Helen Burns was Jane’s one and only childhood friend (I don’t think Mary Ann Wilson counts – she featured in a total of one paragraph). They met on Jane’s first day in Lowood Orphan Asylum. Helen was four years older than Jane and knowledgable beyond her age. Charlotte Bronte modelled Helen on her elder sister Maria who died at the age of 11 but was described to have a very grown-up mind and manner. Helen represents another ‘face’ of Christianity in Jane Eyre. (See the ‘face’ of Christianity represented by Mr Brocklehurst here.)
Helen was a quiet, resigned and submissive child, who never answered back when treated harshly and endured without a hint of resentment. She would not think the teachers cruel after being beaten or humiliated, but explained to Jane that the punishments were reasonable and deserved: the teachers only did it to correct her faults. Jane found her placid response incredible because her own natural response to similar treatment, for example, “John Reed’s violent tyrannies, all his sisters’ proud indifference, all his mother’s aversion, all the servants’ partiality (p14)*”, was to cry out “Unjust! – unjust!”
Helen is one of the main characters in Jane’s Lowood days and appears throughout those chapters. Overall, she is an otherworldly creature. She does not put up a fight for or against anything because of her belief in the world to come, especially knowing she’s sick and not going to live long. It’s like she knows she’s moving house soon, so doesn’t pay much attention to the cardboard box she’s living in. There are three main conversations that show Helen’s Christian doctrine most clearly: the first is after she was beaten and publicly humiliated; the second is after Jane is treated likewise; the third is immediately before Helen’s death.
“hope to all”
In response to Jane’s hardship under Mrs Reed and Helen’s ill treatment, Jane’s attitude is to strike back those who strike her and be good to those who are good to her (p56). But Helen immediately responds “it is not violence that best overcomes hate”, reminding her of Jesus’ words “love your enemies”. And she advises Jane, “Would you not be happier if you tried to forget her severity, together with the passionate emotions it excited? Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity or registering wrongs (p57).”
Firstly, I agree with her that Jesus said “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5.44**). Apostle Paul echoed Jesus in Romans 12: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse (v14)… Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone (v17)… Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord (v19)… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (v21).”
However, Helen’s placid endurance and generous forgiveness do not come from the knowledge that God will ultimately judge evil or he will lead them to repentance. She believes ALL will go to heaven, which is the teaching of Universal Salvation that Charlotte Brontë herself believed. The ‘bad’ people who make Helen’s life difficult will go to heaven as well as the ‘good’ because she doesn’t think people go to hell at all. Though everyone has their faults, no one is actually evil. Crime will be destroyed with the body, but the spirit will be pure and go to its Maker.
This Universal Salvation doesn’t seem to be the prevalent belief at the time because she says, “I hold another creed (i.e. the Universal Salvation): which no one ever taught me, and which I seldom mention” (p57). If you add this to Mr Brocklehurst’s frequent threats of hell, I think the two distinct destinations of eternity, heaven and hell, are probably the prevalent teaching at the time.
Jesus spoke plainly about hell and judgement on multiple occasions. Check out Luke 16.19–31, Mark 9.43-48, and John 5.28-30. So I don’t agree with Helen’s belief that people won’t be judged and that all will go to heaven. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. (Matthew 5.29-30)” Jesus’ words here take the reality of hell and judgement as a given.
But do you notice Jesus’ words also raise the bar of the commandment? The commandment says that the action of adultery broke the law. But Jesus says, “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (my emphasis). Jesus cares about not just the outward actions, but more so about your mind and heart.
Sin is not the knife held in a murderer’s hand. It is the hatred in his heart. He can throw away the knife, but his heart is still hateful. The crime a person commits does not pollute the body alone, as Helen believes, it comes from the heart. Jesus says, “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come – sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person. (Mark 7.20-23)”
This directs our attention to Helen’s idea about body and soul.
“only the spark of the spirit will remain”
In all three conversations, Helen repeats the idea of the separation of soul and body, spirit and flesh, the immortal part and the mortal part, when a person dies or on judgement day (she doesn’t clarify the timing of this separation). She attaches sin with body, for example, “debasement and sin will fall from us with this cumbrous frame of flesh, and only the spark of the spirit will remain (p57)”, as if the body is where sin lives, and everyone’s soul is purely good. This idea comes from Greek philosophy more than the Bible.
As we’ve seen already, Jesus teaches that evil comes from the heart and from within a person. Secondly, when God created Adam and Eve, he created their entire being, both body and soul. And both were declared ‘good’. God did not create body inferior to soul. Thirdly, when the day of resurrection comes, we’ll have a new resurrected body in the New Creation, more solid than the earthly body, in contrast to the common image of chubby angels floating on clouds playing harps. (Plus angels are not chubby babies, they are usually altogether far more scary!) Apostle Paul says, “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. (Philippians 3.20-21, my emphasis)” So I don’t agree with Helen’s idea of the separation of soul and body either.
“life is so soon over”
But I do agree with her that we can find comfort and courage in the spiritual world invisible to our eyes, which though unseen, is not less real or important. And I agree the prospect of eternity should make an impact on our life on earth as Helen said, “Why, then, should we ever sink overwhelmed with distress, when life is so soon over, and death is so certain an entrance to happiness—to glory? (p68)”.
What I’m less convinced about is Helen’s passive approach to facing this life. Jane appreciates the “tranquility” from Helen but is unsettled and confused by the “inexpressible sadness (p68)”. Helen does not care much about this world, even though she finds comfort and joy in her friendship with Jane and Miss Temple. She will not choose life on earth if the choice is between that and life in heaven. It’s natural; her constant sickness, her father’s abandonment and the hardship in Lowood offer her little to cherish of this life on earth. But she does not value this gift of life from God, especially seen in comparison to the passion and stubbornness in Jane. Jane wants to live, to feel, to love. But Helen sees life in a mostly negative light, there’s only more suffering to come, there’s nothing good to look forward to. “We all must die one day (p80)”. Why linger?
True. But a person is not created to live for the sole purpose that she’ll one day die. There’s a journey to walk and work to do, and there’s a purpose and a meaning to our life on earth.
“I am going to God”
However with all the confusion in various doctrines, Helen’s reason for being able to die in peace and being certain of her final destination is very clear: “I believe; I have faith: I am going to God… God is my father; God is my friend: I love him; I believe he loves me (p80).” I imagine God is way more pleased hearing Helen’s reason for entering eternal rest in heaven than Mr Brocklehurst’s. He, I imagine, would say something like, ‘I’m a clergyman, I preached every Sunday, I built an orphanage and I’m a good moral man!’. Helen has nothing to boast about, “I rely implicitly on His power, and confide wholly in His goodness.” She was going to God because she believed in God’s merciful and loving character.
*All the page numbers are from the Oxford World’s Classic edition.
** I include all the Bible chapter and verse numbers for your reference, so you can check them out if you like.