First of all we turn to Jane Eyre, written by Charlotte Bronte in 1847, the title bearing the name of the foundling child sent to a school run by the Calvinist Mr Brocklehurst, who was advised by Jane’s aunt that she was a wilful girl . . . . .
“. . . especially a naughty little girl. Do you know where the wicked go after death?” [asked Brocklehurst.] “They go to hell,” was my ready and orthodox answer, [said Jane]. “And what is hell? Can you tell me that?” “A pit full of fire.” “And should you like to fall into that pit , and to be burning there for ever?” “No, sir.”
Later, at the Lowood Institution, Jane finds a true friend in fellow-student Helen Burns. Both are treated abominably, Helen by MissScatcherd, and Jane by Mr Brocklehurst. They commiserate together on the wrongs, but Helen had this to say to Jane, who was still full of anger and resentment –
“Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity, or registering wrongs. 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: whence it came it will return; perhaps again to be communicated to some being higher than man – perhaps to pass through gradations of glory, from the pale human soul to brighten the seraph! Surely it will never, to the contrary, be suffered to degenerate from man to fiend? No; I cannot believe that: I hold another creed; which no one ever taught me and which I seldom mention; but in which I delight, and to which I cling: for it extends hope to all: it makes Eternity a rest – a mighty home, not a terror and an abyss. Besides, with this creed, I can so clearly distinguish between the criminal and his crime; I can so sincerely forgive the first while I abhor the last: with this creed revenge never worries my heart, degradation never too deeply disgusts me, injustice never crushes me too low: I live in calm, looking to the end.”
The end was soon to come for Helen, as she succumbed to illness, prevalent in Lowood Institution. Jane was deeply affected by Helen’s robust spirit, and it helped her through her own difficulties in life.
The 1992 BBC production of this story, with Timothy Dalton and Zelah Clarke, contained most of Helen’s words, quoted above.