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THE  BRONTE  SISTERS                            23
Here we strike upon the keynote of Charlotte's work.
It is the respectable powerless, the poor genteel, the
'patient and persecuted stranger5 of noble integrity, whom
she always chooses as her protagonist. Spiritual integrity
holding its own against a purse-proud world, a matter
pressed upon the attention of the poor parson's daughter
by the Industrial Revolution, Is the invariable theme of
her work.
In Jane Eyre (1847), the most popular, as reading and
publishing statistics show, of all the Bronte novels, Charlotte
achieved a perfect fusion of realism and romance.
We first meet ugly, unhappy little Jane as the despised
orphan in the house of her uncle's widow. Hounded into
rebellion, she is packed off to a 'charity' boarding-school,
her career there queered in advance by her aunt's branding
her as a liar, A gentle schoolfellow, Helen Burns, befriends
her but soon dies, her latent consumption developed by the
harsh school discipline administered with especial rigour by
one of the mistresses. Jane sets herself to learn, qualifies
herself as teacher, advertises for a post and finds herself
governessing the little illegitimate French daughter of
Edward Fairfax Rochester in his country mansion, Thorn-
field. The master-pupil love relationship develops between
the farouche, dominant Rochester and Jane; her resolute
free spirit, her soul of fire, bring from him a proposal of
marriage, but at the very altar the wedding ceremony is
interrupted, and we discover the secret which has been skil-
fully hinted, that Thornfield harbours a mad woman who is
Rochester's wife. Implored to join her life to Rochester's
as his mistress, Jane resolutely refuses and leaves the house,
penniless. She wanders far away, is rescued by the Rivers
family and urged to marry the frigid St. John Rivers in
order to undertake missionary work at his side; almost she
consents, but as she ponders, Rochester's voice crying her
name resounds in her ears. She returns to Thornfield; it
is in ruins, destroyed by a fire started by the mad wife who
perished in the flames. In a secluded country house near by