Posted by Saraline , Tuesday, March 30, 2010 6:53 PM
I recently reread Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. Those of you who have read the book probably remember Jane's arrival at Lowood School when she was a child. You probably remember how she described the inedible food, the drafty building, the long walks to church in the winter while wearing inadequate uniforms and shoes, Miss Scatcherd's mistreatment of Jane's friend Helen Burns, and how Helen died.
I was fascinated to learn that Lowood School was actually based on The Clergy Daughter's School at Cowan Bridge, which Charlotte attended with three of her sisters. The character Helen Burns was modeled after her eldest sister Maria.
Those who had been pupils at the same time knew who must have written the book, from the force with which Helena Burns' sufferings are described. They had, before that, recognised the description of the sweet dignity and benevolence of Miss Temple as only a just tribute to the merits of one whom all that knew her appear to hold in honour; but when Miss Scatcherd was held up to opprobrium they also recognised in the writer of Jane Eyre an unconsciously avenging sister of the sufferer.
-from The Life of Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Gaskell
The Brontë sisters were sent to the school at Cowan Bridge because it was an affordable option. When Elizabeth Gaskell wrote Charlotte's biography, she interviewed other people who had gone to school there in an attempt to get to the bottom of what the conditions were really like. She discovered that during the first few years that the school was open, there had been a cook working there who didn't prepare the food properly. The students were often unable to eat the food and became malnourished. Jane Eyre's descriptions of the weekly walk to the church and how cold the building was also seem to jive with the experiences that Charlotte's classmates had. The treatment of her sister Maria, if anything, seems to be toned down a bit.
One of these fellow-pupils of Charlotte and Maria Bronte's, among other statements even worse, gives me the following:--The dormitory in which Maria slept was a long room, holding a row of narrow little beds on each side, occupied by the pupils; and at the end of this dormitory there was a small bed-chamber opening out of it, appropriated to the use of Miss Scatcherd. Maria's bed stood nearest to the door of this room. One morning, after she had become so seriously unwell as to have had a blister applied to her side (the sore from which was not perfectly healed), when the getting-up bell was heard, poor Maria moaned out that she was so ill, so very ill, she wished she might stop in bed; and some of the girls urged her to do so, and said they would explain it all to Miss Temple, the superintendent. But Miss Scatcherd was close at hand, and her anger would have to be faced before Miss Temple's kind thoughtfulness could interfere; so the sick child began to dress, shivering with cold, as, without leaving her bed, she slowly put on her black worsted stockings over her thin white legs (my informant spoke as if she saw it yet, and her whole face flashed out undying indignation). Just then Miss Scatcherd issued from her room, and, without asking for a word of explanation from the sick and frightened girl, she took her by the arm, on the side to which the blister had been applied, and by one vigorous movement whirled her out into the middle of the floor, abusing her all the time for dirty and untidy habits. There she left her. My informant says, Maria hardly spoke, except to beg some of the more indignant girls to be calm; but, in slow, trembling movements, with many a pause, she went down stairs at last--and was punished for being late.
The two eldest Brontë sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, were both sent home from the Cowan Bridge school with consumption and both of them died shortly after. Charlotte and Emily returned home within the next year "as it was evident that the damp situation of the house at Cowan's Bridge did not suit their health."
I don't know anyone who would want their children at a school like this. Things were different back then, I guess.
Should it seem incredible that Mr. Brontë [...] suspected nothing of the privations which endangered the girls' lives, we must hark back other accounts of the singular unconcern manifested at that day by parents in every rank of society with respect to the school experiences of their children. They were passed over, body and soul, to instructors paid to conduct their education. Punishments were severe, and, to our notion, barbarous in variety and ingenuity. The ferule, the rod, dunce-cap and stool, the dark room, fasting upon bread and water for a week at a time, --were some of the commonest and mildest penances inflicted for imperfect lessons, untidiness, and trivial lapses in speech and deportment.
-from Charlotte Brontë at Home by Marion Harland
It just makes me sad that schools like this actually existed and parents had no problem sending their children to them.