Everyone knows Jane Eyre is an autobiographical novel, but where does roman end and à clef begin?
Few books feed reality hunger more than Charlotte Brontë’s 19th-century masterpiece, whose deeply observant narrator speaks in such a direct voice that she seems to bear witness to lived events. As Pfordresher (English/Georgetown Univ.; Jesus and the Emergence of a Catholic Imagination: An Illustrated Journey, 2008, etc.) argues, that’s because it is the work of an author who only wrote what she knew. Accepting Brontë’s assertion that she never described any “feeling, on any subject, public or private,” that wasn’t genuine, he adroitly follows the paper trail of her letters to demonstrate that the novel draws from both actual events and deeply repressed emotions. He finds a lot of Brontë both in Jane and in Rochester’s mad wife; both author and character “lived on the borderline of madness, and there are moments of anguish when its darkness takes over.” As previous biographers have long noted, the horrible experience of the Brontë sisters at the Clergy Daughter’s School at Cowan Bridge was closely duplicated in Lowood Institution in the novel; the parallels were so close and obvious it even caused a minor scandal. Pfordresher is more interesting when the relation between fact and fiction is less obvious, such as in the creation of Jane’s classic love interest, Rochester. While the clearest real-life source appears to be a married professor whom Brontë could never have, Pfordresher sees evidence also in her doomed brother Branwell, as well as literary models such as Lord Byron’s Giaour and John Milton’s Satan from Paradise Lost. There's a certain literal-mindedness to Pfordresher's approach, however, and his insistence that everything in the book has traceable real-life coordinates isn’t always convincing. Does Jane flee Rochester because Brontë was in some overwrought emotional state or because the story simply demanded this change of pace?
On the whole, a helpful guide to the book as a Rorschach blot of a singular Romantic temperament.