Written by Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre is a partly autobiographical account of her youth at Lowood, an all girls school based on Cowan Bridge, where the four eldest Bronte sisters attended beginning the year 1824. But, before we enter Lowood, let us begin at Gateshead, the estate home belonging to the widowed Mrs. Reed. Jane is the downtrodden niece to the Lady of the Lowood Estate, who has taken Jane in because her husband willed before his demise that Jane should become a full member of the Reed family, and brought up by Mrs. Reed as one of her own. The Lady adheres to her husband's will, but not his sentiment in the least.
Jane is diminutive and maintains a consistently watchful countenance. She is held captive by the family's sensibility of distaste toward her in everything she does and stands at grand odds to her cousins, including; Georgiana, with her golden curls and large blue eyes, epitomizing the standards of Victorian beauty. Then there is Eliza, who is of no unique mien, but is "headstrong and selfish," as well as John who, "no one thwarted, much less punished; though he twisted the necks of pigeons, killed the little pea-chicks, set the dogs at the sheep [and] called his mother 'old girl.' "
Miss Eyre is the daughter of a clergyman who married a wealthy Reed daughter much to the aghastment of her mother's friends and family. Both her parents died of typhus while she was about a year old, and she had lived with her aunt ever since.
Now, at the age of ten, Jane can read but has had little formal schooling. Her favorite world is that of The Arabian Nights and Gulliver's Travels, as she is told she can join the vicinity of the Reed's lives as a child to Mrs. Reed and a playmate to her children, once she accrues a more, "sociable and childlike disposition, a more attractive and sprightly manner."
It is a cold and rainy November evening when Jane has found a temporary repast upon a window seat, with a thick curtain drawn before her and the howling tempest of fall season weather to her back, upon the window pains. She has her world of Bewick's History of British Birds and is greatly enjoying the pictures, as her imagination fills in the crevices of unspoken wonderings, "the two ships becalmed on a torpid sea I believed to be marine phantoms."
Her respite is sharply cracked open by John, who searches out his cousin to bully her, saying to Eliza and Georgiana, " 'tell mamma she is run out into the rain-bad animal!' " But Jane was not in the rain, and asked, " 'What do you want?' " of the grand Master Reed. John tells her, " 'You have no business to take our books; you are a dependent, mamma says; you have no money; your father left you none; you ought to beg, and not live here with gentleman's children like us, and eat the same meals we do, and wear clothes at our mamma's expense. Now, I'll teach you to rummage my book shelves: for they are mine; all the house belongs to me, or will do in a few years. Go and stand by the door, out of the way of the mirror and the windows."
John, who is 14 years of age, positions his already brow beaten cousin to throw the book at her. He does not seem to read the books but utilizes them for physical ammunition. She hits her head against the door, from the strike of the volume, causing a cut that begins to bleed. He assails her further until she fights back and when she does, he cries out, " 'Rat! Rat!' "
The servants and Mrs. Reed come to the Master's protection, and Miss Eyre then hears, " 'Dear! Dear! What a fury to fly at Master John!
'Did ever anybody see such a picture of passion!' " coming from the servants.
She is locked away in the red-room, where the elder Master Reed breathed his last. There, she is told by Miss Abbot, " 'Say your prayers, Miss Eyre, when you are by yourself; for if you don't repent, something bad might be permitted to come down the chimney and fetch you away.' " Jane, is left with a bleeding head, alone in a large chamber, with thoughts of the boogeyman to comfort her. She becomes hysterical and quite ill from the combination of physical and psychological abuse.
An apothecary, Mr. Lloyd is called and begins to ask questions of how Jane's nerves ended up in such a frightful state in the first place. Bessie, her favorite servant, does not seem to know exactly how old Jane is, and under guesses by a couple of years, in stating the girl's age. Mr. Lloyd gazes at Jane, and after Bessie is excused for dinner, he sarcastically asks her why she possibly minds living in such a grand abode as the Reed's mansion. When she explains her treatment, he asks her if she would rather live with a poor family. Her answer to this, is an adamant, "no." Mr. Lloyd asks her then if she should rather like school. Her answer is, " 'I should indeed like to go to school."
And so, on the 19th of January, Jane begins her journey to Lowood. But not before she informs Mrs. Reed, how she will tell of her treatment by them to others. She holds Mrs. Reed's fear of death above the woman's head.
While at Lowood, Jane becomes acquainted with near starvation, freezing cold and the psychotic Mr. Brocklehurst, who treats any girl who is not rich as a sinner, and even a wanton slave. The food is ill prepared and served in portions too small for growing girls.
At Lowood Jane meets Helen Burns, who loves to read and is patiently objective toward her new found friend's curiosity, and who is also the one person Jane truly seems to love. They meet when Jane interrupts Helen's reading of Rasselas to ask her questions about Lowood and the people there. Her friend has a hollow cough and is uniquely removed of all circumstances that surround herself.
The girls troop through cold, as we have received in D.C. this past winter, but without indoor heating and limited time at fireplaces, as only hebdomadally on Sundays could they spend time at a lit hearth. There were also no boots, so snow would get in the girls' shoes, and no gloves. Sleeping two to a bed is probably what aided them in surviving the night, in a large dormitory room, where temperatures would fall below freezing. The smaller girls would suffer the most harshly, as the elder ones, who were usually larger, coerced the less sizable youngsters out of a place at the fireside as well as confiscated their already limited food rations.
Helen was a lover of books and of fine intellect though, was consistently humiliated for slatternly behavior, much of which was either invented by her bully of a school teacher, Miss. Scatcherd, or not her fault. For instance, her nails were unclean, but only because the water basins had frozen completely the night before. No one had a wash at all, that day.
Helen, based on Charlotte's elder sister Maria was among the many deaths to come in the spring. The mainstay of illnesses was of one wasting disease or another, including typhus and tuberculosis. There is no mention of a full bath for the girls, so when spring came, the girls already weakened by the winter became particularly susceptible to typhus.
Helen passes away, wasted, and looking forward to a heavenly reward of some sort. Jane withholds anger in her heart over the treatment of her only friend. (The name Helen Burns, could be symbolic of a burning torch for the author.) After the deaths of many of the Lowood students, a public scandal ensues and as a result, conditions improve dramatically to create a reasonable, even acclaimed institution.
Jane remains at Lowood, as a student then teacher, until she is 18 years of age. Then, she hires out as a governess, seeking a newer form of servitude. She is hired by Mrs. Fairfax, the head housekeeper of the mysterious Mr. Rochester's estate, to teach his ward, Adele. The conversations between Jane and Mr. Rochester are one note short of a trashy romance novel for the beach: " 'Who talks of cadeaux?' said he gruffly, 'did you expect a present, Miss Eyre? Are you fond of presents?' and he searched my face with eyes that were dark, irate, and piercing." In the event that we, dear reader, with yellowed vacant eyes and drooling lips, have yet to break the bone of the most cliched storyline in all of English literature, by which to suck its very marrow, then we have done so now with Jane Eyre. That storyline being one of a governess and how she manages to marry well.
Mr. Rochester is spoiled, sarcastic, cynical and a withholder of unusual as well as dark family secrets. Eventually, after a few misadventures, Jane marries Mr. Rochester. But not until she comes upon her own wealth of 20,000 pounds via inheritance, that she shares with a couple of new-found cousins, to give her a reasonable fortune of 5,000 pounds. Jane is still haunted by Helen Burns to the end, "Her grave is in Brocklebridge churchyard and for fifteen years after her death it was only covered by a grassy mound; but now a grey marble tablet marks the spot, inscribed with her name, and the word, 'Resurgam.' " The novel really is not a tale about a governess who falls in love as the Rochester character is far too cliched and outlandish, if not highly written of course. It truly is a story of a school girl, who wants her sister back.
By Sarah Bahl
Agnes Grey, by Anne Bronte, is a quintessential ode to upper middle class life. Agnes is one of two daughters born into the odd coupling of a spirited squire-man's daughter and a clergyman within the countryside of Northern England. "Of six children, my sister Mary and myself were the only two that survived the perils of infancy and early childhood."
Agnes continues to describe her childhood as one of protected sensibilities, as "father, mother and sister, all combined to spoil me - not by foolish indulgence to render me factious and ungovernable, but by ceaseless kindness..."
The glass globe of the Grey's family life is shattered, when Agnes's father, bent on securing a more formidable family fortune gives all the household income to a passing ship merchant, who promises to return to the family double the investment. Agnes must then leave her family encompassment of endless compassion, as she knows it, to protect herself and them in her father's financially related absence, because the family's fortunes had sunk into the ocean along with the merchant himself.
Agnes and her sister had spent many a happy hour traversing the moors; dreaming of what the riches could bring them. And when news of the sunken ship enters the family, Agnes's father, "was completely overwhelmed by the calamity." Her sister, Mary, is similar to the father and more of a moody and delicate nature. It is up to Agnes and her skill set to repair the family's station, or at least keep them from imploding toward the poorhouse, which was not uncommon to happen to families during the Victorian period.
So, Agnes begins the type of work befitting for an unusually well educated, as well as highly bright, middle class girl. She hires out as a governess and enters the world of psychological abuse according to the standards of creepy rich people. (No one captures psychological abuse quite like the Bronte sisters).
For the sake of exemplification, shall we begin with her less than lovely charge Tom and his equally deviant sister Mary Ann? " 'I observed, on the grass about his garden, certain apparatus of sticks and cord, and asked what they were.
'Traps for birds.'
'Why do you catch them?'
'Papa says they do harm.'
'And what do you do with them, when you catch them?'
'Different things. Sometimes I give them to the cat; sometimes I cut them in pieces with my penknife; but the next, I mean to roast alive.'
'And why do you mean to do such a horrible thing?'
'For two reasons; first to see how long it will live - and then, to see what it will taste like.' "
The parents of these odious beings insist they simply need a firmer governess, though Agnes is not allowed to discipline them. She is relieved of her post after several months with the family.
But she soon hires out again to the Murray family, with abilities to teach music, singing, drawing, French, Latin and German. She remains with the next family for years and is witness to their cold unfeeling world and all its wasteful sadnesses. Agnes is also given the conundrum of having to tutor children who hate to sit down to learn anything and recite Latin while staring out the window, not caring what anything they are learning about means. Agnes values education greatly and is forced to try to share her world with charges who have no sense of value nor attention span.
The two Murray daughters, Rosalie and Matilda, tell whatever lies they feel like to men interested in Agnes, as god forbid Agnes should have a man love her. But eventually Agnes does marry (after the Murray children are grown) and happily so. Her husband is not rich, but she and her husband are friends. They are also never in want and even have enough to put a little aside for the children every year.
By Sarah Bahl
Jane Austin's Persuasion (Penguin 1965 Edition) is a novel with quite the title of sarcasm. Like the Bronte Sisters, Austin withholds an inner flame for those objective souls, whose essence of such sensibility stems from oppression. Though Austin's main characters are not so browbeaten as The Bronte Sisters' are, it is probably because Austin was one class step above The Sisters and her writing reflects as much.
Anne Elliot, is the overlooked sibling and daughter to a Baron of frivolous spending habits. Her deceased mother loved her daughters and offset her husband's less than meritorious formulations of character with her more practical and exacting dimensions of personality. But upon her demise Anne was left adrift under the care of her father and Lady Russell, a good friend within the neighborhood of the family and a former confidant of the mother. Lady Russell and Sir Walter Elliot remain steadfast friends, her a widow and him a widower, yet never to marry to each other.
Lady Russell oversees much of the care of Sir Elliot's daughters, Anne and her sisters; Mary and Elizabeth. Anne being fourteen years of age upon her mother's demise and Elizabeth, sixteen years of age, and Mary at ten. Elizabeth, being of the age of a debuttante was considered quite handsome and akin to personality with her father, traits which heralded her influence to be of far more imbedded a fashion within family ranks than either of her sisters'.
Mary eventually attained a reasonably desired positioning for herself by becoming Mrs. Charles Musgrove, "but Anne, with an elegance of mind and sweetness of character, which must have placed her high with any people of real understanding, was nobody with either father or sister: her word had no weight; her convenience was always to give way; -she was only Anne." But to Lady Russell, only Anne held the spirit of her mother within her countenance and nature, or at least to a revivable quality.
Sir Walter's hopes of a gaining marriage, he left upon the shoulders of Elizabeth, as Anne, though of delicate features and dark, calm eyes; was different in proportion than himself, so he therefore allayed her as of lesser quality and of no consideration. And Mary, who had married a man of equitable match, Sir Walter deemed to be a wash out.
Elizabeth was quite in bloom at the age of nine and twenty. But a weariness regarding a lack of conjugal matters in her life began to take a toll as for, "thirteen years had seen her mistress of Kellynch Hall, presiding and directing with a self-possession and derision which could never have given her the idea of her being younger than she was. For thirteen years, she had been doing the honors..."
Upon Elizabeth's disappointments on the marriage front was added the burden of her father's financial conditioning, as the estate was still of solid founding but while, "Lady Elliot lived, there had been method, moderation, and economy, which had kept him within his income; but with her had died all such right-mindedness, and from that period he had been constantly exceeding it." Neither Elizabeth nor her father wanted to regain sound financial stature without losing a singular propensity for comfort and vanity that lay within the tides of their estate.
"Mr. Shepherd, a civil cautious lawyer," was also an agent of Sir Walter's and did not want to become involved, either personally or professionally with markdowns of the estate. So, he as graciously as possible, in order to lessen the ruffles of the tide, begged recommendation of Lady Russell to the cause, one she took on with alacrity and due diligence such as her sound yet not particularly speedy mind would find footing with.
Lady Russell also did what no one else thought to do. She consulted Anne, who quickly made whole hearted changes and extensions to Lady Russell's list of markdowns and reductions upon the estate with the interest in mind that a loss of a pair of horses was just as well as the loss of one horse to the vain sensibilities of Elizabeth and her father.
Next, came the question of what to do with the estate itself. The Elliot family regardless of any Baronetage could no longer afford to live there but must rent the place out while residing in less ornate quarters. Outings to London were out of the question.
Mr. Shepherd did not trust Sir Elliot to live in London, and Sir Elliot would not hear of living in a marked down state within the same neighborhood. Anne did not want to leave Kellynch entirely, but her opinion was overturned by Lady Russell who sided with Anne's father on the claim that it just simply would not do to live under such lessened circumstances within the same realm of property as untoward riches were once so conveyed.
It was decided Bath would be the place of residence for Anne's newly proportioned family. Sir Elliot, horrified at the very idea of publicly advertising Kellynch Hall as a rental space, agreed to word of mouth business accommodations with Navy officers who were to be grounded as the country was not at war. The Elliots rented to Admiral Croft and his weatherbeaten wife, much to the intrigue of Anne, who had once held an engagement to a very handsome young naval officer, Frederick Wentworth without fortune nor rank but a high minded sense of promise, that only furthered Lady Russell's dislike for him.
Lady Russell, who found idealistic optimism to be on par with insolence convinced Anne, the engagement was unpardonably without merit and Anne, unable to counterfault Lady Russell on any design, had to, at the age of nineteen, terminate the said union on the grounds she was of no sustainable element to Wentworth, and thereby to do him the favor. He in turn, no fool, felt not only the personal pain of a betrayal upon her terminating their agreement but the sense of being used by those already established, and due to the fraction Wentworth left the country.
Now several years later he is to return, a rich man along with his brother in law, to the estate of Kellynch. Wentworth seems self absorbed and snide, when speaking to his sister, who is Mrs. Croft, "Yes, here I am Sophia, quite ready to make a foolish match. Anybody between fifteen and thirty may have me for asking. A little beauty, and a few smiles, and a few compliments to the navy and I am a lost man. Should not this be enough for a sailor, who has had no society among women to make him nice?"
Interestingly enough, a black sheep son of the Musgroves had been a midshipman to Captain Wentworth, yet thankfully to all who knew him, died while abroad, and in one of the two letters he wrote to his family, described the captain of presence as, 'a fine dashing fellow, only two perticular about the school master.' Captain Wentworth is good enough to take a seat by the grieving Mrs. Musgrove at a party and disclose to her all the potential comforts a man of somewhat familiarity with her son possibly could, though no one of any particular claim ever felt for the fellow anything other than nonchalant remonstrance while he was still alive.
Captain Wentworth, despite being prior neglected in an estimation of character by Lady Russell and a want of determination in Anne, becomes a seal of protection among more than one financially floundering character in the novel. Anne's cousin wishes to marry her, and makes his intentions known by stating to Anne, at a theater event, how fond he is of her and how he wishes her last name never to change. Whether Austin is purposely making fun of cousins marrying is unknown but it was probably worded with the fullest calculated intent. Anne has no natural born feelings for her cousin and upon a report from her widowed friend, Mrs. Smith, that he had received his fortune by marrying for money, Anne had a means of not only disdain but of censure toward Mr. Elliot. Though, none of them married to be poor.
Captain Wentworth marries Anne, which takes little persuasion on his part, now that he has accumulated a fair amount of wealth to his name. And despite his, "Should not this be enough for a sailor" comments, he has a naturally protective heart and also aids in the keeping of the widowed Mrs. Smith.
By Sarah Bahl
Jane Austin's Mansfield Park brings to light the intricacies of family relations, including the inevitable closer of marriage as a fixture, a glue that may bind two people yet not necessarily bring them together. Austin's work contains little black humor as hers was not a writing of the Victorian era.
Dickens and the Bronte Sisters in particular are heralders of the hysterically dark, as what should make one weep, causes the opposite in an ever droll mocking of humanity. Austin's wit is as blunt as it is sophisticated and all of her subjects are drawn from her world view of life as part of the lower end of the upper class.
According to the system rankings at the time (Napoleonic Era) there was upper upper class, upper class, lower upper class, upper middle class, middle class, lower middle class and then the poor. Money and marriage are of utmost consideration for the upper classes, or at least in the world of Austin they are, and matches were based on a combination of income, education, beauty, family backing and naturally occurring preference. Austin is blunt about her world, beginning Mansfield Park with, "About thirty years ago, Miss Maria Ward, of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to capture Sir Thomas Bertram of Mansfield Park, in the country of Northampton, and to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronet's lady, with all the comforts and consequences of a handsome house and large income."
Miss Ward, became Lady Bertram and her two sisters, Miss Ward (why her first name is the same as her last, I don't know) and Miss Frances in being of equally fine make as their positively starred sibling, were thought to do just as well as she in meeting with conjugal felicity but such was not to be of final merit. For "there certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the world, as there are pretty women to deserve them."
Miss Ward to become Mrs. Norris, married a friend of Sir Thomas Bertram, who retained a limited fortune of just under a thousand pounds, awkwardly due to money being given to him by Sir Bertram to live at Mansfield. Frances, fared yet worse, "by fixing on a Lieutenant of Marines, without education, fortune or connexions." Sir Bertram was willing to grant a portion of his expansive income to aid in the comfortability of France's station; "but her husband's profession was such as no interest could reach; and before he had time to devise any other method of assisting them, an absolute breach between the sisters had taken place." And so Frances became Mrs. Price.
But as the years went by Mrs. Price's prolonged sensibility of pride and independence began to wane as her husband was discharged from active service, his income to qualify for equitable merit, yet continued with his social mores and penchant for liquor, with an ever expanding array of children to clothe and feed. Upon her ninth laying in, Mrs. Price decided, it was of no use to hold grudges as every contact was of an estimatable sort at this point in juncture.
A letter was dispatched to the Bertrams. Money, baby linens and letters were sent in turn. But it grew upon Mrs. Norris's conscious and curiosity that her sister should be so over burdened. Mrs. Norris strongly proposed that perhaps it would be of aid to take on Mrs. Price's eldest daughter as a ward of constant merit. Her novelty is backed by Lady Bertram who wishes for "the child" to be sent for immediately.
Sir Bertram doubted the proposal on the grounds that any ward, not brought up in exacting estimation among the social politics of immediate family would perhaps be best left within her original home. His argument is countered by a notion of Mrs. Norris's that it is better to have a daughter of Mrs. Price's at Mansfield, for then her growing up in poverty could only possibly cause Sir Bertram's own sons to fall in love with her, so it would be of increased positive venue to have her raised in wealth, to be considered a sister rather than maintain the charm of the cinderella cousin. Thus, it was agreed upon a child of Mrs. Price should be in the keeping of Mansfield Park. Mrs. Norris wrote to her sister of the matter, and was received by agreeable understanding that a daughter of hers would do well with a change of air though she was surprised at the choice of a girl. Interesting too, that Mrs. Norris should so breach upon the consideration of keeping a ward considering she and her husband were essentially indebted to Sir Bertram, by means of equivalent nature, themselves.
Fanny Price, aged ten, made her journey to Northampton and was met by Mrs. Norris to become the down trodden niece of Lady Bertram and her sister, who was without children. Fanny met her cousins, Julia of 12 years, and Maria who was just between the two in age. There are also, Edmund and Tom, the latter being of 17 years with Edmund, also in his teens but younger.
Fanny, rather than being exulted by the change of scene is despondent, for missing her siblings, her former household role as caretaker, and the familiarity as well as comfort of withholding a certain class and rank simply because one does not know of any other stance in life. Fanny is not as educated as her cousins and Lady Bertram is met with a fair barrage of comments, "Dear Mamma, only think, my cousin cannot tell the principal rivers in Russia - or she never heard of Asia Minor - or she does not know the difference between water-colors and crayons! - How strange! - Did you ever hear anything so stupid?"
And Lady Bertram with her ever present pug, reproves her daughters by telling them that no one should be as quick to learn as themselves, so they must learn the art of patience. Fanny, though of no prodigious make, is not nearly so stupid as her cousins would convey and is finely bright as she is. Edmund is Fanny's sole source of protection, by gently cultivating her interests in books and providing her a horse for exercise. It was decided by the aunts that Fanny can ride her cousins' horses when they were not using them, which they always were but Fanny was rescued from this delineation of rules, when Edmund simply stated, "Fanny must have a horse."
Fanny grows up to be the acknowledged lesser of the family, though unlike Jane Eyre she does not go out into the world as a governess. Her world is one of leisure that is temporarily broken when Sir Bertram, to the relief of the family, must journey away for business. Without the master head over seeing the household in direct right Edmund, Julia, Maria and neighbors begin the voyage of a play. Who is to take part of what role becomes the main political dynamic. Fanny, whose beaten down sensibilities are overly stringent at times, is horrified by the lax morals a play should bring to the household. Edmund, on the other hand, enjoys every moment of his employment. Sir Bertram returns before the play is quite done and all theatrical activities cease upon his arrival.
Fanny remains as part of the estate to eventually marry Edmund, though his first choice was the vivacious and blunt, Mary Crawford, of very distant relation. And she does so not first without breaking at least one heart, of qualified and perfectly passionate merit.
By Sarah Bahl
Larivière, Charles-Philippe. Portrait of Eugene Pamela Lariviere. c. 1804-1824. Louvre, Paris.