Jane Eyre: Anti-Catholic or Anti-Christian? Shirley: A ‘Social’ Novel

  • Diana Peschier


As in the previous critique of The Professor and the later analysis of Villette, this examination of Jane Eyre intends to look at Brontë’s knowledge of religion and the way she uses it metaphorically and in its cultural setting to illuminate the specific concerns of this work. One of the most notable of these concerns is the necessity of human love. Charlotte Brontë’s relationship with Catholicism cannot be seen as reductively pro or anti; it is far more complicated than this. As Margaret Smith notes in her introduction to the Clarendon edition of Jane Eyre, when the novel was first published in October 1847 it was recommended by the Roman Catholic publication The Tablet, as a ‘form of vigourous mental workout’ despite Brontë’s ‘vehement Protestantism’.2 In this chapter I take into account various aspects of Brontë’s life, particularly her childhood, in the analysis of the novel, as it is relevant to her thinking about religion. I will, however, resist the temptation to read this fictional work exclusively in the light of biography.


Catholic Priest Religious Motif Solitary Confinement Lunatic Asylum Human Love 
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  1. 1.
    Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, ed. Margaret Smith (Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 3–4. For the rest of the chapter the above edition of the novel will be referenced as Jane Eyre followed by the page number.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Ellen Nussey’s, ‘Charlotte as a Schoolgirl’, Scribner’s Magazine, May 1871,Google Scholar
  3. cited in E.M Delafield, The Brontës: Their Lives Recorded by their Contemporaries (London: The Hogarth Press, 1935), p. 37.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    Tom Winnifrith, The Brontës and Their Background. Romance and Reality (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan Press, 1988), pp. 28 and 31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 6.
    Marianne Thormalen, The Brontës and Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 37.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Mrs Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë (London: Penguin Books, 1997), p. 58.Google Scholar
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    H. Shepheard, A Vindication of the Clergy Daughter’s School, and of the Rev. Carus Wilson (Kirkby Lonsdale: Robert Morphet and London: Seeley, Jackson and Halliday, 1857).Google Scholar
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    In particular the Sunday school periodical edited by Rev. Carus Wilson, The Children’s Friend (Kirkby Lonsdale: 1800–50), and The Teacher’s Visitor. (London: Seeley, Burnside and Seeley, 1844–49). He also wrote and edited other cautionary tales for children.Google Scholar
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    For a fuller explanation of this see Diana Peschier, The Way to Heaven: Contrasting Responses to Early Nineteenth-Century Sunday School Literature, Thesis for MA Women’s History: Gender and Society in Britain and Europe 1500–1980 (London University: Royal Holloway College, 1994).Google Scholar
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    There are many examples of such moral tales. Titles include: Hints to Girls on Dress Especially Intended for Scholars in Daily and Sunday School (London: Religious Tract Society, 1836); Mary. The Fruits of Instruction (London: Ogle, Dawson and Co., 1820). There are also many similar stories in the children’s magazine edited by Rev. W.Carus Wilson, The Children’s Friend, in particular the editions for 1825 and 1826.Google Scholar
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    Elizabeth Imlay, Charlotte Brontë and the Mysteries of Love: Myth and Allegory in Jane Eyre (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989), p. 93.Google Scholar
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    Clement Shorter, ‘The Brontës. One Aspect of Brussels 1842. Letter from Mary Taylor in New Zealand to Mrs Gaskell’, in Delafield, The Brontës: Their Lives Recorded by their Contemporaries (Stroud: Ian Hodgkins, 1979), p. 145.Google Scholar
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    Rev. T.R. Birks, Rector of Kelsall, Herts, Popery in the Bud and in the Flower. A Lecture Delivered before the Protestant Alliance. May 25 (London: Partridge and Oakey, 1853), p. 6.Google Scholar
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    Charlotte Brontë, ‘Letter to Ellen Nussey Ambleside December 18. 1850’, in Margaret Smith, ed. The Letters of Charlotte Brontë (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000), vol. 2.Google Scholar
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    See Beth Newman ed., Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë (Boston, New York: Bedford Books, 1996). ‘Two related but separable aspects of Jane Eyre, have shaped the way later critics have approached its political implications. One is the novel’s embrace of individualism, which it endorses through Jane’s self-assertive rise from social obscurity, her insistence on her rights to self creation and self fulfilment, and her desire for personal and economic independence. The other is its exploration of Jane’s plight particularly as a woman’ p. 454.Google Scholar
  17. 42.
    Charlotte Brontë, Shirley, ed. Herbert Rosengarten and Margaret Smith (Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 174. For the rest of the chapter the above edition of the novel will be referenced as Shirley followed by the page number.Google Scholar

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© Diana Peschier 2005

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  • Diana Peschier

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