Sunday, April 26, 2009

Jane, Helen and Charles the First

Triss has made it to the period of the English Civil War in history, and we are both reading _A Coffin for King Charles_ with much interest. As I sat with the book tonight, preparing for next week's lessons, I remembered a reference to King Charles made by Charlotte Bronte in the novel, _Jane Eyre_.

(I think I must have remembered the reference because Triss and I had been talking earlier about whether or not Helen Burns was a boring character, being chiefly good. I maintain that she is interesting; Triss disagrees.)

In order to tell about the reference, I want to give some background:

In the novel, young Jane is at a school for destitute girls, and meets a patient and quietly noble student named Helen Burns. Helen is a deep thinker, and frequently forgets to put her things in order, or to wash her hands and face, etc., and is frequently given grief by one of the schoolteachers, Miss Scatcherd.

Jane has just been brought to the school and placed in one of the forms, or classes, which all meet in one large room, each with a different teacher. (I wonder how that would work nowadays, as distracted as kids get sometimes.) She hears Miss Scatcherd get onto Helen Burns repeatedly, and her warm temper stirs within her. After classtime is over, she asks Helen how she can bear to be treated in such a way.

"And if I were in your place I should dislike her; I should resist
her. If she struck me with that rod, I should get it from her hand;
I should break it under her nose,

"Probably you would do nothing of the sort: but if you did, Mr.
Brocklehurst would expel you from the school; that would be a great
grief to your relations. It is far better to endure patiently a
smart which nobody feels but yourself, than to commit a hasty action
whose evil consequences will extend to all connected with you; and
besides, the Bible bids us return good for evil."

"But then it seems disgraceful to be flogged, and to be sent to
stand in the middle of a room full of people; and you are such a
great girl: I am far younger than you, and I could not bear it."

"Yet it would be your duty to bear it, if you could not avoid it:
it is weak and silly to say you CANNOT BEAR what it is your fate to
be required to bear."

I heard her with wonder: I could not comprehend this doctrine of
endurance; and still less could I understand or sympathise with the
forbearance she expressed for her chastiser. Still I felt that
Helen Burns considered things by a light invisible to my eyes. I
suspected she might be right and I wrong; but I would not ponder the
matter deeply; like Felix, I put it off to a more convenient season.

This is an interesting conversation, is it not? But where is Charles I? After Jane asks for and Helen gives a listing of her faults, they speak of a lesson in which Helen was very attentive and gave every correct answer-- only to be reprimanded for dirty fingernails by the impatient Miss Scatcherd. Helen tells Jane:

"It was mere chance; the subject on which we had been reading had
interested me. 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. If he had
but been able to look to a distance, and see how what they call the
spirit of the age was tending! Still, I like Charles--I respect
him--I pity him, poor murdered king! Yes, his enemies were the
worst: they shed blood they had no right to shed. How dared they
kill him!"

I find it very interesting that Charlotte Bronte decided to use this particular episode of history to illustrate Helen's thoughtfulness. The upheaval of Charles the First's argument with Parliament is a conflict in which it is very difficult to pinpoint who was in the right. And both sides thought that God acted with them.

(Personally, I think there is a great deal of history, I mean a GREAT deal of history, that the Lord does not reveal His 'side' on. This is one reason I dislike curricula that tell me "God in His providence ordained...", etc. How do they know? History is performed by sinful men, on both sides, and the lines of 'good' and 'bad' are not usually drawn clearly.)

Update: I don't think I am expressing myself very clearly on the above point. Something bothers me about it. I *do* believe that the Lord acts providentially, but I do *not* agree that He predestines events. I kind of wish I hadn't put my thoughts out there on this subject, but since I did, I guess I will leave it. I just don't like it when a publisher puts its own spin on historic events, many of which are determined by the ineptitude of man. I'm still not explaining myself clearly. :sigh: I think history should be reported and analyzed from the standpoint of human nature, and I do think that God intervenes in the events of man, but delineating that in a history book is a difficult path to tread, and is rarely done with restraint. Hopefully that is a little clearer.

Helen, although clearly a force for good in the novel, _Jane Eyre_, had many faults (most of which annoyed Miss Scatcherd). She did not know how to be careful not to offend. And she sympathized with Charles the First, who was really in the same boat-- with high thoughts of God and his duty as a Christian, he continually offended with his actions, and eventually was beheaded by men who thought highly of God as well.

I love what she says about Charles not seeing which direction the spirit of the age was tending-- this is addressed in the editor's preface of _A Coffin for King Charles_, the book Triss and I are reading:

Human beings caught in these concatenations of forces, these cataclysms, stumble along as best they can, but blindly, not knowing where they are being carried.

In the midst of dramatic change, it is difficult to see the forest for the trees. The steps of the movers and shakers (and the common people as well) become unsure and unsteady, treading ground that hasn't been gone over before.

How could he have understood the spirit of the age? I wonder if any of us could? But if you are a king, much is expected of you. Wedgwood, and even Churchill, state that Charles had history on his side, because the prerogative of kings had been honored for centuries, and even Elizabeth I, Mary I and Henry VIII, dealing with the stirrings of what Charles I faced, had successfully avoided the question of the divine right of kings. Charles did not. He wasn't the statesman he needed to be, perhaps.

Now, the Bible does tell us that God is no respecter of persons. That seems to take the royal prerogative off the table. But it also says "honor the king", and that the king's power is given (and taken away) by the Lord. Hmm.

And the question becomes whether or not he acted properly as king, and whether or not the Parliament acted legally, the English laws being based on the discovery of natural laws (English Common Law) and not on the whim of a governing body.

Okay, I'm rambling now. I'll be quiet. But I wonder what Bronte was saying about Charles I when she allowed Helen Burns to champion him in _Jane Eyre_?

Books referenced in this post include:

*Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
*A Coffin for King Charles by C.V. Wedgwood
*The New World by Winston Churchill


G.L.H. said...

I think you made your point well, about some of history happening because of Man's doings. You said it well!

I tend to use the "in God's providence" argument instead, to illustrate men who sought God's leading in their lives, such as our founding fathers.

I just have never read Jane Eyre for some reason or other, I will *have* to do it now!

hopeinbrazil said...

Im popping over from the Bronte blog where your post was mentioned. I couldn´t resist the title of your blog! I homeschooled for many years using Charlotte Mason´s ideas. Though I´m no longer homeschooling, I am definitely living in the promise of His daily, abundant grace. I love Jane Eyre, by the way, and only subscribe to the Bronte blog to see what others think about it. Thanks for giving me some new thoughts.

Blessings, Hope

Katie said...

Wow, I didn't realize they had linked. That's kind of neat.

Jane Eyre was my first serious novel as a teenager. I puzzled over that book for a couple of years before finishing it. I love the layers of thought contained within it.

Katie said...

Thanks for letting me know you thought I explained myself well, G.L.H. I always know what I mean, so it is sometimes difficulty to know if I am explaining well enough for others to know what I mean!