“Such dread as only children can feel”: Childhood trauma in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre
“For me,” Jane begins, following the incident in the red room, “the watches of that long night passed in ghastly wakefulness; ear, eye, and mind alike strained by dread: such dread as children only can feel” (Brontë 20). Saturated as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is with unnerving or unsettling sensations, what is fascinating is how these sensations and images work in conjunction to articulate trauma—particularly trauma as it is experienced by a child. There is a striking poignancy to Jane’s specification that the dread she feels in this moment is “dread as children only can feel” (emphasis mine). A closer reading of red room incident reveals that the text corresponds to two strands of contemporary nineteenth-century psychiatric and sociocultural thought: the construction of “the child” as a fixed, knowable object and the navigation and representation of physical and psychological shock or “trauma.”
For the most part, early to mid-nineteenth-century psychiatric and sociocultural discourses on “the child” and “trauma” treated the terms as unrelated subjects, with child psychiatry conceptualised as a specialised medical field and the notion of “childhood trauma” as a psychiatric condition of its own developing only in the last third of the century. Jill L Matus argues that the term “trauma” is “not just a concept formulated by medical and psychological discourse in isolation. It is highly dependent on social and cultural ideas about suffering, accountability, responsibility, reparation and victimhood” (7). In early- to mid-nineteenth-century Victorian medical and psychiatric fields, “trauma” did not exist in its elastic, multifaceted form as it does today, but the Victorian reconfiguration of that term, such that it pointed outside of a physical wound and towards a mental state (7), coincided with physicians “[coming] to believe that the sudden and severe effects of a violation of the physical self were mediated by the nerves, consequently formulating the notion of ‘nervous shock’” (Micale and Lerner 10). Jane, in her account of the moments after the red room incident, participates in this evolving concept of physical and psychological nervous shock by citing the medical and psychiatric rhetoric presented here, stating that her experience “gave my nerves a shock” (Brontë 20) and later referring to her “racked nerves” (20). Curiously, Jane also includes the fact that “I feel the reverberation [of the shock] to this day” (20). Her suggestion that shock is in some way linked to body and mental memory, that its “reverberations” or echoes can be felt months or years following the cause, reflects the emphasis gradually placed by Victorian psychiatrists on “the capacity for powerful emotional experiences to leave enduring traces upon the mind—to carve new channels or neural pathways in the brain that shaped subsequent psychological experiences” (Vrettos 202). It also suggests that trauma “turns out to be not an event per se but rather the experiencing or remembering of an event in the mind of an individual” (Micale and Lerner 20). The fact that Jane experiences these “enduring traces,” what she terms as “fearful pangs of mental suffering” (Brontë 20), as an adult despite the cause of the shock occurring as a child also prompts a more nuanced reading of what it is for the child to experience shock or trauma and how childhood trauma has lasting effects on adult subjectivity.
“The child” as a legal entity and as a “real,” self-contained object separate from the adult remained a relatively new notion following its recognition and construction in the eighteenth century (insofar as “the child” may be understood as a fixed, knowable object, subject to and shaped by the adult onlooker). The nineteenth-century child built upon and conflicted with the eighteenth-century child of John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, challenging Locke and Rousseau’s concepts of innate innocence or an embodied form of tabula rasa by positing the child as a much more complex and implicitly destabilising entity. Child psychopathology, however, only gained momentum following the widespread acceptance of Sir James Crichton-Brown’s essay “Psychical Diseases in Early Life” (1860), which was monumental within medical and psychiatric fields in that it located child nervous disorders as a product of both physical and physiological factors. Building on Crichton-Brown’s essay, Charles West in his Lectures on the Diseases of Infancy and Childhood(1868) emphasises the role of affect in child nervous disorders, stating that for the child, “though the intellectual powers are imperfectly developed, the feelings and the impulses are stronger, or, at least, less under control, than they become with advancing years” (214). Brontë appears to pre-emptively acknowledge West’s statement in Jane’s consideration of her affective state as a child and her trouble with articulating those “strong” feelings at the time of their occurrence, with Jane stating that “children can feel, but they cannot analyse their feelings” (Brontë 23). The notion that children could, in fact, feel in such strong ways responded to what Sally Shuttleworth calls the “peculiarly engrossing” question of child terror and fear in Victorian society, as child terror and fear “ran so directly counter to constructions of blithe innocence, or associationist models of childhood, which stressed the lack of accumulated experience in the child mind which might give rise to such extreme emotions” (The Mind of the Child 42). Jane evokes these “extreme emotions” by placing emphasis on the immensity of her younger self’s emotional responses during and after the red room. During the incident Jane describes herself as “oppressed, suffocated” (Brontë 17), her movements and gestures “wild, involuntary” and “desperate” (17), and as consumed by “frantic anguish and wild sobs” (18). Waking from unconsciousness, Jane observes that “agitation, uncertainty, and an all predominating sense of terror confused my faculties” (18), followed by a “ghastly wakefulness; ear, eye, and mind were alike strained by dread: such dread as children only can feel” (20).
The day after the incident in the red room, Jane acknowledges that she feels “physically weak and broken down” (20) but largely focuses on what she calls “an unutterable wretchedness of mind: a wretchedness which kept drawing from me silent tears; no sooner had I wiped one salt drop from my cheek than another followed” (20). She links this “unutterable wretchedness of mind” to her “racked nerves” (20), which were “now in such a state that no calm could soothe, and no pleasure excite them agreeably” (20). This association between a state of mind and the condition of nerves, that they are inextricably linked and influence one another, articulates a particular anxiety circulating in early to mid-century Victorian society: the relation between mind and body, or mind and matter. Dominant Victorian psychiatric opinion insisted on keeping the mind and body distinct from one another in order to distinguish the “higher faculties” of reason, faith, or exercise of will from the “lower faculties” of sense, desire, or emotion (Rylance 450). Brontë, however, disrupts this hierarchical notion throughout the novel, linking powerful emotional sensations and physiological reactions in moments of shock or distress to such an extent that the authority or influence of those “higher faculties” is destabilised. When Jane encounters the ghostly light in the red room, she not only experiences intense emotional reactions, but intense physiological ones too: “My heart beat thick, my head grew hot: a sound filled my ears, which I deemed the rushing of wings: something seemed near me” (Brontë 17). Jane is consumed by “frantic anguish and wild sobs” (18), unable to maintain the divide between mind and matter or to exert the logical authority of the mind over the illogical submissiveness of the body, such that upon being forced back into the red room by Mrs Reed, Jane recalls that “I suppose I had a species of fit: unconsciousness closed the scene” (18). There is only one other instance in which Jane “became insensible from terror” (284): apprehending the “lurid visage” (284) of Bertha Mason in her room in Thornfield.
Returning to those “reverberations” of nervous shock Jane experiences, the notion that trauma leaves traces upon the body and mind begs a closer examination of how trauma comes to infiltrate and distort Jane’s daily life following the red room incident. For example, when Jane attempts to find comfort in Gulliver’s Travels and to seek “in its marvellous pictures the charm I had, till now, never failed to find—all was eerie and dreary; the giants were gaunt goblins, the pigmies malevolent and fearful imps, Gulliver a most desolate wanderer in most dread and dangerous places” (21). To Jane, a child already preoccupied with visions of grim yet mysterious landscapes inhabited by phantasmal figures, that which had previously afforded stability and wonder is suddenly distorted. The contents of her “cherished volume” (21) become contaminated by an experience that Jane cannot necessarily psychologically articulate or process—limited as she is by what she as an adult interprets as her “undeveloped understanding and imperfect feelings” (9)—but the latent effects of which begin to manifest in her perceived reality. To an extent, Jane comes to resemble Gulliver as this “desolate wanderer,” emerging from the red room irreversibly affected by a traumatic experience that is never fully processed but altogether encompassing.
Brontë’s choice to have Jane as the adult narrator engage in this intensive cataloguing of child terror and nervous conditions through psychiatric rhetoric and affect positions the text as a compelling example of early literary representations of childhood trauma. Upon its publication Jane Eyre was lauded for its “natural” or “real” depiction of interiority and emotional life (Shuttleworth, Charlotte Brontë 3). By engaging with contemporary nineteenth-century psychiatric and medical discourses surrounding “the child” and “trauma” and offering a compelling case in which those two terms may mutually inform one another, Jane Eyreexemplifies “the ways in which literature could infuse, and indeed direct, the formation of child psychiatry and its categories of perception and understanding” (The Mind of the Child 53).Matus expands on Shuttleworth’s notion of literary significance of psychiatric and medical categories of trauma, stating that “literature is important to the historicisation of ideas about trauma precisely because trauma is a culturally and historically constructed concept; the medical and psychological discourse that helped to produce it ought to be seen in relation to its ambient culture” (53). Jane Eyre, then, emerges as an immensely important text in the historicisation of childhood trauma in the early to mid-nineteenth century.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Edited by Margaret Smith, Oxford UP, 2008.
Matus, Jill L. Shock, Memory and the Unconscious in Victorian Fiction. Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Micale, Mark, and Paul Lerner. Traumatic Pasts: History, Psychiatry, and Trauma in the Modern Age, 1870-1930. Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Rylance, Rick. “Convex and Concave: Conceptual Boundaries in Psychology, Now and Then (But Mainly Then).” Victorian Literature and Culture, vol. 32, no. 2, September 2004, pp. 449-62. Cambridge University Press, doi:10.1017/S1060150304000592. Accessed 16 Nov. 2019.
Shuttleworth, Susan. Charlotte Brontë and Victorian Psychology. Cambridge University Press, 2009.
—. The Mind of the Child: Child Development in Literature, Science, and Medicine, 1840-1900.Oxford University Press, 2010.
Vrettos, Athena. “Displaced Memories in Victorian Fiction and Psychology.” Victorian Studies, vol. 49, no. 2, Winter 2007, pp. 199-207. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4626277. Accessed 28 Nov. 2019.
West, Charles. Lectures on the Diseases of Infancy and Childhood, Philadelphia: Henry C Lea, 1868.
“The red room was a square chamber” via Jane Eyre Illustrated(http://janeeyreillustrated.com/Bedford_1.htm). Public Domain.
“How dare I, Mrs Reed? How dare I? Because it is the truth” via Wikimedia Commons(https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:P30b.jpg). Public Domain.
“He fixed his eyes on me very steadily” via Jane Eyre Illustrated(http://janeeyreillustrated.com/Garrett_1.htm). Public Domain.