You’ve stumbled across Inexhaustible Peace, a little dedication to the minor character Helen Burns in Charlotte Brontë's 1847 novel Jane Eyre. Though Helen does not appear very long in the book, she leaves an indelible impression on Jane, and on the reader as well--scroll down to learn more!
Part of the 2015 Blast from the Past Marathon
(Paperback Marathon, Minor Character Marathon, Girl Mode)
Last Updated: November 4th, 2016
How Jane Meets Helen
As a ten-year-old, the orphan Jane Eyre is removed from the custody of her Aunt Reed and placed in Lowood Institution, a school specifically for orphaned girls.
For Jane, the school is at first a welcome respite from the perceived inhuman cruelties of her aunt and cousins; before the first day is over, however, Lowood's strict rules and Spartan environment rub Jane the wrong way. It seems she’s not to be happy in this place, either--well, until the second calendar day of her stay at Lowood, when she catches sight of a young lady reading a book called Rasselas in the garden.
This studious fourteen-year-old is Helen Burns, though Jane knows her first merely as "Burns." Helen patiently answers almost all of Jane’s rapid-fire questions, which immediately endears her to Jane, and the two girls quickly strike up a friendship amid the hardships at Lowood.
Helen is sketched as physically frail yet spiritually colossal in Jane's eyes. Though she coughs often and shivers, somehow, Helen bears up under the weight of things Jane can’t even fathom bearing--the public humiliations the strict Miss Scatcherd dreams up to punish Helen for her untidiness, for instance. To all things Helen reacts with patience and peace, which it seems no mere mortal can shake.
The source of this peace is her faith in God, which Jane simply can't wrap her head around. Devoutly Christian, well-versed in both Scripture and its applications, Helen is a bastion of security for Jane in the unfamiliar social landscape at Lowood, and does more to teach her about how to deal with life than anyone else ever has before. Though Helen does admit a doubt that unsaved sinners go to Hell (she can’t quite believe that anyone could be without hope of salvation, even after death), she still imparts a good bit of learned and believed Scriptural wisdom, which little Jane hears but doesn't quite get at the time.
Helen has self-admitted flaws--she describes being inattentive ("falling into a dream" when she ought to pay attention), having trouble with routine and structure, and being woefully untidy when she ought to be able to keep things neat. But to both Jane and the reader, Helen seems far more amazing than she views herself. On subjects she enjoys, like Biblical readings, science, and history, Helen can discourse long and intelligently, which impresses both Jane and Lowood's kindly superintendent, Miss Temple. (The latter takes care to look after Helen in a special way; Jane notices this but does not understand why until later.)
The Friends' Parting
Jane Eyre arrives at Lowood in January; in May, the school is swept through with typhus, and several girls die. Jane never catches the disease, but she is still not permitted to see Helen, even though by all accounts Helen has not caught typhus. She only catches glimpses of her friend on the verandah or in the garden, sometimes attended by Miss Temple, sometimes alone, and always wrapped up tightly despite the warming weather.
After asking (incessantly), Jane finally learns that Helen has consumption (also known as tuberculosis), but she has no idea what that word means--and so, she believes that because it's not typhus, Helen will soon recover. It’s not until the doctor, Mr. Bates, leaves late one evening that Jane finally learns the truth about Helen from the nurse: "she’ll not be here long."
Rushing upstairs in her usual impassioned way, Jane finds Helen where she's been isolated in Miss Temple's room, lying in her sickbed. Helen greets her gently, and as ever answers Jane's urgent questions with patience. This time, however, her spiritual strength far outstrips her physical capacity to breathe unfettered--she simply says, "You've come to bid me goodbye, then; you're just in time probably." Jane asks if Helen is going home, and Helen affirms, "Yes; to my long home--my last home."
Now understanding exactly how little time Helen has left, Jane stays with her, hearing but still not understanding Helen's talk of Heaven, her Creator, and her peace with what is happening to her. At last Jane sleeps, and in the morning the nurse carries Jane back down to her own bed; she soon learns that Helen has died during the night.
As a final remembrance, closing out this scene, the adult Jane writes that "[Helen’s] grave is in Brocklebridge churchyard; for fifteen years after her death it was only covered by a grassy mound; but now a grey marble tablet marks the spot, inscribed with her name, and the word 'Resurgam.'"
Why I Like Helen's Character
Though I have always liked Jane Eyre's character because I identified with her, I have also admired Helen's character ever since I first read Jane Eyre in high school. Helen stands out to me for the following reasons:
Her Spiritual Fortitude
Helen is a strong character, displaying quiet leadership and a thoughtful mind. She’s not even part of Jane's life for six months, a small sliver of the book, and yet in that short time she helps shape Jane, as well as making the reader think. Whether the reader is Christian or not, Helen's otherworldly wisdom and serenity still stand in sharp contrast to Jane’s emotion-laced instinct, and show themselves to be admirable qualities we all can learn from.
Her Humanizing ADHD Symptoms
Helen's self-named flaws of untidiness, inattentiveness, and difficulty with structured educational systems also remind me sharply of ADHD, whose symptoms I have seen in my own life as well. It is an unusual and yet endearing addition to the character, humanizing Helen in a way that no other disorder could--this is something her faith can only shore up rather than fix. Even though she's so well-read and so serene, she still has her own struggles!
Helen as a Tragic Symbol of Her Era
Some readers might see Helen as being too "perfect" and boringly good, nearly a female Christ figure; I, however, see her character as partly a sad homage to the times she came from. Illnesses like tuberculosis all too often killed children, teens, and young adults in 19th century England--death at a young age was unfortunately not shocking, and simply had to be dealt with. In memorializing Helen, Brontë is also remembering the many real-life girls who died of similar ailments in that time.
Her Ability to Face Loss with Grace
Helen's short life and gentle death are lastly a reminder that physical life is frail and fleeting, no matter what our beliefs might be, and that we all have a limited time in which to impact our world. Even as a fictional character, Helen's fervent, bright spark of faith endures in the multiple lives she touched; Miss Temple's and Jane Eyre's stand chief among them. We could all wish to have such a positive effect on those around us after we’re gone.
"...Learn from me, not to judge by appearances: I am, as Miss Scatcherd said, slatternly; I seldom put, and never keep, things in order; I am careless; I forget rules; I read when I should learn my lessons; I have no method; and sometimes I say, like you, I cannot bear to be subjected to systematic arrangements.”
"It is not violence that best overcomes hate--nor vengeance that most certainly heals injury."
"If all the world hated you, and believed you wicked, while your own conscience approved you, and absolved you from guilt, you would not be without friends."
"I am very happy, Jane; and when you hear that I am dead, you must be sure and not grieve; there is nothing to grieve about. We all must die one day, and the illness which is removing me is not painful; it is gentle and gradual; my mind is at rest."
The following three songs, I feel, best represent Helen Burns as a character, with each song's lyrics focusing around faith and peaceful acceptance, and each song's gentle, wistful music evoking the right mood.
The Soft Goodbye - Celtic Woman
When the light begins to fade,
And shadows fall across the sea,
One bright star in the evening sky
Your love's light leads me on my way.
There's a dream that will not sleep,
A burning hope that will not die;
So I must go now with the wind,
And leave you waiting on the tide.
Time to fly, time to touch the sky
One voice alone - a haunting cry
One song, one star burning bright,
Let it carry me through darkest night.
Rain comes over the grey hills,
And on the air, a soft goodbye.
Hear the song that I sing to you,
When the time has come to fly.
When I leave and take the wing,
And find the land that fate will bring,
The brightest star in the evening sky,
(Is your love far from me)
Is your love waiting far from me
Is your love waiting far from me....
Psalm 23 (Choral Setting) - John Rutter
1 The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
3 he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
Skellig - Loreena McKennitt
O, light the candle, John
The daylight has almost gone
The birds have sung their last
The bells call all to mass
Sit here by my side
For the night is very long
There's something I must tell
Before I pass along
I joined the brotherhood
My books were all to me
I scribed the words of God
And much of history
Many a year was I
Perched out upon the sea
The waves would wash my tears
The wind, my memory
I'd hear the ocean breathe
Exhale upon the shore
I knew the tempest's blood
Its wrath I would endure
And so the years went by
Within my rocky cell
With only a mouse or bird
My friend; I loved them well
And so it came to pass
I'd come here to Romani
And many a year it took
Till I arrived here with thee
On dusty roads I walked
And over mountains high
Through rivers running deep
Beneath the endless sky
Beneath these jasmine flowers
Amidst these cypress trees
I give you now my books
And all their mysteries
Now take the hourglass
And turn it on its head
For when the sands are still
'Tis then you'll find me dead
O light the candle, John
The daylight has almost gone
The birds have sung their last
The bells call all to mass...
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For Further Reading
- Original layout image
- Charlotte Brontë, for writing this great book and including such a lovely character