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. (There are many character and structural parallels among the Bronte sisters' works). 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 psychological abuse from the school's ultimate overseer, 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 (32 degrees F.). 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. But it is Mr. Rochester who sells the tale to English teachers the world over. It truly is a story of a school girl, who wants her sister back.
By Sarah Bahl