Jane Eyre’s Childhood – At Gateshead and Lowood

When the novel, Jane Eyre, begins, Jane is a child of ten. We are at once made to realize that her life so far has not been that of a normal child. In the third paragraph of Chapter I, we are told that Jane’s aunt and guardian, Mrs. Reed, deliberately keeps Jane at a distance from her cousins. The members of the Reed family never allow Jane to forget that she is a dependent. Jack Reed even grudges her the simple pleasure of reading. Before he hits Jane with the book she has been reading, he shouts at 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 gentlemen’s children like us, and eat the same meals we do, and wear clothes at our mamma’s expense,” (Jane Eyre, chapter 1).

Such reproaches are familiar to Jane; as she says,

“This reproach of my dependence had become a vague sing-song in my ear; very painful and crushing, but only half intelligible,” (Jane Eyre, chapter 2).

The reason why Jane is not humiliated by these insults is that in spirit she is very independent This is her great strength as well as the reason for her acute unhappiness at Gateshead Hall. She is completely out of sympathy with the atmosphere there; not able to give her love to anyone there, nor loved by anyone except, in certain moods, by Bessie. In some moments of depression, such as when she is locked up in the red room as a punishment, she even begins to believe that she may be as wicked as all at Gateshead believe her to be. All kinds of strange and terrifying thoughts arise in her mind; in the darkness of the red room she construes a ray of light as a vision of another world and lets out such a scream that the entire household rushes to the door. But even the terror of the frightened child does not move Mrs. Reed to pity; it is only when Jane faints that she is removed to her own bedroom.

While at Gateshead, the only happy moments that Jane knows are in the company of books. Here, there is no doubt, Charlotte Brontë is using memories of her own childhood when she and her sisters and brother used to conjure up a world of make-believe through reading. It is significant that the first of Jane’s books is Bewick’s History of British Birds. By certain passages in the introductory pages, she is carried in imagination to distant countries, with their eternal frost and snow, in the Arctic Zone. This is the kind of book that would appeal to any child, but one of the other books read by her, Goldsmith’s History of Rome, is not. By such reading, Jane is able to learn about the times of Roman emperors like Nero and Caligula and some of the cruel sports encouraged and enjoyed by them. This is the kind of knowledge, totally beyond the mental range of her cousins, which enables her to make her points effectively in her quarrels with them. Her intellectual superiority is established from the beginning of the novel.

However, Charlotte Brontë has taken care to remind us that, in spite of her independent spirit and her unusual reading, Jane at Gateshead is, after all, a child. She is spell-bound, like any other child, with Bessie’s narration of passages of love and adventure from old fairy tales and old folk songs. Her mind is full of local superstitions and, as she tells the doctor, Mr. Lloyd, what made her ill was being shut up in a room, where there was a ghost, till after dark. Having been fed on Bessie’s stories, she had come to believe that the ghost of her dead uncle haunts the red room. This was what made the experience of being shut up there an unforgettable example of her aunt’s cruelty. It is as an escape from this that the idea of going to school is attractive to her;

“School would be a complete change, it implied a long journey, an entire separation from Gateshead, an entrance into a new life,”(Jane Eyre, chapter 3).

A new life, is, to Jane, a life on this earth; she is not willing to accept the morbid view of Mr. Brocklehurst that, at the young age, she should concentrate her thoughts on the life to come after death. When he interviews her as a candidate for Lowood school he asks her: What should she do to avoid burning in the pits of hell? At once comes her characteristic answer:

“I must keep in good health and not die,”(Jane Eyre, chapter 4).

Whatever may be her sufferings she never loses her love of life; it is this which, later in life, makes her reject the marriage proposal of St. John Rivers.

Even before Jane has left Gateshead for Lowood, it seems that Mrs. Reed is trying to ensure that her new life should be no happier than the old. In addition to her other cruelties, she attributes to Jane the character of a deceitful person in the presence of Mr. Brocklehurst. This is a burden that Jane carries from Gateshead to Lowood; it is only after strenuous effort on her part that her character is cleared of this stigma. Moreover, she has to fight against the humiliation, disguised as the Christian virtue of humility which Mr. Brocklehurst announces to be the creed of Lowood. That she will fight against it is clear from the nature of her farewell to Mrs. Reed. Cut to the quick by her accusation of being deceitful, she cries out passionately:

“I am not deceitful: if I were, I should say I loved you; but I declare I do not love you: … 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 anyone asks me how I like you, and how you treated me, I will say the very thought of you makes me sick, and that you treated me with miserable cruelt,.” (Jane Eyre, chapter 4).

The justice and violence of her attack frightens Mrs. Reed; she feels guilty in the presence of this child whom she has deeply wronged. Jane sees this and at least for a short time, enjoys her moral triumph.

Charlotte Brontë is, however, not a sentimental novelist. She does not pretend that Mrs. Reed’s attitude towards Jane changes now or later. Eight years later Jane returns to the bedside of the dying Mrs. Reed, willing to forget her earlier vows. Jane comes to Gateshead after the warmth and dignity of life with Mr. Rochester at Thornfield. Mrs. Reed can do her no harm and in her pity for the sick and miserable woman, Jane is willing to forget and forgive. But Mrs. Reed cannot overcome her hatred of Jane even at this time. John Reed and Mrs. Reed, the two chief tormentors of Jane at Gateshead, die, but this does not make Gateshead any more congenial than it was in her childhood. She is as glad to leave it for Thornfield as she had once been to leave it for Lowood.

Jane leaves for Lowood on a cold January morning, entrusted to the care of the guard of the coach in which she travels. Her arrival there, with all signs of starvation and discomfort around her, is no more cheerful. The only hopeful sign is the appearance of Miss Temple, who represents the best of what Jane is to get from Lowood. Soon, she also makes the acquaintance of Helen Burns. The means of introduction is characteristic: it is because she finds Helen reading Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas that Jane is attracted towards her. Both Miss Temple and Helen act as tranquilizing influences on Jane. In them, for the first time in her life, she meets persons who are intellectually superior to her, and from them she learns to accept the stiff discipline of Lowood. This was not easy for her, as she says,

My first quarter at Lowood seemed an age, and not the golden age either; it comprised an irksome struggle with difficulties in habituating myself to new rules and unwanted tasks. The fear of failure in these points harassed me worse than the physical hardships of my lot, though these were no trifles,”(Jane Eyre, chapter 7).

Jane had hated and challenged Mr. Brocklehurst when he first appeared in her life at Gateshead. At Lowood, she has cause to hate him even more, as she sees the contrast between the pampered luxury in which his own daughters are brought up and the degradation and ugliness that he imposes on the students at Lowood. Jane’s nature is an instinctively aristocratic one, in spite of the fact that she has been a dependent all her life. What her spirit longs for is beauty, intelligence, love and these are exactly the things that Mr. Brocklehurst does not allow at Lowood. Even Helen feels that Jane thinks too much of the love of human beings; and this remains the essential nature of Jane to the end of the novel.

Tea in the rooms of Miss Temple is for Jane one of her memorable experiences at Lowood. It is not only the company of Miss Temple and Helen which makes it so; there is also the beauty and graciousness which Jane has been longing for. “How pretty, to my eyes, did the china cups and bright teapot look, placed on the little round table near the fire! How fragrant was the steam of the beverage and the scent of the toast,” (Jane Eyre, chapter 8). This feast for the eyes and the tongue is followed by an intellectual feast as Jane listens, in rapt attention, to the conversation between Miss Temple and Helen Burns, on subjects she has never heard of. It is thus that a desire for greater knowledge is created in her. When Miss Temple has found out from Mr. Lloyd that Mrs. Reed and Mr. Brocklehurst’s charge of deceitfulness against Jane is false, she declares this to the whole school. A great cloud is removed from the life of Jane; she genuinely begins to feel that she would not exchange Lowood with all its privations for Gateshead and its daily luxuries.

With the coming of Spring, Jane discovers the beauty of the natural landscape at Lowood. Always fond of being by herself, she roams about and explores these regions. She has unlimited opportunities for doing this when classes are suspended after the outbreak of an epidemic of typhus. Helen Burns, always sickly, is also stricken. Jane, though still a child, has courage enough to steal to the deathbed of her friend in the dead of night and to spend the night in trying to comfort her. But Helen dies; Jane proceeds immediately to tell us of the public outcry against the conditions at Lowood. This leads to drastic reform and improvement and Jane spends eight years there in an active and useful manner. During the last two years she remains as a teacher; a training which is helpful to her in later life at Morton.

The focus of Jane’s life, after the death of Helen, is Miss Temple. The day she leaves, it becomes impossible for Jane to continue there. As she says:

From the day she left I was no longer the same: with her was gone every settled feeling, every association that had made Lowood in some degree a home to me.”(Jane Eyre, chapter 10).

More than this she becomes aware that her independent and adventurous spirit, so long controlled by the influence of Miss Temple, is beginning to assert itself.

“My world had for some years been in Lowood: my experience had been of its rules and systems; now I remembered that the real world was wide and that a varied field of hopes and fears, of sensations and excitements, awaited those who had the courage to go forth into its expanse, to seek real knowledge of life amidst its perils,” (Jane Eyre, chapter 10).

In one afternoon, Jane grows from a dependent girl into an independent woman. “I desired liberty; for liberty I gasped; for liberty I uttered a prayer,” (Jane Eyre, chapter 10). With the advantage of her education, there was an opening for her: as a governess in a well-to-do family. Her application accepted, her luggage ready for her departure to Thornfield, Jane is surprised to receive a visitor from Gateshead. It is, of course, not one of her cousins but the Servant Bessie. The greatest compliment that she can pay to Jane is to say that she looks like a lady; her ability to draw and paint is also a sign of the same thing. What is more Bessie brings her news of her uncle from Maderia who came to Gateshead to meet her. It certainly seems that Jane leaves Lowood with much brighter prospects in life than when she left Gateshead.

Mrs. Q. D. Leavis, writes: “Jane Eyre moves from stage to stage of Jane’s development, divided into four sharply distinct phases with their suggestive names: childhood at Gateshead; girlhood, which is schooling in both senses, at Lowood; adolescence at Thornfield; maturity at Marsh End, winding up with fulfilment in marriage at Ferndean. Each move leaves behind the phase and therefore the setting and characters which supplied that step in the demonstration.”

It may be added that each stage in Jane’s life is an essential link in the chain of her development which is remarkably consistent and credible. Never in the novel does the reader feel that Jane is behaving in a way that is unexpected or uncharacteristic. From Gateshead to Ferndean, she is all of a piece.

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