Nineteenth Century Views on Charity as Depicted in Charlotte Bronte’s Life and Novel, Jane Eyre

Nineteenth Century Views on Charity as Depicted in Charlotte Bronte’s Life and Novel, Jane Eyre

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Nineteenth Century Views on Charity as Depicted in Charlotte Bronte’s Life and Novel, Jane Eyre

In the nineteenth century, the role of charity was portrayed differently by many individuals depending on what religion they followed. On one hand, many people felt obligated to help the unfortunate to comply with religious responsibility and to become better individuals. On the other hand, Others, felt that the misfortunes of the poor weren’t their responsibility. The different concepts of charity can be viewed in Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre, as she reveals to us the various experiences Jane underwent as an orphan. Many of the instances that Bronte mentions in her novel are references to some of the incidents she encountered in her school years. To know why charity was significantly one of Bronte’s main focuses in the novel, we will look at the conceptions that the Anglicans and other Christian groups had of charity in the nineteenth century, as well as a history of Bronte’s familial background.

The Anglicans and other Christian groups viewed charity differently in the nineteenth century. Each religion had and preached its own concept. We learn that the Anglicans’ views are more in opposition to charity when Cheryl Walsh indicates that, "Through this type of religion, there was very little encouragement for the development of a social conscience—of recognition of any kind of responsibility for the welfare of fellow human beings"(353). Walsh also mentions that Anglicans "Felt neither responsible for the suffering of the poor nor called on to help alleviate that suffering"(353). The belief of not being responsible for the misfortunes of the poor and not attempting to help them in any way draws the notion that Anglicans clearly didn’t favor charitable acts. On the other hand, according to St. Paul, Christianity’s view on charity was more an act of duty than the expected one of kindness.

Christianity propagated charity as one of the necessary acts that a good Christian should follow. Graham Gordon believes that in Christianity, "Charity is considered chief of the Christian virtues," and that "Charity is commended by St. Paul for being the true way to the end which religious practices seek"(10). We can see that in being a chief virtue, charity is highly encouraged in the sense that helping others is considered to be a great deed of good doing. Therefore, we can draw the notion that those who wish to follow the "true way to the end," are those that contribute the most to the poor, as opposed to those mentioned by Walsh who see themselves as "not responsible for the welfare of human beings.

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The different levels at which charity is conceived, lead to Graham’s political view that

Charity bids us be concerned for the interests and happiness of others and cannot be squared with complacent indifference to the poor and the oppressed. It is, I believe, a desire to do something for the poor, which underlies the phenomenon called the politicization of religion…Christians have despaired of ever alleviating the obstacles to God’s goodness by means of charitable organizations (79-80).

Helping the poor is more of a moral obligation when it comes to "a desire to do something for the poor." Also, since charity is a religious duty, Christians developed "charitable organizations" to meet the standards that God has set as their religious responsibilities. Beyond the important issue of the nineteenth century conceptions of charity, is Bronte’s familial background, which gave potential to the issue of charity in Jane Eyre.

The beginning years for the Brontes were quite difficult in the sense that they were young and motherless. Mr. Bronte was a man of religion and wanted to secure the future for his children so that they would be successful individuals. Through this notion, Phyllis Bentley briefly describes Mr. Bronte:

He was sincerely religious with favorable inclination towards the reforming of zeal and Wesley; well informed on current affairs, well read and fond of reading. At the time of His marriage, he was minister at Hartshead. In 1820, he was appointed incumbent of Haworth, and moved his family to Haworth Parsonage (15).

With the notion of his religious experience, Mr. Bronte appears to be a man who spent a lot of time in the church, and his teachings are what shaped the influences of his children. Therefore, Charlotte’s choice to write about charity in Jane Eyre can be drawn from the impact that her father possibly had in being a priest.

In an attempt to secure the future for his children, and not being able to pay for their schooling, Mr. Bronte placed his children in a charity school, which Bentley describes as, "The Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge, by the Rev. William Carus Wilson who aimed to provide board and education for the daughters of the clergy for a fee of L14 a year, the remaining sums necessary being provided by charitable subscriptions" (25). In Charlotte’s novel Jane Eyre, "Cowan Bridge and Carus Wilson are drawn as Lowood and Mr. Brocklehurst"(Bentley, 25). The incidents that took place in this institution very much resemble those in the novel that took place at Lowood. Very little reference is made in respect to religion on Charlotte’s behalf. However, the information provided about her father and the charity institution at which she and her sisters attended, serve as the potentials, which led charity to be a significant focus in her novel of Jane Eyre.

Works Cited

Bentley, Phyllis. The Bronte’s and Their World. New York: Viking P, 1969
Graham, Gordon. The Idea of Christian Charity. Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame P, 1990.
Walsh, Cheryl. "The Incarnation and the Christian Socialist Conscience in the Victorian Church of England." Journal of British Studies. 34 (1995): 351-74.

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