n English literature’s long, robust history, few writers have achieved the acclaim and success of the Brontë family. Though all four siblings who lived to adulthood had literary talent, it was the three sisters—Charlotte, Emily and Anne—who were truly extraordinary.

The Brontë sisters came from a relatively comfortable background, were fortunate enough to receive a formal education, and displayed an early aptitude for writing poetry and short stories. Their talents blossomed into memorable novels, all published under male literary pseudonyms. Emily’s only novel was a great one, Wuthering Heights (1847), while Anne wrote two, her most famous being Agnes Grey (1847). But it was Charlotte, the oldest sister, who lived the longest, had the most extensive body of work and, arguably, published the family’s most famous novel, Jane Eyre (1847), under the pen name Currer Bell.    

John Pfordresher, a professor of English at Georgetown University, explores some of the unusual mysteries behind this great novel in The Secret History of Jane Eyre: How Charlotte Brontë Wrote Her Masterpiece. It’s unfortunate, but Brontë left no outlines, character notes, or drafts for scholars to use to uncover the inspirations behind Jane Eyre. So Pfordresher instead combs through her life, discovering possible inspirations for the cast of characters, and outlines her intense struggle to keep her identity under wraps. (Even Brontë’s publisher was apparently kept in the dark, and he was unsure whether this so-called autobiography was “fact or fiction.”) His detailed research and chronological approach helps us understand more completely some of the sources for this novel’s compelling power.

We do know that Brontë started writing Jane Eyre, in August 1846, while her father recovered from cataract surgery that he endured without anesthesia, and required a weeks-long recovery period. It was an emotionally difficult time for the family, who were fearful that their clergyman father could go blind and potentially leave them in financial ruin. Since her brother, Branwell, “proved incapable of ever holding down a paying job,” Charlotte took the lead and shouldered the difficult responsibility of financially supporting the family.

Brontë adamantly claimed that “her invented protagonist had little relationship to her own life,” but Pfordresher disagrees. In his view, “just about everything that the novel reveals about Jane comes from Charlotte’s experience.” In particular, he sees it as a combination of “the truth of her experience and the emotionally dominant claims of her imagination.” 

That’s why he believes Jane Eyre was, in fact, a book with a “secret history.”

Pfordresher makes his case through the use of Brontë’s papers and personal correspondence. Her father’s copy of Thomas Bewick’s History of British Birds, for instance, served an “important and unusual role” in Jane Eyre’s inner life due to its dark, haunting images. Jane’s cousin, John Reed, is an “obnoxious lad” who also appears in a form in Charlotte’s book, The Professor, as well as Agnes Gray. He seems to be part of Charlotte’s past as a governess, based on a boy who “threw stones at her” (a cousin even tossed a Bible in her general direction, of all things), much like Reed threw Bewick at Jane.

Even the scene where Jane meets an older girl, Helen Burns, and they discuss God, death and the afterlife, seems to have its own backstory. Pfordresher points out that Charlotte would discuss her dead sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, with her friend Ellen Nussey at their school in Roe Head. She poignantly described Maria as a “little mother among the rest, superhuman in goodness and cleverness.”

Nussey’s close friendship with Brontë, which has long been the source of much intrigue and speculation, is an important source of the book’s material. It’s not unusual for writers to draw from real-life experiences, and the 350 letters of correspondence between the two seems to show an existing line between the real Brontë and imaginary Eyre.

Brontë’s visits, for instance, to the “melange of country houses whose architecture and interior decorations provided hints for her future invention” in Jane Eyre, surely inspired the great estate of Thornfield Hall. Brontë depicted these visits in an 1847 letter to Nussey: “As to society I don’t understand much about it,” she wrote, “…it seems to me a very strange, complicated affair indeed—wherein Nature is turned upside down—…eternal and tedious botheration is their notion of happiness—sensible pursuits their ennui.” In Pfordresher’s view, the “tart frankness of these letters is absolutely typical of the written voice both of Brontë and of her narrator Jane Eyre.”

Pfordresher isolates a June 19, 1834 letter from Brontë to Nussey because of this sentence: “I see no affectation in your letters, no trifling, no frivolous contempt of plain, and weak admiration of showy persons and things.” His interpretation of this remarks blurs the separation between Charlotte and her heroine: “[n]ote the intimacy, and the confident certitude in judgment of Bronte’s voice here, so much like Jane Eyre’s.” 

When it comes to Jane’s love for Edward Fairfax Rochester, Pfordresher believes there are remarkable similarities to Brontë’s infatuation in Brussels with her married French teacher, M. Constantin Georges Romain Heger. A “cord of communion,” or a particular type of relationship, grows in each instance. Heger, for his part, resembled Charlotte’s father Patrick Brontë because Heger too was “strong-willed and courageous, a man with a considerable sex drive who knew how to handle a gun, and yet also a tender and thoughtful teacher and father.” Rochester has some of these qualities in the novel.

Moreover, Rochester’s time with Jane “express a personal curiosity for and admiration of the spirit of the woman who had created them.” This was something Heger “may have been careful not to voice but Charlotte surely longed for.”      

Some of this helps explain why Brontë wanted to hide behind the Currer Bell pseudonym. As she wrote to fellow novelist Elizabeth Gaskell on Nov. 17, 1849, she kept this alias due to “fear that if she relinquished it, strength and courage would leave her, and she would ever after shrink—from writing the plain truth.”

Brontë’s acquaintances, who were mostly kept in the dark during her evolution into an author, were surely surprised when they discovered “this tiny and often reclusive woman from a small town in Yorkshire had written two major novels.” It would have seemed completely out of character for the woman they loved and admired.

Yet, there was a great deal more to Brontë’s thoughts, emotions and passions than most realized. It appears her most famous heroine, Jane Eyre, served as a fictional vessel to live out her hopes and dreams. Thanks to Pfordresher’s fine book, the secret is out forevermore.