Childhood in Jane Eyre

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.

They were real pioneers I think in presenting childhood experience to the world, so if you look at earlier novels, say Jane Austen, for example, children aren't very important to that at all, but suddenly in the mid-19th century, there is suddenly a whole string of important novels with children absolutely at their centre.  Oliver Twist is one, Wuthering Heights is another – you think how important the early childhood years of Heathcliff and Cathy are. David Copperfield is another, then Great Expectations, but really Jane Eyre has the most important role of all of those because it's really the first time you get someone narrating, not from, not by a child, but from a child's point of view or from a child's perspective and bringing you so close to what it feels like to be a child and she immediately influences, say, Dickens, who then goes to write David Copperfield, so it's enormously influential. It's like a whole terrain of human experience that comes through into the novel through Jane Eyre, so earlier romantic writers, like Wordsworth or Blake that bring poetry thinking about the child and valuing the child's experience, but Jane Eyre has a unique importance in bringing that to the novel.

Now their own childhood was in some ways, unique, like no other childhood really and also very unhappy because their mother dies when they were very young, their elder siblings die and they then get sent to this terrible school, which is the basis for Jane's account of her childhood in Jane Eyre and it must have been a very difficult time for both of them and there was the threat of death was imminent there, but also the whole understanding of childhood, of Carus Wilson who was the head teacher, was so different from those romantic ideas, of the child being someone who should be fostered and helped to grow, so that Evangelical Christians in this period felt that children were intrinsically sinful and that it was important to break their will early on and so Carus Wilson writes, for example, a set of little stories, Child's First Tales and they are very scary and they're meant to be scary. They are about children who are hanged, or sent to jail, or who are punished and there is a constant emphasis on suffering and on early death.

This is actually a book would be in use at school at that time. It is written by Reverend Carus Wilson and it is dated 1836 and they are full of quite grim stories, intended to frighten children into good behaviour, so we get terrible accounts of the punishments that were inflicted on naughty children and these are illustrated like these gruesome little woodcuts and children who are struck down dead for telling a lie. Punishments for things that we would consider quite, well, not really terribly serious nowadays, so the book ends with quite a distressing story called ‘Mother dead’, with an illustration and it's two poor girls whose mother has died and the big girl takes the sheet off the face to have one more look and the least girl cries at the foot of the bed and she can't look up. They have lost their best friend and the story goes on to say, ‘my dear child, have you a mother? Thank God that he spares her to you. These poor girls did not know how dear their mother was till she was gone. They may have been bad girls, they may have made their poor mother’s heart ache and if so, they would say “Oh if she would but come again, I think I'd vex her so no more." Mind my dear child who reads this tale, do not vex your mother. If God takes her from you, it may be in his wrath.’ So this is the kind of distressing story that was being doled out to these very young children. Quite, quite disturbing stuff on whatever the situation at Cowan Bridge and whether it really was the basis for Lowood, I think these books tell you really all you need to know.

Their father, Patrick Brontë, goes away and comes back with some toy soldiers for them and the children are very very excited by this and they write little accounts of them and then those 12 soldiers, they give names to them and start to create biographies for them. They then start to create a world in which they live. They create little magazines about them called The Twelves they're called and from these toy soldiers they create, they populate a world really. They create a whole country in Africa and then it shows the way that play can mutates or changes into fiction for them and that the two are so closely bound together and that I think is one of the reasons why they're such uniquely creative authors, why they can make such a huge difference to what the novel is, because they seem to have this, this kind of tap root back into very early childhood experiences without inhibition, so they can tap all those quite primal emotions and feelings and fantasies and at the same time, give them adult control and discipline and shape.

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