Access Type

Open Access Dissertation

Date of Award

January 2013

Degree Type


Degree Name




First Advisor

Anca Vlasopolos






May 2013

Advisor: Dr. Anca Vlasopolos

Major: English

Degree: Doctor of Philosophy

This dissertation examines the role of fairy tales and fairy lore across the arc of Charlotte Brontë's career from Jane Eyre (1847) to Villette (1853) in order to demonstrate the evolution of the heroic female bildungsroman in Brontë's work. This distinctive narrative paradigm, the heroic female bildungsroman, is incorporated into a perpetual search for a mythology to define womanhood, which ripples out from Jane Eyre's literary descendants written by women, both in Great Britain, Continental Europe and across the Atlantic, in the United States and Canada. Expanding upon the theory of transatlantic literary exchange modeled by Amanda Claybaugh in The Novel of Purpose: Literature and Social Reform in the Anglo-American World (2007), I demonstrate the ideological influence of Jane Eyre and the reciprocal influence of American literary responses on interpretation of Charlotte Brontë's work.

The fairytale allusions and, more particularly, the fairy heroine figure featured in Jane Eyre are excised from Brontë's final novel, Villette (1851). Nor do they survive intact in Jane Eyre's other literary descendants: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh (1856), Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World (1850), L. M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables (1908), and Hannah Crafts's The Bondwoman's Narrative (ca 1850). These four texts are certainly not the only works of literature that were influenced by Jane Eyre; however, these are some of the most prominent examples of literature written by women that are currently being posited as literary descendants of Brontë's debut novel. Moreover, all four of these texts attempt to replace Brontë's fairytale allusions in unique and distinctive ways; these authors all model the search for a female mythology, which persists into the twentieth-first century. Moreover, like Brontë's fairy heroine, the larger-than-life heroines in her literary progeny are invested with a range of regional and national associations that generate nationalistic messages.

Chapter One functions as an introduction to my main argument as well as an overview of my critical approach. It particularly outlines the distinctive transatlantic microcosm that develops around Jane Eyre as well as the Cinderella paradigm projected back onto Brontë's novel by American authors and readers. Chapter Two covers the arc of Brontë's career; it explores the dominant fairytale paradigms in Jane Eyre and identifies the role of the fairy lore in constructing the heroic Jane Eyre. This chapter demonstrates the connections between the heroic changeling and the local, pre-Victorian fairy lore. The argument relies heavily on primary source material from Haworth and Yorkshire as well as periodicals that the Brontë family read. It concludes by demonstrating how fairytale material in Villette is excised.

Chapter Three explores the transatlantic community of women writers in which Brontë was immersed. It begins with the ideological or imaginary transatlantic exchange between Great Britain and the United States discussed by Amanda Claybaugh in The Novel of Purpose (2007). It also explores the role that Elizabeth Gaskell's biography The Life of Charlotte Brontë played in generating a transatlantic mythology that linked Brontë's life with her texts. Finally, this chapter examines the mainstream literary descendants of Jane Eyre. It identifies the heavy reliance on classical mythological allusions to generate a female mythology in the British descendants of Jane Eyre in the Victorian Era, particularly Aurora Leigh. It also examines Canadian novel Anne of Green Gables and U.S. novel The Wide, Wide World and the American Cinderella paradigm that these novels develop. I argue that the "Beauty and the Beast" and fairy bride allusions in Jane Eyre resonated with the cultural traditions of Brontë's British audience while Cinderella reflects nineteenth-century American ideals.

Chapter Three concludes with an examination of the recently discovered, unpublished manuscript, The Bondwoman's Narrative (ca. 1850), by Hannah Crafts. This is the first novel written by an escaped female slave in the United States. Recent scholarship on Crafts has commented on the way her text borrows large amounts of material from other popular novels, primarily Charles Dickens' Bleak House (1852) and Jane Eyre; critics have even identified the influence of Villette in the final chapter of Crafts's novel. The treatment of Jane Eyre and Villette in The Bondwoman's Narrative is a distinctive addition to current scholarship on Brontë's literary progeny, which has focused exclusively on white authors. Furthermore, this close reading of The Bondwoman's Narrative is the first to put this novel in conversation with the network of mainstream authors that developed around Jane Eyre. Unlike white American women writers, Crafts's repositioning of Jane Eyre does not rely upon Cinderella allusions; rather, she creates a heroic female bildungsroman that undermines this American narrative paradigm, demonstrating that the white fairytale expectations are founded upon exploitation.

Finally, Chapter Four analyzes the cultural significance of transatlantic responses to Jane Eyre. Brontë's novel was incorporated into an American narrative culture. In fact, I argue that American readers project the nineteenth-century American self-rise ethic onto Jane Eyre, placing it at the center of a distinctly nationalistic tradition. More specifically, Jane Eyre became mired in narratives of nineteenth-century American identity formation. It was absorbed into the parallel tradition of male and female rise tales, related to American individualism and the self-rise ethic. The male narrative tradition has been dominated in the popular imagination by novels like Horatio Alger's, while the American Cinderella became the term to describe the female narrative tradition.