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Peer Reviewed

Jane Eyre and Public Health

Frances Thielman, Appalachian State University

Winner of the Patrick O. Scott Prize for the best graduate student paper
Jane Eyre and Public Health: A Closer Look at the Lowood School Epidemic
Invalids abound in Jane Eyre, from the unrepentant Aunt Reed to the angelic Helen Burns, and many scholars have analyzed these characters through a disability studies lens. However, one group of invalids in Jane Eyre has not received extensive critical attention: the victims of the typhus epidemic at Lowood school. These girls inhabit bodies disabled by a stigmatizing disease—bodies their society insisted on either cleansing away or changing. In this paper, I will place Jane Eyre in the historical context of the Victorian Public Health reforms and then, using disability studies, will demonstrate how the Lowood school epidemic represents Bronte's conclusions about the right way to manage public health.
Perhaps the most influential factor in kicking off the Victorian public health movement was the first cholera outbreak in 1831. During the 19th century, England was ravaged by several diseases including small pox, tuberculosis, scarlet fever, typhus and typhoid fever, but the first cholera epidemic was particularly devastating, killing 32,000 in little more than a year (Wohl 118). The outbreak opened the public's eyes to the need for sanitary reform, and Edwin Chadwick led the charge towards convincing Parliament to take a more active role in enforcing better sanitation (Gilbert 5). His report entitled The Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population, written collaboratively with Thomas Smith, influenced Parliament's final decision to pass the Public Health Act of 1848—just in time for another outbreak of cholera even deadlier than the first (Gilbert 6).
Parliament correctly recognized the need for a more effective Board of Public Health to manage the spread of disease. Prior to the Public Health Act of 1848, the first official efforts at combating deadly diseases involved the local authorities issuing "brooms, chloride of lime, whitewash" and other cleaning materials free of charge, as well as providing lots of helpful advice; for example, an 1831 issue of Bell's Life in London and Sporting Chronicle records an early Board of Health's suggestion that citizens should protect themselves from cholera with "abstinence from spiritous liquors, wholesome food, and cheerfulness," (Sigsworth & Worboys 242, "Board of Health in the City"). The Board of Health's recommendations implied the victims of cholera brought the disease upon themselves through poor personal hygiene, drunkenness, and a bad attitude, and while the Public Health Act of 1848 was an improvement on this approach, it was still based on the assumption that getting sick was the patient's fault. It should come as no surprise then that the reformers encountered substantial resistance from the poor and middle classes whom the Public Health Act primarily targeted. Michael Sigsworth and Michael Worboys in "The Public's View of Public Health in Mid-Victorian Britain" show that first, these reforms were often carried out incompetently, and second, they often didn't address the most pressing needs of the people they were intended to help. For example, during the 1849 cholera outbreak, when the fire brigade were sent to sanitize the village of Attercliffe, they disrupted the neighborhood by failing to successfully distinguish between the homes of the sick and the homes of the healthy (243). Worse still, the brigade smashed village's main source of water, and instead used water from a nearby canal to wash the streets onto which they had already emptied "the contents of privies and middens" (243). Consequently, "a second wave of cholera developed in Attercliffe along the route taken by the cleansing team" (Sigsworth & Worboys 243).
As Sigsworth and Worboys record, when the poor were given the opportunity to say what really ailed them, their answer was not a lack of cleanliness, but malnutrition and starvation. At a mass meeting in Merthyr Tydfil, a workers' spokesman said, "The high rate of mortality. . . was caused by the mode of life of the people, working underground, and by want of sufficiency of food, and not by the want of sanitary laws. What we want is more meat" (S&W 249).
While England was still reeling from the first cholera outbreak, Charlotte Bronte wrote Jane Eyre in 1847, one year before the Public Health Act was passed. Her portrayal of the typhus epidemic in Lowood School addresses the assumptions driving public resistance to the health reforms and presents us with her take on how best to prevent the spread of disease.
Yet, the role of public health in Jane Eyre has invited little critical attention, though a few scholars have analyzed the Lowood epidemic. Criticism on this topic generally falls into two camps: the historical and the narratological.
First, Miriam Bailin provides a narratological perspective in The Sickroom in Victorian Fiction. The trends she notes in her chapter on Shirley clearly apply to Jane Eyre as well. Bailin writes that the role of disease in Bronte's novels demonstrates how the
heroine's advancement and accommodation are achieved not through a fundamental alteration of the established order, but through its inversion. Thus, deprivation and dependency are portrayed as fulfillment, confinement as liberty, the latent as the manifest, the periphery as the center, and incapacitation as power. (51-52)
Within this framework, Bailin spares a couple sentences for the epidemic at Lowood. She writes, "Even the typhus fever that killed the elder Bronte sisters. . . could, according to this emotional and experiential logic, be represented in Jane Eyre as the occasion for liberation from the enforced deprivations of Lowood School" (72). In other words, every sickness in Jane Eyre has its corresponding positive result.
Though Bailin correctly argues the epidemic eventually produces positive benefits for Jane, this is the only way the Lowood epidemic bears any resemblance to the other illnesses she discusses in her chapter. Bronte tells us "semi-starvation and neglected colds"—in other words, deprivation and dependency—"predisposed most of the pupils" to contract the disease that will kill them (85). The girls who become sick are not empowered, liberated, or fulfilled by their illness; instead, they die anonymous deaths and are listed as a statistic: "Forty-five out of the eighty girls lay ill at a time," Jane tells us (85).
While Bailin examines Jane Eyre in context with Bronte's other novels, Jerome Beaty examines it in context with Victorian school stories in general. Beaty objects to the interpretation of Lowood school as purely autobiographical, and instead argues this unpleasant school and the illness which spreads through it participate in the Victorian literary convention of featuring tragic infant deaths in novels. Contending that Lowood School resembles the schools in Dickens's novels, such as Dotheboys Hall in Nicholas Nickleby, Beaty maintains Helen Burns fits the profile of the tragic infant death. He argues that Helen is "preternaturally informed on religious matters," and her death seems to exemplify the kind of reproach issued by the Reverend William Carus Wilson that "the greatest part of the human race die at infancy" (38).
Though Beaty's arguments about Jane Eyre are persuasive, the concepts he applies to the Lowood epidemic do not entirely fit. For example, he focuses so heavily on ways in which Bronte's account parallels archetypal literary patterns that he misses the things which set it apart. First, he neglects to mention the most obvious difference: Lowood is a girls' school, and thus a completely different education experience from the schools in Dickens' novels. Dickens portrays school as an environment where the boys are isolated, abused physically and pitted against instructors who are either hostile or helpless. By contrast, Bronte's Lowood depicts an environment where teachers and students ally with each other against patriarchy. Most of the actual teachers at the school are portrayed as sympathetic: though Miss Scatcherd and Mrs. Harden the cook are disagreeable, Miss Temple is supportive and kind, the French teacher Madame Pierrot is "not a bad sort of person," and Miss Miller "praised [Jane] warmly" when she "reached the top of [her class]" (61,77). Meanwhile it is Mr. Brocklehurst who humiliates Jane and starves the students. The camaraderie between the women in opposition to Mr. Brocklehurst is most evident when he shames the student with natural curls. Brocklehurst requires the other girls to turn around so he can inspect their hair, but rather than cowering in fear of his judgement, the girls show their contempt for him the minute he can no longer see their faces:
Miss Temple passed her handkerchief over her lips, as if to smooth away the involuntary smile that curled them; she gave the order, however, and when the first class could take in what was required of them, they obeyed. Leaning a little back on my bench, I could see the looks and grimaces with which they commented on this maneuver: it was a pity Mr. Brocklehurst could not see them too; he would perhaps have felt that, whatever he might do with the outside of the cup and platter, the inside was further beyond his interference than he imagined. (73)
This passage contains the key to Jane Eyre's stance on public health: the women who run the school and the students themselves are doing everything they can to create a healthy educational environment. Yet despite their best efforts, the administration's disregard for the students' basic needs disrupts the classroom and causes the epidemic.
The other significant difference between Lowood school and Dickens's oppressive schools is the typhus outbreak. Beaty compares Helen Burns's demise to a sentimental infant death, but he does not address the multitude of other child deaths surrounding hers. Helen dies of consumption—the glamorized death of artists and virtuous people—while the other children die of typhus—a "filth-disease" with a stigma. Helen dies mourned by her best friend, while the other nameless children are dispatched without any of the usual reassurances that they have "become one of the host of 'angels of little children' " (62,40). Helen's death leaves Jane a better person, but nothing can be said of the girls' deaths except that they could have been avoided.
In "Was It Really Typhus," Jack Roberts takes a more historical approach to the Lowood epidemic when he examines Lowood's real-life counterpart—Cowan Bridge Clergy Daughter's school. Roberts tells us the Victorians conflated typhus and typhoid fever and could not distinguish between the two until 1869 (Roberts 49, Wohl 125). Some kinds of typhus can be spread by ticks and rat fleas, but body lice spread the only form that could become a deadly epidemic. Roberts maintains that the emphasis placed on grooming and bathing in both the real Cowan Bridge and the fictional Lowood School makes it unlikely the girls would have been susceptible (50-51). Instead, Roberts argues Bronte and the authorities of Cowan Bridge made the same mistake most physicians of the first half of the 19th century made, and misidentified as typhus the much deadlier typhoid fever, which was spread through contaminated food and water. As evidence, Roberts observes that there was only one privy for all of Cowan Bridge, and their water was probably provided by a well. Other cringeworthy factors include cooking with water from a contaminated rainwater butt, and an incident recorded in a letter when:
the cook, having no teaspoon to hand, stirred [a teacher's] tea with her finger whilst being engaged in the cutting up of raw meat at the time. (51, 53)
Thus, Roberts concludes, while little evidence suggests the girls at Charlotte's school had body lice, there is plenty of evidence their food and water were contaminated. The poor conditions at Cowan Bridge are mirrored by the conditions at Lowood: Bronte lists "the brackish, fetid water used in [the] preparation [of food]" as one of the factors responsible for spreading the epidemic (91). Therefore, Roberts concludes the "typhus" at Cowan Bridge, and by extension, the "typhus" at Lowood were most likely typhoid fever, rather than actual typhus.
The distinction is significant because while typhus was a disease caused by inadequate bathing, and therefore carried the stigma of slovenliness, typhoid fever, like cholera, was part of what is now known as "The Water Crisis" in England—or the results of a growing population using the same water sources for drinking and sewer. In other words, before Victorian physicians understood that what they thought was typhus could be caused by factors beyond the patient's control, Bronte saw this supposed "filth disease" could afflict clean-living, well-behaved girls. Consequently, she portrays the Lowood students as such and lays the blame for the epidemic not on the girls themselves, but on the person who was supposed to be taking care of them—Mr. Brocklehurst.
Meanwhile, in "Jane Eyre and Victorian Medical Geography," Alan Bewell addresses how Victorian ideas about disease, bad and good air, and imperialism all play an important part in a complete reading of Jane Eyre. Arguing that bad air causes the epidemic, Bewell writes,
in the 1870s, the dominant model of disease transmission was not that of contagion, but of contamination, as people were believed to become sick from the noxious air produced by the places where they lived. It was not so much people, therefore, but places that were sick. (776)
He shows how reformers such as Richard Miller and Edwin Chadwick believed the spread of disease could be controlled by keeping people away from unhealthy places, such as "cemeteries, cesspools, marshes, tanneries, or slaughterhouses," as well as "narrow, airless, and crowded" places (777). Bewell suggests Bronte, too, believed disease was caused by unhealthy places. As evidence, he points to the passage in the novel where Jane tells us,
That forest-dell, where Lowood lay, was the cradle of fog and fog-bred pestilence; which, quickening with the quickening spring, crept into the Orphan Asylum, breathed typhus through its crowded school-room and dormitory, and, ere May arrived, transformed the seminary into an hospital. (85)
While this quote indicates Jane viewed miasma as a means for disease transmission, Bewell does not give either Bronte or Victorian doctors enough credit for understanding how diseases like typhus were spread. When he writes, "in the 1870s the dominant model of disease transmission" was miasma, he only acknowledges one side of what was a heated debate as early as the 1840s, when Jane Eyre was written. As Sigsworth and Worboys show, as well as the excerpt from the Board of Health in 1831, the Victorian upper classes believed dirtiness, intemperance, and a gloomy outlook on life contributed to the spread of disease, while the working class believed exhaustion and lack of food made them vulnerable. Bronte had insight into other factors that worsened the typhus epidemic (85). First, she reports that "some died at the school, and were buried quietly and quickly; the nature of the malady forbidding delay," thus indicating the authorities running the school realized it was not merely the bad air spreading the disease, but also proximity to infected bodies. Also, when she observes "the brackish fetid water used in [food] preparation" and "the pupils' wretched clothing" attracted "public attention," she accurately describes the ways both typhoid fever and typhus were spread—water contaminated by fecal matter, and ticks that lived in dirty clothes (Bronte 91). Bronte's assessment is so accurate that Jack Roberts speculates she may have read her father's copy of Graham's Domestic Medicine, published in 1826, which had extensive entries on typhus and typhoid fever (50). The epidemic was caused not simply by an unhealthy location as Alan Bewell argues, or by unhealthy personal habits as Charlotte Bronte's contemporaries would have argued, but by neglect.
In response to this neglect, Bronte envisions how a Board of Public Health might help to prevent such outbreaks in the future. We can see this most clearly in her account of the epidemic's impact on the future of the school. Bronte has already exonerated the teachers and the girls themselves from the unhealthy conditions at Lowood, so when the school finally attracts the public eye, the administration rightly takes the fall. Once it becomes known that the caretakers of Lowood School have failed to fulfill their duty, a heroic unspecified force, referred to largely in the passive voice, comes to save the day. The process begins when the typhus epidemic "draw[s] public attention on the school" (91). As a result, "Inquiry [is] made into the origin of the scourge," which then "excite[s] public indignation in a high degree" (91). Next, "Several wealthy and benevolent individuals in the county subscribed" for a better building to be built. And finally, "new regulations were made; improvements in diet and clothing introduced;" and Mr. Brocklehurst is divested of his administrative duties when "the funds of the school were entrusted to the management of a committee" (91). This passive voice force, affiliated with "public attention" and "wealthy and benevolent individuals," which investigates the situation, makes new rules, and improves the girls' food and clothing, is Charlotte Bronte's picture of what a Board of Health might look like for the town of Lowton, ——Shire.
What's more, the Board of Health Bronte imagines is quite different from the Boards that attempted to enforce sanitation before and after the Public Health Act of 1848. Instead of making loaded suggestions or sending ineffective cleanup teams to the school, the intervening passive-voice force examines potential causes and makes concrete improvements (91). By offering these solutions as ways to combat disease, Jane Eyre supports the viewpoint that adequate food, accommodations, and rest were just as important as personal hygiene and good housekeeping.
This take on public health has interesting implications for the field of disability studies. Martha Stoddard Holmes writes that most discourse on disability is:
melodramatic machinery, a simple tool for cranking open feelings, and everyone involved—disabled and nondisabled, viewers and actors—is somehow placed and defined by what floods out. . . Thus, while emotion is undoubtedly a part of the individual and social experience of disability, it disproportionately defines those experiences in ways that inform not only the popular imagination, but also, as a consequence, public policy. (3)
She adds that Victorian literature is a notorious offender on this score because it so often depends on "formulaic endings in which the emotional overflow of the middles is neatly put to rest, offered a mode in which to imaginatively resolve the tensions that in reality were much too complex to settle with a closing curtain or final chapter" (5).
Helen Burns's illness fits the melodramatic model of Victorian literature in some ways, but in the Lowood epidemic, Bronte's narrative voice is so spare that it is almost clinical. She devotes only about five paragraphs to narrating the epidemic, and this narrative is interrupted by Helen's death of consumption. Indeed, the young Jane seems to be hardly aware of the epidemic at all except as a background to her relative freedom and comfort in the absence of classes. As Linda Schlossberg points out in "'The Low, Vague Hum of Numbers': The Malthusian Economies of Jane Eyre, in Bronte's Depiction of Disease," "Jane gains strength off the sickness of the other girls; her body literally grows stronger as the other children sicken and die" (503). Far from sentimentalizing disease, Bronte shows how extreme privation creates a dynamic in which one person's tragedy is another's lucky break. True, Bronte is representative of her time period in the way she tidies up the loose ends when the proto-Board of Health intervenes and makes the necessary changes, but this does not mean she "neatly put[s] to rest" the problems raised by the epidemic. After all, the girls are still dead. Instead, Bronte's description of justice being served represents her take on what Boards of Health should have been doing a year before the Public Health Act was passed.
One might argue that the Lowood epidemic does not constitute a narrative of disability, and therefore cannot be addressed using disability studies. After all, disability studies tends to focus on individuals who are disabled, while the sick girls at Lowood are nameless and faceless victims who quickly die from their disability and exist only for a few paragraphs. However, as Lennard Davis points out, one of the central concerns of disability studies is the ideal of the "norm," and this word began to be used with its current meaning around the year 1840, just seven years before Jane Eyre was published (10). The "norm" became popular as statistics became more prevalent, and, as Davis points out, "The rather amazing fact is that almost all the early statisticians had one thing in common: they were eugenicists" (14). The eugenics movement happened alongside the public health reforms, and in many ways, both phenomena were based around what Davis describes as "the idea that a population can be normed" (14). Though the health reformers saved thousands of lives and made great strides in the formation of modern medicine, their whitewashing, vaccinating, and removal of nuisances masked a sinister compulsion to enforce sameness on the population. When the public objected to health reforms, Sigsworth and Worboys have shown it was because the reforms the Board of Public Health enforced on the whole country were not relevant to every part of it, and those who needed more food, better work, and a different water supply derived no benefit from teetotalism or free brooms. Similarly, the stigma assigned to "filth diseases" was just another way of shaming difference; the phrase "filth disease" implied the afflicted person lacked the moral fortitude to stay clean and healthy. Susan Sontag's description of the AIDS epidemic in the United States provides some interesting parallels: "From the beginning, the construction of the illness had depended on notions that separated one group of people from another—the sick from the well, people with ARC from people with AIDS, them and us—while implying the imminent dissolution of these distinctions" (234). In the same way, the Victorians distinguished between the sick and the well, the poor and the rich, the city and the country, typhus and consumption. Similarly, when Sontag writes that the rhetoric of AIDS was based around a fear of "the imminent dissolution of these distinctions," one can imagine an exponentially larger fear of this dissolution in Victorian England when the means by which diseases were spread were not well-understood, and when several different kinds of epidemics were decimating the population at the same time.
In contrast, Charlotte Bronte's portrayal of an epidemic removes the stigma from disease by depicting it as a result of neglect, rather than of slovenliness, ignorance, or poor hygiene. Her concrete solutions to the problem are specific to the girls' needs, and do not enforce conformity, but rather see to it they have the things they need to take care of themselves. The epidemic allows Bronte to articulate how extreme neglect was harming school-aged girls during her time period, and to argue for the appointing of a Board of Health so that the administrations of schools like Lowood were held accountable.
Fran Thielman is a second-year MA student in English literature at Appalachian State University, where she is currently working on her thesis The Reformer and the Eugenicist: Representations of Disease in Jane Eyre and Bleak House. Her research interests include digital humanities, history of language, history of medicine, and disability studies. She intends to pursue a PhD in either medieval literature or Victorian literature.<o:p></o:p>
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