““My mission is to mortify in these girls the lusts of the flesh; to teach them to clothe themselves with shame-facedness and sobriety, not with braided hair and costly apparel; and each of the young persons before us has a string of hair twisted in plaits which vanity itself might have woven: these, I repeat, must be cut off; think of the time wasted, of-”
Mr. Brocklehurst was here interrupted: three other visitors, ladies, now entered the room. They ought to have come a little sooner to have heard his lecture on dress, for they were splendidly attired in velvet, silk, and furs. The two younger of the trio (fine girls of sixteen and seventeen) had grey beaver hats, then in fashion, shaded with ostrich plumes, and from under the brim of this graceful head-dress fell a profusion of light tresses, elaborately curled; the elder lady was enveloped in a costly velvet shawl, trimmed with ermine, and she wore a false front of French curls.”
(Chapter 7, Paragraph 32-33)
The above passage has been taken from the novel Jane Eyre (published 1847) by Charlotte Brontë. It serves to bring out the novel’s themes of appearance and hypocrisy as well as that of education, with the obsessive fixation of the speaker of this passage on outward appearance being kept plain. Mr. Brocklehurst, the speaker here, is the supervisor of a boarding school for orphaned girls- the Lowood Institute, where the novel’s eponymous protagonist has been sent away to study. In this part, he has just been admonishing and lecturing miss Temple (the teacher in whose charge Jane is) on how all the girls must have plain clothing and hair, even the ones whose hair curl naturally. He wanted the students at Lowood to not curl or braid their hair, as that constitutes “wasting time on worldly vanities.” He takes an extremist stance but the very logic of it is seen defied since he wishes to ban curls as they are ‘unnatural,’ yet he is against the student Julia’s, too, which curl naturally. He claims that they “are not to conform to nature” and must live under the grace of god. His hypocrisy is seen again in the section quoted above, when his wife and daughters enter, elaborately adorned in silk and furs, with intricate, decorative hairstyles. Thus we can see that keeping the Lowood girls plain is probably less to him about Christian humility than it is about keeping them in their lowly place. Thus this section also highlights the theme of class struggle that is seen in the novel, and reflects the wish of the upper classes to keep the poor from rising up. Class struggles become an important theme in the novel and can be seen in the dynamics between Jane and Mr. Rochester (her later love interest) as he is of a significantly higher class than her. Jane’s opinion of class is transformed during the novel since she eventually realises that poverty is not a crime (Section 3, Chapter 3), while earlier she had felt that she could not live with poor relatives even if they were very nice and kind-hearted people. Through her experiences, at Lowood and later, she realises class is not as relevant as she had believed it to be.
The Lowood Institute thus represents a low part of Jane’s life and has been thusly titled, as have all the places she stays at during the journey that is her life. She had originally expected her schooling experience to be enjoyable, since everyone she despised had hated school, and she had extended this logic to assume she would love that which her enemies had hated. She was interested in being “accomplished,” so she could become a talented, cultural person as a way of distinguishing herself from the Reeds (her relatives who she was brought up with) and getting out of her poor circumstances. She looked at it as “an entrance into a new life” (Chapter 3). Her experience at Lowood had, however, under Mr Brocklehurst’s strict hand, been less than enjoyable. Despite this, Miss Temple had been an important figure in Jane’s development as she took the trouble to care about the truth and encouraged Jane to apply herself to her education. Jane idolises her as well as her friend Helen Burns, wishing to be like them. “Temple” also has an allegorical meaning, since she had been Jane’s refuge from the torturous life at school for eight years, and was thus her ‘Temple.’ Her name is therefore, like that of Lowood, significant to Jane’s schooling experience.
This can be compared to the perspective taken by George Eliot in her nove The Mill on the Floss (1860) in which the theme of education manifests itself in the gendered reality of the nineteenth century. The disparity in the education of boys and girls, in Eliot’s social context, is brought to light. The protagonist Maggie’s being well-read and sharp does not bring her the attention she craves and instead gets her into trouble. She remains unrewarded for her curiosity and inquisitiveness, much like Scout from Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), who was admonished for being aware of more than had been taught in school. Also seen in The Mill on the Floss is the schooling system being criticised for focusing on unimportant aspects more than essential life skills. This again is reminiscent of Brontë’s Jane Eyre, where the institute employed more focus on keeping the students plain and ‘humble,’ in Mr Brocklehurst’s opinion, rather than learn values or skills. Brontë thus shows her heroine struggling against societal bounds. Her feminism differs from Eliot’s though, in her titular character Jane Eyre’s ultimate conformity to the patriarchy. She teaches young Adele (the girl under her care) the values needed to be proper and “ladylike” as her governess, making her comply with the very social norms she had, as the protagonist of the novel, rebelled against. However, Eliot’s character Maggie (as she elopes) can no longer fit in the society and be an accepted member. Dickens, too, comments on her work, perceiving the gender presence or “womanly touches” in her work that provide the guiding perspective.
Despite what is referred to by critics as Brontë’s one significant feminist failing in the novel, of Eyre coming full circle and conforming with society once again, she brings up several important points in the text. Her protagonist learns to look beyond petty differences and overcome any notions of shallowness she had. She assimilates this knowledge through her experiences at Lowood where she hears Mr Brocklehurst’s hypocrisy and focus on appearance and thus later refrains from judging Mr Rochester (who eventually becomes her love interest) on the basis of his looks, who is as plain as she is. In fact, his appearance, from her perspective, differs as her opinion of him evolves, and he becomes more and more attractive to her. Thus, since she is the protagonist from whose viewpoint the events of the novel are narrated, her progressing outlook of Rochester shapes his increasingly attractive appearance. It is her attitude and feelings towards him that are changing, and not his actual appearance. She seems in some instances to be aware of this and this can be significantly seen in Chapter 15, where she says his genial conduct “made his face the object [she] best liked to see.” She is also able to separate Rochester’s actual appearance from how he is perceived by others, and by herself, and this skill of distinguishing looks from personality is something she learned to do at Lowood. This particular experience at Lowood, of being told that plainness of appearance is imperative, shaped her personality on some level too, and this can be seen in her insistence that her plain exterior is an expression of who she really is and her description of herself as a “plain, Quakerish governess.” (Chapter 24)
The quoted section is thus extremely significant to the novel as it brings, through the motif of Mr Brocklehurt’s rejection of curls as vanity, several important themes out such as those of education, class differences, feminism, hypocrisy and appearance. The novel, which charts the protagonist’s emotional, psychological and moral growth, being a bildungsroman or coming-of-age story, exposes these major themes that shape Jane Eyre’s character during the course of the narrative.