Nineteenth-Century authors didn’t beat around the bush when naming characters or settings in their novels. Both the name and the character, Jane Eyre is as plain as vanilla, or Jane. However, she has an insightful eye for seeing through people and for guiding her in the direction she needs to go. As I noted in my last Litchattte discussion, she has an internal eye or a moral compass. Perhaps most important for Jane’s education, is her attendance at Lowood School for about six years as a student, and then two years as a teacher. The name, Lowood, certainly gives readers an indication that the school exemplifies the lowest standards and is much less desirable than anything made of vanilla. The low and damp wood around the school grounds is later attributed to an outbreak and epidemic of typhoid fever, which subsequently killed several students, made over half sick, and cleared out any of the students who had any relatives or anyone who cared if they lived or died. Although she ultimately receives an education making herself worthy to be a governess of a wealthy landowner, the most relevant education she receives at the institution are imparted through her positive and negative experiences dealing with individuals and adverse situations.
Much of Jane Eyre is based on Charlotte Bronte’s life. Lowood is drawn from Bronte’s experiences at Cowan Bridge School in Lancashire England, a school and home established for the children of poor clergymen. See Creative Commons photo of surviving residence buildings at the site. Jane and her sisters were sent there because their clergyman father had limited means and was a widower. In the Barnes and Noble Introduction to Jane Eyre, Susan Ostrov Weisser writes it “was a place of harsh daily regimes, unhealthy conditions, and unrelenting deprivation. Its educational mission was to serve female students of poor families “who had few prospects for future.” The curriculum was based stringent “self-denial and unquestioning submission” to the authorities and maintaining the established English hierarchal social order. Reverend Carus-Wilson, the Director, when Charlotte attended, said that the girls “should be schooled in strict religious and moral principles to save their souls (xvi).
As I discussed previously in Litchatte, Jane Eyre was sent away to institutional living and schooling by her Aunt Reed because she challenged her authority and refused to submit to being mistreated, neglected, and beaten by her children. The name, Reed, does not evoke a character who will worth much more than a stick in the mud. Before she left home, Jane was interviewed by the school’s director, treasurer, and religious leader, Mr. Brocklehurst. Aunt Reed lies to him about Jane, saying that she was a belligerent and unappreciated child, but who was well cared for and loved in her home. Per Jane, even though she was an orphan, she wished to be valued as an equal in the Reed house. Orphans, even those who were relatives of high society families, had little standing in nineteenth-century England; the Reed home exemplifies the attitudes of the privileged gentry of the nineteenth century. Mr. Brocklehurst assures Mrs. Reed, who is most likely a donor of that charitable institution, that he will warn all of the staff, teachers, and students to shun Jane until she has reformed. Lowood is located on the grounds of the Brocklehurst Intuition, which was founded and funded by Mr. Brocklehurst’s mother. The name Brocklehurst also does inspire confidence. It suggests a character who is broken, or who strives to keep the girls in a tight buckle of social servitude to the upper class. In the book, he preaches the word of the Bible but is deceitful and devoid of compassion for the girls at the school named after his family. The name “Hurst” suggests someone who puts a hurt on people or sends them away in a hearse. At Bronte’s school, Charlotte’s sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, were sent home with advanced cases of typhoid in 1835 and died shortly after arriving back home from the institution. See a photo of a plaque commemorating their grave site below (attributed to Creative Commons). With their father’s poor financial situation, it is doubtful that they ever got the benefit of going to their funerals in a fashionable hearse. Charlotte’s surviving sister, Emily, wrote the acclaimed book Wuthering Heights, in 1847, the same year that Charlotte published Jane Eyre. Speaking of setting names, Wuthering Heights suggests a paradox between a setting that was at one time exemplary but now withering, or in decline.
Shortly after Jane reaches Lowood, she is met by one of the school’s antagonist, Miss Scatchard, who most of the girls try to avoid due to the harsh and unfair treatment she doles out. When I think of an almost comparable character in literature, Head-Nurse Ratched of Ken Kesey’s excellent novel and movie, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, comes to my mind. I wonder if Kesey read Jane Eyre, and if his character, Ratched, is inspired by Scatchard? They sure have a similar ominous sound. Scatchard sounds very sketchy and it’s obvious that Ratched is going to be a deplorable person. And we are correct on both presumptions! Fortunately for Jane, Scatchard is not nearly as powerful as Ratched, or she would likely be just as dangerous. See a picture of Ratched as depicted in the movie. See image in featured Litchatte Blog image.
The closest and most important friend that Jane meets at Lowood is Helen Burns. Helen is introduced in the story with a cough and first found by Jane reading, Rasselas. The book is by the eighteenth-century British author, Samuel Johnson. It is a tragic romantic drama, which endeavors to teach about the value of self-denial. Helen is intent at considering how her life might be improved in the afterlife. She accepts, without protesting, the interminable and cruel punishment that Miss Scatchard imposes on her, and thus establishes another type of role model for Jane. Helen even proposes that Jane should forgive Aunt Reed even though she agrees that Jane has mistreated. At that time, however, this suggestion was impossible for Jane to consider. However, in later years, she remembers Helen’s advice and attempts an unsuccessful reconciliation before her aunt dies. In Helen’s view of life, every form of punishment and cruel treatment she receives is justified because it points out her faults and gives her the chance to improve. From the position of Eastern religions, like Buddhism or Hinduism, which influenced the thinking of many nineteenth-century English and American authors, Helen is burning her karma very fast. Her father refuses to allow her to come home even after she is sick and that there is a known epidemic at the school. The only reason given is that her mother has died and her father remarried. Such situations give us a verification of the low status of females during that period. Even though Helen wasn’t fully an orphan, she was treated like one by her father because her mother had died. Ironically when Brocklehurst accuses Jane of being an evil person, one of his allegations is that she is a “Hindooist.” Although Jane is drawn close to Helen in her short life and after she dies of tuberculosis, it is hard for her to fully accept Helen’s philosophy. However, Helen’s powerful influence over Jane is evident when readers infer, fifteen years after her death, that she has placed a stone at her fiend’s previously unmarked gravesite, with the word, “Resurgum,” on it, which means, in Latin, I will rise again.
At Lowood, Jane is fortunate to find that the school’s director, Miss Temple, becomes her advocate. The Director finds out the truth about the situation between Jane and Aunt Reed and informs the girls and teachers that Jane was mistreated at home, thus restoring her good reputation at the school. This revelation, along with her order to replace a breakfast of gruel that is too burnt to eat, with some nourishing food, puts her in direct opposition to Brocklehurst. With a name like Temple, she is the embodiment of the optimum female role model to Jane: She is educated, carries herself with dignity, fair, and exemplifies a woman who both preaches the Christian gospel and practices what she preaches. Jane learns much from Miss Temple about how to reach a sensible balance between standing for her principles and yielding to authority when it is necessary. Jane needs all of the academic, social, and situational skills to deal with the many challenges that she faces after she moves on from Lowood to the house that she lives at and becomes a governess for at Thornfield. That name is also an interesting and ironic because it suggests that it will be an environment where there will be many trials (the thorns). But where there are fields of thorns, there are also may be many roses. Perhaps, I will discuss Jane’s continuing education and some other intriguing name and character choices in a future column. In my opinion, the book Jane Eyre does not need another extensive critique, other than to say that it is a near picture perfect snapshot of nineteenth-century society at its best and worst. The writing is as fluid, and its plot as thought-provoking and relevant today as any book that was published in the nineteenth century.
Murray Ellison received a Master’s in Education at Temple University (1973), a Master’s of Arts in English Literature at VCU (2015), and a Doctorate in Education at Virginia Tech in 1987. He is married and has three adult employed daughters. He retired as the Virginia Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Correctional Education in 2009. He is the founder and chief editor of the literary blog, www.LitChatte.com. He is an editor for the “Correctional Education Magazine,” and editing a book of poetry, soon to be published written by Indian mystic, Shambhuvasanda. He also serves as a board member, volunteer tour guide, poetry judge, and all-around helper at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond Virginia. He teaches literature classes at the Osher Program at the University of Richmond. You can write to Murray here or at firstname.lastname@example.org