Published on October 16, 1847, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is a coming-of-age novel. Jane Eyre traces the feelings and experiences of the protagonist- Jane, including her rise to adulthood and her love for Mr. Rochester. The majority of the action focuses on the gradual descent of Jane’s moral and spiritual responsiveness. The entire plot is coloured by an intensified passion that previously was found only in poetry. Bronte revolutionized the art of fictional novels. Bronte has been called, according to Daniel Burt, the “first historian of the private consciousness” and the literary cousin of writers like Proust and Joyce. Jane Eyre is filled with elements of social criticism and revolves around the issue of Christian morality. The protagonist Jane is said to be ahead of her time as she explores sexuality, religion and feminism. The discussion of these issues is what drew C.S. Lewis looked to the novel for inspiration.
The novel is written directly from the perspective of Jane Eyre, and is set somewhere in the north of England during the reign of George III (1760-1820). Bronte’s novel goes through five stages: Jane’s childhood, where she is physically and verbally abused by her own family; her schooling at Lowood School, where she meets all her friends but faces oppression; her time as governess at Thornfield Hall, where she falls in love with Edward Rochester; her time with Rivers family, where her own cousin proposes to her; and her eventual reunion and marriage to Rochester. These sections in the novel provide the reader with important perspectives on multiple issues that relate to today’s society.
Jane Eyre is mentioned in chapter ten of C.S Lewis’ Surprised by Joy. In this chapter, Lewis delves into his relationship with his friend Arthur. Arthur served as a literary inspiration for Lewis, however, Lewis could not provide that same inspiration for Arthur. Arthur always looked to authors such as Jane Austen, Walter Scott and Charlotte Bronte for inspiration. Lewis figured that since Arthur was inspired by Bronte, he would also read her work. Lewis states, “The very qualities which had previously deterred me from such books Arthur taught me to see as their charm. What I would have called their “stodginess” or “ordinariness” he called, “Homeliness”–a key word in his imagination” (Lewis). Lewis specifically found charm in the first line of Jane Eyre which reads, “there was no possibility of taking a walk that day”. The reason for this charm is because Bronte rooted qualities in this book that attached the plot to Lewis’ simple experience such as, the weather, food, family, and the neighborhood. Bronte’s use of imagery in Jane Eyre served as a tool to strengthen Lewis’ imagination. Passages such as this would excite Lewis:
I discovered, too, that a great pleasure, an enjoyment which the horizon only bounded, lay all outside the high and spike-guarded walls of our garden: this pleasure consisted in prospect of noble summits girdling a great hill-hollow, rich in verdure and shadow; in a bright beck, full of dark stones and sparkling eddies. How different had this scene looked when I viewed it laid out beneath the iron sky of winter, stiffened in frost, shrouded with snow! — when mists as chill as death wandered to the impulse of east winds along those purple peaks, and rolled down “ing” and holm till they blended with the frozen fog of the beck! That beck itself was then a torrent, turbid and curbless: it tore asunder the wood, and sent a raving sound through the air, often thickened with wild rain or whirling sleet; and for the forest on its banks, that showed only ranks of skeletons” (Bronte).
In fact, the mere word “beck” in Brontes work was a feast to him; and so were the schoolroom and kitchen scenes. This love of the “Homely” was not confined to literature; he looked for it in out-of-door scenes as well.
A more abstract example of how Lewis drew inspiration from Jane Eyre can be found in the imagery of fire. The most important fires in Jane Eyre are Bertha’s two displays of arson. The first fire takes place in volume one chapter fifteen and the second fire takes place at the end of volume three chapter ten. In the first incident, Bertha sets fire to Rochester’s clothes, in the second incident, Jane learns that Bertha found a way to burn down Thornfield by setting fire to Jane’s bedroom. To some extent, Bertha can be seen as a pyromaniac. Either way, her actions involving fire provide the reader with intense images of destruction and heat. Lewis used Bronte’s vivid imagery of fire to create his Phoenix character in The Chronicles of Narnia. The Phoenix was a large and impressive firebird. It was twice the size of an eagle and possessed a saffron chest. The Phoenix appeared in the Battle of Beruna scene. During this battle, the Phoenix was used to make a wall of fire. Even though Lewis did not make this character a pyromaniac, He was still able to use his imagination to create a vicious creature that stemmed from fire.
The role of literature is to educate and inspire. Throughout C.S Lewis’ life, the search for literature was prevalent. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre was a text that both educated Lewis and provided inspiration for him because it taught him about simple life experiences such as food, the weather, neighbors, and family. Along with teaching, Jane Eyre allowed Lewis to be inspired by the imagery of the pyromaniac and fire itself.