Posts Tagged children’s Gothic

The True Story of the Lowood Institution

17 September 2011

Like most writers, the Brontë sisters drew upon their own life experiences in composing their novels and particularly, it is sad to say, in their more tragic elements thereof. The most striking example is the story of Jane Eyre’s experiences at the Lowood Institution, and the heart-breaking death of Helen Burns. 

“Lowood” was Cowan Bridge, a Clergy Daughters’ School that was attended by the Brontë sisters, where they were referred to as “charity children,” fed burnt porridge, and made to wash in freezing water. The character of Mr. Brocklehurst was inspired by William Carus Wilson, a Calvinist reverend and moral tyrant who operated the school. Something of his doctrines can be gleaned from a magazine he published, The Children’s Friend, which has been described as “part of a wholesale attempt to christianize fairy stories,” filled with tales of punishment, deathbed conversion and evangelism. 

The character of Helen Burns was based upon Charlotte’s older sister Maria Brontë, who, like her other sibling Elizabeth, was not fortunate enough to survive the “cold, implacable cruelty of Mr. Brocklehurst.” Something of their story is related in James Parton’s 1886 book Daughters of Genius:

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The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon

1 July 2011

On July 4th, 1885 Pall Mall Gazette editor W.T. Stead issued a “frank warning” to his readers. Due to public inattention, the Criminal Law Amendment Bill—an item of legislation drafted to suppress child prostitution and raise the age of consent in the United Kingdom from thirteen to sixteen—was once again languishing in the House of Commons. This could not be allowed to stand. The Gazette would be taking swift, decisive action to open the eyes of the public to the enormity of the crisis at hand, but it was not going to be pretty. “We have no desire to inflict upon unwilling eyes the ghastly story of the criminal developments of modern vice,” he wrote, “Therefore we say quite frankly to-day that all those who are squeamish, and all those who are prudish, and all those who prefer to live in a fool’s paradise of imaginary innocence and purity, selfishly oblivious to the horrible realities which torment those whose lives are passed in the London Inferno, will do well not to read the Pall Mall Gazette of Monday and the three following days.”

What followed was the Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon; a shocking, four-part exposé of child sex trafficking that sent London spiraling into moral panic. In spite of boycotts, harassment and threats of prosecution for obscenity, the Northumberland Street offices of the Gazette were literally besieged by eager newsboys and hungry runners desperate to obtain valuable new copies of the controversial paper. Meanwhile, Stead openly dared the authorities to press charges against him, threatening to subpoena almost half the Legislature to prove his allegations if such a case were brought to trial. The fiery reformer would not be silenced.

The report of a “secret commission,” the Maiden Tribute derived its title from the tribute that conquered Athens is said to have paid to King Minos: seven maidens and seven youths who were made to wander the Labyrinth of Daedalus, where they would inevitably encounter the deadly Minotaur. Truly, it was a terrible price to pay, and yet modern London was willingly offering up multitudes of its own maidens to meet their doom in the maze of brotheldom. “The maw of the London Minotaur is insatiable,” Stead wrote, “and none that go into the secret recesses of his lair return again.”

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Louise Lehzen, Governess to Princess Victoria

9 April 2011
Jeanette Hain portrays Louise Lehzen in the 2009 film The Young Victoria

Jeanette Hain portrays Louise Lehzen in the 2009 film The Young Victoria

In the opening chapters of her popular book We Two, Gillian Gill recounts something of the Gothic drama that was Queen Victoria’s childhood. The setting was a “dull, dark and gloomy” Kensington Palace, infested with rats and black beetles. Her father, Edward, Duke of Kent, died in her infancy, leaving her a position in the royal succession behind her three eldest uncles. Her German mother, Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfield, feuded with the English royal family at Windsor and schemed to one day seize the throne in her daughter’s name.

Princess Victoria of Kent, by Stephen Poyntz Denning

Victoire and her trusted advisor, Sir John Conroy, are the principal villains in this story. Conroy was an opportunistic blackguard who attached himself to the widowed duchess and her money, carefully controlling the flow of information between Victoire and her family on the Continent. Together they raised Victoria under strict surveillance and isolation. She was never left alone in a room for any reason, nor allowed to walk down the stairs without someone holding her hand.

Conroy “built a wall between Victoria and everyone in the world except her mother, himself, and his family.” He convinced the duchess to dismiss her lady-in-waiting of twenty-five years, Baroness Späth, “on the specious grounds that the lady was too extravagant in adoration of the Princess Victoria.” Victoria’s rebellious older sister, Princess Feodora, was likewise married off to “fourth-rank prince with a postage stamp kingdom” in Germany for fear that her example would undermine their authority. Conroy “saw Victoria as a key to be turned, not a mind to be won…Day in and day out, he snubbed and sneered at her, aiming to destroy her spirit.” Meanwhile, Victoria “watched the mother who had loved and protected her as a young child metamorphose into a wicked stepmother, intent on wealth, status and power.” (more…)