Book Characters – Their Origins and Inspirations
This is the second in a series of four blogs where I will reveal the fruits of more than one year’s research into Charlotte Bronte’s most famous work – Jane Eyre. Although originally published in three volumes I have identified four key sections in this book. The second section moves the story to a new locality and a new building as Jane Eyre takes a another journey, this time to her first school called Lowood. This blog covers events in Chapters 5-10 inclusive.
Illustration: Cowan Bridge School for poor Clergymen’s daughters as it was in 1824 when Charlotte and her sisters were pupils. Note the small gardens and verandah, both described in Jane Eyre. Also note the two bay windows as you will see these again in photographs taken in March 2017.
Chapter 5 opens with Jane Eyre leaving Gateshead Hall just before six in the morning of 19th January ( we are not told the year) wearing her pelisse and bonnet and with a shawl wrapped around her She climbs on board a stage coach. It was a fifty mile journey with a stop made in a large town to change the horses and allow the passengers time to eat. The town is identified as L- ( Leeds?) As the journey nears its end the scenery changes..
“ I began to feel that we were getting very far indeed from Gateshead: we ceased to pass through towns; the country changed; great grey hills heaved up round the horizon: as twilight deepened, we descended a valley, dark with wood”
Jane finally arrives at her destination where she is met by a woman of around twenty nine years. She asks Jane a few questions and then places her in the care of Miss Miller an under teacher. She takes through the building until they teach a large room where she first comes across her fellow pupils..
“Seen by the dim light of the dips, their number to me appeared countless, though not in reality exceeding eighty; they were uniformly dressed in brown stuff frocks of quaint fashion, and long holland pinafores.”
She spends her first night in an upstairs dormitory sleeping in the same bed as Mrs Miller. The following morning they are marched downstairs two by two into the schoolroom where the girls are formed into four classes according to age. Miss Miller teaches the youngest children including Jane Eyre. The other three classes are taken by the Upper Teachers. The day begins with an hour of bible and scripture readings. When a bell rings it is time to go into the refectory .a long room with a low ceiling and two long tables. Jane’s first meal a school is not to her liking – burnt porridge but she takes time to observe the teachers
“Silence!” ejaculated a voice; not that of Miss Miller, but one of the upper teachers, a little and dark personage, smartly dressed, but of somewhat morose aspect, who installed herself at the top of one table, while a more buxom lady presided at the other. I looked in vain for her I had first seen the night before; she was not visible: Miss Miller occupied the foot of the table where I sat, and a strange, foreign-looking, elderly lady, the French teacher, as I afterwards found, took the corresponding seat at the other board.”
Back in the school room Jane takes time to look around at the other girls and the teachers..
“I was still looking at them, and also at intervals examining the teachers–none of whom precisely pleased me; for the stout one was a little coarse, the dark one not a little fierce, the foreigner harsh and grotesque, and Miss Miller, poor thing! looked purple, weather-beaten, and over-worked”
The school has 80 pupils on roll ranging from very young girls to young women. All are wearing the same clothes..
“Ranged on benches down the sides of the room, the eighty girls sat motionless and erect; a quaint assemblage they appeared, all with plain locks combed from their faces, not a curl visible; in brown dresses, made high and surrounded by a narrow tucker about the throat, with little pockets of holland (shaped something like a Highlander’s purse) tied in front of their frocks, and destined to serve the purpose of a work-bag: all, too, wearing woollen stockings and country-made shoes, fastened with brass buckles. Above twenty of those clad in this costume were full-grown girls, or rather young women; it suited them ill, and gave an air of oddity even to the prettiest.”
The young woman Jane had met on the first evening finally appears..
“Seen now, in broad daylight, she looked tall, fair, and shapely; brown eyes with a benignant light in their irids, and a fine pencilling of long lashes round, relieved the whiteness of her large front; on each of her temples her hair, of a very dark brown, was clustered in round curls, according to the fashion of those times, when neither smooth bands nor long ringlets were in vogue; her dress, also in the mode of the day, was of purple cloth, relieved by a sort of Spanish trimming of black velvet; gold watch (watches were not so common then as now) shone at her girdle. Let the reader add, to complete the picture, refined features; a complexion, if pale, clear; and a stately air and carriage, and he will have, at least, as clearly as words can give it, a correct idea of the exterior of Miss Temple–Maria Temple, as I afterwards saw the name written in a prayer-book intrusted to me to carry to church.”.
There are four teachers at Lowood School when Jane first arrives, a fifth one we meet in Chapter 10
- Miss Temple, the Superintendent and senior teacher and the lady who meets her arrival
- Miss Scratcherd. She is described as small with black hair, smartly dressed but with a morose aspect.
- Miss Smith. Described and being buxom with red cheeks
- Madame Pierrot – a strange looking elderly lady who teaches French
- Miss Gryshe – she was a heavy Welshwoman who snored a lot
Jane takes a liking to the senior teacher and notes her acts of kindness. Miss Temple takes Jane and Helen Burns into her private room and feeds them some of her own cake when the housekeeper Mrs Harden refuses to send more bread. In Chapter 10 we find she leaves the school to be married.
“Miss Temple, through all changes, had thus far continued superintendent of the seminary: to her instruction I owed the best part of my acquirements; her friendship and society had been my continual solace; she had stood me in the stead of mother, governess, and, latterly, companion. At this period she married, removed with her husband (a clergyman, an excellent man, almost worthy of such a wife) to a distant county, and consequently was lost to me” …..“But destiny, in the shape of the Rev. Mr. Nasmyth, came between me and Miss Temple:”
There can be no doubt that Miss Temple is clearly based on a real teacher at Charlotte Bronte’s first school. Her identity was hinted at but not revealed in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Biography of CB. She was certainly identified by an impeccable source : A B Nicholls became involved in an angry letter exchange where he was defending the honour of his wife who was of course CB .This took place in the columns of the Halifax Guardian in 1857. Maria Temple was clearly based on the very real Miss Ann Evans. In real life Miss Evans does leave the school to marry a clergyman and travel to a distant County. Not only that but Miss Evans married her suitor The Rev J Connor in Tunstall Church on 6 July 1826 and then left for a new life in Melton Mowbray ( please see next section for more information about Tunstall church and the part it played in Jane Eyre.) CB portrayed Miss Temple as the good and kind teacher at Lowood School and evidently thought highly of her.
Miss Scratcherd is also based on a very real teacher at Charlotte Bronte’s first school. She too was identified by A B Nicholls. Her real name was Miss Andrews. She was believed to be one of the letter writers supporting Carus Wilson in 1857 trying to discredit the way Charlotte Bronte has portrayed her old school. She wrote under the initials A.H. CB portrayed Miss Scratcherd as a cruel bully who picked on particular pupils and dished out unfair treatment. Through the Helen Burns character she revealed the way her older sister Maria was humiliated and badly treated by a teacher she clearly thought little of.
Other school staff
- Mr Brocklehurst the Founder, Principal and Treasurer of Lowood School
- Mrs Harden the Housekeeper
I commented upon the original or inspiration of the Mr Brocklehurst character in my first blog. He was clearly based on the Rev Carus Wilson who founded a real school for poor clergymen’s daughters at Cowan Bridge. He appears briefly in this second section but interestingly his attention and anger is drawn to two small girls, Jane Eyre and Julia Severn.. More of these two soon. The housekeeper is named as Mrs Harden. It seems she was hard by name and hard by nature. Certainly Jane Eyre has a very low opinion of her,
“Mrs. Harden, be it observed, was the housekeeper: a woman after Mr.Brocklehurst’s own heart, made up of equal parts of whalebone and iron”
After extensive research I believe I may have found the original or inspiration for this character. When Miss Ann Evans left the school her position of Superintendent was taken by a Miss or Mrs Susan Harben, a close friend of Carus Wilson. She remained at the school until 1843. Was Mrs Harden the very real Mrs Harben?
Only a few of the many pupils are mentioned by name
- Helen Burns – an older girl from Northumberland who is Jane’s first and best She is constantly bullied by Miss Scratcherd and sadly becomes ill and dies. Like Jane she likes to read books
- Julia Severn – she attracts the attention and wrath of Mr Brocklehurst for the crime of having curly hair
- Mary Ann Wilson – another friend and another older girl
Jane’s friend Helen Burns warns her that Miss Scratchered can be hasty. She quickly leans to be wary of this teacher..
“I saw the girl with whom I had conversed in the verandah dismissed in disgrace by Miss Scratcherd from a history class, and sent to stand in the middle of the large schoolroom.”
Of the eighty pupils recorded as on the school roll only three are actually named in the story. The one main pupil character other than Jane Eyre is Helen Burns, an older girl of thirteen years who is constantly in trouble with Miss Scratcherd. She explains where she comes from,
“Sometimes I think I am in Northumberland, and that the noises I hear round me are the bubbling of a little brook which runs through Deepden, near our house”
In the real world Charlotte Bronte was at school with a girl from Northumberland named Mary Thompson and it is possible she was one of the inspirations for this character. That said the main inspiration or original for Helen Burns is said to be to none other than Maria Bronte, Charlotte’s eldest sister and a precocious child. Maria like Helen Burns was subject to unfair treatment by one particular member of staff at her school. It seems certain that the Helen Burns character is a composite of Maria Bronte plus another older girl, one who befriended Charlotte Bronte at her real school so that could be Mary Thompson. In the first Biography of Charlotte Bronte an older girl by the name of Mellany Hane is mentioned as a friend by Elizabeth Gaskell and another possible inspiration for this character. In a research visit to Tunstall Church in March 2017 I discovered a list of girls attending school with the Bronte sisters. Sadly Mellany Hane did not feature in the list. In Jane Eyre Helen Burns contracts an illness and sadly dies. In the real world her elder sister Maria contracted tuberculosis and also dies when she is taken home from the school by her father. A final thought on the real identity of Helen Burns. CB was clearly fascinated by words and by initials in names. Was she at school with a real girl with the initials HB? The amazing answer is YES! There was a girl from Suffolk named Hannah Bicker and she had a younger sister too so was likely to be older that CB who was one of the youngest anyway.
Julia Severn is the only other named girl at this school to be chastised and humiliated apart from Jane Eyre and Helen Burns. Like Jane she is picked on by Mr Brocklehurst. Her crime? Having curly hair – which Mr Brocklehurst demands must be cut off. My research has turned up a theory that Julia Severn is based on none other than Elizabeth Bronte, Charlotte’s second oldest sister. The link is made because of the surname – a river name, and the theory goes that those with river or water related surnames are all people in CB’s own family. This would fit with Helen Burns too – a burn is a Scottish term for a small river. It is interesting to note that the only three named girls who are humiliated and punished are also the girls with “River” names. And before you ask who is the third? Jane Eyre sounds phonetically like Jane Aire… and the River Aire runs through Keighley a small town often visited by CB and close to Haworth.
Another friend in the book is Mary Ann Wilson, another girl some years older. Here we see the use of the name Mary. CB had two best friends in real life and one was called Mary Taylor. Another pupil at school with CB may have been the inspiration for an unnamed character, a monitor so one of the older ones..
“…..presently came up,exclaiming in a strong Cumberland accent–Helen Burns, if you don’t go and put your drawer in order, and fold up your work this minute, I’ll tell Miss Scatcherd to come and look at it!”
Mary and Margaret Watson were the only real pupils listed at Tunstall Church as coming from Cumberland so its just possible one of these girls was the inspiration for the unnamed Cumberland girl..
Locality and Buildings
Photograph 1: This building is now known as “Bronte Cottages”. It was originally Cowan Bridge School for Poor Clergymen’s daughters from 1824-1833. Note the bay window visible and there is another to the left and compare with the illustration above. This was the scene in March 2017. Today the old school is being used for holiday lets. Yes you can stay in Charlotte Bronte’s old school!
There can be no doubt that Lowood school is based on the school at Cowan Bridge established by Rev Carus Wilson for poor clergymen’s daughters. The original house was constructed as a dwelling in 1770 for a gentleman named Christopher Picard. But in 1824 it was purchased and extended by a wealthy evangelical clergyman and landowner named William Carus Wilson. In the old image adjoining this text its possible to see the original row of cottages that stand to this day. To the left is a small bobbin mill which was adapted and used as part of the school but is now gone The small garden plots mentioned in Jane Eyre are visible as is the verandah where children would seek shelter on inclement days. At the back of this view is an extension parallel with the road on two floors. Upstairs was a dormitory for all the girls plus a bed chamber for one teacher. Downstairs was the single classroom. The row of cottages and the extension for schoolroom and dormitory exist to this day.
Photograph 2: This view shows the extension specially built to create a school at this site. Upstairs was the dormitory where Charlotte Bronte slept two to a tiny wooden bed. Downstairs was used as a classroom.
Here are some quotations from the book.
“The new part, containing the schoolroom and dormitory, was lit by mullioned and latticed windows,which gave it a church-like aspect;” ( see modern image above- the newer extension is to the right. Also note the two bays have mullioned windows!)
“I went to my window, opened it, and looked out. There were the two wings of the building; there was the garden; there were the skirts of Lowood” ( both wings visible above)
“The garden was a wide inclosure, surrounded with walls so high as to exclude every glimpse of prospect; a covered verandah ran down one side and broad walks bordered a middle space divided into scores of little beds: these beds were assigned as gardens for pupils to cultivate, and each bed had an owner.”
Photograph 3: A plaque on the wall of the north extension records the Bronte connection with this school. It is NOT strictly accurate. Little Emily barely 5 years old actually went to a smaller school, possibly a nursery in a nearby village. Maria, Elizabeth and Charlotte however were once pupils in the schoolroom behind this wall.
This is the home of the wealthy Mr Brocklehurst his wife and children, Theodore, Broughton and Naomi. In reality Mr Brocklehurst aka Rev Carus Wilson actually lived at the nearby Casterton Hall which is on the outskirts of Kirkby Lonsdale and is about two miles distant. Here are some more quotes from the book….
“Mr. Brocklehurst buys all our food and all our clothes.”
“Does he live here?”
“No–two miles off, at a large hall “
Photograph 4. Casterton Hall in March 2017, once owned by Carus Wilson
Casterton Hall also stands to this day. Cowan Bridge School closed down in the 1830s and the school moved to Casterton Hall. It is most clearly the original for Brocklehurst Hall and is indeed about two miles away from Lowood School aka Cowan Bridge
Every Sunday come rain or shine all the girls at Lowood School were marched off to attend two services at Brocklebridge Church. There was not time to return for lunch and come back so they had to wait for hours in a building with no heating and consume a cold lunch made of the week’s leftovers.
“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.
Photograph 5: This is Tunstall Church where the young Charlotte Bronte visited every Sunday during her stay at Cowan Bridge. It is also the church where Miss Ann Evans aka Miss Maria Temple was married. Carus Wilson was also Vicar here for many years. There is an excellent Bronte display in this church which provides many facts and figures about Cowan Bridge school, including pupil names and details of the girl’s uniform.
In reality the children were walked to nearby Tunstall Church which also still remains and is well worth visiting. I arrived on a cold but bright day in late March 2017. I can confirm it is still a cold building! This location is also where one of the real teachers from Cowan Bridge was married.
The nearest town is referred to as Lowton, in reality this is Kirkby Londsdale which like the fictional Lowton is two miles from Cowan Bridge
Chapter 10 and the second section closes with JE deciding to seek new challenges and a new position.She resolves to put an advert in the Yorkshire Herald..
“A young lady accustomed to tuition” (had I not been a teacher twoyears?) “is desirous of meeting with a situation in a private family where the children are under fourteen” (I thought that as I was barely eighteen, it would not do to undertake the guidance of pupils nearer my own age). “She is qualified to teach the usual branches of a good English education, together with French, Drawing, and Music” (in those days, reader, this now narrow catalogue of accomplishments, would have been held tolerably comprehensive). “Address, J.E., Post-office, Lowton, — shire.”
She receives just one reply from a Miss Fairfax but arranges to go to work for her and plans to leave Lowood . Just before her departure she has a visitor. It is Bessie from Gateshead Hall who brings her all the news of the Reed Family. Bessie and Jane leave Lowood together and make their way to Lowton where Jane is catching a coach to take her to her new job. Jane is about to set out on yet another journey to a new location with new characters and buildings to explore……and I will soon bring more Jane Eyre revelations in my next blog in this series….
Copyright@Mike Sheridan 2017 – All Text and all images