Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre (1847), one of the best-loved novels in the English language, may have been inspired by a real person. A Jane Eyre lived in Yorkshire, a few miles from the Brontes' home, and was known among Charlotte Bronte's circle, new research by a retired teacher has established.
Both the real-life Jane Eyre and the fictional character were thwarted in love before marrying and enjoying happiness - "Reader, I married him", as the fictional Jane Eyre declares. There, though, the parallels seem to end.
The real Jane Eyre was a member of a Moravian settlement, a Protestant Episcopal movement, and lived virtually as a nun for a period before marrying a surgeon.
But last night Mike Hill, director of the Bronte Parsonage Museum, acknowledged: "It does make you look at Jane Eyre the novel in a slightly different way from now on. It pulls it down to earth a bit more."
Margaret Connor, a retired teacher from Fulneck, near Leeds, found there was a woman called Frances Jane Eyre who lived in a Moravian settlement in her home village. The discovery was given added weight by Patrick Wilson, of Keele University, whose ancestor Mary Liley was a cousin of Frances Jane Eyre. She was also a friend of Ellen Nussey, a close friend of Charlotte Bronte.
Mr Hill says: "Mary Liley was a Moravian and knew Ellen Nussey who was one of Charlotte's closest friends. Indeed Mary Susan Liley wrote about her in her journal. Charlotte would probably have known about Frances Jane Eyre."
The Moravian archives for 1843 record that "Single Sister Fanny Jane Eyre has formed a connexion with a Mr Machell, a surgeon of Pudsey, but ... the thing is not in state of forwardness." At that time female teachers were not allowed to marry. Mary Liley's journal actually refers to the woman as Jane Eyre and records that she was "afterwards married to the late Dr Machell of Pudsey".
Referring to her discovery of the name in the archives of Fulneck Moravian Church, Pudsey, Margaret Connor says: "I could hardly believe my eyes. Little did I think as a child that years later I would discover a Jane Eyre who may well have been the novel's namesake."
Mr Hill stressed: "It doesn't in any sense lessen Charlotte's ability as a storyteller to acknowledge that she may have taken on some of this."
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies