Jane Eyre and the rebellious child
Professor John Bowen and Ann Dinsdale discuss the childhood writings and experiences of the Brontë sisters, exploring how these shaped their later writing in novels such as Jane Eyre. Filmed at the Brontë Parsonage, Haworth.
I am glad you are no relation of mine: I will never call you aunt again as long as I live. I will never come to see you when I am grown up; and if any one asks me how I liked you, and how you treated me, I will say the very thought of you makes me sick, and that you treated me with miserable cruelty. (ch. 4)
When Jane Eyre was published in 1847, it introduced a new voice to the world – a passionate, angry and defiant child. There were many passionate children in the moral instruction books designed for children in the early decades of the 19th century, but in these cases, they were examples of bad or sinful behaviour. Such children had to mend their ways, or suffer a terrible fate. In the case of Jane Eyre, however, Charlotte Brontë clearly expected her readers to be on the side of her defiant child as she stands up to adult tyranny.
Fair copy manuscript of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre
Page from the original manuscript of Jane Eyre, 1847, featuring a conversation between Jane, Mr Brocklehurst and Aunt Reed about Jane's behaviour.View images from this item (11)
Passion and disobedienceJane Eyre was one of the first novels that set out to explore what it feels like to be a child: unlike Charles Dickens’s slightly earlier work, Oliver Twist (1838), it is recounted by the heroine herself, supposedly in adulthood, but with all the intensity of immediate experience. On the very first page we learn that Jane is set apart from her cousins by her aunt who wants her to acquire ‘a more sociable and child-like disposition’. Her aunt clearly has in mind the sort of child depicted in the instruction books for children such as Ellen, or the Naughty Girl Reclaimed (1811) , a picture book with a cut-out dunce’s cap. Here a naughty child, who throws away her schoolbook, learns to control herself and to become a quiet, obedient daughter, who is ‘anxious her dear mamma to please’. Another example, from Flowers of Instruction (1820), shows an angry child who is jealously attacking her little sister or brother, but learns from her mother to control ‘passion’s angry storm’. Children who did not control themselves could descend, it was warned, into a life of crime, or even worse, medical books suggested, into complete mania in adulthood.
Flowers of Instruction
The children’s book Flowers of Instruction (1820) depicts an angry child who jealously attacks her siblings, but learns from her mother to control ‘passion’s angry storm’.View images from this item (4)
Lowood and the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan BridgeWhen Jane is sent away to school by her aunt, she hopes her life will improve, but she is mistaken. Lowood Institution is partly based on the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge, which Charlotte Brontë attended with her older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, and younger sister Emily, in 1824-25. Maria and Elizabeth died of consumption, contracted at the school, and there was also an outbreak of typhus while Charlotte was there, which clearly helped to colour her memories of Cowan Bridge. When the Reverend Brontë sent his daughters there, however, he had every reason to believe it would be a good school, and indeed it was not that different from other similar institutions. Lowood Institution, as depicted by Brontë, was harsh, but far removed from the dreadful Yorkshire school, Dotheboys Hall, in Dickens’s novel Nicholas Nickleby (1839). The dominating Mr Brocklehurst was partly based on the evangelical clergyman, the Reverend Carus Wilson, who ran Cowan Bridge. The ‘Child’s Guide’ Brocklehurst gives to Jane, which contained ‘an account of the awfully sudden death of Martha G---, a naughty child addicted to falsehood and deceit’ (ch. 4) is no doubt based on some of Carus Wilson’s own publications, either Child’s First Tales (1836), or his magazine, The Children’s Friend, which both carried many tales of children who were struck down dead if they flew into a passion, or told lies. Brocklehurst makes Jane stand on a stool in front of the class and orders her classmates to shun her because she is a liar. The novelist Elizabeth Sewell recalls how, at her school in the 1820s, girls who told a lie were made to stand in a black gown with a picture of a liar’s tongue round their neck. (Sewell, Autobiography, 1907, pp. 13-14) The main idea behind these harsh measures was that if the body was punished, the soul could be saved. In Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë challenges these notions, and instead offers a deeply sympathetic portrayal of a rebellious child, which helped to transform Victorian attitudes to the child.
The Friendly Visitor, written by the Brontë sisters's headmaster
This book by the Brontës' headmaster tells numerous tales of children who are struck down dead after flying into a passion or telling lies.View images from this item (4)