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  • Jane Eyre and Victorian Medical Geography
  • Alan Bewell

In his 1768 Essay on Diseases Incidental to Europeans in Hot Climates, a text that went through six editions between 1768 and 1811, James Lind describes the coastal regions of West Africa in a manner that indicates that medical and aesthetic appreciations of landscape are not necessarily equivalent. “Upon examining the face of the country, it is found clothed with a pleasant and perpetual verdure,” he writes, “but altogether uncultivated, excepting a few spots, which are generally surrounded with forests or thickets of trees, impenetrable to refreshing breezes, and fit only for the resort of wild beasts.” 1 This passage provides a useful point of departure for understanding the medical geopolitics of landscape in Charlotte Brontë’s work. Jane Eyre’s description of the environs of the Lowood Orphan Asylum is similar to Lind’s in that it is shaped as much by the language of medical geography as by aesthetics. Initially, we are presented with what appears to be an idyllic scene. With the coming of spring, “Lowood shook loose its tresses; it became all green, all flowery; its great elm, ash, and oak skeletons were restored to majestic life; woodland plants sprang up profusely in its recesses; unnumbered varieties of moss filled its hollows, and it made a strange ground sunshine out of the wealth of its wild primrose plants.” 2 Jane declares that “all this I enjoyed often and fully, freed, unwatched, and almost alone.” We learn, however, that the “unwonted liberty” that underlies this Romantic appreciation of nature has been made possible by the appearance of epidemic typhus at Lowood, caused she believes by these surroundings. Thus, disease can be said to be integrally bound up with both this landscape and its appreciation:

Have I not described a pleasant site for a dwelling, when I speak of it as bosomed in hill and wood, and rising from the verge of a stream? Assuredly, pleasant enough: but whether healthy or not is another question.

That forest-dell, where Lowood lay, was the cradle of fog and fog-bred pestilence; which, quickening with the quickening spring, crept into the Orphan Asylum, breathed typhus through its [End Page 773] crowded school-room and dormitory, and, ere May arrived, transformed the seminary into an hospital.

(J, 77)

Recent work has shown that landscapes are social constructions and a primary medium for the representation of ideologies of class and gender. 3 Brontë’s description of Lowood suggests that we should also be aware of the important role that contemporary medical descriptions of “healthy” and “unhealthy” landscapes played in the nineteenth-century understanding of place. Political values and positions underlay such representations, as the perception of landscapes was thoroughly medicalized. In this instance, Brontë sets medicine against aesthetics, asking us to read the physical surroundings of Lowood in the same way as doctors were being taught to read it, as a “disease landscape,” seeing in the dense forest, with its profusion of “woodland plants,” its “unnumbered varieties of moss,” the presence of moisture-loving “primroses,” and the many “recesses” and “hollows” where air is confined, a strong indication of the presence of disease. Such landscapes may, she argues, be “pleasant enough: but whether healthy or not is another question”: as the “cradle” of “fog-bred pestilence,” Lowood is actually uninhabitable.

The centrality of disease and medicine in Brontë’s work has received some attention, especially in the area of healing, pain, and suffering. 4 However, the role of medicine in Jane Eyre extends well beyond issues of individual health to encompass larger geographical and political questions about England as a nation, public health, and the impact of colonial activity on its people. Jane Eyre was written during a period of intense controversy over public health and the role that legislation might play in alleviating the conditions of the poor. Published five years after Edwin Chadwick’s Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain (1842), and shortly before the passage of the Public Health Act in 1848, Jane Eyre shares with the Sanitary Movement the fundamental belief that the quality of a country is embodied in the health of its...

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