Rumbustiousness and moral indignation

Charlotte Brontë, restored detail from a painting by her brother Branwell

Inverted Commas 13: Daydreaming

“I am, as Miss Scatcherd said, slatternly; I seldom put, and never keep, things, in order; I am careless; I forget rules; I read when I should learn my lessons; I have no method; and sometimes I say, like you, I cannot bear to be subjected to systematic arrangements. This is all very provoking to Miss Scatcherd, who is naturally neat, punctual, and particular.”

So says Helen Burns in Chapter 6 of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Ten-year-old Jane has been admitted to Lowood School and has just seen Helen, three years her senior, severely chastised by Miss Scatcherd, a woman whom Jane sees as cruel and vindictive for picking on Helen.

Helen however sees herself as entirely in the wrong, listing what she counts as her own faults. In a later elaboration she describes how she daydreams, allowing her concentration to stray from the teacher’s words.

“Now, [my thoughts] continually rove away; when I should be listening to Miss Scatcherd, and collecting all she says with assiduity, often I lose the very sound of her voice; I fall into a sort of dream. Sometimes I think I am in Northumberland, and that the noises I hear round me are the bubbling of a little brook which runs through Deepden, near our house; — then, when it comes to my turn to reply, I have to be awakened; and having heard nothing of what was read for listening to the visionary brook, I have no answer ready.”

“Yet how well you replied this afternoon,” replies Jane, with some wonder. “It was mere chance,” returns Helen, “the subject on which we had been reading had interested me.”

This time the subject was a king who reigned nearly two centuries before Brontë lived:

“This afternoon, instead of dreaming of Deepden, I was wondering how a man who wished to do right could act so unjustly and unwisely as Charles the First sometimes did; and I thought what a pity it was that, with his integrity and conscientiousness, he could see no farther than the prerogatives of the crown.”

For a thirteen-year-old Helen is quite perspicacious. “If he had but been able to look to a distance, and see how what they call the spirit of the age was tending!”

I have quoted all this because a lot of what Helen Burns says reminds me of myself both as a school student and latterly as an adult. I daydreamed during lessons and even lectures: a word, phrase or image would set my thoughts wandering freely down byways until brought back with a shock to the mainstream. Unless the subject interested me deeply and I could engage with what was being said — until the next moment when another idea caught my attention, distracting me from the main argument.

Like Helen — whom Jane witnessed being punished by having “sharply inflicted on her neck a dozen strokes with [a] bunch of twigs” which she herself had to fetch from a small inner room — I was beaten for inattention or, more frequently, not doing my homework, in the days when corporal punishment was permitted. I had the strap (several strips of leather sewn together) administered by Irish Christian Brothers or masters on the palms of my hand, up to six strokes in all on one occasion.* When I was twelve, going on thirteen I held the class record for straps in one year: thirty strokes, which I notched up on my wooden ruler.

Did it cure my inattention or laziness? No, it did not. Did Helen Burns learn to mend her ways? Hard to tell, given what was to come. But it made a great impression on young Jane, who had a natural rumbustiousness coupled with a towering moral indignation. Much of Jane’s appeal to readers must come from those sterling qualities, traits she shares with many a later young protagonist (such as Joan Aiken’s Dido Twite).

* Possibly false memory syndrome, now I think about it. I remember being strapped more than once on on each palm, but whether in all four or six strokes were given I can no longer swear to it. The practice of six strokes was not unusual.

20 thoughts on “Rumbustiousness and moral indignation

  1. One of the few benefits of sexism was that our school gave the boys the strap freely but were very reluctant to strap the girls… and when we did achieve the honour, they went gently with it. The boys however could end up badly bruised. It all seems like another world now…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The past is truly a different country! As a retired teacher I remember that transition from coercive pedagogy, and how it required a re-education for all concerned. Resorting to physical punishment is in many cases a sign of weakness, and was (and is) often singularly ineffective in ensuring compliance or discipline. Frustrating, maybe, but not a justification for vindictive retribution.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I can’t quite bring myself to ‘like’ this post for it reminds me of corporal punishment in my convent school. Although as a girl it was always a ruler rather than the strap. However I agree with you about Jane’s character traits and their appeal. At the moment I have a proof copy of a retelling of Jane Eyre from the publishers Barrington Stoke and I’m intrigued to see how much of the heart of the story and the character is retained in a greatly abridged version.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sorry, I got rather sidetracked on the punishment more than the ‘crime’ — I intended to focus on the daydreaming, coupled with Jane’s indignation — but childhood trauma is never a comfortable topic to discuss.

      I look forward to seeing your review of the retelling: it must feel heart in mouth anticipating whether a modern version does justice to the original or not.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I also identified with Helen Burns, and my third-grade teacher did something about the fact that “I read when I should learn my lessons.” She saw to it that I was forbidden to use the school library. I was not allowed to take out books.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s the major fault of Big Education, trying to fit everybody into the same mould for learning when we have different capacities, strengths and weaknesses. I also think that the way pedagogy is institutionalised restricts the possibility of creative imagination taking place at crucial times in our lives, as it obviously seems to in your case. What a Miss Scatcherd your teacher must have been, Jeanne, to deny you the tools — such as books — that education is supposed to make available to one and all. I feel for the child that was you — an unforgivable sanction to have imposed on you.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks. It wasn’t just third grade–it was third, fourth, fifth, and sixth. Finally I got out of that school and left the reputation for “reading all the time and not paying attention to other lessons” behind me.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. The sad part is that one could expect scant support or sympathy from parents for being beaten for such ‘lapses’. I found they arose when the teacher droned on so boringly that I switched off and considered more interesting matters — to the greater benefit of my education, I think.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lack of parental sympathy? That was very likely the case way back when, a time when parents may well have said that they had been beaten at school and it never did them any harm.

      The thing is, as an educationalist married to a psychologist I know that not to be the case, that trauma which begins in childhood can and does last right through into adulthood and old age, with unforeseeable negative consequences. I’m not arguing against sanctions of any sort, just actions that if done by one adult to another would constitute assault in a court of law.

      I seem to have wandered off the point you were trying to make, Leslie, me going off on a rant as usual! Sorry. Daydreaming, I think you’re saying, is understandable, indeed justifiable, when teachers are unable to make lesson content sufficiently interesting to encourage all their students to engage. If so, I definitely agree!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ era.

        One of the worst wallopings ever was when I suggested to the master concerned that the lesson was boringly presented. A complete sense-of-humour failure ensued.


  5. Alyson Woodhouse

    I’m sorry to hear you had such awful experiences in education, Chris. Strapping children had been banned by the time I went to school in the early 90s, but I spent the first three years of primary education in a strict Catholic school for blind and deaf pupils. Some of the staff hadn’t quite got their head around the fact the law had changed, and I remember once being struck with a ruler because I was struggling a bit learning braille. My parents moved me to a better school after that, thank goodness.

    As for Helen Burns, she is often dismissed by critics and readers of Jane Eyre as little more than a passive saint and an idealised portrait of Victorian child or womanhood, but I always felt a rather reluctant connection with her. Jane is a great heroine, and probably the type I wished to emulate when I was younger, but over the years, I have come to realise that perhaps I am more of a Helen, and maybe that’s okay too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How awful it must have been to be punished when you were struggling, Alyson: as a new teacher I struggled not to be sarcastic at times, something I had to work hard to eradicate, but I can’t say I was ever successful. When the school of my childhood moved premises and I got older I fancy that mild reign of terror started to fade away.

      It’s weird but sometimes when you’re that age you sort of come to accept chastisement even if it’s not what you expect from school, let alone believing like Helen Burns that such treatment is somehow justified. Psychology tells us that some victims of abuse come to believe it’s their fault, but of course it never is.

      Helen is more passive than Jane was, but that doesn’t make her a saint any more than Jane’s impetuosity makes her evil. The tragedy of Helen is that she was never able to achieve her potential.


  6. I guess daydreaming is an inseparable element of childhood – and the reason for schools to exist, to put us all into one mold and make us conform to social rules and expectations.

    I’m sorry to hear about your school experiences – and I can only say I’m very glad we’re past that horrible period, even if most schools are still quite far away from an educational ideal of freely inspired and cherished curiosity, imagination, and skill and knowledge learning.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s odd, I feel a bit dissociated from that period in my life, as if my younger self was separate from me — someone I feel sorry for and also empathise with — but I don’t feel bitter. If I ever did. Perhaps I just accepted it because I knew no better, though I knew somehow it was both cruel and humiliating.

      Now we see it as physical abuse, and rightly so. The Welsh government has already cleared the way to ban smacking in the country* while Scotland has reportedly just done exactly that.** Now will the rest of the UK? We wait and see…


      Liked by 1 person

  7. In my early years as a teacher I was hugely inattentive during staff meetings. I have always been able to re-watch films and TV shows I have seen in my head whenever I want to and I used to do that whenever the meetings began to drag on. Now, a lot older and a little bit wiser, I know that those who are not listening carefully during a staff meeting can end up being given all the horrible jobs to do, so I pay better attention! I think this was more effective at getting me to listen than any kind physical punishment. For me physical punishment just scared me and stopped my ability to think about anything.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Once bitten, forever shy, Jo? Metaphorically speaking of course!

      Physical punishment has little if anything to commend it, does it? It may satisfy those who want revenge, have a twisted sense of morality or are simply cruelty personified. It rarely has a positive impact on those who are punished.


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