In Jane Eyre, much of Adèle's dialogue is in French. I don't know French, but most of what Adèle says isn't particularly important, so I haven't had any trouble understanding or enjoying the book.

But it does make me wonder: did Charlotte Brontë expect her readers to know French? Or did she expect them to not understand Adèle but follow along anyway (like I have)?

2 Answers 2


For a long time, the classical languages Latin and Greek were major subjects in English schools. Mai Osawa, using Colin Shrosbee's Public Schools and Private Education (Manchester University Press, 1988) as a source, writes that "the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars reinforced the importance of national languages as an expression of patriotism." This led to the introduction of new subjects, including modern languages. Osawa writes,

From the end of the eighteenth century, boys started to learn modern languages like French and German as important subjects in the public or grammar schools. It is natural that the English characters in The Professor graduated from public schools or grammar schools can read, speak and write French.

Osawa also adds,

On the other hand, the French language in British girls' schools was more significant than in boys' schools.

Apparently, Charlotte Brontë loved the French language: at the age of 16, she wrote a letter in French to her friend Ellen Nussey. In 1842, Charlotte and Emily travelled to Brussels, where they could improve their French while working as teachers. In Charlotte's third novel Villette, the main character travels to the fictional French-speaking city of Villette to teach at a girls' school; this idea was based on the author's own experience.

For this reason, it is not surprising that we find French in all of Charlotte Bronẗ́ë's novels, especially in Villette. According to the blog Charlotte Brontë’s Love Of The French Language,

Her publisher George Smith begged her to allow the use of translated passages after her French ones, but Charlotte stood firm and insisted on French only in the passages she had so written.

Rightly or wrongly, it seems that Charlotte Brontë expected her readers to know French. Her publisher apparently disagreed.


In the 19th century French was the lingua franca in Europe, more so than English.

Anyone with aspirations to go on the Grand Tour would certainly know it. The state of literacy in Britain at the time was such that anyone educated enough to be able to read would have at least a smattering of French.

So it is not unreasonable for her to expect that her target readership would be able to follow some French dialogue.

  • 4
    Can you justify the claim that "anyone educated enough to be able to read would have at least a smattering of French"? (Literacy in England was about 50% at the time Jane Eyre was published.) Apr 1, 2022 at 9:55

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.