Posts Tagged discipline

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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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…)