Jane Eyre: Critic [London] 30 Oct. 1847

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Rev. of Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontė. Critic [London] ns 6 (30 Oct. 1847): 277-8.

FICTION.

Jane Eyre; an Autobiography. Edited by CURRER BELL. In 3 vols. London, 1847. Smith, Elder, and Co.

Our readers will probably remember a volume of poems, the joint production of three brothers, BELL, which, albeit little noticed by our critical brethren, took our fancy so much, as seeming to be freighted with promise, that we dedicated several columns to a review, and, as we are informed, thereby contributed mainly to establish for the authors a reputation which we hope was something more than normal.

The performance before us, by one of the brothers, proves the justice of those anticipations. CURRER BELL can write prose as well as poetry. He has fertile invention, great power of description, and a happy faculty for conceiving and sketching character. Jane Eyre is a remarkable novel, in all respects very far indeed above the average of those which the literary journalist is doomed every season to peruse, and of which he can say nothing either in praise or condemnation, such is their tame monotony of mediocrity. It is a story of surpassing interest, riveting the attention from the very first chapter, and sustaining it by a copiousness of incident rare indeed in our modern English school of novelists, who seem to make it their endeavour to diffuse the smallest possible number of incidents over the largest possible number of pages. CURRER BELL has even gone rather into the opposite extreme, and the incidents of his story are, if any thing, too much crowded. But this is a fault which readers, at least, will readily pardon.

Jane Eyre is an orphan, dependant upon relations, who heap upon her all sorts of ill-treatment, until her spirit rebels instead of breaking, and as a punishment, or rather to be rid of her, she is sent to a Charitable Institution, whose wretched fare, exacting tyranny, puritanical pretension, and systematic hypocrisy are painted with a vividness which shews them to be no fiction, but a copy from the life, and it is evident that the author has aimed a well-directed blow at actually existing charities in more than one county, of which this one is a type.

When this sort of slow torture can be endured no longer, she seeks a situation as governess, and finds it in the house of a gentleman, who entrusts to her care his ward, as she is called, but who is, in fact, the child of an opera-dancer. There is exquisite delicacy in the drawing of this young creature: it is a perfect picture of a little girl, such as we do not know where to parallel in the whole range of literature—so rare it is to find childhood naturally depicted. If the author had done no more than this, he would have entitled himself to a high place among the novelists of his day. The mystery which attaches to Thornfield, so well preserved, is not so happily revealed. the dénouement is too abrupt, and there has been an evident effort to bring matters to a conclusion at a point prescribed rather by the printer than by the progress of the story.

This, however, is the consequence of our absurd three-volumed system, which compels improper curtailment as well as needless expansion. The character of Mr. Rochester is brought out with consummate skill, learned, as in real life, not by telling it but by shewing it, as events display the various features of his mind. Here the mystery is revealed, and the trials and troubles that follow thereupon, and the end of all, so entirely unexpected, and so different from the established usage of novelists, we leave the reader to explore, without marring the pleasure of the search by anticipating the plot. Among the personages most ably drawn are those who figure in the charity-school at Lowood, especially the patron, so pious and so hard-hearted, so firm in faith, so failing in worth, so good a Christian in precept, so bad an one in practice. The heroine also is very human—a woman and not an angel; on which account we feel all the more interested in her fortunes.

Being such, we can cordially recommend Jane Eyre to our readers, as a novel to be placed at the top of the list to be borrowed, and to the circulating-library keeper as one which he may with safety order. It is sure to be in demand.

One extract must suffice as a specimen, for it is a long one.

A CHARITY-SCHOOL

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 unwonted tasks. The fear of failure in these points harassed me worse than the physical hardships of my lot, though these were no trifles. During January, February, and part of March, the deep snows, and after their melting, the almost impassable roads prevented one stirring beyond the garden walks, except to go to church; but within these limits we had to pass an hour every day in the open air. Our clothing was insufficient to protect us from the severe cold: we had no boots, the snow got into our shoes and melted there; our ungloved hands became numbed and covered with chilblains, as were our feet: I remember well the distracting irritation I endured from this cause, every evening when my feet inflamed, and the torture of thrusting the swelled, raw, and stiff toes into my shoes in the morning. Then the scanty supply of food was distressing; with the keen appetites of growing children, we had scarcely sufficient to keep alive a delicate invalid. From this deficiency of nourishment resulted an abuse which pressed hardly on the younger pupils: whenever the famished great girls had an opportunity, they would coax or menace the little ones out of their portion. Many a time I have shared between two claimants the precious morsel of brown bread distributed at tea-time; and after relinquishing to a third half the contents of my mug of coffee, I have swallowed the remainder with an accompaniment of secret tears, forced from me by the exigency of hunger.

Sundays were dreary days in that wintry season. We had to walk two miles to Brocklebridge church, where our patron officiated. We set out cold, we arrived at church colder; during the morning service we became almost paralysed. It was too far to return to dinner, and an allowance of cold meat and bread, in the same penurious proportion observed in our ordinary meals, was served round between the services. At the close of the afternoon service, we returned by an exposed and hilly road, where the bitter winter wind, blowing over a range of snowy summits to the north, almost flayed the skin from our faces. I can remember Miss Temple walking lightly and rapidly along our drooping line, her plaid cloak which the frosty wind fluttered, gathered close about her, and encouraging us, by precept and example, to keep up our spirits, and march forward, as she said, "like stalwart soldiers." The other teachers, poor things, were generally themselves too much dejected to attempt the task of cheering others. How we longed for the light and heat of a blazing fire when we got back! But, to the little ones at least, this was denied: each hearth in the school-room was immediately surrounded by a double row of great girls, and behind them the younger children crowded in groups, wrapping their starved arms in their pinafores. A little solace came at tea-time in the shape of a double ration of bread—a whole, instead of a half-slice—with the delicious addition of a thin scrape of butter: it was the hebdomadal treat, to which we all looked forward from Sabbath to Sabbath. I generally contrived to reserve a moiety of this bounteous repast for myself, but the remainder I was invariably obliged to part with. The Sunday evening was spent in repeating, by heart, the Church Catechism, and the fifth, sixth, and seventh chapters of St. Matthew; and in listening to a long sermon, read by Miss Miller, whose irrepressible yawns attested her weariness. A frequent interlude of these performances was the enactment of the part of Eutychus by some half-dozen of little girls; who, overpowered with sleep, would fall down, if not out of the third loft, yet off the fourth form, and be taken up half dead. The remedy was to thrust them forward into the centre of the school-room, and oblige them to stand there till the sermon was finished. Sometimes their feet failed them, and they sank together in a heap; they were then propped up with the monitors' high stools. I have not yet alluded to the visits of Mr. Brocklehurst; and indeed that gentleman was from home during the greater part of the first month after my arrival—perhaps prolonging his stay with his friend the archdeacon: his absence was a relief to me. I need not say that I had my own reasons for dreading his coming; but come he did at last. One afternoon (I had then been three weeks at Lowood) as I was sitting with a slate in my hand, puzzling over a sum in long-division, my eyes raised in abstraction to the window, I caught sight of a figure just passing. I recognised almost instinctively that gaunt outline; and then, two minutes after, all the school, teachers included, rose en masse. It was not necessary for me to look up in order to ascertain whose entrance they thus greeted. A long stride measured the schoolroom, and presently beside Miss Temple, who herself had risen, stood the same black column which had frowned on me so ominously from the hearth-rug of Gateshead. I now glanced sideways at this piece of architecture. Yes, I was right; it was Mr. Brocklehurst, buttoned up in a surtout, and looking longer, narrower, and more rigid than ever.

Mr. Brocklehurst makes his appearance, and his minute meddling with the affairs of the school is very well described. We extract the conclusion of the scene:—

"Well, for once it may pass; but please not to let the circumstance occur two often: and there is another thing which surprises me; I find in settling accounts with the housekeeper, that a lunch, consisting of bread and cheese, has twice been served out during the past fortnight. How is this? I look over the regulations, and I find no such meal as lunch mentioned. Who introduced this innovation? and by what authority?" "I must be responsible for the circumstance, Sir," replied Miss Temple: "the breakfast was so ill prepared that the pupils could not possibly eat it, and I dared not allow them to remain fasting till dinner time." "Madam, allow me an instant. You are aware that my plan in bringing up these girls is, not to accustom them to habits of luxury and indulgence, but to render them hardy, patient, self-denying. Should any little accidental disappointment of the appetite occur, such as the spoiling of a meal, the under or the over-dressing of a dish, the incident ought not to be neutralized by replacing with something more delicate the comfort lost, thus pampering the body and obviating the aim of this institution; it ought to be improved to the spiritual edification of the pupils, by encouraging them to evince fortitude under the temporary privation. A brief address on these occasions would not be mistimed, wherein a judicious instructor would take the opportunity of referring to the sufferings of the primitive Christians; to the torments of martyrs; to the exhortations of our blessed Lord himself, calling upon his disciples to take up their cross and follow him; to his warnings that man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God; to his divine consolations, 'If ye suffer hunger or thirst for my sake, happy are ye.' Oh, Madam, when you put bread and cheese, instead of burnt porridge into these children's mouths, you may indeed feed their vile bodies, but you little think how you starve their immortal souls!"

Mr. Brocklehurst again paused, perhaps overcome by his feelings. Miss Temple had looked down when he first began to speak to her, but she now gazed straight before her; and her face, naturally pale as marble, appeared to be assuming also the coldness and fixity of that material: especially her mouth closed as if it would have required a sculptor's chisel to open it, and her brow settled gradually into petrified severity. Meantime, Mr. Brocklehurst, standing on the hearth, with his hands behind his back, majestically surveyed the whole school. Suddenly his eye gave a blink, as if it had met something that either dazzled or shocked its pupil; turning, he said, in more rapid accents than he had hitherto used:—"Miss Temple, Miss Temple, what—what is that girl with curled hair? Red hair, ma'am, curled—curled all over!" And extending his cane, he pointed to the awful object, his hand shaking as he did so. "It is Julia Severn," replied Miss Temple, very quietly. "Julia Severn, ma'am! And why has she, or any other, curled hair? Why, in defiance of every precept and principle of this house, does she conform to the world so openly—here, in an evangelical charitable establishment—as to wear her hair in one mass of curls?" "Julia's hair curls naturally," returned Miss Temple still more quietly. "Naturally! Yes; but we are not to conform to nature: I wish these girls to be the children of grace; and why that abundance? I have again and again intimated that I desire the hair to be arranged closely, modestly, plainly. Miss Temple, that girl's hair must be cut off entirely; I will send a barber to-morrow: and I see others who have far too much of the excrescence. That tall girl—tell her to turn round. Tell all the first form to rise up and direct their faces to the wall." Miss Temple passed her handkerchief over her lips, as if to smooth away the involuntary smile that curled them; she gave the order, however, and when the first class could take in what was required of them, they obeyed. Leaning a little back on my bench, I could see the looks and grimaces with which they commented on this manoeuvre; it was a pity Mr. Brocklehurst could not see them too; he would perhaps have felt that, whatever he might do with the outside of the cup and platter, the inside was further beyond his interference than he imagined. He scrutinised the reverse of these living medals some five minutes—then pronounced sentence. These words fell like the knell of doom:—"All those top-knots must be cut off." Miss Temple seemed to remonstrate. "Madam," he pursued, "I have a Master to serve whose kingdom is not of this world: my mission is to mortify in these girls the lusts of the flesh; to teach them to clothe themselves with shame-facedness and sobriety, not with braided hair and costly apparel; and each of the young persons before us has a string of hair twisted in plaits which vanity itself might have woven: these, I repeat, must be cut off. Think of the time wasted, of ——." Mr. Brocklehurst was here interrupted; three other visitors (ladies) now entered the room.

 


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