In Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Jane describes a minor female character more affectionately than she describes her primary male love interest. Photo by Macy Potter.

Charlotte Brontë’s acclaimed novel Jane Eyre is a staple to classic British literature—a must-read for high school English teachers everywhere. It explores the effects of caste and gender roles during an era where severe class division defined the cultural climate of England. While Jane Eyre is considered a gothic romance novel, Brontë tackles the experiences of classism and the hardships placed on young women during the Victorian Era. Jane Eyre is frustrating as a straight romance story: the heroine’s character development weakens her strong will, while the male love interest is violent, scary and manipulative. However, it’s a phenomenally written lesbian tragedy, where the heroine is torn between two worlds she does not fit into—the passion she is supposed to feel for men and the principles that push her to pursue them.

While Jane describes Mr. Rochester, her future-husband, as “neither tall nor graceful,” her first real friend, Helen Burns, has “a beauty… of meaning, of movement, of radiance.” Brontë spends an entire page detailing the “perfect beauty” of a very minor character—Rosamond Oliver—even calling her an “earthly angel,” while Mr. Rochester is paralleled with the devil himself. This is not to say each small and interpretable interaction was intentionally laid out by Brontë herself; the reality is that in an era where LGBT people had to be closeted, elements of that experience were more likely to show up in subtler ways.

Interpreting classic novels can be more than looking at Sparknotes for deeper meaning; what makes literature—and art overall—amazing is that it’s ultimately up to each person to make their own understanding out of it. As Franklin AP English teacher Elle Wilder explains, one of the reasons she continues to teach Jane Eyre is that every time she reads it, she gets something else out of it. With an archetypical gothic lover, complex social commentary, and a murderous creature in the attic, Jane Eyre allows room for a variety of interpretations.
Mr. Rochester is hardly an ideal partner—with an extreme age gap between 18-year-old Jane and Mr. Rochester in his mid-thirties, an indisputable power imbalance (one of the central motifs of the novel), and a manipulative ‘romantic’ history, his interest in Jane is anything but healthy. From a modern standpoint, his behavior would be seen as predatory and abusive—his behavior mirrors what might show up in the latest #MeToo scandal. And yet, having grown up neglected and abused, Jane seeks any source of companionship or validation. This desperation for male approval despite discomfort is typical of compulsory heterosexuality.

Ultimately, Jane chooses Mr. Rochester not for her own passion, but for his. This narrative speaks to the fact that what empowers straight women does not necessarily empower sapphic women—to champion their abusive relationship as a feminist love story is shallow and misleading. Marrying Mr. Rochester, despite his abusive and manipulative tactics, isn’t empowering; Jane’s ‘choice’ is the lesser of two evils, replicating the lesbian experience of trying to mimic heterosexuality.

While it is impossible to determine for sure, Charlotte Brontë herself may have been sapphic. Her lesser-known novel, Shirley, is known for its sapphic undertones. In letters written to her best friend, Ellen Nussey, Brontë asked her to permanently live with her, adding in a PS: “I am afraid of caring too much for you.” When Vita Sackville-West, the lover of 20th century author Virginia Woolf, read them in 1926, she described them as “love letters, pure and simple.”

As Wilder describes, authors sometimes leave “bread crumbs” for readers who share their experiences. Jane Eyre may mimic a straight love story, but with a deeper lens, Jane’s feelings of “entrapment” and being caged speak more towards the experiences of lesbians.