In the preface to Jane Eyre, Charlotte BrontÃÂ« (writing as Currer Bell) explains her reasons for dedicating her book to W. M. Thackeray, the author of Vanity Fair. Apparently, the main reason for this was: "because I regard him as the first social regenerator of the day, as the master of the working corps who would restore to rectitude the warped system of things."
We thus see that Charlotte saw the value of a novel as being in its capacity to influence opinion and effect social change. In reading Jane Eyre we can see that she aimed to do this in her own novel as well. We also see that the nature and placement of the characters in it (especially Jane) and the particular way they are created in our minds, is, in many ways, for this particular purpose.
Jane Eyre was published in 1847, at the height of the 'infamous' Victorian Era.
It was an age of science and industrial revolution, of empire and of Darwin. And yet Victorian society was one in which the numbers of domestic servants exceeded those of labourers in any other industry and women had a completely different standing to men under the law. Charlotte's life at this point had been taken up with studying and teaching at various establishments as well as an unsuccessful couple of years as a governess. Her issue - springing as it must, from experience - was thus with the status of women in society, especially those with intelligence and learning, but without beauty or money, ie. teachers and governesses like herself.
Jane Eyre, her heroine must thus be plain and poor and a governess. According to society's values however, this was a paradox, an impossibility. Her sister's had once defended their beautiful heroines, saying it was impossible...