Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre is, in form, a bildungsroman, a novel of development or maturation. A bildungsroman follows its hero or heroine’s passage to adulthood and often ends in a marriage. This represents not just his personal happy ending but also his or her secure establishment in society. In the Victorian period, when Brontë was writing, key examples of the form are Dickens’s David Copperfield (1850) and Great Expectations (1860), and George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860).
As her narrative unfolds and Jane Eyre matures, develops, shifts, and deepens, place and setting are hugely important, alongside characters like Rochester, Bertha, Helen Burns, and St John Rivers. Here, we explore the key characteristics of the novel’s four pivotal settings where Jane lives before and after her time at Thornfield: Gateshead Hall, Lowood School, Marsh End / Moor House, and Ferndean Manor. What is the significance of each of these places in Jane’s development, and what can they offer us in examination essays?
At Gateshead, Brontë gives us a vision of the family upbringing that has been denied to Jane Eyre. In the novel’s third paragraph, we see Mrs Reed, who lays ‘reclined on a sofa by the fireside, [who] with her darlings about her (for the time neither quarrelling nor crying) looked perfectly happy’. Jane Eyre, however, is ostracised from this picture of familial harmony: ‘me’, she tells the reader, ‘she had dispensed from joining the group’. Here Jane—who is simply a ‘bad animal’ in the eyes of her cousins John, Georgiana, and Eliza— learns the cruelty and injustice of the world.
It is, however, where Jane’s impulse towards violent rebellion is born: ‘Wicked and cruel boy!’, she screams at John Reed, who bullies her as she tries to escape into a world of books. ‘You are like a murderer—you are like a slave-driver—you are like the Roman emperors!’. By challenging male power, arrogance, and dominance like this, Jane is labelled a ‘picture of passion’, and is confined, infamously, to the ‘red-room’ at Gateshead.
Jane Eyre’s time in the ‘red-room’ scars her for the rest of the novel. Bessie (the closest thing to a mother, for the young Jane at Gateshead) and Miss Abbott call her a ‘mad cat’ and imprison Jane in the terrifying room. It is one of Jane Eyre’s eery, Gothic spaces: Mr Reed, Jane Eyre’s uncle, ‘had been dead nine years [and] it was in this chamber he breathed his last’. Jane’s terror in the ‘red-room’ shows us even in the novel’s second chapter, that she is a character with a rich and powerful imagination. As the terror of her imprisonment goes, Jane tells us that ‘my heart beat thick, my head grew hot; a sound filled my ears […] I was oppressed, suffocated’.
Brontë drew inspiration for Lowood School from the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge, attended by the Brontë sisters—two of her sisters, Maria and Elizabeth died from tuberculosis in the aftermath of a typhoid outbreak at the school. The school is run by Mr Brocklehurst, modelled on the Reverend Carus Wilson, who rules over Lowood as a tyrant and dictator. Both men believed in children’s tendency towards sin and disobedience, and both wielded their faith hypocritically and used it to punish and ‘correct’ the faults which they saw in the young. When she arrives at Lowood, Jane Eyre sees:
eighty girls [who were] 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.
Many of the incidents at Lowood show the way that women like Jane are forced to constrain their emotions and behaviour. Here, conformity and restraint are seen through the manipulation of hair. Unruly curls like Julia Severn’s show a tendency towards wildness and disobedience in children, and particularly girls, and so must be corrected and set right—Julia’s hair, and that of many of the other girls, is cut off. As we saw at Gateshead, an environment that should be warm and nurturing appears far more like a place of punishment. Lowood is a place of emotional and spiritual coldness, where even ‘the water in the pitchers was frozen’.
The portion of the novel during which Jane Eyre works as a schoolteacher in Morton and grows close to the Rivers family at Marsh End, is often neglected by readers, and seen as secondary to the central plot. It is however important to focus on it and to pay attention to the signs the author gives us in relation to Jane’s time here, before she returns to Rochester and the climax of the novel.
When she rejects Rochester, Jane Eyre says: ‘I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God’. She will not marry Rochester whilst he is still legally married to Bertha. In this next portion of the novel, St John Rivers is an embodiment of those ‘law[s]’ of God on which she has rejected Rochester.
In St John, Jane Eyre also finds a version of herself (the theme of doubling is important throughout the novel—think, for instance, of Jane the ‘mad cat’ trapped in the ‘red-room’, and Bertha Mason, the ‘tigress’, locked away in her cell at Thornfield). ‘It is hard work to control the workings of inclination, and turn the bent of nature’, St John tells Jane Eyre: we know too that Jane’s story is one that is often about self-control, passion, desire, and restraint. How do we control out nature? When should we follow our passions, and when should we restrain them?
Jane’s return to Rochester is the culmination of the bildungsroman. We can see the focus on Jane’s own actions and independent choice in, ‘reader, I married him’—not, ‘reader, we were married’. Sore though they may be, the feet of the ‘poor orphan child’ of Bessie’s ballad have finally found their way to love, a home, and a family. Ferndean is isolated in the woods, and it represents a kind of Eden for Jane Eyre and Rochester, away from the world.
It is important that Pilot the dog is the first to recognise Jane Eyre upon her return. In Homer’s Odyssey, after Odysseus returns to his home at Ithaca, having been away for twenty years (ten years fighting in the Trojan Wars and another the years trying to get home) it is his faithful dog Argos who recognises its master. Brontë’s allusion is an empowering one, as it casts Jane Eyre in the role of Odysseus, hero of Homer’s epic poem, returning home after a long and arduous quest.
We must not ignore the fact that a price has had to be paid for this ‘happy ending’ to the novel; it is paid not by Jane Eyre or by Rochester (whose sight begins to heal, as he cared for by Jane), but by Bertha, who must perish in the fire at Thornfield in order that Jane Eyre and Rochester can be legally married.