Charlotte Bronte and childhood

Childhood in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries

The seventeenth and eighteenth century saw a philosophical and psychological debate about how the mind was formed and stocked with ideas:

  • Some philosophers argued that children were born with their mind as a blank page
  • This page must be written on – that is to say the mind must be filled with knowledge, ideas and values, which, modified by experience, would equip children with what they needed to function as social beings
  • This meant that adults felt it appropriate to take a strong line in the education and upbringing of children with little or no regard for a child's perceptions of the world, which were regarded as uninformed and immature
  • A different view, usually that of Christian thinkers, held that children were born in original sin and that their souls must be cleansed of that sin, often by quite stern measures, to make them fit for salvation; this is the belief that lies behind Mr. Brocklehurst's Calvinist attitude towards children as unregenerate beings
  • In both these views, childhood was seen as little more than a preparation for adulthood, with little value as a period in the lives of individuals.

The Romantics and childhood

RousseauLater eighteenth century philosophers and poets reversed this view:

  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the thinkers whose ideas influenced the French Revolution, believed that children were naturally innocent and were corrupted by society
  • Rousseau developed the idea of the child of nature and argued that children should be subjected to as little formal education as possible and be allowed to live a natural life, from which they would learn all that they required
  • The Romantic poets were very much influenced by the idea of the natural child, celebrating childhood as a separate and valuable state, and believing that children should not be hurried into adulthood
  • William Wordsworth, in his Ode on Intimations of Mortality from Early Childhood (1807), lays particular stress on children's fresh, unprejudiced and innocent perception of the world:
‘There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
    To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.'

(William Wordsworth, Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Early Childhood, 1807, lines 1-5)
  • This is linked to another idea – that the mind or soul does not come into the world empty, or as a blank sheet:
       ‘Not in entire forgetfulness
    And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
        From God who is our home' (Lines 62-65)

Eventually, the demands of society capture the child as:

‘Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy' (lines 67-68).

In adulthood the visionary quality of life disappears:

‘At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day'.

Charlotte Brontë and the importance of childhood

Brontë inherited the Romantic view of the importance of childhood perception. In Jane Eyre she dramatises it within Jane's experience of the social world of the early nineteenth century:

  • She is very aware of the vulnerability of children who are at the mercy of adults like Mrs. Reed (who finds them tiresome) or Brocklehurst (who sees them as little sinners)
  • She was also conscious of the way in which society brands or categorises children, as in institutions like Lowood School
  • The demands of society and family circumstance might force children into adulthood much too early by subjecting them to experiences – again like Lowood School – for which they are not prepared
  • Charlotte Brontë also seems to have placed much value on the perceptions of children, and although the events of Jane Eyre are recollected by the narrator in adulthood, she attempts to come as close as possible to Jane's childhood experiences and does not question the validity of her view of them.
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