From Household Word to Household Object:
An Exhibition on Charlotte Brontë’s "Jane Eyre"

When you were in high school or college, you probably had to read "Jane Eyre." An exhibition titled "Eyre Apparent," opening at the University of Virginia (UVa) this week, celebrates the history and influence of Charlotte Brontë’s Victorian classic, one of the most popular novels ever written.

The exhibition in the Dome Room of the UVa Rotunda offers plenty of evidence for the novel's continuing popularity. In addition to a great many editions of the novel itself, on view are various book-length "Jane Eyre" sequels, prequels, spinoffs, and ripoffs ranging from an S&M retelling of Jane Eyre's story called "Disciplining Jane" to a Classics Illustrated Comic Book version of the novel in modern Greek.

Objects shown in "Eyre Apparent" include Jane Eyre paper dolls, a real Jane Eyre doll, and miniature editions of "Jane Eyre" (suitable for a dollhouse bookcase); British postage stamps featuring scenes from the novel; and a Jane Eyre tea towel, thimble, juice glass and decorative plate and even a feminist lapel pin misquoting Jane Eyre's memorable statement to Mr Rochester, "I am no bird, and no net ensnares me."

First published pseudonymously in London in 1847, "Jane Eyre" tells the story of a young woman who takes a position at Thornfield Hall as the governess of Adele, the natural child of its owner, Edward Rochester. She and Mr Rochester fall in love, but their marriage ceremony is halted by the revelation that the groom is already married to Bertha, a mad woman confined in an upper floor of the house. Jane flees. Rochester is blinded while unsuccessfully trying to save the life of Bertha, who has set Thornfield on fire. Jane inherits money. She is reconciled with Mr Rochester and, as she famously tells us, "Reader, I married him."

"Jane Eyre" was an immediate best seller. Even Queen Victoria was a fan, calling it "really a wonderful book." Despite its rather lurid plot, the novel quickly entered the canon of literary classics. Today, more than 150 years after its first publication, it continues to be assigned reading in a great many high school classes and undergraduate novel courses.

How popular really is Brontë’s novel? In a search conducted last month, "Global Books in Print" listed 518 books current or forthcoming titled "Jane Eyre" - a total for novels surpassed only by Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" (548 editions). In third place was Charles Dickens's "Great Expectations" (510 editions), followed by Bram Stoker's "Dracula" (462 editions), Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" (458 editions), Charlotte's sister Emily Brontë’s "Wuthering Heights" (451 editions), Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" (413), and Daniel Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe" (403 editions).

Among the most frequently reprinted paperback editions of "Jane Eyre" are those by Bantam, Barnes & Noble, Dover, Everyman, Grosset & Dunlap, Modern Library, Penguin, Puffin, and Signet. Multiple examples of these and many other editions are represented in "Eyre Apparent." Collectively, they tell an interesting story about the presentation of the novel in the 20th century.

Many classic novels are easy to identify by their cover art. A young man dressed in black talking to the skull he holds in his hand has to be "Hamlet." A white whale threatening a ship Moby Dick. A woman wearing a dress with a scarlet "A" stitched upon it Hester Prynne of Hawthorne's "Scarlet Letter."

But no single scene stands out in "Jane Eyre," as the covers or dust-jackets of dozens of editions of the novel on view in "Eyre Apparent" make clear. Some covers feature a woman holding a book or letter. Others depict an English manor house, usually by itself on a moor but sometimes with a prominent tree, suggesting the giant horse-chestnut tree struck by lightning after Jane accepts Rochester's marriage proposal.

Other "Jane Eyre" covers portray the scene in which Jane witnesses Rochester's riding accident, when his horse slips on ice. Surprisingly, only a single cover illustrates the interrupted wedding ceremony certainly one of the most memorable scenes in the novel, if not in all of English literature.


"Jane Eyre" spinoffs began to appear soon after the novel's first appearance in 1847. The first dramatic adaptation, "Jane Eyre or the Secrets of Thornfield Manor" by John Courtney, appeared in 1848. Since then, there have been more than 50 different dramatizations of the novel. The exhibition shows playbills, posters, and programs from a number of them, including a souvenir program from a 1937 Theatre Guild production starring Katharine Hepburn. Well-known recent Jane Eyre spinoffs include Jean Rhys's "Wide Sargasso Sea" and Jasper Fforde's "The Eyre Affair."

The first known film of "Jane Eyre" came out as a silent Italian movie in 1909. This was the beginning of a craze for movies made from the novel. In 1915 alone, there were at least seven different movie productions of "Jane Eyre" internationally, beginning a long list of films that stretches into the present day.

Celebrated film versions of "Jane Eyre" starred Virginia Bruce and Colin Clive (1934), Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles (1944; the Spanish version was called "Alma Rebelde" Rebellious Soul), Susannah York and George C. Scott (1971), Zelah Clarke and Timothy Dalton (1983), Charlotte Gainsbourg and William Hurt (1996, directed by Franco Zeffirelli), and Samantha Morton and Ciaran Hinds (1997). They're all currently available as DVDs; you can see their covers in the exhibition, as well as posters and other marketing tie-ins.

Many musical versions of "Jane Eyre" have appeared over the past 50 years. The most recent one is "Jane Eyre: The Musical," with music by Paul Gordon, on Broadway in 2000. Several operas have been based on the novel. An operatic version composed by Michael Berkeley with a libretto by David Malouf premiered in 2000 at the Cheltenham Festival in England.

Collecting Jane Eyre

"Eyre Apparent" was devised by John Buchtel and Barbara Heritage, respectively the former and present Curators of Collections at Rare Book School (RBS), an institute based at UVa that supports the study of the history of books and printing. Most of the books and other items in the exhibition come from the RBS teaching collection.

The Jane Eyre collection got its start when RBS director Terry Belanger acquired an early 19th-century copy of Thomas Bewick's "British Birds" containing wood-engraved illustrations described in detail in the opening chapter of "Jane Eyre."

Belanger realized that the Bewick vignettes could be a powerful classroom tool for understanding "Jane Eyre." The impact the images have on Jane underscores the scarcity of printed images in early 19th-century provincial England.

Belanger began collecting different copies of "Jane Eyre" to show how rarely the Bewick illustrations are reproduced in modern editions of the novel and a collection was born. Such classroom-oriented book collecting is an example of the innovations for which Belanger was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2005.

"I don't think there's ever been a show of this size before on a single novel," says Belanger. "There are nearly 400 books and objects on view in our exhibition."

Accompanying the Jane Eyre exhibition in the UVa Rotunda is a related display across the street, in the Albert & Shirley Small Special Collections Library. Among the rare items shown there is a copy of the first edition of the novel, published in 1847, and a copy of "Poems," published anonymously in 1846 by Charlotte Brontë and her sisters Emily and Anne at their own expense. The book is said to have sold only two copies!

Jane Eyre Events

On December 9th, RBS will host a series of free events and activities, including gallery tours, a lecture by UVa professor Karen Chase, and the screening of some of the classic "Jane Eyre" movies. For more information about these activities, visit the exhibition's web page at /2005/exhibitions/eyreapparent/.

"Eyre Apparent: An Exhibition Celebrating Charlotte Brontë’s Classic Novel" marks the 150th anniversary of the death of the author of "Jane Eyre," Charlotte Brontë (1816- 55). The show is on view from 9:00 - 4:45 daily through April 2006 in the Dome Room of the Rotunda at UVa, and admission is free.

The co-curators of the exhibition are John Buchtel, currently Curator of Rare Books at Johns Hopkins University, and Barbara Heritage, Curator of Collections at Rare Book School.

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