Then her soul sat on her lips, and language flowed.
Helen Burns is a character in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. The character is taken from Brontë's older sister Maria.
On a personal note, I am noding this because of the strong and powerful impression Helen made on me. Though she appears but briefly in the book, she is inspiring, admirable, beautiful, and tragic. It is my hope that this node, if it is to have any impression, convinces you to read Jane Eyre and be willing to be moved by what you find there.
*Spoilers for the first section of Jane Eyre*
Jane Eyre first meets Helen one day during recess. Jane has just enrolled in Lowood Institution, which is a charity school for girls. She has many questions, and her meeting with Helen is the first opportunity for her to ask them. Jane is ten, and Helen is fourteen. Helen knows all the answers, including several obscure ones about the founding and development of the school. She soon dismisses Jane's questioning: "You ask rather too many questions. I have given you answers enough for the present; now I want to read."
This desire to read is what fills Helen's waking hours. She is always thinking and reading. Her studies suffer for it, and she is often punished in class. Jane can't understand this, but it is explained to her:
"That is curious," said I: "it is easy to be careful."
"For you I have no doubt it is. I observed you in your class this morning, and saw you were closely attentive: your thoughts never seemed to wander while Miss Miller explained the lesson and questioned you. Now, mine 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 a dream."
She goes on to explain that when she knows the answers, it is pure chance: she has the answers because the subject matter
happens to interest her. If it does not, as she says, "having heard nothing of what was real for listening to the visionary
book, I have no answer ready."
What is remarkable is how readily Helen admits her failings. Rather than cover her inability to answer with the excuse, "It did not interest me, and I did not care to study," she says, "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."
What most of us would dismiss as unimportant, or possibly even account as a point of pride, Helen admits is simply true. This is the first aspect that the reader sees of Helen's huge depth of character, which is submission, but submission that is not weakness. It takes a certain lack of strength always to submit to ones superiors, and to accept what is to one given, but it takes a profound resource of fortitude and spirit to accept what is given, and submit where submission is due, and to remain at all times oneself. This is what Helen does.
And this is the distinction that Jane does not understand. She argues, "If people were always kind and obedient to those who are cruel and unjust, the wicked people would have it all their own way: they would never feel afraid, and so they would never alter, but would grow worse and worse." Jane's fiery spirit will not let her submit; she has grown up under the hateful spite of her aunt, and the rebelliousness that bred in her renders her unable, at this point, to understand Helen. But she is given insight when Helen tells her, stirringly, her theory of Universal Salvation, "it makes Eternity a rest—a mighty home," and then
Helen's head, always drooping, sank a little lower as she finished this sentence. I saw by her look she wished no longer to talk to me, but rather to converse with her own thoughts. She was not allowed much time for meditation: a monitor, a great rough girl, presently came up, exclaiming in a strong Cumberland accent:—
"Helen Burns, if you don't go and put your drawer in order, and fold up your work this minute, I'll tell Miss Scatcherd to come and look at it!"
Helen sighed as her reverie fled, and getting up, obeyed the monitor without reply as without delay.
I think the moment at which Jane begins to understand Helen comes when Jane herself is forced to withstand cruel—indeed unjust—punishment. Called in front of the school, she is claimed to be a liar, and made to stand on a stool for half an hour, and the students are encouraged not to associate with her. All this, for a girl of ten—how unbearable! How pitiable! On her own, how could she do it? But strength comes from a hidden quarter:
There was I, then, mounted aloft: I, who had said I could not bear the shame of standing on my natural feet in the middle of the room, was now exposed to general view on a pedestal of infamy. What my sensations were, no language can describe; but just as they all rose, stifling my breath and constricting my throat, a girl came up and passed me: in passing, she lifted her eyes. What a strange light inspired them! What an extraordinary sensation that ray sent through me! How the new feeling bore me up! It was as if a martyr, a hero, had passed a slave or victim, and imparted strength in the transit. I mastered the rising hysteria, lifted up my head, and took a firm stand on the stool.
That girl is, of course, Helen Burns.
Helen's ability to withstand the punnishments, which she feels just, that are meted out to her springs from the font of strength within her, but her determination to withstand them arises from her unceasing inward reflections. The brilliance and purity of her thought are alluded to in her conversations with Jane, but it is not until Jane is invited to witness a conversation between Helen and the head teacher, Miss Temple, that the true beauty of Helen's mind is revealed to her:
The refreshing meal, the brilliant fire, the presence and kindness of her beloved instructress, or perhaps more than all these, something in her own unique mind, had roused her powers within her. They woke, they kindled: first, they glowed in the bright tint of her cheek, which till this hour I had never seen but pale and bloodless; then they shone in the liquid lustre of her eyes, which had suddenly acquired a beauty more singular than that of Miss Temple's—a beauty neither of fine colour nor long eyelash, nor penciled brow, but of meaning, of movement, of radiance. Then her soul sat on her lips, and language flowed, from what source I cannot tell: has a girl of fourteen a large heart enough, vigorous enough to hold the swelling spring of pure, full, fervid eloquence? Such was the characteristic of Helen's discourse on that, to me, memorable evening: her spirit seemed hastening to live within a very brief span as much as many live during a protracted existence.
This contrasts severely with the submissive Helen of before. Indeed, Helen earlier told Jane, about her conversations with Miss Temple, that she does not strive to be good as she strives with the other teachers. She is not submissive, because she is too absorbed in the conversation. Helen claims, however, "There is no merit in such goodness."
Jane (and myself), witnessing the bright and lively Helen, and thinking before of the strong but sombre Helen, is suddenly not so sure. Perhaps she sees a side that Helen herself ignores; perhaps Helen does not see how much more noble and inspiring she could be if she were always so vital. I think it is far more likely that she finally understands just how much fortitude is necessary to be good the way Helen is good, and the amount is so great that she quails at ever being able to meet it. Helen, on the night of her discourse with Miss Temple, forgets to arrange her drawer again:
Next morning, Miss Scatcherd wrote in conspicuous characters on a piece of pasteboard the word "Slattern," and bound it like a phylactery round Helen's large, mild, intelligent, and benign-looking forehead. She wore it till evening, patient, unresentful, regarding it as a deserved punishment. The moment Miss Scatcherd withdrew after afternoon-school, I ran to Helen, tore it off, and thrust it into the fire: the fury of which she was incapable had been burning in my soul all day, and tears, hot and large, had continually been scalding my cheek; for the spectacle of her sad resignation gave me an intolerable pain at the heart.
This is the extreme release of pathos
. Helen refuses to feel the base
emotions in her situation: she is too good for that. But we
are under no such compulsion
. The rage and indignation that we and Jane feel are expressed by the burning of the pasteboard, the destruction of that which offends the one we love. Is this right of us? Should we feel angry at what Helen was made to suffer, or shameful, because we are unable to do what Helen is, to "Read the New Testament, and observe what Christ says, and how he acts—make his word your rule, and his conduct your example."?
Helen's theological and religious beliefs no doubt aid her in her convictions. And they shine through to the end. She has been suffering from consumption, and at the last it takes her. Jane isn't fully aware of the danger Helen is in until shortly before Helen's death. Helen is sleeping in Miss Temple's room; Jane sneaks in while Miss Temple is away, and lies down with her. Helen is easily able to accept her fate: "I am very happy, Jane; and when you hear that I am dead you must be sure and not grieve: there is nothing to grieve about. ... By dying young I shall escape great sufferings."
She kissed me, and I her; and we both soon slumbered.
When I awoke it was day: an unusual movement roused me; I looked up; I was in somebody's arms; the nurse held me; she was carrying me through the passage back to the dormitory. I was not reprimanded for leaving my bed; people had something else to think about: no explanation was afforded then to my many questions; but a day or two afterwards I learned that Miss Temple, on returning to her own room at dawn, had found me laid in the little crib; my face against Helen Burns's shoulder, my arms around her neck. I was asleep, and Helen was—dead.
Her grave is in Brocklebridge churchyard: for fifteen years after her death it was only covered by a grassy mound; but now a grey marble tablet marks the spot, inscribed with her name, and the word "Resurgam."
The text I used was the Oxford World's Classics edition, first published in 1980.
CST Approved hoorah