When Jane Eyre arrives at Lowood School, she encounters a brand of institutional authority more harsh and unforgiving than even that to which she was accustomed from her time at Gateshead Hall. Even before Jane herself draws the ire of her overseers, the paltry rations, sparse accommodations, and strict disciplining of her fellow students, in whom she sees no apparent flaws, impresses on her the school's attitude toward the students as totally subordinate to authority. On Jane's second day at Lowood, Helen Burns, the first student with whom Jane develops a relationship, receives harsh treatment at the hands of Miss Scatcherd. The event perplexes Jane, who found no flaw in Helen's behavior, and she inquires into Helen's response to her punishment after class:

"No! why should I? I was sent to Lowood to get an education; and it would be of no use going away until I have attained that object."

"But that teacher, Miss Scatcherd, is so cruel to you?"

"Cruel? Not at all! She is severe: she dislikes my faults."

"And if I were in your place I should dislike her; I should resist her. If she struck me with that rod, I should get it from her hand; I should break it under her nose."

"Probably you would do nothing of the sort: but if you did, Mr. Brocklehurst would expel you from the school; that would be a great grief to your relations. It is far better to endure patiently a smart which nobody feels but yourself, than to commit a hasty action whose evil consequences will extend to all connected with you; and besides, the Bible bids us return good for evil."

"But then it seems disgraceful to be flogged, and to be sent to stand in the middle of a room full of people; and you are such a great girl: I am far younger than you, and I could not bear it."

"Yet it would be your duty to bear it, if you could not avoid it: it is weak and silly to say you cannot bear what it is your fate to be required to bear."

I heard her with wonder: I could not comprehend this doctrine of endurance; and still less could I understand or sympathise with the forbearance she expressed for her chastiser. Still I felt that Helen Burns considered things by a light invisible to my eyes. I suspected she might be right and I wrong; but I would not ponder the matter deeply; like Felix, I put it off to a more convenient season.

"You say you have faults, Helen: what are they? To me you seem very good."

"Then learn from me, not to judge by appearances: I am, as Miss Scatcherd said, slatternly; I seldom put, and never keep, things, in order; I am careless; I forget rules; I read when I should learn my lessons; I have no method; and sometimes I say, like you, I cannot bear to be subjected to systematic arrangements. This is all very provoking to Miss Scatcherd, who is naturally neat, punctual, and particular."

"And cross and cruel," I added; but Helen Burns would not admit my addition: she kept silence.

"Is Miss Temple as severe to you as Miss Scatcherd?"

At the utterance of Miss Temple's name, a soft smile flitted over her grave face.

"Miss Temple is full of goodness; it pains her to be severe to any one, even the worst in the school: she sees my errors, and tells me of them gently; and, if I do anything worthy of praise, she gives me my meed liberally. One strong proof of my wretchedly defective nature is, that even her expostulations, so mild, so rational, have not influence to cure me of my faults; and even her praise, though I value it most highly, cannot stimulate me to continued care and foresight."

Helen has thoroughly internalized the notion that she is inherently and irreparably flawed, and this leads her to justify her own harsh treatment. To Jane, Helen seems "very good," yet Helen believes her very "nature" to be "wretchedly defective," implying that her flaws cannot be repaired; she can only guard against them by increased discipline. Jane's ongoing struggle with "institutions" and their authority is compounded by the pervasive social value of submission, as evidenced by Helen in this passage.

Questions

1. What specific religious, philosophical, or political texts informed the wording of Helen's beliefs about human flaws, particularly those of women? Was "slatternly" a buzz-word from a specific, well-known text on the subject?

2. How representative was this sort of draconian discipline of charity schools at the time of Brontë's writing?

3. What was the contemporary understanding of the purpose of discipline, if students were taught to believe that their faults could not be cured?

4. To what extent is Jane's reaction to Miss Scatcherd's style of discipline unusual? Is it particularly unusual for girls? Is this why Helen incurs the specialized, gendered description of "slatternliness?"


Victorian Overview Charlotte Bronte Jane Eyre

Last modified 25 January 2009