#MothersDay ‘Jane Eyre’s Mother’ #MondayBlogs #CharlotteBronte

Jane Eyre is the most famous female, literary orphan in English literature, but what do we know about Jane Eyre’s mother?

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Surprisingly, for a character who doesn’t appear in the novel and is hardly mentioned, we know a great deal. We know her name and maiden surname, how and we she died, who and why she married, a few things about her family and some significant aspects of her personality.

The first time her mother is mentioned, Jane is at her uncle, Mr Reed’s house. Jane tells the reader:

I could not remember him (Mr Reed); but I knew that he was my own uncle—my mother’s brother— that he had taken me when a parentless infant to his house;

Consequently we know that her mother’s maiden name was Reed and that her husband’s surname was Eyre. We also learn that Jane has no memories of her father, her mother or her uncle, because she was an infant when they died.

Jane also tells us about the effect that the lack of loving parents or relatives affected her personality. Well before Freud identified and shared his theories regarding the conscious, subconscious, and unconscious mind, Jane Eyre was fully that her parents’ absence was affecting her moods and character were due to factors beyond her control, within her psyche.

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Ten year-old Jane tells Mr. Lloyd, an apothecary, called in by Mrs.
Reed when she fainted after being punished and locked in the red room:

I am unhappy,—very unhappy, for other things.’

‘What other things? Can you tell me some of them?’

How much I wished to reply fully to this question! How difficult it was to frame any answer! Children can feel, but they cannot analyse their feelings; and if the analysis is partially effected in thought, they know not how to express the result of the process in words. Fearful, however, of losing this first and only opportunity of  relieving my grief by imparting it, I, after a disturbed pause, contrived to frame a meagre, though, as far as it went, true response.

‘For one thing, I have no father or mother, brothers or sisters.’

Jane describes herself as unhappy because she is missing the family she doesn’t have. A contemporary psychologist might suggest that, as an orphan, Jane was vulnerable and predisposed to physical and psychological risks such as depression and antisocial behaviour, and would probably need counselling. Instead she was plunged into an unloving household, where she was demeaned, neglected and physically and psychologically abused. There could have been many outcomes to her future personality, she could have sunk into disruptive behaviour or swam to the surface as a stronger, fiercely independent, determined and kind person.

There were many real and literary orphans in Victorian Literature. Here’s some more information in two previous posts including information about orphans in Victorian England

Jane Eyre found out about her parents’ death and bad relationship with her maternal grandfather, Mr. Reed, from Bessie, a servant at her aunt’s house. Bessie in turn had learnt this information from another, older servant at the house, Miss Abbot.

“On that same occasion I learned, for the first time, from Miss Abbot’s communications to Bessie, that my father had been a poor clergyman; that my mother had married him against the wishes of her friends, who considered the match beneath her; that my grandfather Reed was so irritated at her disobedience, he cut her off without a shilling; that after my mother and father had been married a year, the latter caught the typhus fever while visiting among the poor of a large manufacturing town where his curacy was situated, and where that disease was then prevalent: that my mother took the infection from him, and both died within a month of each other.”

This passage informs us that her mother married a clergyman for love, against her family’s wishes. Jane was aware that her mother valued love over social convention or economic stability.

Nine years later, while Jane is working at Thornfield, she was called to visit her Aunt Reed, who was on her deathbed. Jane took the opportunity to ask her why her aunt hated her so much.

‘I had a dislike to her (Jane’s) mother always; for she was my husband’s only sister, and a great favourite with him: he opposed the family’s disowning her when she made her low marriage; and when news came of her death, he wept like a simpleton. He would send for the baby; though I entreated him rather to put it out to nurse and pay for its maintenance. I hated it (referring to Jane)  the first time I set my eyes on it…’

Thus Jane learns that her aunt had hated her mother and that she was jealous of her husband’s affection towards the helpless baby.

In summary, we know that Jane Eyre’s mother, Mrs Eyre, née Jane Reed, was beloved by her brother, Jane’s Uncle Reed, who had been a well-to-do magistrate, before his premature death. We also know she was estranged by her parents for marrying a clergyman, Mr Eyre, whom they considered was below her station. We know she married for love, that Jane was born nine months after their marriage and was a three-month old baby when her parents died, a year after marrying. Mrs Jane Reed Eyre died of typhus, a disease contracted by her husband first. We can infer that she was a passionate, independent and determined woman, who was prepared to turn her back on her family and material comforts, in order to marry the man she loved.

It surprises me that Jane only mentioned missing her mother once as a ten-year-old child and never mentioned her mother as an adult. Grown up Jane seemed to have completely wiped her mother out of her thoughts, perhaps because she had no memory or image to cling to. On the other hand, we can imagine her mother’s influence in Jane’s famous quote that she’d rather be happy than dignified. It definitely seemed to have been her mother’s motto too!

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I’d also like to remind you that today, 31st of March, is the anniversary of Charlotte Bronte’s premature death in 1855, at the ge of 38. She was pregnant when she and her unborn child died.

Her death certificate gives the cause of death as tuberculosis, but biographers, including Claire Harman, have suggested that she died from dehydration and malnutrition due to vomiting caused by severe morning sickness. Charlotte Brontë was buried in the family vault in the Church of St Michael and All Angels at Haworth in Yorkshire, UK.

Photo by Dave Green of St Michael and All Angel’s Church, Haworth (Wikipedia).

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P.S. If you haven’t read Jane Eyre, you’re missing out on one of the greatest novels ever written, and it’s almost free on amazon kindle, including the audiobook!

If you have read Jane Eyre, perhaps you’ve wondered what happened after Jane and Rochester married, so have I, that’s why I wrote The Eyre Hall Trilogy, on special offer at the moment.

Carrot Ranch #FlashFiction Challenge: Victorian Orphans Cracking Rocks

This post was written in response to Charli Mills’ weekly fiction challenge at Carrot Ranch.

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This week’s prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a rock in the road. It can be physical, adding to a plot twist, or it can be metaphorical for a barrier or hardship. Go where you find the rock.  All writers are welcome!

As usual, the prompt has taken me back in time, to Victorian England, once again.

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Cracking rocks and other chores

‘You’ll get up at 5, carry hot water and light the hearths in all the bedrooms.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘After breakfast, you’ll empty the latrines and make the beds.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Then you’ll prepare lunch and do the laundry.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Such a pretty girl, but so frail.’ He smiled maliciously. ‘The master may use you for other chores.’ 

Let him try, I thought.

He wasn’t to know I had worked cracking rocks with a heavy hammer all day, until I splintered the forman’s skull when he put his hand down my breeches and discovered I wasn’t frail at all.

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Children from the age of eight were exploited sexually and in the workplace in Victorian England. It wasn’t unusual for young girls to disguise themselves as men in order to do male chores, or escape male attention. On other occasions, it was the men who were disguised as women to do women’s chores. In any case, children, often abandoned orphans, trying to survive in large cities, had to learn to fend for themselves from an early age, or perish. This is another post, including flash fiction, I wrote about Oliver Twist and the subject of child labour and orphaned children in Victorian England.

In this flash, the narrator is a girl, who had been disguised as a boy while she had worked cracking rocks. She reverted to her female role and clothes to escape being caught as a murderer. Her new master would do well not to believe she’s unable to defend herself!

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In The Eyre Hall Trilogy, my sequel to Jane Eyre, Susan and Michael Kirkpatrick were orphans, who Jane Eyre employed at Eyre Hall, when they were 14 and 16, respectively. They had been living in a workhouse in London, as many orphaned children at the time. The following paragraphs are taken from All Hallows at Eyre Hall. Michael narrates this passage some years later, as an adult, recalling how Jane, like many other wealthy people living in rural areas, was unaware of life in a London workhouse.

It’s a moving and important extract, because Michael also describes the moment he fell in love with Jane, when he was a young boy. Although Michael had been obsessed with Jane from the first time he saw her at the age of fourteen, Jane didn’t fall in love with Michael until he was an adult and her husband lay on his death bed. Their love affair brings great heartache and trauma to both of them, but they manage to overcome all the emotional and physical demons they face.

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“Have you ever worked?” she asked us, and Susan told her we had done the workhouse chores, such as oakam breaking, which made our fingers bleed. She had not heard of it before, so Susan told her how we had to tease out fibres from old ropes to produce lots of thin loose fibres. “Whatever for?” she asked, quite aghast, and Susan told her the strings were later sold to shipbuilders, where they were mixed with tar and used to seal the lining of wooden vessels.

Susan told her I was a strong boy and used to hard work, because I often cracked granite rocks with a heavy hammer ten hours a day. Again she asked, horror-struck, for the reasons, Susan told her the chippings were carted away by older men, who were not strong enough to crack them, and were then probably used in construction works. Susan proudly explained that with the pennies earned, usually not a shilling a day between us, we were able to buy food, some clothes, and borrow books and magazines to read by candlelight.

When she asked how long we had been there, Mrs. Rochester was again appalled to hear we had been there for two years, since our mother had died. She asked her about our life prior to our mother’s death, and Susan explained we had lived in a rented room in Morton.

She looked at me sadly and asked if I did not speak, and I could only gaze at her face and think how very kind and beautiful she was. Susan told her I was shy, but that I spoke, read, and wrote very well, because our mother had taught both of us to do so. My mistress put her hand up to my face, lightly touching my cheek, and sighed, looking straight into my eyes, as if she were searching for something. It was the moment I fell under her spell. No one had ever touched me like that before, with such concern and affection, not even my mother, who had been too sad and overworked to bestow such warmth. Then Mrs. Rochester spoke to Susan and said someone would teach us our new jobs at her house.

Today is Charles Dickens birthday (February 7th, 1812). I’m not going to praise him yet again, because you all know how important his work is for World Literature and my own literary mind. He also makes a personal appearance in Twelfth Night at Eyre Hall, and is a vital part of Jane’s recovery in Midsummer at Eyre Hall, although he is no longer physically present.

Here I am beside Charles Dickens’ portrait at the National Portrait Gallery in London, a few months ago.

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There are so many things I could say and so many words I could quote to honour Charles Dickens’ memory today,  but I’ve decided to include the following quote, which is not my favourite, but it’s appropriate for a happy day like today!

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Hope you’re all having a wonderful 7th of February!

Carrot Ranch #FlashFiction Challenge: The Mourner

This post was written in response to Charli Mills’ weekly Flash Fiction Challenge.   

January 12, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that expresses a strong concern, something to give a crap about. Something that brings out the feeling to stand up. How can you use it to show tension or reveal attitudes?

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The Mourner

The undertaker pointed to the sullen lad. “He looks like a good candidate, Mr. Bumble.”

“Any job requiring silence will suit this hard-working boy, Mr. Sowerberry.”

“No speaking required,” he said, then turned to the pauper. “Just crying, preferably bawling his eyes out.”

“Indeed?”

“He’ll be working as a mourner at children’s funerals.”

“Excellent. We’ll be sorry to see him go, but it’s our duty to help destitute orphans.”

Good riddance, he thought. Nobody gives a crap about any of the blighters.

He’d paid a fiver to get rid of Oliver Twist.

Troublemaker.

How dare he ask for more!

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Oliver Twist may not be Dickens’ best novel, but it’s my favourite. It’s a novel which is very dear to my heart. I read abridged versions as a child and I’ve read and reread the complete novel many times.

Oliver Twist is Dickens at his rawest, most melodramatic, and outspoken. I can almost hear his pen scratching the paper as he writes and see his head shaking with anger at the injustices remembered and portrayed.

I watched all the film adaptations, my absolute favourite is Carol Reed’s 1968 version. I watched numerous versions as school plays, throughout my school days. Years later I took my children to see Lionel Bart’s unforgettable musical adaptation live at the London Palladium in 1994. Here’s Jonathan Pryce as Fagin.

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Oliver Twist was an orphan who spent his early years in a workhouse, until he was found a job away from the other inmates, because he was considered subversive as a result of asking for more gruel.

This is the extract from the scene in Dickens’ Oliver Twist where he asks for more gruel:

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Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said: somewhat alarmed at his own temerity:

‘Please, sir, I want some more.’

The master was a fat, healthy man; but he turned very pale. He gazed in stupified astonishment on the small rebel for some seconds, and then clung for support to the copper.

The assistants were paralysed with wonder; the boys with fear.

‘What!’ said the master at length, in a faint voice.

‘Please, sir,’ replied Oliver, ‘I want some more.’

The master aimed a blow at Oliver’s head with the ladle; pinioned him in his arm; and shrieked aloud for the beadle.

The board were sitting in solemn conclave, when Mr. Bumble rushed into the room in great excitement, and addressing the gentleman in the high chair, said, ‘Mr. Limbkins, I beg your pardon, sir! Oliver Twist has asked for more!’

There was a general start. Horror was depicted on every countenance.

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Of course they were horrified, How dare he ask for more? How dare he speak up and challenge injustice? How dare he hope to improve his lot? He was obviously an upstart and it was then that they decided to find him a job away from the workhouse, because he would be a bad influence on the rest of the inmates.

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Few people gave a crap about children in general, and even less so if they were orphans, in Victorian England.

Child abuse, including child labour, and exploitation, was rampant in Victorian England. Children who survived infancy were often put to work at an early age in textile mills, coal mines, and down chimneys, where working conditions often proved deadly. Girls from the age of five went into domestic service as nurses or maids, and rural children worked on farms, too. Workhouses and poor houses, like the ones in Oliver Twist were cruel places as Dickens himself experienced as a child.

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Fortunately, many Victorians campaigned to improve the lives of poor children. Reformers such as Lord Shaftesbury (1801-1885 in the picture above, left), were able to pass laws to protect children from exploitations, such as the 1841 Mines Act which made it illegal for children under the age of 10 to work in a coal mine. The 1847 Ten Hour Act which made it illegal for children to work more than 10 hours in a day. The 1874 Factory Act which banned the employment of children under 10 in factories. Of course if these laws were needed, it meant that children under the age of ten were working as if they were adults, and probably earning a great deal less. Lord Shaftesbury later became the president of the Ragged School Union, an evangelical organization which established hundreds of schools for the poor.

Charles Dickens’ novels revealed and condemned the exploitation of helpless children. When Dickens was twelve, his father was imprisoned for debt and he was sent to work in a blacking factory, an incident that haunted him his whole life. No wonder his novels depict plenty of neglected, exploited, or abused children and orphans.

Oliver Twist (1837) was written to expose and attack on these practices and the cruelty and injustice of workhouses and poor houses for the homeless, which subjected them to unhealthy and inhuman living conditions and hard labour.

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Orphans and their plight also featured predominantly in other Victorian novels, such as my beloved Jane Eyre. Many of the characters in The Eyre Hall Trilogy are orphans or abandoned children, too.

Twelfth Night at Eyre Hall includes an account of a dramatic case of child farming, child abuse and kidnapping, which, as Dickens’ novels, is based on real events.

In the following scene from Chapter XI, Twelfth Night at Eyre Hall. Michael is in London, searching for a child who had been kidnapped and sold. The following is his conversation with a representative of the law, who expresses the general opinion of many people within the establishment, at the time.

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Sergeant Wilson was a round sort of man. He had a round red–veined face, a large round belly, and fat chubby fingers. I imagined he was a man who enjoyed his food and drink over any other pleasures in life. When he spoke, his slurred and jovial voice convinced me he would never be seen chasing anyone or even organising a chase. I informed him of my suspicion that a woman under an assumed name was buying and selling babies. I was appalled at his lack of interest in the topic.

“There are too many children in London, Lieutenant Kirkpatrick, far too many. They are often born in the wrong families, who cannot feed them or clothe them, so they are taken to other better–off families. It is often a question of social justice. Many of the intermediaries are religious orders. Children are left on church or convent doorsteps, others sadly fall into the hands of dubious individuals such as the one you mention, but in any case, the children who survive will have a better life, don’t you think?”

I could not disclose the real events that had occurred, but I needed to be able to threaten her with some legal action.

“Of course I agree, Sergeant Wilson, but let us suppose a criminal had robbed children and was selling them for immoral reasons, such as prostitution or unpaid labour?”

“If it could be proved in a court of law that she stole the children and sold them, she would be taken to Newgate and later hanged. Unfortunately, none of the parents would miss a hungry baby, and call the police to deal with the crime.”

I tried to convince him that the plight of the babies was important, but he was unmoved.

“Have you any idea how much crime, I mean serious crime, there is in London? Pickpockets, thieves, burglars, and debtors, they are our curse. They threaten the honest, hard–working citizens of London.”

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Fortunately, at least in Europe, we have a welfare system which caters for the underprivileged, makes education available and compulsory for children up to the age of 16 or 18, a national health service covers all citizens, and there are laws to protect children and other vulnerable citizens, such as immigrants, refugees and the unemployed. We should never forget that this hasn’t always been the case. Social care and civil rights were gained because many people fought for them, and now it’s our turn to make sure they are still guaranteed for our children and grandchildren.

More on the Victorians and child labour at the British Library