Jane Eyre was published in 1847 by Charlotte Bronte and is perhaps one of the most celebrated works in English Literature today. This post will explore the novel Jane Eyre as a historical source, primarily during Jane’s childhood. For those readers who are unfamiliar with the novel towards the beginning Jane is an orphan living with her Aunt and her household in Georgian England. Soon enough Jane was sent to spend a considerable amount of time at Lowood School, a boarding school for orphaned girls. It was at this school that this post will be paying close attention to the conditions of this institution through health, sanctions and general day-to-day activities and its likeness to institutions at the time.
It is interesting to note that although by no means Charlotte Bronte was a historian, as a novelist she did shed light onto these issues. The novel itself can be considered as semi-autobiographical, particularly during Jane’s Lowood years as Charlotte herself was sent by her father to a school, Cowan Bridge. Cowan Bridge was a school that admitted daughters of clergyman. Charlotte herself made frequent comments about her time at the school and the poor conditions she and fellow students had to live with. Her two sisters Maria and Elizabeth Bronte both died at Cowan Bridge in 1825. In actual fact in the Jane Eyre she expressed these similar views within her writing of Lowood School.
In schools like Lowood, all across England disease was evident and became rife. Disease such as; Cholera, Typhoid, Dysentery and Tuberculosis (called Consumption before the 1820s) were common. Firstly I would like to draw attention to the character of Helen Burns, a fellow student at Lowood School who had befriended Jane who contracted Tuberculosis and died as a result. In the novel there was a Tuberculosis break out at Lowood and Helen died as a result of this disease. The conditions at Lowood no doubt help to explain why a disease like this would spread to the pupils so quickly. What do we know about Tuberculosis? We know it is a bacterial infection that affects the lungs and attacks respiratory system, in some cases symptoms are not always present but coughing (sometimes including blood), sneezing fits, fever and sweating. At an institution like Lowood if a disease like Tuberculous affected just one pupil it is easy to see how it would spread and cause death at an alarming rate. The girls were kept in damp, cramp and small rooms after hours with no proper facilities for sanitation. Disease like this thrive on these types of environment.
When applying Charlotte’s writing of disease to reality in nineteenth century Britain, there are many similarities. As with Lowood, Tuberculosis spread very fast in Britain and the death toll was high. In 1815 death due to Tuberculosis affected much of the population. Approximately one in four deaths occurred as a result of Tuberculosis. Again for similar reasons depicted by Charlotte in Jane Eyre the environment that people lived in was not ideal. An environment reminiscent of Lowood School and many cases some were even worse was a major factor as for why Tuberculosis was rife in Britain. The population was rising rapidly in the nineteenth century as living conditions did not. Too many people were living in cramped, poorly sanitised and ventilated conditions.
It is also important to remember that Charlotte Bronte was writing at a time when the spread of Tuberculosis in particular was not fully understood. As modern readers looking over Jane Eyre it is useful to note how accurate her knowledge of spread of disease affected the pupils at Lowood School, perhaps when she did not realise this knowledge herself. This could in a way be applied to what was happening in reality, when in actual fact there was very little understanding over it until later in the century. In a society that was predominately patriarchal it can be argued that Charlotte Bronte was a perceptive and curious woman, when it came to what was happening around her.