Welcome to another session of the Jane Eyre Book Club and Society of Passionate Charlotte Bronte Fans.
Here are some fascinating, scintillating facts I'm learning from reading Elizabeth Gaskell's The Life of Charlotte Bronte. I find them so intriguing that I simply must share. You just might find them slightly interesting too. And if not...well, pardon me. But it's my blog and this is what I'm writing about today.
As I mentioned in my other post, the Lowood School in the book Jane Eyre was the thinly disguised boarding school that Charlotte Bronte and her sisters attended, called Cowan Bridge. What I just learned though is that the angelic character in Jane Eyre, Helen Burns, a patient, pious girl who was persecuted cruelly by a teacher at the school and who later died of an illness there during an epidemic, was faithfully and lovingly written by Charlotte based on her own sister Maria and her experiences there! Her sister also was treated cruelly by a teacher (on whom she modeled nasty Miss Scatcherd in Jane Eyre) and Maria suffered with tuberculosis and died too. The kind teacher in Jane Eyre, Miss Temple, was also a real person as well as the pompous headmaster.
The most touching scene in the book, to me, is when Helen Burns lies in her deathbed and has a conversation with Jane who has sneaked up to see her before she dies. Helen faces death with a mature confidence and faith, while Jane, childlike, asks "Where is God? How can we get to Him? Will we know the way?" To know that Charlotte Bronte was thinking of her own sister's death when she wrote this makes it even more moving.
When the book was published by the anonymous author Currer Bell, the former students of Cowan Bridge recognized the school, the teachers and Maria Bronte. Gaskell says, Not a word of that part of Jane Eyre but is a literal repetition of scenes between the pupil and the teacher. Those who had been pupils at the same time knew who must have written the book from the force with which Helen Burns' sufferings are described. They had, before that, recognized the description of the sweet dignity and benevolence of Miss Temple as only a just tribute to the merits of one whom all that knew her appear to hold in honour; but when Miss Scatcherd was held up to opprobrium they also recognized the writer of Jane Eyre an unconsciously avenging sister of the sufferer.
I can only imagine the talk and the scandal that must have ensued when this book was published. Jane Eyre had scenes written as a picture of living people, but disguised as fiction, and pretty much exposing the abuses of a public institution and its employees. To their credit, in later years Cowan Bridge school made vast improvements and when Elizabeth Gaskell visited it while researching the biography, she found it well-kept and the children healthy and bright. (Charlotte Bronte also reflected this in Jane Eyre when the Lowood school conditions were shown to improve after the epidemic and when Jane became a teacher there herself.) There were many who came to the defense of Cowan Bridge school and its headmaster which gives light also to the perspective of the school that Charlotte Bronte had as an author. She wrote from her childhood memories which were formed with a child's perspective, not knowing the full scope of the actions and motivations of the adults in her world.
That is all. Book Club....dismissed.