ane Eyre resided in an asylum established for the poor or orphaned genteel females destined to become a governess. It was a school for the destitute, controlled by the very rich. That is the way orphan asylums worked. The wealthy would contribute to the institutions, perhaps in an effort to receive good publicity and put their ample funds into a sound investment. Newspapers, like the Illustrated London News, published articles portraying the joyous asylum festivities which occurred when a large group of contributors got together to show the poor orphans a good time. An anonymous article in the Illustrated London News 17 (November 9, 1850), gives a special asylum event full-page attention. Entitled, "Merchant Seaman's Orphan Asylum," the story extols the virtues of all the doctors and businessmen who have provided the orphan masses with an evening of fireworks. "On Tuesday, the committee of this excellent charity assisted by their able and persevering friend, Captain J. Warren, provided for the subscribers and friends of the Institution a most brilliant display of fireworks, which brought together a galaxy of fashion and beauty. A considerable number of clergymen, medical gentlemen, and members of the legal profession were also present; with several gentlemen connected with the shipping interests honouring the ground with their presence, forming on the whole, an assemblage rarely witnessed on such an occasion."
The story describes all the men who organized the event, but gives little mention to the orphans. Perhaps that is because the whole point of the contributors organizing this spectacle was to have themselves seen and known as men of charity. At least in Jane Eyre, only greed would have motivated the orphanage sponsors.
An ink illustration takes up half the large page, picturing groups of patrons mingling and hoards of orphans standing against the black sky, supposed in awe of the beautiful fireworks. Such a display probably would not have cheered the young child Jane Eyre and her Lowood friends. 'soon after five P.M. we had another meal, consisting of a small mug of coffee, and half a slice of brown bread. I devoured my bread and drank my coffee with relish; but I should have been glad of as much more - I was still hungry," Jane explains, recounting one of many hungry days at the asylum (p. 45). It is hard to imagine Jane, standing in the midst of an explosion of colorful fireworks, laughing and cheering. How would she find the energy to jump for joy when the hunger pangs in her stomach probably urge her to lie down? It seems the more noble thing for the contributors in Jane Eyre to do with their money would be to prepare a daily banquet of good food for the young children they claim to support.
There were so many children without homes due to adult disease and sheer poverty. "No skill could protect a man from sickness, old age or premature death. . .There might be local charities, if an old man, an old woman or an orphan child could get a nomination. There were
institutions. . .which struggled with the flood of neglected children" (W.J. Reader, Life in Victorian England) . So, there were thousands of children in distress, and the ones who could gain shelter in orphan asylums were doubtless considered very lucky in deed. These facts make an article, like the one about the lovely fireworks, acceptable. The public probably read it and did not think past the party atmosphere, allowing their minds to wander down the halls of a dingy dining hall which served bread as a main course. The story's flaws include a biased report of the cheery attitude in the air and the fine men gracing the evening ground with their presence. Since we cannot go back in a time machine, it is impossible to know whether or not these children, staring up at lights which read "God Protect Our Orphans," felt protected or not.
It is tempting to conclude that the financers, whose full names were cited in the article, contributed to the institution primarily to create a good name for themselves in their upper class communities. "The members of the Ladies' Committee graced the ground with their presence; and the following members of the Gentlemen's Committee with their usual kindness and attention, presided over the festivities: G.S. Clarke. . ." The article, which lists a total of thirteen men in attendance, conjures up the thought of the wall outside Lowood institution. It reads, "This portion was rebuilt A.D. --, by Naomi Brocklehurst, of Brocklehurst Hall, in this county." Lines from St. Matthew also adorn the wall, advising passers by to let their lights shine. Imagine Brocklehurst admiring this tribute to his family name, just the same way the nonfictional contributors must have read their names out loud when the news article was printed.
"The grounds were illuminated with variegated lamps; and, after the fireworks, coloured fires were burnt occasionally. The children witnessed the display; and, in their healthy countenances, evidenced the delight they experienced." The article provides this creative information right before mentioning the patrons' names. Searching through the 1850 collection of news articles, it was difficult to find a story which gave an honest yet tragic portrayal of orphan asylums. I settled for an extremely pleasant piece about some Victorian orphans celebrating with their patrons. Had Jane Eyre been at a fireworks display with Helen at her side, it is doubtful the girls' countenances would have conveyed euphoria.
[Initial "J" based on an image from by Edmund J. Sullivan's illustrated edition of Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus, London: George Bell, 1898.]
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