Schools in nineteenth-century England were brutal and uncompromising institutions. Lowood School from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is a typical girls school of that era, and its depiction was derived from the author’s own experiences at The Clergy Daughters’ School, located in Cowan Bridge, a village in the county of Lancashire.
When the apothecary Mr. Lloyd inquires whether the child Jane would like to go to school, the protagonist recalls her nursemaid Bessie’s observations of school being “a place where young ladies sat in stocks, wore back-boards, and were expected to be exceedingly genteel and precise” (I, 3, p.25).
Bessie’s remarks echo the reality of much girls schooling in the early nineteenth century, as well as going some way to anticipating Jane’s grueling experiences at Lowood, where the pupils are mistreated, and the accommodation, sanitation, and provisions are all of a very poor quality. These aspects are vividly illustrated in several passages, such as the serving of burnt porridge to the girls at breakfast: “I saw an universal manifestation of discontent when the fumes of the repast met the nostrils of those destined to swallow it” (I, 5, p.45), and the building’s lack of heating: “this morning we were obliged to dispense with the ceremony of washing: the water in the pitchers was frozen” (I, 6, p.52).
Many of these incidents are drawn from Charlotte’s own experiences at Cowan Bridge school, as are several of the characters who figure in them.
Lowood School’s headmaster and treasurer is Mr. Brocklehurst, a grim and pious man who runs the institution as cheaply as possible. When Jane first encounters him the fleeting impression she gets at first glance is that of “a black pillar!” (I, 4, p.31). Mr. Brocklehurst has an original in the Reverend William Carus-Wilson (1791-1859), the founder of The Clergy Daughters’ School. Carus-Wilson was a Calvinist Evangelist, ordained in 1816. He was also the son of a prosperous landowner. Revelations concerning Carus-Wilson’s running of the school caused much controversy in later years.
The kindly superintendent Miss Temple who Jane develops a close friendship with has a real life counterpart in Ann Evans, who was the superintendent at Cowan Bridge school. Charlotte’s favourable depiction of Miss Temple is considered a ‘just tribute’ to Ann Evans’s character.
Another Lowood staff member who was modeled on an actual person is Miss Scatcherd, the History and Grammar teacher who mercilessly bullies Jane’s friend Helen Burns. Miss Scatcherd is apparently based on a Miss Andrews, who taught at Cowan Bridge school when the Bronte sisters attended, and Charlotte’s portrayal of her is quite the opposite to that of Ann Evans. In fact, along with John Reed, Miss Scatcherd is arguably the most unpleasant character in the novel. In her Life of Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell alludes to the harsh behaviour of Miss Andrews, cruelties echoed in the Lowood section of Jane Eyre, such as when Helen is birched by Miss Scatcherd for having dirty fingernails, despite being unable to wash them due to the water being frozen that morning.
The character of Helen Burns is generally thought to be modeled on Charlotte’s eldest sister Maria, who died of consumption in 1825, aged only 11. She developed the illness from her insalubrious surroundings at The Clergy Daughters’ School. Charlotte herself maintained that the school’s privations permanently affected her health as well and that she didn’t exaggerate any details in her descriptions of Lowood in relation to the school at Cowan Bridge.