Jane Eyre: A Terrifying Portrayal of Female Education
Silent, submissive and starving: in order to survive at Lowood Institution during the reign of Mr. Brocklehurst, a girl was required to surrender her voice, independence and health. In Charlotte Brontë’s novel, Jane Eyre, a disturbing depiction of female education in Victorian England is portrayed as both oppressive and neglectful. The school for “charity-children” demonstrates how females were trained to behave in very specific ways that typically aligned with religious beliefs. It is clear that in the eyes of Mr. Brocklehurst, a woman is meant to be docile, and the sooner that can be accomplished, the better.
Brontë’s depiction of schools does not seem to be embellished when considering the realities of women during Victorian England. In Laura Schwartz’s article, “Feminist Thinking on Education in Victorian England,” female oppression was tied directly to female education: “Education was the central concern for those struggling against female oppression well before the formation of an organized women’s movement in the second half of the 19th century” (670). A lack of quality education reflected the treatment of women as a whole. Schwartz continues by writing that the need to improve girls’ schools, and establish secondary schools, became “… closely bound up with broader feminist concerns.” When considering the type of school Lowood Institution is represented as, it seems as though Brontë portrayed an accurate illustration of the restrictive educational opportunities available to females at the time.
In Jane Eyre, readers first learn the ways in which Lowood Institution is ran by a conversation that takes place between Mr. Brocklehurst and Mrs. Reed: “‘Consistency, madam, is the first of Christian duties; and it has been observed in every arrangement connected with the establishment of Lowood: plain fare, simple attire, unsophisticated accommodations, hardy and active habits; such is the order of the day in the house and its inhabitants’” (33). The plainness of the food equates to a small portion of burnt porridge. The simple attire means that girls are required to wear stockings well past their expiration. Furthermore, in order to engage in hardy and active habits, the students spend a good deal of time outside walking to and from church even when the weather should have required them to stay inside. Life at Lowood is no fairytale escape, and while it’s clear that the subject material studied is of a rigorous nature, the conditions in which their education takes place is not conducive to their overall wellbeing. It is not shocking that many of the girls fall victim to typhus when it invades the school: “Semi-starvation and neglected colds had predisposed most of the pupils to receive infection: forty-five out of the eighty girls lay ill at one time” (73). This is how a school for girls is represented in 19th century England – no wonder women were outraged over their lot in life! It takes a significant number of deaths to change the management at Lowood Institution, and while conditions greatly improve, the restrictive nature Jane Eyre leaves the school with represents the ways in which the school ultimately altered her character.
In real life, not every school may have been as oppressive as Lowood Institution; however, as discussed in class, Brontë’s own education, as well as her sisters, may have been the inspiration behind how the school is depicted. If even one school during the 19th century was as horrific as Lowood, that’s one too many. Based on the ways in which female education is portrayed in Jane Eyre, it is clear that in Victorian England, schools were used to whip women into an appalling biblical ideal.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Ed. Thomas Crwford. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2002. Print.
Schwartz, Laura. “Feminist Thinking on Education in Victorian England.” Oxford Review of Education 37.5 (2011): 669-682. Web. 30 Oct. 2014.