26 August 2010


Character Connection 13

Read about Minny Jackson and other great creations
on this week's round up of characters!

My current read is an excellent novel that I'll probably have several other posts about in the coming weeks. It's another reread, and I think that is why it is so enjoyable. It has been six years since I last tried reading it, which is long enough to make the forgotten scenes seem completely new and the well-loved passages glow with fresh fire. And that is exactly what is happening. I grew up with this book and know some parts of it almost by heart; and yet it is almost as if I am reading it for the very first time.

Helen Burns
Jane Eyre
by Charlotte Bronte

"How can she bear it so quietly--so firmly?" I asked of myself. "Were I in her place, it seems to me I would wish the earth to open and swallow me up.

"She looks as if she were thinking of something beyond her punishment--beyond her situation: of something not round nor before her. I have heard of day-dreams--is she in a day-dream now? Her eyes are fixed on the floor, but I am sure they do not see it--her sight seems turned in, gone down into her heart: she is looking at what she can remember, I believe; not at what is really present.

"I wonder what sort of a girl she is--whether good or naughty."

Everyone in the world seems to have given up on Helen Burns. And nobody is sorry for it. She's just the sort of person we write off immediately. Her teachers and classmates at her charity boarding school know her as the "slatternly" one who couldn't fold a handkerchief neatly to save her life. Her mind seems as untidy as her personal effects, and she is always forgetting things she should remember--not just her lessons, but also when she should show up on time. And so, the cold winter morning when none of the girls get to wash up because the water has frozen in the basins, Helen is still publicly berated for having dirt under her fingernails.

Only new student Jane Eyre suspects that there is more to Helen than her sloppy ways, guessing correctly that the older girl's carelessness and provoking qualities are but the "donkey skin" that hide her true nature. And as she gets to know her first real friend at school--her first real friend in her life--she learns exactly why she should not judge by appearances alone.

"We are, and must be, one and all, burdened with faults in this world: but the time will soon come when, I trust, we shall put them off in putting off our corruptible bodies; when debasement and sin will fall from us with this cumbrous frame of flesh, and only the spark of the spirit will remain,--the impalpable principle of life and thought, pure as when it left the Creator to inspire the creature . . ."

Charlotte Bronte might be disgusted by my next comparison, but her quiet, long-suffering Helen reminds me very much of St. Therese of the Child Jesus. One of St. Therese's most famous quotes is: "If you are willing to bear serenely the trial of being displeasing to yourself, then you will be for Jesus a pleasant place for shelter." And it is her words, more so than any from Bronte's own novel, which perfectly capture the essence of Helen Burns. For Helen is as serene as she is displeasing to herself, able to enumerate all her faults without exaggerating them and to excuse everyone who chastises her for them without sounding the least bit sanctimonious. And she can bear this state of affairs (to answer Jane's earlier question now) because she knows it is temporary.

As Helen explains to her new friend, life is too short to spend making a tally of other people's wrongs--especially since after death, the soul is rewarded for all its sufferings. And what a beautiful soul she has--although few people ever see it. My favourite scene with Helen is one in which she lets her guard down completely, conversing with Jane and their favourite teacher, Miss Temple; and Jane is stunned at the new animation of Helen's features. They now have, she wonders, "a beauty neither of fine colour, nor long eyelash, nor pencilled brow, but of meaning, of movement of radiance. Then her soul sat on her lips . . ."

I wish I could ask now, "Don't we all know people like this?"--but chances are that we don't . . . or to be more accurate, that we don't know that we do. For the whole point is not only that it is hard to see someone's soul, as a general rule, but also that souls like Helen (and St. Therese) are almost always overlooked.

Image Source: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte


IntrovertedJen said...

I'm sitting here reading your character name and thinking, "Helen Burns, Helen Burns, Helen--oh!" It's been too long since I re-read Jane Eyre, hasn't it? I'd forgotten all about Helen! She is a wonderful character. I don't think I could ever be as good and patient as she is, but I'm glad Jane had a friend like her. The quote from St. Therese does fit her perfectly.

Darlyn said...

I have to admit I have not read anything by Jane Eyre. I plan to read the book but always missed it. Guess I will need to dig in to classic after this. Helen sounds like an interesting character.

p/s: Bloodline is one of the best!It's my first book of Sidney Sheldon!I still remember Rhys and Elizabeth. =)

Irena @ This Miss Loves to Read said...

I am really glad you chose Helen Burns because she is such a neglected character, yet she impacted Jane eyre greatly and should be given credit for this. I love your description of Helen, she really is a wonderful character, and the one true friend of Jane.

Enbrethiliel said...


@Jen: I usually can't stand characters who are so perfectly good, but Charlotte Bronte makes Helen both convincing and lovable. =)

If you do decide to reread it and then review it, I'll be glad to read your thoughts.

@Darlyn: Oh, Jane Eyre is a great classic! =D Helen is a very minor character, but there are many other memorable figures, including Mr. Rochester (whom I might write about in the future!). I definitely recommend this novel!

@Irena: Thanks! I once had a professor who said that Jane is one of the most static characters in literature because she essentially doesn't change . . . but rereading the novel now, especially the chapters with Helen, are making me question that. For Jane really does change thanks to Helen.

Sullivan McPig said...

I always liked Helen Burns. I think she's a very important character as Jane's friendship with Helen forms Jane's character. without Helen Jane might have turned out quite differently.

Enbrethiliel said...


I'm liking Helen much more now that I'm rereading the book. I totally agree that Helen's friendship marks a real turning point for Jane! We usually think of Jane as a very independent, self-sufficient character; but there was a time when she needed the "crutch" of Helen's friendship to help her get on with life. And it is thanks to Helen that she learned to "walk" by herself after an early childhood of abuse.

mrsdarwin said...

Ah, Jane Eyre! I remember staying up into the wee hours the first time I read it (at 13), crying over Jane telling Mr. Rochester, "I am not an automaton!"

Helen always seemed to know that she had another, more permanent home, and that the trials she passed through here were only temporary. She's so pivotal in Jane Eyre because she's the first character to love Jane, and the first person Jane loves. Jane had closed herself off for so long that only a character like Helen could break through her defenses.

Enbrethiliel said...


I think I cried over Jane Eyre as well, but I can't remember which parts affected me so. This re-read, at the deliberate pace I've set for myself, is turning out to be very intense; I'm sure the scenes with Mr. Rochester will be more emotional than they have ever been.