What distinguishes the Brontës from the other classic novelists? When a general reader speaks of the English classic novels, it is usually Austen, Dickens and the Brontë sisters who first spring to mind. That makes them classic classics. What these novelists have in common is readability, memorable plots and characters. For some years I was hooked on Villette and Shirley. As a serious young adult who took the world as a glum place, I felt Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights were too melodramatic and unrealistic. Jane Eyre had a happy ending. Although it was my favourite novel in my teens, I preferred Villette in my early twenties. With Lucy I could empathise; with Jane I felt the rebellious affinity I had years ago was gone, to be replaced by moody pessimism. In many ways Villette is deeper and more realistic. It covers more social classes, its heroine is not the brave-girl-confronts-the-world-despite-obstacles-and-becomes-triumphant. Even with success Lucy is plagued by nerves and depression, and she is denied the happy ending we want. If Jane Eyre has the more memorable plot and quicker power of language, Villette looks at society more deeply and clearly.
Yet it is Jane Eyre that we think of, not Villette. The story is happier, more readable, it is true. There is also structure and unity. The protagonist dares to voice her feelings, whereas Lucy Snowe suppresses hers. Jane actively pursues her destiny; Lucy is more passive. This makes Jane more likable and admirable in the opinion of many readers.
And recently I realised one major similarity Jane Eyre shares with Wuthering Heights. Like Austen, they both voice universal truths. In these books you will see universal truths and themes in human nature, both clearly expressed if not clearly perceived by the reader. That is probably what imparts to the Brontës this sense of mysticism: their almost psychic, intuitive perception of universal truths. That is why we are intrigued by these Victorian ladies, uninteresting as public personas. There is a mystery to them, there is a power in their works we cannot fathom, because that power defines life and its uncertainties.
I have wondered why the Brontës had this status of classic classic compared to more realistic works by, say, George Eliot. Apart from the readability. You do not read a Brontë novel to understand English culture and society, not even Shirley, which attempts to carefully delineate Yorkshire life, but screws up on how the different classes in society act. What stands out in that novel is not English society, but universal truths, though Jane Eyre is more effective at expressing these truths. Wuthering Heights has its characters speak too uncouthly, the unbelievably insular and extremely incestuous nature of the relationships in that novel always seemed too far-fetched to me. Yet it has great power. You do not read a Brontë novel to observe how people really speak or interact in real life. They lack fidelity to realism, the Brontës having had little life experience. You do not read one to comprehend great social themes, history or philosophy. You will not find the expansiveness of mind you get in Tolstoy or Eliot. From these two intellectual authors, finding enlightenment is not hard with a little effort. You will understand Russian society in the 19th century, or a country-town in Warwickshire. Bravo, you will have learnt a new fact of the day.
Like Austen, the Brontës were very narrow, only Austen's works are recognisably English and realistic. The Brontës are beyond a defined locality: they are universal and for eternity, though they might be narrow Yorkshirewomen (narrow for their genius and education, that is).
But that does not lessen the essence of the novel. You do not learn facts from the Brontës, but eternal principles illustrated in their stories. And I think Charlotte learned something from Emily in this aspect, in how to organise her thoughts better, which resulted in Jane Eyre. Charlotte aimed at being truthful to nature (truthful not just in sentiment, but in a solid sense), but her seeming obsession with realism in her later books are not present in her first published novel. In Jane Eyre there seems to be witchcraft brewing, a spell within the words that you will not see so clearly in the carefully polished Villette. It might be the passion, but I think it is also due to the clarity in which certain universal principles are expressed compared to Villette, which follows life as it is seen rather than universal principles.
While Eliot and Tolstoy might be faithful to reality, and write to a large extent what they saw, Charlotte and Emily wrote what they imagined in Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.
We like to dismiss teenage girls who rave about the passion between Cathy and Heathcliff. Talking only about undying passion is to take the book superficially. But there is some truth in these superficial readers. What Emily did was unique. You can look at the passion in many different ways. The schoolgirl way is one. The logical cynic will say that it is an unhealthy, obsessive, abusive relationship, and Emily was satirising romantic fever. But look over it, for there is another layer over the cynical one. Emily does depict that passion as selfish and unwholesome, but it does not in any way lessen the fact that Cathy and Heathcliff love each other deeply. Between them exists a chemical affinity, the principle which applies to our relationships.
It is important to realise that Emily doesn't judge them, at least she doesn't judge their passion the way Anne would. A moralistic 18th-century novel would have the heroine fall for the passionate handsome renegade who would prove to be a brute, and then the nice guy who has loved her all along treats her well, and then she falls in love with him. In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall we are told that Arthur Huntingdon is a villain and unsuitable as a husband, as opposed to Gilbert Markham. Emily does nothing of the sort. What she portrays is beyond common morality preached by black-and-white moralisers. Cathy and Heathcliff are both horrible people, but that does not make them less compatible with each other than they are with their respective spouses. Their natures are more alike and attuned to one another. Besides, one could argue, it's all very well to say marry the nice guy or girl, but what if the protagonist is just a horrible person and makes the nice partner unhappy? Or what if the nice partner can't make you happy (and vice versa) because you have no affinity. Cathy and Edgar's marriage, and Heathcliff and Isabella's marriage answers these questions. (Just think of all the novels where someone marries a nice dull partner and proceeds to commit adultery).
It is not morality which makes a fulfilling union: it is chemistry which is the founding principle. It defies all moralisations on how love should be: noble, virtuous, unselfish, patient. Cathy marries Edgar because he is wealthy and because Heathcliff ran away. Love is not about wanting to do things for your partner in this case; Cathy and Heathcliff are selfish and violent, and yet they suit each other. They are incapable of ideal "true love." Their love is about satisfying something within themselves and yet they are happier this way. But is that not what love is? A successful love is not just about making someone happy, because that does describe many cases of unrequited love. It is as if they are part of each other, and need each other to live and breathe. There is no simple standard for love in Wuthering Heights.
Cathy and Heathcliff do not reform for each other, unlike in Jane Eyre, where both Jane and Rochester must both develop as individuals in order to have a successful relationship. This illustrates another truth in humanity: that many of us have tendencies too hard to change. This aspect is similar to Pride and Prejudice. And yet there is a key difference: Mr Darcy is essentially honourable and well-meaning, even though he is obtuse and unempathetic. Elizabeth is quick to judge but she is more immature and inexperienced rather than malicious.
Here is Charlotte's assessment of Mr Rochester to William Smith Williams:
Mr. Rochester has a thoughtful nature and a very feeling heart; he is neither selfish nor self-indulgent; he is ill-educated, misguided; errs, when he does err, through rashness and inexperience: he lives for a time as too many other men live, but being radically better than most men, he does not like that degraded life, and is never happy in it. He is taught the severe lessons of experience and has sense to learn wisdom from them. Years improve him; the effervescence of youth foamed away, what is really good in him still remains. His nature is like wine of a good vintage, time cannot sour, but only mellows him.Err, Charlotte, I think you have made a few mistakes there, but never mind. Mr Rochester is selfish and self-indulgent; he expects Jane to be there for him to be happy, to reform him. Charlotte was trying to justify readers' disgust of Rochester's behaviour, and probably in her mind (unlike Emily), to say a man is selfish and self-indulgent is to deny he is good or a hero. The reality is far from that. Selfishness doesn't preclude a person from deep and genuine feeling. He does not like that degraded life not because he is virtuous, but because it is shallow, superficial and boring, and he yearns for better things.
The important point is the last sentence: "time cannot sour, but only mellows him." Aside from the unlikeliness of rakes reforming themselves out of love for a virtuous woman (though stranger things have passed, so I won't fully discount that), Jane Eyre shows that people are able to change substantially to make a better relationship. While in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, the problem of Helen's marriage to Arthur is that Arthur is a rake. Helen should have been wiser and not married a rake in the hopes of reforming him, that is the message of the novel. You can see that as a "take that!" to Jane Eyre. This is the principle we get in advice columns, and largely reforming people's natural tendencies is almost impossible. It is certainly practical advice on a large scale, but it is not the most progressive. It limits certain possibilities. Like Wuthering Heights which has seemingly atypical and unrealistic characters (because we do not see them in real life, yet there is some logic to it) Jane Eyre promotes individuality. Jane and Rochester, even St John to some extent, are not typical people. Jane feels real to us, and yet she is not reflective of most people around us. Very few of us would have met a real Jane Eyre. This makes Jane Eyre a refreshing change from not only artificial sentimental novels, but also "realistic novels," which delineate real kinds of people you will find in society. To write an atypical character and make them seem real is arguably more imaginative than to write a typical character and make them real, because you have no sources to study, only some kind of intuitive logic. Jane is not only determined to have a career in the 19th century, the way she spars with Rochester, her social superior, is rather unique. She actually bothers to answer his rants on needing self-reformation instead of being tactfully quiet. She is unusually passionate as a child, unexpectedly so for such a quiet, seemingly conforming girl. Her self-chosen friendship with the precocious, moralistic Helen Burns, who seems to have no other friend, is an early indication of her differences. Her attraction to, and deep feeling for Rochester is also unusual.
If Anne is more practical about rakes, Charlotte believes in the rare possibilities of reform. Arthur Huntingdon has strong rakish tendencies which can't be removed. Mr Rochester on the other hand is a bored, lonely rake with strong sensual appetites, but has a mind and heart that has rarely been used well. She shows us the possibility that seemingly useless people have the capacity of goodness, if only the chance was offered to them. We later see this principle in Villette, where the passive Lucy becomes an effective English teacher because she has no choice but to earn her own living. It is against Lucy's nature to be active and ambitious in the real world, but when she forces herself, she does achieve something.
But while Anne, and many practical people believe character to be fairly static, Charlotte shows us that character can be dynamic. Mr Rochester is partly the product of his environment and also a natural indolence and weakness. He struggles within, more so than Huntingdon. While Mr Rochester is a struggling rake at first, he does change after Jane leaves him. But not at once. He withdraws at first, and only some time later realises his moral error and selfishness in expecting Jane to stay with him while he is still married. While engaged to Jane he smothers her, expects her to accept his superficial gifts, and treats her like a doll, to the point of being patronising, and assumes a superior position. Jane feels oppressed in that position even though she loves him. That is part of Charlotte's genius: your true love may not be suitable for you in many ways in the beginning, but it does not mean they are not your true love. Indeed they go on feeling deeply for each other, even after Jane runs away from Rochester. The problem with their relationship was not just Rochester's marriage, but his immature personality. It is only after Jane runs away and he is blinded that he becomes more humble and treats her as an equal. Their love was enduring, but their relationship - the prospect of living together - was, before she ran away, unstable. There is a pragmatism about this: instead of looking for a ready, fit-to-order partner (almost impossible in real life, and doesn't necessarily work even for good, stable partners), relationships are dynamic. True love does not make a marriage work. It is many factors that do. The sizzling chemistry between them is the first step, but other steps are required to make it work. Which makes Jane Eyre a true bildungsroman. This is why, despite not being a "Realistic" character, Rochester feels real to many people - because he develops, has deep feelings and reflects universal truths.
Arguably Rochester's reform might also be due to the fact he becomes blind and has only one arm, after Thornfield burns down. The reader might be dismayed, because it does seem a harsh narrative punishment for what he has done. I see Rochester's disability as also a boon because it makes him dependent on Jane. Charlotte does not ignore realities. I am not sure if she did that on purpose, or just put in the Biblical message. But if you look at it in a pragmatic way, it can be a good thing (for Jane). Because he now needs Jane, he is humbled, and Jane feels more secure. Due to her upbringing in a charity-school and her own eccentricity (Jane was not likable as a child, and even in adulthood does not have an attractive exterior), it is unlikely Jane will shine in high society. With Rochester in excellent health, she would be obliged to be with his upper-class set quite often, in a grand house like Thornfield. Now they live in Ferndean, which is out of the way, they can lead a happy, quiet existence. Her social status would be precarious, even in Thornfield, because Jane would not be a glamorous or high-society wife.
The same theme of natural affinity persists in Jane Eyre. It is not just because Jane lacks choice of partners as an unattractive woman. She and Rochester feel intensely drawn to each other, even after he has deceived her. Virtue does not make a person a suitable partner. Even with St John Rivers, her love for Rochester persists, and she does not fall in love with the better-looking, more moral and stable St John. More practical and virtuous readers of the 19th century would have preferred St John. But the lack of intense chemistry makes this impossible, and add to this St John's obsession with missionary work which Jane doesn't care for. Jane believes St John to be good (which he can be), but still she prefers Rochester because of this essential principle. There is nothing to show that St John tries to change for Jane; certainly he doesn't for Rosamond. Rochester does. To St John his missionary work and marrying Jane to get her help is more important than Jane's happiness. Rochester still expected Jane (before she ran away) to cater to his selfish needs, but at least they had chemistry, and he genuinely loved her. It is interesting that Jane runs away to Rochester after St John forces her to marry him, and she hears Rochester's voice in the middle of nowhere. At that time she still thinks Rochester is still married, and has no idea his wife has died. Readers have asked, did Jane mean to have an affair with Rochester after St John? The answer is, probably no. But still she risks compromising her reputation, now that people know about Bertha Rochester. Probably as a well-to-do lady now, she will stay as his houseguest and friend, but not compromise herself. Her better social status and new inheritance would mean Rochester would be obliged to be more regular in his manners towards her. Only it turned out that Thornfield had burnt down. Rochester was always Jane's true love, except they first met at the wrong time and under the wrong circumstances.
The Charlotte and Emily Brontë are not Austen, I admit. They do not always champion the stable, moral hero as the heroine's future partner. But their perception of love and relationships is emotional and organic rather than seemingly rational and grounded in morals.