Lesson #203: ‘Still sweeter flowers opening by the wayside’: A reading comprehension exercise with vocabulary from ‘Jane Eyre’

📚 I have been re-reading my favourite classic, Jane Eyre (1847), and discovered anew (again) one of the beautifully descriptive passages on springtime in this book. It makes for a perfect reading comprehension exercise for this time of the year!

In this Lesson I have included a vocabulary list to help you better understand Bronte’s writing, as well as some explanations of difficult sentences or even parts of the story that you should know to understand the text here better. I have divided the text into three parts below. I conclude the Lesson with some sample sentences to show you how the words can be used.

✍️ Some of the words are very specific in describing the natural world, but don’t let this discourage you from reading these passages through to the end: many of the words below are useful in all kinds of conversation and writing.

Jane Eyre is one of those essential classics that everyone who is interested in English language and literature must read at some point. Its prose (writing style) is one of the best you will find, and the storyline is interesting and engaging from beginning to end! I will teach more specifically on this classic in the future, so keep an eye out for this! 📚

TEXT: ‘JANE EYRE’ (1847), passages from CHAPTER IX

💡 Note: Lowood is a boarding school that the little girl Jane Eyre has been sent to. It is a strict school, where the children (all girl students) are taught and maintained (have their daily needs looked after) under firm discipline.

📝 #1

📙 But the privations, or rather the hardships, of Lowood lessened. Spring drew on: she was indeed already come; the frosts of winter had ceased; its snows were melted, its cutting winds ameliorated. My wretched feet, flayed and swollen to lameness by the sharp air of January, began to heal and subside under the gentler breathings of April; the nights and mornings no longer by their Canadian temperature froze the very blood in our veins; we could now endure the play-hour passed in the garden: sometimes on a sunny day it began even to be pleasant and genial, and a greenness grew over those brown beds, which, freshening daily, suggested the thought that Hope traversed them at night, and left each morning brighter traces of her steps. Flowers peeped out amongst the leaves; snow-drops, crocuses, purple auriculas, and golden-eyed pansies. On Thursday afternoons (half-holidays) we now took walks, and found still sweeter flowers opening by the wayside, under the hedges.


privation: a state in which food or other life essentials (e.g. clothing, shelter, etc) are lacking

… Spring drew on: the signs of Springtime were becoming more obvious

frost: tiny ice crystals that form on the ground after freezing temperatures

ceased: < to cease: stop, come to an end

melted: < to melt: [describing some water or liquid that was frozen solid] become liquid again from exposure to warmth

cutting winds: winds that are so strong and cold that they feel like they are cutting you

ameliorated: < to ameliorate: improve

wretched: (adjective) very unfortunate, in a bad state, almost cursed

flayed: < to flay: to strip the skin off something; to beat someone or something so hard as to take off their skin

swollen: filled with fluid so as to become bigger (usually describing a part of the body)

lameness: not being able to walk; being lame

subside: to become less intense or severe; e.g. ‘the painful symptoms of inflammation subsided (grew less painful or severe) after the patient had taken the medicine’

… the gentler breathings of April: the gentler influences of April –Charlotte Bronte’s ‘breathings’ here could refer to breezes, but most likely mean a general warming influence that can be felt in England during April

… their Canadian temperature: Here ‘Canadian’ simply describes something characterstic of the Canadian climate

endure: suffer patiently and for a long time for a purpose

genial: cheerful and friendly; (describing weather) pleasantly mild and warm

traversed: < to traverse: to cross, to walk across or pass over by something

traces: small marks or signs left after someone or something’s presence there

peeped: < to peep: to take a quick look at something (usually shyly or hurriedly)

snow-drops, crocuses, purple auriculas, and golden-eyed pansies: the names of different flowers, which blossom in the English countryside in springtime

wayside: the edge of a road; e.g. ‘I gathered some wild blackberries by the wayside’

hedges: a line of bushes grow together thickly, usually marking a border


📝 #2

📙 I discovered, too, that a great pleasure, an enjoyment which the horizon only bounded, lay all outside the high and spike-guarded walls of our garden: this pleasure consisted in prospect of noble summits girdling a great hill-hollow, rich in verdure and shadow; in a bright beck, full of dark stones and sparkling eddies. How different had this scene looked when I viewed it laid out beneath the iron sky of winter, stiffened in frost, shrouded with snow!—when mists as chill as death wandered to the impulse of east winds along those purple peaks, and rolled down “ing” and holm till they blended with the frozen fog of the beck! That beck itself was then a torrent, turbid and curbless: it tore asunder the wood, and sent a raving sound through the air, often thickened with wild rain or whirling sleet; and for the forest on its banks, that showed only ranks of skeletons.

April advanced to May: a bright serene May it was; days of blue sky, placid sunshine, and soft western or southern gales filled up its duration. And now vegetation matured with vigour; Lowood shook loose its tresses; it became all green, all flowery; its great elm, ash, and oak skeletons were restored to majestic life; woodland plants sprang up profusely in its recesses; unnumbered varieties of moss filled its hollows, and it made a strange ground-sunshine out of the wealth of its wild primrose plants: I have seen their pale gold gleam in overshadowed spots like scatterings of the sweetest lustre. All this I enjoyed often and fully, free, unwatched, and almost alone …


… an enjoyment which the horizon only bounded: an enjoyment which was only limited by the horizon (the farthest line of the landscape around us that we can see)

spike-guarded: guarded by (metal) spikes

prospect: the possibility, look, or likelihood of something happening in the future

summits: the highest point of a hill or mountain

girdling: < to girdle: [of a string or something narrow and long] to go around the narrowest part of (like a belt)

hill-hollow: This might be a word that Charlotte Bronte coined (invented) – it probably means a hollow (a dip, empty area of land) surrounded by hills.

verdure: the greenery associated with blooming plants

beck: [northern English] a stream

sparkling: < to sparkle: [describing a light or something that reflects light] to have a quickly changing small light – e.g. ‘the sunlight sparkled on the moving water’

eddies: < eddy: a whirling, deep point in a body of water where the water is being sucked downwards in a circular motion: small whirlpool

… the iron sky of winter: the wintry sky that looked like it was made of iron

stiffened: < to stiffen: made stiff

shrouded: < to shroud: to cover with a garment or cloth as if preparing a body for burial

mist: light fog

chill: cold and uncomfortable

impulse: the urge, the desire and action of moving quickly to do something

peak: the top edge of a mountain

ing: [old English] meadow

holm: 1) an islet, especially one found in a river or near mainland. 2) a piece of flat ground beside a river that is sometimes submerged under water (especially in floods)

torrent: a rush of wind, water, words, or emotions (in this context, water)

turbid: (describing a liquid or even an idea) cloudy, difficult to understand or see clearly through, opaque

curbless: without a curb (limiting edge) or restraint

… it tore asunder: it tore apart

raving: talking incoherently or making irrational sounds

whirling: < to whirl: moving around in a rushing, circular pattern

that showed only ranks of skeletons: In winter, the forest looks like it is made up of many ranks (or lines) of skeletons because its trunks and branches don’t have any leaves yet


serene: pleasantly peaceful

placid: calm, still, not easily upset or excited

gales: storms with very strong wind force

vegetation: all growing plants

matured: < to mature: become mature, grow strong and develop fully

vigour: energy and drive

Lowood shook loose its tresses: Here Bronte is describing the school, Lowood, as if it were a person with long braided hair (tresses), like a girl who shakes loose her braided hair or tresses.

elm, ash, and oak: different kinds of trees that grow in the English countryside

restored: < to restore: to heal or bring something lost or injured back to a place of health or restoration

majestic: grand and impressive, royal

profusely: in great numbers or quantity

recess: a small space

moss: a soft, spongy plant (usually green, but sometimes pale grey or even orange) that grows on the ground or on trees

hollow: a small area of land that is lower than the area surrounding it, dipping inward and bare (empty of plants or trees)

… it made a strange ground-sunshine out of the wealth of its wild primrose plants: the many primroses (yellow in colour) look almost as if they were a kind of sunlight themselves.

wealth: riches or abundance (of something)

gleam: a bright ray, especially one that reflects light beyond itself

overshadowed: having a shadow over (something) so that light is blocked out

scattering: (noun) something that is scattered or spread unevenly across a surface

lustre: a glowing reflection of light (often soft and warm)


📝 #3

📙 … My favourite seat was a smooth and broad stone, rising white and dry from the very middle of the beck, and only to be got at by wading through the water; a feat I accomplished barefoot. The stone was just broad enough to accommodate, comfortably, another girl and me, at that time my chosen comrade—one Mary Ann Wilson; a shrewd, observant personage, whose society I took pleasure in, partly because she was witty and original, and partly because she had a manner which set me at my ease. Some years older than I, she knew more of the world, and could tell me many things I liked to hear: with her my curiosity found gratification: to my faults also she gave ample indulgence, never imposing curb or rein on anything I said. She had a turn for narrative, I for analysis; she liked to inform, I to question; so we got on swimmingly together, deriving much entertainment, if not much improvement, from our mutual intercourse.


only to be got at: [you could] only reach it by …

wading: < to wade: to cross through water by foot, often slowly and steadily

feat: a challenge, an act of daring or courage

a feat I accomplished barefoot: a feat that I did without any shoes or socks on

… broad enough to accommodate: broad enough to fit

comrade: colleague or partner (usually in a military setting)

shrewd: astute; showing sharp understanding and judgment

observant: noticing and paying attention to things

personage: [polite, respectful language] a person

… whose society I took pleasure in: whose presence or company I enjoyed

witty: full of quick understanding, inventive, and funny in an intelligent way

original: [in this context] able to make uncommon and unique observations

she had a manner which set me at my ease: she had a way of making me feel comfortable and easy

she knew more of the world: she was more experienced in life experiences

gratification: satisfaction, especially relating to something that shouldn’t be experienced (e.g. ‘they told me some gossip that gratified my curiousity’)

ample: plentiful

indulgence: the act or fact of indulging or spoiling (oneself); an excessive enjoyment of something beyond what is good or reasonable

imposing: < to impose: to force (oneself, something) on someone

curb: a restraint on something, a limit; also the edge of a pavement or sidewalk

rein: a long narrow strip of leather or similar material used to control or guide a horse, etc.

she had a turn for narrative: she had a special gift or ability to tell (narrate) a story well

inform: to tell, to give (someone) information about (something)

swimmingly: as smoothly as possible, as smoothly and effortlessly as if one were swimming

deriving: < to derive: to gain, to gather (from something or someone)

… if not much improvement: the two girls were entertained by each other, but they did not improve each other much

mutual: shared between two people

intercourse: exchanged conversation, social engagement

I will conclude this Lesson with a few sample sentences using five of the words highlighted in the vocabulary lists above.

👉 Then try to find five other words from those lists that you would like to start using in your own writing or speaking!

  • It was Christmas, and the family sat around the fireplace enjoying a genial conversation.
  • We went hiking yesterday and reached the mountain’s summit before sunset.
  • Her eyes sparkled with liveliness as she retold the funny story.
  • The old man sat in his armchair; his air was quiet, content, and placid.
  • I am on a diet, but because today is my birthday I will enjoy this slice of cake as a little indulgence!
by J. E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2024)