Saturday, 18 August 2012

How Charlotte Brontë revolutionised Gothic literature

Jane Austen famously dismissed Gothic literature as stupid (very valid though). Gothic fiction was popular and at its height in her time and it was mainly shallow sensational stuff. The only major literary novelists of note of that era are all female because they were just better at social comedy which was the only real prominent realistic genre at the time. Don't count Sir Walter Scott, because he's not strictly literary and lacks some realism. I'd like to see what Jane Austen would have made out of Charlotte Brontë making Gothic literature intellectual. Take that, Jane! It almost seems as if Charlotte deliberately strove to prove her wrong. But this isn't possible as she only read Jane Austen later. Ironically, Charlotte dissed Jane Austen for being too mild, she did praise her shrewdness and realistic observations, but dismissed her lack of feeling as cold and unintellectual. This is also very true. Austen may be second to Shakespeare in terms of characterisation (notice those who rate her second are only justified because of characterisation, because lots of other authors had just as good or even better styles of writing and intellectual issues) but she never could have come up with Hamlet. This proves Shakespeare was either a neurotic weirdo or very very good at making a unique character. Most likely explanation, however, was he plundered another book. Ironically Hamlet is fairly Gothic (it's got ghosts and incest and a mediaeval castle, and murder, what's not Gothic about that?) and most of us would agree it is one of the most intellectual of Shakespeare's plays.

Strictly speaking, though, Emily deserves more credit than Charlotte, because Wuthering Heights was written before Jane Eyre, and it's far more obviously Gothic, with real supernatural incidents, unbounded passion, secluded characters who act so passionate and unrealistic you want to smack them with your fist. Emily might have been a genius but WH is more poetry than prose, methinks. As an epic poem it would have been a major work. It is a major novel now (not so much in its time) because of feminism, because we now believe in revealing our passions and desires and because WE ARE JUST MORE DARN SEXUAL. If our times were prudish WH wouldn't have got such a reception. Because it's fashionable to swoon over bad boys and act on impulse rather than reason out your love because of virtuous character etc etc, WH is become fashionable. By the way that's not a grammatical error, "is become" is a Victorian phrase. So take that, grammar Nazis.

I'm going to talk about my beloved Charlotte though.  Jane Eyre is undoubtedly Gothic. What with the poor forsaken orphan, the scary headmaster-villain, the secluded manor of Thornfield and later Ferndean, the Byronic hero. Let's not forget the madwoman in the attic who haunts the house to burn her husband's bed.   Oh, and of course the supernatural  calling of Jane by Rochester, and her answering his cries of "Jane! Jane! Jane!" And yet when it first came out it was considered an intellectual better sort of book, especially by the male critics. Male critics had a tendency to scorn feminine novels so this is quite high praise.  Emily may have written first, but Charlotte was published first and had on the whole better reviews.  So it was her book that shaped the way people thought rather than Emily, whose influence came later. Emily was known partly as the sister of Charlotte Brontë and came into her own later on.

Why Jane Eyre was a revolution in the Gothic genre was it is intellectual. Nowadays little girls swoon over the love story, but back then it was praised for its fidelity to the human heart, and censored from young girls. Even Mrs Gaskell had to give her daughter permission to read it.  Unlike the passive heroine of Gothic novels, Jane is rebellious. Her determination to go forward, find a job and a life is surprisingly modern of that time. She does not hope to become a prop to some family member, unlike the sentimental heroine who will be attached to her family. Her aloofness is striking. She is an individual in her own right, not a stereotypical heroine. And yet this is an attribute of Romantic poetry. Deep individuals in novels only really became the vogue in the Victorian era, but the ideal of the individual owes its origin to Romanticism.  The solitary wanderer is a staple of that era, it makes you think of travellers facing a dark and gloomy journey. Not having read Ann Radcliffe or Matthew Lewis I can't say much about solitary wanderers present (or not) in their novels, but I do know solitary wanderers are typical of Romantic poetry. Look at Cowper's The Castaway, quoted in Shirley. But unlike the lone traveller who encounters weird adventures, Jane is a lonely heroine who has to learn life's lessons on her own. The isolation the Victorians felt, in contrast to the sunnier past they liked to idealise, is here, all put back in an earlier time. Jane Eyre is essentially a Victorian-minded woman in a Romantic past, ironic because Charlotte revered the Romantics, and she was like a Romantic living in the Victorian present.

What you may have noticed is that Gothic fiction of that era tends to have beautiful, passive, perfect heroines who swoon away easily. They are also beloved by the rest. Jane takes action, when she applies for a job, when she runs away, and when she argues. That being said, she's not really an action person. She would be a still, silent child compared to the rest, and Mrs Reed dislikes the quiet unsociable child. It is her mind that moves rather than her conversation.  Elizabeth Rigby, an early reviewer who disliked the novel, had it right that Jane had a problem since she didn't make a single friend at school apart from Miss Temple and Helen Burns. Some people insist on diagnosing Jane with a mental disorder but anyway neurosis isn't what I want to argue about. Jane is flawed. People do not like her easily and even when she goes to Thornfield where she  meets respect and acceptance, she is not really part of the household as such. Mrs Fairfax tries to be kind to her, but Jane can't empathise with her as Mrs Fairfax doesn't have an exceptional mind. I doubt Jane is being a holier-than-thou snob, she says she esteems Mrs Fairfax and Adele but can't be part of them.  This is never really resolved in the novel.

The thing is, while poetry was the dominant "high literature" form in the Romantic era, except Maria Edgworth and Jane Austen, its popularity died out to the literary novel in the Victorian era. Charlotte seems to be translating Gothic poetry into prose. All the wild passion and supernatural stuff may be found in Scott and Byron, her childhood heroes. Only the part about Rochester's sudden telepathic message is a morality lesson telling Jane to escape the rigid loveless St John Rivers. Morality tales might be an 18th century fictional staple, but you don't expect it in a Gothic novel. Morality tales were also rated higher than Gothic tales in the Romantic era as well as the Victorian, so by incorporating both Charlotte proved it is possible for Gothicism to be literary and not a wholly lurid immoral thing. Also the part where Jane refuses to succumb to Rochester's pleas to make her his mistress and runs away.

Oh, and don't forget the wild passion. Especially the wild passion that excites everyone's imagination, as it did mine when I was 14 and reading this in bed in the wee hours of the morning. Some of my most pleasant reading hours was in bed snuggled up in a blanket and my teddy bear. Wild passion and incest and people dying for love is very Gothic, very Byronic. While there's no incest here (except St John wanting to marry his cousin Jane, and that was acceptable back then) there is the adulterous passion Jane and Rochester share but unlike some Gothic tales, never consummate. Rochester is a Bluebeard who hides his wife in the attic while he deliberately seeks to engage Jane's virgin heart. But this passion transcends the physical and the sensuous. There's the intellectual and emotional. Rochester broadens Jane's horizons, makes her feel happy and wanted. He says he is an intellectual epicure which is why he was attracted to Jane in the first place. Charlotte Brontë managed to make passion beyond the silly romantic contemptible to the reviewers, having domestic comfort, intellectual attraction and moral reform in the relationship necessary to their love. I don't know whether you've noticed that it's not just Rochester who has been reformed, so has Jane. He develops her as a person, giving her love and companionship and emotional maturity.  Jane was not very fond of people except Miss Temple and Helen Burns before meeting him. He teaches how it is like to have a good friendship.  Did Charlotte intend this? I don't know, but this platonic intellectual friendship thing is not a Gothicism, it is part of realism.  Jane Austen started it 30 years ago, but Charlotte went further than that, saying it is possible to have an intellectual as well as passionate love. Because when Jane Austen's heroines are being intellectual and rational they are not as consumed by passion. Intellect seems to dampen ardency if anything and ardency is seen as bad and irrational (Though it often is mind you). When they are being clever they do not get obsessed with the other person, which shows you how unpassionate Regency novels can be. There is a lack of exaltedness and high feeling and staunch contancy. Jane Eyre and Rochester are both ardent and intellectually attracted, and it is their mental communion that fires off the more sensual aspects of their relationship.

The famous "Jane! Jane! Jane!" scene, while being supernatural, is actually more than sensation. A similar experience occurred to Charlotte, so she could be transcribing a hallucination. (Or maybe a time-warp. I don't know). The whole purpose is to show the reader that Jane and Rochester are destined for each other, that their love transcends time and space. Almost as if God (who seems to be an unseen character in the novel) approves and brings them together this way.
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There's no wicked priest here (I think there was one in The Italian by Ann Radcliffe), but there is a cold frigid clergyman. He might well stand in for a villainous priest though strictly speaking he is not exactly a villain.  There is no real villain in the novel except Bertha - now Charlotte regretted making her too melodramatic years later. But she is mad, so she is excused from thorough villainy. Charlotte's realism ensured that no one is out and out a thorough villain bent on murdering people. Blanche is cruel, but she is not a murderer. She is selfish and cold-hearted but not insanely wicked. Bertha was an unchaste adulteress and a would-be murderer but she was sort of bought and sold (her father wanted her to marry Rochester who was of good birth). Circumstance, not merely character, makes the characters wicked. This distinguishes Jane Eyre from the stereotypical Gothic novel which has a definite villain. Apart from Mad Bertha who is too ludicrous to be taken seriously the real candidate for Gothic villain would be our Mr Bluebeard, Mr Rochester. The attempt to seduce an innocent young maiden, imprison a mad wife and have a string of mistresses is sinful enough. But even he is reformed, something which though ludicrous to my cynical streak, is a sign of Charlotte's efforts not to make villains thorough villains. As Rochester says circumstances not nature made him a sinner.

Did I mention the old manor house is reminiscent of Gothicism? There are battlements and furniture carved with Apostles which look menacing by night. There's also a mysterious attic. Gothic literature was called such because it was set in mediaeval castles or monasteries which obviously had Gothic architecture. I don't know what style Thornfield is in, but Jane observes it is "a gentleman's manor-house, not a nobleman's seat." Charlotte refuses to go Gothic all the way and put us in a turreted castle with drawbridge. I don't know if this was a sly dig at the Gothic novelists, but the effect on me was it showed Jane could be comfortable here, as a nobleman's estate would awe her and make her feel inferior. Speaking of noblemen it's interesting that Rochester is not one. He is a well-born gentleman, and Jane is an impoverished lady of the professional gentry (which is distinct from really upper-class gentry). You normally get well-born ladies and gentlemen as heroes and heroines in Gothic novels.

Marmion is:
one of those genuine productions so often vouchsafed to the fortunate public of those days—the golden age of modern literature. Alas! the readers of our era are less favoured.
Immortalising the Romantic era again. In addition to Marmion there's numerous quotes from The Lay of the Last Minstrel, which is undoubtedly Gothic, what with its abbey, mediaeval knights, a wizard in a grave, family feuds and even an imp. Quite good for setting the mood, methinks, especially for a novel with such a convincing heroine, where you don't expect all these poetry to come in. I think however Charlotte was trying to promote the Romantic and Gothic literature which influenced her in youth, which makes it revolutionary for a literary fiction piece.  Also Gothic novelists tend to set their works in a historical era, because it's more mysterious, exciting and Romantic. Charlotte does that too - but she cleverly inserts her opinion on the state of modern literature, instead of rambling about mediaeval chivalric codes. It is more typical for historical worshippers to wax lyrical on other things - luxuries, but worshipping literature is certainly cerebral. Charlotte loved to put in a commentary on art and how it should be: see Lucy's diatribe against the paintings in Villette, and Caroline's opinion on Cowper's poetry. In Shirley, one character is reading The Italian by Radcliffe.  Caroline thinks that despite the travelling that goes on in that book, the traveller ends up disappointed. A pretty deep analysis for Gothic literature. Speaking of travelling, Jane's journey is not so much a leap into sumptuous landscapes but a journey of the self and understanding herself and people. Take that, Mrs Radcliffe.

Probably the most enigmatic part would be the morbid water-colours Jane shows to Mr Rochester. Apparently they were based on similar works Charlotte had seen in her youth. They might be there just to exhibit Jane's talent, but I'm not so sure about that. Rochester is impressed by the way she expresses her art, though it is not the skill that enthralls him. It must be the sublimeness, not the beauty of it - yet another Romantic concept. Latmos is mentioned, one of the signs that Charlotte had classical education, which was considered impressive in books compared to Gothic stuff. Jane has Gothicised classical literature and made it respectable. The pictures she painted are symbolic of her phases in life (discovering Rochester's mad wife, her cousins and St John's frigidity), rather like presentiments.

1 comment:

  1. Vilette is fantastic. Beatrice de las Cisterna is a great Gothic character.