Charlotte Brontë’s Novels: Jane Eyre, Shirley, Villette, & The Professor

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Charlotte Brontë’s novels reflected  her romantic, yet deeply emotional approach to fiction writing. Coupled with her exquisite use of the English language, her brilliant novels — Jane Eyre, Shirley, and Villette — ensured her lasting stature in the world of literature. 

This survey, which includes The Professor (her least-known, much-rejected work, written before Jane Eyre and published only after her death), includes links to analyses and plot summaries of these iconic works of literature.

  • Jane Eyre, Charlotte’s best-known novel, is the story of the title heroine’s love for the inscrutable and reclusive Mr. Rochester and her quest for independence.
  • Shirley (1849) followed Jane Eyre two years after the latter was published. It’s the story set against the Luddite riots of the Yorkshire textile industry, 1807 to 1812.
  • Villette (1853) is the story of Lucy Snowe, helplessly in love with Paul Emanuel. It’s a fairly autobiographical novel, based on Charlotte’s experiences in Brussels and her unrequited love for Professor Héger.
  • The Professor (1857; posthumous), is considered a less-developed predecessor of Villette

Charlotte Brontë’s novels have in common a keen insight into human nature, and despite some questionable decisions in the realms of love, a fierce self-belief, personal integrity, and independence shared by the stories’ heroines.

Though she didn’t die quite as young as did her sisters Emily and Anne, Charlotte was not quite thirty-nine when she died of complications due to pregnancy. Who knows what more she and her sisters might have accomplish had they been granted more years to write.

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Charlotte Bronte portrait by George Richmond, 1850

Learn more about Charlotte Brontë
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The Brontë sisters’ failed first attempts at publication

First, a little publishing history. Before attempting to publish novels, Charlotte, who seemed to be the front person for the trio of sisters, undertook the task of finding a home for a collaborative book of poems. They took masculine, or at least indeterminate, noms de plume.

Charlotte, Emily, and Anne were Currer, Ellis, and Acton respectively, all sharing the faux surname of Bell. In Charlotte’s own words:

“We had very early cherished the dream of one day becoming authors. This dream, never relinquished even when distance divided and absorbing tasks occupied us, now suddenly acquired strength and consistency: it took the character of a resolve. We agreed to arrange a small section of our poems, and, if possible, get them printed.

… The book was printed: it is scarcely known, was published and advertised at the sisters’ own expense and sold two copies) and all of it that merits to be known are the poems of Ellis Bell.”

“The book” referred to above was Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell’s Poems. It did finally did find a home and was published in 1846 to absolutely no fanfare and humiliating sales of two copies. Charlotte continues (from the Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell, 1850):

“Ill-success failed to crush us: the mere effort to succeed had given a wonderful zest to existence; it must be pursued. We each set to work on a prose tale: Ellis Bell produced Wuthering Heights, Acton Bell, Agnes Grey, and Currer Bell also wrote a narrative in one volume [this refers to The Professor].

These MSS. were perseveringly obtruded upon various publishers for the space of a year and a half; usually, their fate was an ignominious and abrupt dismissal …” 

Charlotte Brontë’s “forlorn” manuscript for The Professor, submitted under her pen name, Currer Bell, was making its rounds, rejected by half a dozen London publishers. Each disappointment was crushing.

Adding to the frustration was that her sisters’ novels (Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Anne’s Agnes Grey) found homes, even as hers didn’t. Yet Charlotte, instead of sitting idly by and waiting, worked on her next novel — Jane Eyre.

At last, a publisher, seeing promise in The Professor, requested the chance to see the pseudonymous author’s next book, which Charlotte had at the ready. the book was hastily brought out just six weeks after acceptance, and became an immediate bestseller. The Professor, meanwhile, continued to languish, and was published only after Charlotte’s death. 

Read more about the Brontë sisters’ arduous path to publication.

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Jane Eyre (1847)

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë’s best-known novel, weaves the story of the title heroine’s love for the mysterious and reclusive Mr. Rochester with her quest for independence. First published under her pseudonym, Currer Bell, the novel was an immediate success, setting off a frenzy of speculation as to the true identity of its author.

Though considered a proto-feminist work, it also fits into the gothic novel genre due to that pesky little detail of Rochester’s mad wife locked away in an attic. Through the concise plot summary of Jane Eyre that follows, the reader will get an overview of the book that made Charlotte Brontë famous.

Jane, a young woman of unassuming background and appearance, searches for love and a sense of belonging while preserving her independence. The book sparked a fair amount of controversy when first published, which was fueled by critics and the public suspecting that “Currer Bell” (the author’s ambiguous pseudonym) was a woman.

Still, the novel was an immediate success, securing for Charlotte a place in the literary world of her time and for generations to come. Explore Charlotte Brontë’s iconic novel here:

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Shirley (1849)

Shirley by Charlotte Bronte

Shirley was Charlotte’s second published novel, still under the pseudonym Currer Bell, the mysterious author who had already achieved fame with Jane Eyre.

The lengthy novel has two female protagonists — the eponymous Shirley Keeldar and Caroline Helstone. Set in Charlotte’s native Yorkshire, it takes place against the background of the textile industry’s Luddite uprisings of 1811 and 1812.

Shirley: A Tale, as it was originally titled, is considered an example of the mid-19th century “social novel.” The social novels that emerged from that period were works of fiction dealing with themes like labor injustice, bias against women, and poverty.

Charlotte supposedly told Elizabeth Gaskell (who, not long after the former’s death would become her first biographer) that the character of Shirley was how she imagined her sister Emily might have turned out if she’d had the benefits of wealth and privilege.

More about Shirley

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Villette (1853)

villette by Charlotte Bronte

Jane Eyre notwithstanding, Villette is considered Charlotte Brontë’s true masterpiece. The analysis you’ll be linked to below is excerpted from Life and Works of the Sisters Brontë (1899) by Mary A. Ward, a 19th-century British novelist and literary critic. Ward wrote deeply and sensitively about the works of the Brontë sisters, and her direct language and insights still greatly inform the contemporary reader.

In her analysis, she also conveys the duress experienced by Charlotte, and the difficulties she had in writing Villette while grieving the deaths of her beloved sisters, Emily and Anne. Villette is the story of Lucy Snowe, of whom Mrs. Ward writes:

“Lucy Snowe is Jane Eyre again, the friendless girl, fighting the world as best she may, her only weapon a strong and chainless will, her constant hindrances, the passionate nature that makes her the slave of sympathy, of the first kind look or word, and the wild poetic imagination that forbids her all reconciliation with her own lot, the lot of the unbeautiful and obscure.

But though she is Jane Eyre over again there are differences, and all, it seems to me, to Lucy’s advantage. She is far more intelligible—truer to life and feeling. Morbid she is often; but Lucy Snows so placed, and so gifted, must have been morbid.”

More about Villette

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The Professor (1857)

The Professor by Charlotte Bronte

Though Jane Eyre was Charlotte Brontë‘s first published novel, The Professor was actually the first novel she completed. It wasn’t published until 1857, two years after her death, with her literary reputation secured.

The Professor was something of a roman à clef, based on Charlotte’s experiences while studying and teaching in Brussels.

The title character was based on Constantin Héger, the headmaster of the school, a married man with children with whom Charlotte had fallen in love. Usually no-nonsense and practical, if not entirely level-headed, she became obsessed with Héger and made something of a fool of herself — though that is a subject for a different post entirely.

When Charlotte returned to the theme of this work as a more mature writer, it grew into Villette, which, as mentioned earlier, is considered her true masterpiece.

Read more in The Professor by Charlotte Brontë: A Late 19th-Century Analysis.

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