Bronte based her description of Lowood on the Clergy Daughter's School at Cowan Bridge in Lancashire, England, which she attended along with three of her sisters; two of whom died of tuberculosis while there. Is Bronte's negative depiction of the school a polemic against religious institutions? In other words, is she highlighting the irony of Lowood being a charity school when the life there is so severe?
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I think the school is meant to illustrate the hypocrisy of religious "charity" schools. In chapter 7, Bronte points out that Mr. Brocklehurst's version of Christianity is made up of increasingly hypocritical flaws. Though he claims that privation leads to purity, his relatives are dressed in luxurious silks and furs, elegant ensembles that are in clear contrast to the tattered pinafores worn by the students at the school. Mr. Brocklehurst even wants to cut off one girl's naturally curly hair, simply because the curls seem to be an exhibition of vanity. His lust for absolute power over others reveals his truly unchristian nature and also speaks to the male dominated society of the time that provides him with a superior position to the benevolent Miss Temple.