseases and women being inside rooms remain as relevant today as they were when she first wrote them. But evidence unearthed recently indicate that Jane Eyre could have been a very different novel. In letters to whichever siblings happened to still be alive at the time, Charlotte spun a very different version of the story, particularly regarding Mr. Rochester that would have probably had a pretty big impact on how everything turned out.
But don’t take my word for it. Below are some of the letters covering Charlotte’s original idea, and the subsequent changes that took place…
Emily here, the Wuthering Heights sister. So, I read through ‘Jane Eyre’. It’s a wonderful novel, full of feeling, and I expect it to be a classic one day. But… well, there is one small problem I have with it.
When Jane goes to Thornhill, it is described as ‘full to the brim with wives.’ You then go on to write ‘Mr Rochester has hidden a wife in all four hundred and sixteen rooms of Thornhill. Jane is fairly surprised to discover this for the first nine or ten rooms, but then it begins to become commonplace and she’s like ‘ok, sure, probably another wife behind this door.” Furthermore, you write ‘Mr. Rochester was tricked into all 416 of these marriages, and feels that he must do right by keeping his wives in rooms…’
Charlotte, I’m not really sure what this part of the novel is aiming at. Could you perhaps explain the wife imagery to me? I’m very confused by the entire thing.
Evidently there is some misunderstanding between Charlotte and Emily, because Charlotte sends her a 200 page guide to each of the wives, of which I’ve included a small part here.
Patsy is the library wife. She lives in the library and is sassy, but is also lactose intolerant. She says things like ‘Not in my library Mr. Rochester!’ and ‘We do things by the book in here.’
Krausie is the pantry wife. She likes kittens but unfortunately is not allowed to own one for she lives in the pantry.
Rolenda is the greenhouse wife. She doesn’t understand sarcasm and tends to scream at people if she thinks they’re being sarcastic, but since she doesn’t know what it is, she just screams at people all the time.
A few weeks later, her sister, Anne, wrote.
Hey it’s me, Anne, the least famous of the Bronte’s who didn’t die as kids.
I think what Emily was getting at is that it is insane for Mr. Rochester to have 416 wives. That is a very high number of wives. Please, for the sake of sanity in the book, include way fewer wives.
p.s., if I die, please don’t prevent re-publication of the novel I’m writing now ok? I think it has a real shot at greatness and I don’t want to go out of print.
Evidently Charlotte didn’t understand this either, because she replied
Dear Emily and the other one
I could include more rooms in Thornhill so that the wives-to-rooms ratio isn’t so unbalanced, but that would require a lot of rewriting.
p.s., don’t worry, I’ll suppress your novel when you die
To which Emily replied
It isn’t the ratio. It’s the number of wives. Four hundred and sixteen wives is an insane amount. Imprisoning 416 wives? I mean, that’s fucked up. And this is coming from the woman who wrote Wuthering Heights.
p.s., I’ll help destroy Anne’s works if I’m not dead.
To which Anne responded
I feel like you’re both deliberately misunderstanding me.
PLEASE. DON’T. PREVENT. RE-PUBLICATION. OF. MY. NOVEL.
This letter chain continues for a few more weeks, before Charlotte seems to understand.
So you’re saying that imprisoning 416 wives in his mansion makes Rochester seem unsympathetic? How many wives is it ok to imprison and still come back to be a flawed but marriagable character in the end?
The sisters had different ideas.
Seven to nine MAX
Dear Charlotte and Emily
Zero imprisoned wives is the right answer. ZERO. Jesus, why do I have to explain this to you again?
Very slowly it begins to dawn on Charlotte the rightness of what they say and she haggles downwards until the number of wives Mr. Rochester has imprisoned in rooms is one.
So if Rochester imprisons just the one wife in his attic, then he’s still redeemable right? Like, a lot of ok men have women locked up in their attic because they were tricked into marrying them and then it turned out they were mentally ill so they were like ‘let me lock them in the attic forever’? Like, it’s fine if Jane still likes him after that right?
To which Anne responded
I think Emily might be dead. I haven’t heard from her in a week and with a Bronte that usually means we’ve died.
To which Emily replied
Na, I’m ok. Just ran out of paper.
And Anne was like.
Oh, ok. Well, if you really need to keep the whole ‘Rochester imprisons his wife in a room’ thing then sure, one is way better than 416.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
*I haven’t put the dumb little umlaut above the e in Bronte because I don’t know where it is on my keyboard.