by Charlotte Brontë
Where It All Goes Down
Nineteenth-Century Rural England: Gateshead, Lowood Institute, Thornfield/Millcote, the moors, Moor House/Morton, Ferndean
Most of the place names we get in Jane Eyre are fictitious: they’re the names of houses (Gateshead Hall, where the Reeds live; Thornfield Hall and Ferndean Manor, Mr. Rochester’s places; and Moor House, where the Rivers siblings live) or schools (Lowood Institute) or little imaginary towns (Millcote, Morton) that resemble lots of places in nineteenth-century north-central England, but we never really get any specifics on where exactly we are other than that. It’s sort of like the British equivalent of setting something in "the Midwest" – it’s a general region with a certain feel to it, but not a specific place like Kansas. Jane never even goes to London, which would at least be a real English city. (London is far south of where she is in the novel.) On a more specific level, each of Jane’s settings provides a pair of indoor and outdoor spaces for her to range in: Gateshead and the walk outside, Lowood and the woods/marshes, Thornfield and its garden and woods, and the moors that stretch between Thornfield and Morton. So Jane’s always able to move fluidly between the natural world and human civilization – just one more of her strange, fairy-like abilities to cross boundaries.
Each of the imaginary-but-specific houses or places where Jane lives represent a certain stage in her life. Her childhood happens at Gateshead and ends (mostly) when she reaches her ethical awakening with the red-room incident. Notice the name, "Gateshead" – this place is her "gateway" or entrance to the rest of the world and the "head" or fount of all her problems. She then moves on to her education at Lowood Institute until she wants to get out into the world and seek her fortune. "Lowood" meaning "low wood," because that’s where the place is built (in a low valley beside a wood) but also because it’s a "low" time in her life. Next comes young love at Thornfield, where she finds mystery and temptation – a "field of thorns" with an almost allegorical or Biblical flavor. Then Jane endures a temporary banishment at Moor House and in the little town of Morton, where she discovers friends and relatives in unlikely places and recharges herself. It’s no accident that she’s able to rest up for her final adventure "out on the moors," in the wilderness, which also has a religious flavor. Finally, Jane experiences mature love at Ferndean when she returns to Rochester. Jane can’t just go back to her naive young love after the experiences she’s had; Thornfield has to be burned down once and for all and a new "ferny brae" or Eden-like paradise appears.
It’s also important to notice the effect of some nineteenth-century beliefs and customs on the novel. In a novel from a later time period, the central problem of bigamy wouldn’t even exist, because Rochester would be able to get a divorce from Bertha and move on with his life. Britain’s relationship with its colonies, especially India and the West Indies, and the effects of imperial rule on British culture are also in evidence, as are nineteenth-century ideas about disease (the "miasma theory," which suggests that disease is caused by unhealthy fogs and mists instead of germs) and about character ("phrenology," a pseudo-science that claimed you could tell someone’s character type from the shape of their face and skull, which was widely believed at the time).