It may be inappropriate to begin a review of yet another novel about Charlotte Bronte by borrowing a turn of phrase from George Eliot--but why always Jane Eyre? Sheila Kohler's Becoming Jane Eyre, part of the most recent batch of Bronte biofics, inadvertently provokes this question when it dwells at such length on Bronte's time in Brussels, which--along with her teacher, Constantin Heger--inspired Villette. And yet, the novel details the crafting of Bronte's initial success, Jane Eyre, and not what her nineteenth-century readers thought her most brilliant work. Jane, as the title hints, is Bronte's secret double, not the chillier, appropriately-named Lucy Snowe, just as Jane's romance plot supposedly acts out Bronte's secret fantasies in a way that Lucy's broken, ambivalent end does not. In fact, Becoming Jane Eyre's rather abrupt ending suggests that Bronte's marriage to Arthur Bell Nicholls averted the impending Villette-ness of her life plot (although only insofar as Bronte could not, in the end, write her own conclusion). While the novel is hardly as aggressive about chasing romance conventions as either The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte or Jane Eyre's Daughter, it certainly glories in Jane Eyre's idealized vision of married life: although Bronte's marriage will be "all too brief," nevertheless she and her husband "will truly become of one flesh and one bone, as she has described in her masterpiece" (231). The imagined passion does, after all, come true, even if only for the most fleeting moment.
Becoming Jane Eyre tells its story in kaleidoscopic form, rotating between multiple points of view--the sisters, a nurse, publisher George Smith, Mrs. Smith, Tabby, Patrick Bronte. Patrick Bronte bookends the novel, roused by "the scratching of a pencil against a page" (3) at the beginning and, bereft, imagining that "he hears the sound of a pencil scratching" at the end (232). Although not the Gothic monster of Bronte biographical legend, Patrick nevertheless represents much of what Charlotte struggles against: the favoritism with which he treats Branwell and his oldest daughter, the domineering nature that traps them all in the house, his sexual brutality, his spiritual sterility. (Screams his dying wife, "Help me! Your words are not helping me" .) Sophia Lear comments that Kohler's men are all "unreliable, shallow creatures," but Arthur Bell Nicholls, who stands "howling at the gate" and "wrote her so many desperate letters, just like those she wrote to her teacher and her publisher" (230), manages to win Charlotte's heart by practically being Charlotte; the ideal man turns out to be the woman's emotional twin. There's a certain narcissism here that the novel doesn't question too closely, heightened by the total absence of Nicholls' own POV: not only does he double Charlotte, he winds up absorbed back into her consciousness.
Much of what the novel has to say about Jane Eyre has already been said. As is so often the case, Bronte's fiction turns out to be not just reimagined autobiography--and the novel's title already subordinates the "real" CB to her creation--but also direct transcription. Thus, Mrs. Reed's injunction that Jane acquire "a more sociable and child-like disposition" turns out to derive from Charlotte's employer, who complains that she really needs "a more sociable and cheerful disposition" (92). Kohler occasionally stops to tell us where CB is in the progress of her story, explicating whatever autobiographical connections Jane Eyre makes along the way; everything has some real-world correspondence, or serves as imaginative payback, or fulfills some wish. At times, the connections are inaccurate: for example, "[l]ike her Jane before her abortive wedding, Charlotte buys a flurry of new clothes" , except that the whole point of JE's shopping scene is that Rochester buys the clothes...and, Jane realizes, treats his future wife like an object. For some reason, Charlotte's religious faith is handled rather awkwardly, both acknowledged and forgotten for long stretches. (Kohler's handling of Charlotte's anti-Catholicism, on full blast in Villette but certainly obvious in Jane Eyre, is rather strange: she mentions it a couple of times, but also twice imagines Jane praying--first spontaneously, then again with greater intent--in front of "the image of the Virgin"  in the Heger's Pensionnat. Unless there's some extant documentation for this, the real Jane would probably be appalled.) The various Bronte personalities will be equally familiar to most readers, and even the hints that Charlotte was not altogether pleasant to be around have been dropped more trenchantly elsewhere, as in Mardi McConnochie's Bronte-esque Coldwater.
In the end, the problem with Becoming Jane Eyre is the same one that afflicts most biofictions: "mere" authorship is not enough; the author must have the psychological equivalent of his or her characters' passionate experiences. All novels are autobiographies, even if in redacted or inverted form. Who wants to admit that Anthony Trollope might have been right about authorship being a businesslike undertaking? We're interested in the Brontes because they wrote, but the act of writing is not interesting--especially on realist terms.