Charlotte Brontë’s Epidemic

Charlotte Bronte portrait

When Covid-19 swept through, we entered a sudden new reality which dictated our lives for two years. A switch flipped and we found ourselves in strange times, careful of how we moved, touched, worked, ate, and—well, just about everything. Many of us self-quarantined. We thought about what it all meant. Many of us expressed those thoughts in fiction and poetry.

A classic novel of the 19th century provides one writer’s unflinching approach to such a reality, and teaches us that pain and grief may become stepping stones to improving our world.

In October of 1847, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre was published. An often-overlooked aspect of the novel is its early section about Jane’s childhood years in the fictional Lowood School. Brontë drew from her own experiences at the Clergy Daughters’ School in Lancashire, where her two older sisters died in pain of tuberculosis. Her father, Patrick, an Anglican priest, shocked, guilt-ridden, and grief-stricken, withdrew little Charlotte and her younger sister Emily from the school.

Lowood’s appalling conditions—contaminated water and food, poor nutrition, hunger, inadequate clothing, unclean quarters, and little health care—feed a deadly outbreak of typhus that burns through the institution in heartbreaking fashion, laying waste to many of the girls (typhus and typhoid are two different diseases; in Brontë’s day, the two were often mistaken, and it’s likely that the disease she describes was in fact typhoid). Through fiction, she leveled a blistering critique of living conditions and the society that allowed such things to happen to its children. 

Jane Eyre was an instant bestseller, adding cache to the growing, angry chorus of voices of reformers demanding better public health and living conditions for the poor, and on August 31, 1848, England passed the Public Health Act. That legislation created the General Board of Health, which was empowered to create local health boards in the towns and villages of England and Wales, to address clean water supply, sewerage, drainage, and sanitation. Sounds incomplete and modest, and it was, but it packed a far-reaching punch and led to subsequent legislation over the next few decades with more and sharper teeth, and leaving in its wake a more just and equitable land.

“Think globally, act locally” is a mantra we follow to effect change. Sometimes, things we push for in society in a broad, general way have a way of paying big dividends locally. The groundswell that created the General Board of Health changed the landscape and later enabled Brontë’s father to push for an investigation of living conditions in the village of Haworth, where Charlotte grew up. Haworth had an average life span of less than 26 years, and 41% of children died by age six. Its horrendous conditions—excrement running down street gutters, decomposing animal carcasses confined in open, fenced areas, and decomposing matter from the graveyard filtering into the water supply—were detailed in the Board report of 1850, and forcing swift improvements on the town.

Such is the power of fiction, and such is the cyclical nature of societal change, from the small and personal to the large and sweeping, and returning once again to the small and personal.

Covid hasn’t gone away. Variants rear their nasty little heads. So stay vigilant, and if we find ourselves in the grips of another pandemic, stay well, keep reading, and keep writing. Read whatever strikes your fancy, both the serious and the escapist, which we certainly will need. The lighthearted and the somber, as suits you. And if you are so moved, let your new reality inspire your writing and make a difference.

The world needs you.

–KP

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