Navigation – Plan du site
Les Brontë et la notion d'influence
The Brontë Influence in literature

The Mystery of the Past Haunts Again: Jane Eyre and Eugenie Marlitt’s Die zweite Frau

Le mystère du passé hante encore: l’influence de Jane Eyre sur Die zweite Frau d’Eugenie Marlitt
Ivonne Defant
p. 1-20


Jane Eyre de Charlotte Brontë est un classique de la littérature féminine. Lors de sa publication en 1847, le roman eut un impact immédiat sur l’Angleterre victorienne, d’une part parce qu’il racontait l’histoire paradigmatique d’une héroïne de romance et d’autre part parce qu’il se faisait l’interprète des désirs des femmes de l’époque. Depuis, le grenier de Thornfield Hall où le maître de maison cache Bertha Mason, est devenu la métaphore d’un lieu féminin de l’emprisonnement en même temps que celle de la rébellion contre les règles patriarcales. Trente ans environ après la parution de Jane Eyre, une autre femme a publié un roman évoquant l’atmosphère obsédante de Thornfield Hall, à savoir l’écrivaine allemande, Eugenie Marlitt, auteur de Die zweite Frau (The Second Wife, 1874). Marlitt semble se réapproprier, tout en le réécrivant, le personnage de Bertha dans le contexte de la fiction domestique allemande. Les deux romans explorent en effet la thématique de la femme emprisonnée et marginalisée sur le plan social en termes d’ethnicité afin de montrer comment les rôles féminins et masculins sont inéluctablement liés aux relations de pouvoir. Dans Jane Eyre et Die zweite Frau, le motif de la maison est un élément central qui favorise la compréhension des personnages féminins, mais qui souligne surtout le mystère qui émane des maisons des deux romans, représentées par deux femmes, la Créole Bertha et l’Indienne Lotusblume, ce qui, au cœur de l’articulation de l’idée maîtresse des deux récits, révèle la construction à plusieurs facettes de la féminité.

Haut de page

Entrées d’index

Index chronologique :

XIXe siècle

Index thématique et géographique :

Allemagne, Grande-Bretagne, Littérature
Haut de page

Texte intégral

  • 1  Patsy Stoneman, Brontë Transformations. The Cultural Dissemination of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heig (...)
  • 2  For an analysis of Jane Eyre’s success in the nineteenth century, see also Oriana Palusci, “Le ere (...)
  • 3  Umberto Eco, “Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage”, in David Lodge (ed.), Modern Crit (...)
  • 4  Ibidem.
  • 5  P. Stoneman, Transformations, op. cit., 1.
  • 6  See Susan Stanford Friedman, “Migration, Encounter, and Indigenisation: New Ways of Thinking about (...)

1Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre belongs to that kind of fiction with a never-ending attraction. Since its publication in 1847 the story of the orphan Jane Eyre has held a particular appeal. When it came out, the novel made an immediate impact in mid-Victorian England, partly because it drew on the paradigmatic story of a romance heroine, partly because it interpreted the needs of the women of the time, and, since it introduced a novel way of representing women in fiction, its critical reception was mixed. Though the novel caused a great outcry because of its subversion of accepted moral norms, it was well received by popular culture that gave it a mythical status depending, as Patsy Stoneman observes, “partly on some inherent significance in the original text, and partly on the process of reiteration itself”.1 As early as the second half of the nineteenth century there were numerous novels written by women who explicitly or implicitly drew on Jane Eyre.2 Nowadays, thanks to its flexible textual ontology, Jane Eyre is well embedded both in the literary canon and in popular consciousness. It can be considered a cult text because it is well-known and also because it has a great cross-cultural appeal, so that over time it has become in Umberto Eco’s words “a catalyzer of collective memories”.3 The Italian scholar observes that “in order to transform a work into a cult object one must be able to break, dislocate, unhinge it so that one can remember only parts of it, irrespective of their original relationship with the whole”.4 In an ongoing dialogue between “high and low culture as a continuum of textuality”5 the reiteration of the myth of Jane Eyre enriched itself across genres and discourses, temporal and spatial settings strengthening the intertextual impulse. The imprisonment of a colonial woman in an almost unknown German novel of the nineteenth century, Eugenie Marlitt’s Die zweite Frau (The Second Wife), written in 1874,suggests a vague feeling of déjà vu recalling Brontë’s character Bertha Mason,Mr Rochester’s legitimate wife, the“madwoman in the attic”, which goes beyond the mere literary theme suggested by the formula of the Gothic novel or the romance. It is precisely Bertha’s textual silence in Jane Eyre that strengthens the meaning of the gap between the original and the copy, the intertextual space that has been filled by many rewritings. Paradoxically, Bertha’s silence suggests the multidimensional space in which Jane Eyre and The Second Wife can blend and intersect, foregrounding an intercultural encounter which in its hybridity encompasses the indigenous element.6 In my article, I will analyse the different dynamics of the motif of Thornfield Hall in Brontë’s and in Marlitt’s novel after discussing how in The Second Wife the migration of the theme of the imprisoned woman restricts its scope by silencing the colonial discourse via the possible influence of a stage adaptation of Jane Eyre which was famous in nineteenth-century Germany: Charlotte Birch Pfeiffer’s Die Waise von Lowood (1853).

  • 7  Liane finds out that Gabriel is Gisbert’s son and is therefore a legitimate heir to the family of (...)

2Since Marlitt’s novel is not as popular as Brontë’s there is perhaps the need to briefly summarise it. As the title shows, the novel stresses the issue of second wives. It tells the story of Liane Trachenberg, a young woman from an impoverished aristocratic family, who marries an arrogant and well-to-do landed and widowed aristocrat, Raoul Mainau. On the one hand, their marriage has been arranged by Liane’s greedy mother, on the other Raoul Mainau has married Liane in order to have a mother for his son Leo and to take vengeance on a duchess for toying with his feelings. The story, which takes place at Schönwerth, Mainau’s estate, is intertwined with a series of mysteries that involve other characters and a resolution which is important to the unravelling of the events. The web of these apparently secondary characters is complex. There are Raoul Mainau’s uncle, a cruel and conservative majordomo, an Indian woman, whom Gisbert Mainau, the majordomo’s brother, has brought over from India as his lover with her son Gabriel, a Jesuit court chaplain who has forged a letter written by Gisbert Mainau to disinherit Gabriel and who in the end tries to drown Liane because she, like a detective, discovers the truth about the falsified letter7 and finally Frau Löhn, who has cared for the Indian woman since her confinement in a little house attached to the main estate after the majordomo has abused her and weakened her body. Enticingly, the Indian woman’s imprisonment proves to have a resonance with the Thornfield Hall theme.

Early stage adaptations of Jane Eyre

  • 8  Lady Eastlake, “Review of Vanity Fair and Jane Eyre”, in Eleanor McNees (ed.), The Brontë Sisters. (...)
  • 9  Ibidem.
  • 10  For the text of Charlotte Birch Pfeiffer’s drama, see  Patsy Stoneman, Jane Eyre on Stage, 1848-18 (...)

3However, it was first of all in England that Thornfield Hall intrigued Victorian readers with the mysterious character of Bertha Mason and contributed to Jane Eyre’s success. In 1848 Lady Eastlake, who criticized the coarseness of language and laxity of tone in Jane Eyre, wrote that “the popularity of Jane Eyre is a proof how deeply the love for illegitimate romance is implanted in our nature”.8 Interestingly, Eastlake recognizes the fascination of the Thornfield theme, but passes rapidly over Bertha. In her words, Bertha is “Mr Rochester’s wife, a creature, half fiend, half maniac, whom he had married in a distant part of the world”,9 thus concealing her colonial identity. Bertha’s silence is due to the dominant ideological and poetological currents of the time which was essential to fixing Brontë’s work in the literary canon. The same silence is maintained and even stressed in the numerous stage adaptations that were performed during the second half of the nineteenth century in England and elsewhere and that marked one of the first forms of dissemination of the text. Die Waise von Lowood, the German stage adaptation written by Charlotte Birch Pfeiffer in 1853 was important in sparking off the echo of the imprisoned woman in Marlitt’s The Second Wife. Since both works reiterate the theme of Thornfield Hall in a lively interplay between reception and creation they give insight into the notion of adaptation.10

  • 11  Linda Hutcheon, A Theory of Adaptation, New York: Routledge, 2006, 16.
  • 12  Julie Sanders, Adaptation and Appropriation, New York: Routledge, 2006, 19.
  • 13  Ibidem, 3.
  • 14  P. Stoneman, Transformations, op. cit., 5.
  • 15  J. Sanders, op. cit., 22.

4The process of adaptation belongs to the practice of intertextuality. Adaptations are translations, transpositions as they revision and relocate a source text into a target one culturally, geographically and temporally. Often they are “translations in the form of intersemiotic transpositions from one sign system to another”11 because they convert a text from one genre into another. Since adaptation implies both the concepts of relocation and creation it has been linked to the postcolonial notion of hybridity, which, in the case of adaptation, can be the result of either amplifying or pruning the source-text. Sometimes, as Julie Sanders argues, “adaptation can also constitute a[n …] attempt to make texts ‘relevant’ or easily comprehensible to new audiences and readerships via the processes of proximation and updating”.12 The multifarious aspects of hybridity underlying the notion of adaptation can include an extensive list of terms such as “borrowing, stealing, appropriating, inheriting, assimilating, […] being influenced, inspired, dependent, indebted, haunted, possessed, homage, mimicry, travesty, echo, allusion, and intertextuality”.13 The transcodification of the topic of the imprisoned woman first from a British novel into a German drama and then its rewriting into another German novel show how its meaning is transformed into a historical process to renew a sense of pleasure that is given by an ongoing interplay between expectation and surprise. As Patsy Stoneman notes “the potential for transformation lies to a significant extent within the medium of representation”.14 In the fictional world of the novel, the telling mode captures the psychological dimension of the characters, multiplying their ambiguities; in the stage adaptations, the showing mode presents the characters only according to visual and aural dimensions and there is hardly room for their interiority. In fact, stage adaptations use what Charles Sanders Peirce calls indexical and iconic signs, i.e. precise people, places and things, compared to literature that uses symbolic and conventional signs. Moreover, “the full impact of an adaptation depends upon the audience’s awareness of an explicit relationship to a source text”.15 The deployment and adaptation of well-known texts is connected with a sense of consumption which revises and often effaces the source text. This aspect is evident in both Pfeiffer’s drama and Marlitt’s novel which disclose a certain awareness of being commodified texts that refer to their own value.

  • 16  P. Stoneman, Transformations, op. cit., 9.
  • 17  P. Stoneman, Stage, op. cit., 11.

5Such commodification was certainly present in the British stage adaptations that were performed immediately after Brontë’s novel was published and that lead to our understanding of its appropriation by Victorian popular culture. As Patsy Stoneman suggests, these stage adaptations shifted the emphasis of the novel either to Jane’s sense of class oppression and victimization or to a conventional love relationship between Jane and Rochester.16 These dramas were indeed “written to meet the insatiable popular demand for domestic melodrama which characterized the transpontine theatres”,17 i.e. the cheap East-End theatres where working people went to attend performances, and therefore contained a strong class meaning. The key element which distinguishes the early adaptations of Jane Eyre by John Courtney (1848) and John Brougham (1849) is the introduction of servants into the Jane Eyre plot. In Courtney’s play, performed at the Victoria Theatre in 1848, aristocrats are banished from stage in order to foreground the resourcefulness of a servant who saves Rochester from the fire. It is Mrs Fairfax who informs Jane about the existence of a secret at Thornfield. Remarkably, Bertha does not appear on stage, and her story is told to Jane by Rochester as soon as she hears from Mrs Fairfax about a secret haunting Thornfield Hall. Brougham’s play was first performed at the Bowery Theatre, New York, in 1849. In this play too prominence is given to servants; John marries Grace Poole and they have comic marital quarrels, but aristocrats also play an important role: the playwright insists on their haughtiness in the scene where Jane’s role as governess is ridiculed. The madwoman appears shortly afterwards to set the house on fire. In the 1856 performance of this play the same actress played both the madwoman and Miss Scatcherd, the cruel teacher who in the novel labels Jane with the word “slattern”. Significantly, the madwoman has no name in the play. From the script we evince that Jane faints when confronted with her, but the reason for her swoon is ambiguous because the reader does not know whether it is because Rochester who suddenly appears on the scene exclaims “my wife” or because she is afraid of her.

From Jane Eyre to Die zweite Frau via Pfeiffer’s drama

  • 18  See Inga-Stina Ewbank “Adapting Jane Eyre. Jacob Spitzer’s Die Waise aus Lowood”, in Norbert Bachl (...)

6The emphasis on class and the romantic plot is maintained in Charlotte Birch Pfeiffer’s Die Waise von Lowood (The Orphan of Lowood, 1853), as is evident from the title itself. In Germany there seems to have been an earlier interest in Brontë’s novel starting with translations, which confirms that the cultural phenomenon called by an American reviewer the “Jane Eyre fever” had also taken root there. Jane Eyre had become a bestseller, and a must for women, not only in Britain. Ernst Susemihl’s translation appeared in 1848; two more followed in 1850 by Ludwig Fort and Christoph Friedrich Grieb, which in the 1864 edition appeared with the subtitle Jane Eyre, die Waise von Lowood, echoing Charlotte Birch Pfeiffer’s adaptation.18

7This German drama is of particular interest because it may constitute an invisible thread connecting Brontë’s Urtext with Marlitt’s novel. Patsy Stoneman writes in her recent book on nineteenth-century stage adaptations of Jane Eyre that

  • 19  P. Stoneman, Stage, op. cit., 141.

[t]he play was first performed at the Hofburgtheater in Vienna in 1853. It was one of Birch-Pfeiffer’s “most phenomenal successes overall: it remained in the repertoire of the theatre until 1895, and played repeatedly in all German theatres”. The German-language play was also performed in America on numerous occasions between 1854 and 1898.19

  • 20  Ibid., 11.

8As in British stage adaptations, Jane’s self assertiveness is markedly downplayed. Patsy Stoneman observes that in this play “the adult Jane is particularly virtuous and long-suffering, freely forgiving her aunt and almost obtusely denying herself recognition of Rochester’s regard”.20 However, despite the conservative atmosphere that defends aristocratic status, Jane appears as a talented woman who is good at painting.  The basic structure of Charlotte Brontë’s novel is maintained, but some fundamental new features are introduced. In an echo of Courtney’s English play, at Thornfield Hall Jane hears of a secret embodied by a strange woman who laughs heartily in the middle of the night and who lives in a remote area of the castle. A radical change is represented by the fact that this woman, Lady Henrietta Rochester, is not Rochester’s wife but the wife of his brother. In contrast to Brontë’s novel, the racial aspects of the madwoman are silenced, thus omitting the subtle cultural discourse Brontë implies in her narrative. Moreover, shrieks and thuds are absent from the scene, and this testifies to the downplaying of the madwoman’s gender and oppressed racial condition.

  • 21  Ruth Ellen Boetcher Joeres, Respectability and Deviance. Nineteenth-Century German Women Writers a (...)
  • 22  Kirsten Belgum, “Domesticating the Reader: Women and Die Gartenlaube”, in Women in German Yearbook (...)

9Pfeiffer very successfully adapted other nineteenth-century British novels, by Dickens, Eliot and Collins, although she was accused of plagiarism and lack of originality by the majority of theatre critics. Nevertheless, The Orphan of Lowood marked the highpoint of her fame. In 1853, it was prominently reviewed in the Leipziger Zeitung, thus providing evidence that it enjoyed great popularity. Eugenie Marlitt, who in that year was in Munich at the court of countess Mathilde Sonderhausen and acted as her Gesellschafterin and Vorleserin, (i.e. a female (reading) companion, may have attended a performance or read the play, for she was familiar with the world of the theatre as she had previously worked as an opera singer in Vienna. Since The Orphan of Lowood was a successful play, rich in sensational motifs, it may have been a good source of material for the stories which she later published in instalments in the Gartenlaube, the most popular nineteenth-century illustrated German magazine which dealt with domestic and family matters. Eugenie Marlitt, who began to write in 1863, published all her novels, including The Second Wife, first in this family magazine, whose stories celebrated the peacefulness of an interior private space. They were generally read aloud as part of the private pleasures of the home and “were meant to offer familiarity and comfort, and a reassurance that the social unit of the heterosexual nuclear family would always be maintained despite all dangers and pitfalls”.21 The concern with domesticity implied also the domestication of its readership, in particular its dominant female readership. Women occupied a certain place in the fictional texts published and their representation was suggested by the magazine’s emphasis on the ideological separation of men and women into distinct public and private spheres which prescribed a clear-cut women’s role that strengthened national identity, for very often “German identity or German female identity was defined by contrast, through comparison with another model”.22

10The different publishing medium adopted for the two texts greatly influenced the representation and the adaptation of the theme of Thornfield Hall and added new nuances. The migration from Brontë’s Jane Eyre to Marlitt’s The Second Wife via Pfeiffer’s The Orphan of Lowood revolves around a mysterious love relationship that cannot be simply replicated because of the different natures of the texts themselves. In the original novel, the conventional marriage plot occupies a scanty place that covers the last chapter of the novel, leaving behind a narrative riddled with many rifts on which Bertha’s hidden matrimonial story converges. In Pfeiffer and Marlitt’s versions, the marriage plot occupies a larger and more significant and textual space, shifting the emphasis to an illicit love affair and its sensational moral implications. In Pfeiffer’s drama, Arthur, Rochester’s brother, is married to Lady Henrietta Rochester who elopes to the Continent, has an adulterous liaison with a Polish officer and conceives a baby, Adele. This scandal causes her husband to bring his wife back to England. The loss of her baby and the death of her lover deprive Lady Henrietta Rochester of her reason. Before dying Arthur begs his brother to bring Adele to England and remove the maniac to Thornfield Hall. In Marlitt’s novel, the uncle of Liane’s husband, Gisbert Mainau, falls in love with an Indian woman, called Lotusblume, and brings her over to Germany to his castle. Here the envy and cruelty of his brother and of a priest who accuse her of being a prostitute break their love relationship. Gisbert Mainau falls ill and dies while his lover becomes mad and is confined outside the castle. What the two texts share with the original Brontë novel is that in all of them the imprisoned woman is insane, but for different reasons. In The Orphan of Lowood, Lady Henrietta goes mad and is imprisoned after losing her lover and her child but in Marlitt’s The Second Wife the Indian woman loses her reason after Gisbert Mainau believes she has betrayed him. Interestingly, in both Pfeiffer’s drama and Marlitt’s novel, the love relationship is extra-marital and the male lover falls ill. Arguably, the different causes of the madness of the colonial woman are crucial to understanding the migration of the meaning of the Thornfield Hall theme. If Bertha’s madness has a racial and hereditary connotation, Lady Henrietta Rochester’s and Lotusblume’s insanity is embedded inside a romantic tale. Moreover, another similarity that the two German revisitations share on the level of plot is that in the madness of love both women mistake another man for their lover and vainly try to win his heart: Lady Henrietta mistakes Rowland Rochester for her lover and the Indian woman believes that Liane’s husband is her beloved.

  • 23  Russell West, “English Nineteenth-Century Novels on the German Stage. Birch-Pfeiffer’s Adaptations (...)
  • 24  P. Stoneman, Transformations, op. cit., 15.
  • 25  P. Stoneman, Stage, op. cit., 197.

11Because of the theatrical medium, Birch Pfeifferis “confronted with the problem of compressing the novel’s plethora of narrative events, with the eradication of almost all the original textual material not utilizable in dialogue form”23 and the adaptation of the Thornfield secret by emphasizing a moral view, resulting in the diminishing importance of Jane and Bertha. The topic of the imprisoned woman is compressed in Rochester’s speech and is directly addressed to the audience to make explicit the illicit love relationship so that there is no place for the madwoman to speak for herself. The showing mode used in the stage adaptation emphasises the sensational and melodramatic aspects of the heroine’s situation. Though it is Rochester who tells Jane about the existence of Lady Henrietta Rochester, it is Mrs Reed, Georgina’s mother, who reveals to Jane that there is a secret at Thornfield because she wants to help her daughter win Rochester’s heart. The intervention of this lady, whose name recalls one of the cruel aunts in the original novel, underlines on the one hand the moral polarisation whereby the poor, good young heroine is confronted with a rich, bad older woman, and on the other stresses the concentration on a class meaning, thus partly continuing the tradition of British stage adaptations. In fact, the conclusion of the play confirms how “the stage adaptations pull the novel back into a world where anxieties are dispelled by the conventions of a happy ending in which masculine and feminine roles are defined by a long social tradition”.24 The strong emotionalism of Jane who bursts into tears when she confesses that she wants to leave Thornfield because Rochester is going to marry Georgina ends with the words: “Oh, Rowland, my lord, my love, I am thine”!25

  • 26  See Charmian Knight, “Thornfield Hall Revisited”, in Charmian Knight & Patsy Stoneman (eds.), The (...)

12The telling mode adopted in the representation of the imprisoned woman both in Jane Eyre and The Second Wife permits Charlotte Brontë and Eugenie Marlitt to further women’s sense of vulnerability in regard to marriage. The motif of the imprisoned heroine is used by many nineteenth-century women writers, above all in Gothic and sentimental novels, to describe a straitjacketed womanhood, torn between the figures of the angel and the demon or monster, along with the woman’s exclusion from the social and public space, but often also her resistance and her wounded rage against the established canon. This topical issue is usually inscribed inside a domestic context where the house takes on a topographical symbolism: it represents woman’s unacknowledged sexuality. The more the heroine wants to explore the unfamiliar house of the lover, the deeper her desire to know her beloved becomes.26 As a telling metaphor of feminine space, the house can be understood as the locus of woman’s interpretation of her existence, the interiority of the heroine’s mind both spatially and textually. While in Pfeiffer’s drama the heroine’s identity is exclusively external due to the medium of representation, in Jane Eyre and in The Second Wife female identity is represented as more complex, though in a different way. If the narrative form in Jane Eyre justifies an excess of meaning which converges on Bertha herself, in The Second Wife this semantic surplus is foreclosed because of the different role of the Indian woman, Bertha’s counterpart in Marlitt’s novel, which seems to be more influenced by Pfeiffer’s performed version. In this sense the telling mode allows consideration of those nuances that resonate also on the level of representation.Charlotte Birch Pfeiffer silences the racial otherness of the imprisoned woman and Eugenie Marlitt transfers it exclusively into a gender oppression in the service of a romantic story. Conversely, in Brontë’s novel, race is central and radiates a plurality of meaning. Centred around the presence of two non-white women, “other” to the main plots telling a courtship and love story of two white couples, the Thornfield Hall theme in Jane Eyre and The Second Wife pulls the two novels into different directions.

The mystery of Bertha

  • 27  Edward Said, Culture & Imperialism, London: Vintage, 1994, 106.
  • 28  Susan Meyer, “‘Indian Ink’: Colonialism and the Figurative Strategy of Jane Eyre”, in Imperialism (...)
  • 29  Carl Plasa, “’Incongruous Unions’“: Slavery and the Politics of Metaphor in Jane Eyre”, in Critica (...)

13The character ofBertha embodies the secret of Thornfield. In the archetypal love triangle she plays the role of Jane’s enemy since she is Mr Rochester’s first wife, yet she reaches beyond the limited context of the traditional romantic story to develop conflicting sites of representation because she is fully implicated in the history of the British Empire and in her marginal presence in the text she articulates what Edward Said calls “contrapuntal reading”. Through her colonial origin, Bertha “reveals herself to be assuming the importance of the empire to the situation at home”.27 If we investigate the writing strategies used by Brontë in her subtext we get the impression that Bertha functions in the text as a gap, a lacuna packed with discursive complexity and polysemy. Viewed from the perspective of postcolonial studies, one of the aspects that makes Bertha overdetermined and thus ambiguousis her figurative blackness. As Susan Meyer writes, “in the form in which she becomes visible in the novel, Bertha has become black as she is constructed by the narrative”.28 The construction of blackness partly sustains Brontë’s intention of adopting a non-white female character in order to emphasise the tensions of the class and gender hierarchy in Britain. However, this sense of construction related to Bertha seems to blur her location in the space both of the house and of the text, and instead of pinpointing clear racial dynamics, it seems to gesture towards ambiguous underpinnings gravitating around the question of race relations which affect  gender and class attributes as well. Bertha’s equivocal origin seems to participate in the construction of the character. Postcolonial scholar, Carl Plasa, writes “in its nineteenth-century context, the term Creole can refer equally to persons born and naturalized in the West Indies of either European or African descent, having, as the OED emphatically declares, no connotation of colour”.29 In this sense Bertha’s racial relations acquire extra meaning.

14The same ambiguity is suggested by Bertha’s attic, which is at the centre of the novel; it is indeed the third stor(e)y, both of Jane’s narrative and of Rochester’s house. Such spatial dynamics focused on the concept of centredness testify to how far Thornfield’s secret shapes Jane’s existential space. Indeed, Thornfield embodies Jane’s condition of imprisonment and desire for escape that accompanies her throughout her journey from childhood to womanhood. The lingering mystery that hangs over Thornfield prepares Jane for the encounter with Bertha, who represents less Rochester’s first wife than an ordeal she has to overcome in order to achieve selfhood. Bertha stands for both the centre and the margin, or, more exactly, she is the margin that enters the centre to disrupt fixed notions of representation. The ambiguous centredness of Thornfield heralds the ambiguous place that the story of Thornfield occupies in the text: far from being fully inscribed inside a traditional romantic love story, the tale of Thornfield Hall exceeds formulaic patterns.

  • 30  Ibidem, 14.
  • 31  See  S. Meyer, “’Indian Ink’: Colonialism and the Figurative Strategy of Jane Eyre”, op. cit., 70.
  • 32  C. Brontë, Jane Eyre, op. cit., 307.

15Bertha’s role in the novel is exceeding and polysemous. As Bertha epitomizes the arbitrariness of meaning, her function in the novel is multiple; she functions as a metaphor for class and gender oppression but she is also an embodiment of colonial oppression because some race allusions are displaced to mask Jane’s literal implication in colonialism and Brontë’s implicit reflection on it. Charlotte Brontë’s displacement of race allusions is manifold: she constructs rhetorical strategies, but at the same time “disputes and dismantles”30 them, as if to interpret Thornfield attic as a space that extends itself metaphorically to the mind of the nineteenth-century female writer who has to negotiate between what is said and what is unsaid, between the private space of the house and the public sphere which grants a broader access to history and culture. Thus, while at face value Thornfield Hall represents the heart of the narrative—the scene of the love story between Jane and Mr Rochester—it surreptitiously stands for a place that encloses the private tale in the public dimension of history, which remains hidden in the text. The narration of Jane’s courtship is framed by Brontë’s deliberate intervention in the interpretation and making of history. According to Susan Meyer, the period in which the events in Bertha’s life took place is the years 1820s and 1830s when revolts occurred in the British sugar colonies in the West Indies.31 Her disruptive rebelliousness as a “hyena in clothes”32 symbolically hints at the representation of power relations in a social context where gender and colonial oppression is at issue.

16The overdetermination of Bertha’s attic is literally represented by one small detail: although her room has no windows and seems to be hermetically closed, Bertha finds a way to let her presence become more haunting and pervasive in both Rochester’s house and the text. As Bertha crosses the threshold to leave her room, Thornfield Hall dismantles the threshold of meaning to create a seamless and fluid space that engenders Jane’s subjectivity and, as the very spot where female impulses of containment and rebellion are at stake, it can be related tobody and sexuality. On her second visit to the lower rooms of the mansion, Bertha visits Jane’s bedroom. The symbolism of the scene is very rich: Bertha’s invasion of the future bride’s bedroom permits Jane toconfront herself with her own body, which is metonymically represented by the space of the closet. It is during this visit that Jane meets Bertha, her double. We read:

  • 33  Ibid., 296.

There was a light on the dressing-table, and the door of the closet, where, before going to bed, I had hung my wedding dress and veil, stood open: I heard a rustling there. I asked, “Sophie, what are you doing?” No one answered: but a form emerged from the closet.33

  • 34  Ibidem, 298.

17The door of the closet is open so that Bertha can enter to warn Jane about the dangers of her marriage to Rochester. The excessive and carnivalesque body of Bertha confronts the privatized, compressed and virginal body of Jane and makes it vulnerable. “The veil, torn from top to bottom in two halves”34 can be read as Bertha’s foretelling to Jane of how her control over her body will be lost once she is married to Rochester. Both the closet and the veil are in metonymic connection with Jane’s body. The veil bought by Rochester for Jane and hanging on the door of the closet foreshadows that Rochester will have ownership of Jane’s body, just as he once had of Bertha’s.

  • 35  At the end of vol. 2, chapter VII we read that the fortune is legally divided and transferred and (...)
  • 36  S. Meyer, op. cit., 93.

18In the way they are represented, the closet and the veil are loaded with extra meaning and widen the gap between signifier and signified. The example above shows Bertha’s role of articulating gender oppression through an analogy with colonial domination, but the submerged text of Jane Eyre is brimming with a vast relation between signifier and signified that vehicles also an implicit reflection on the issue of colonialism. From this perspective, an interesting gap is represented by an object which accompanies Jane during her journeys from a place to another, a trunk. Almost invisible in the text, by the end of the novel it can be understood as a metonymy for Jane’s property. Present in the two first places Jane visits, Gateshead and Lowood, as symbolically representing her condition of disconnection and her absence of property, this trunk disappears when Bertha sets fire to the house to suddenly emerge again at the end of the novel when Jane enters the final mansion of Ferndean, the place of the happy-ending marriage. Its disappearance at Thornfield is emblematic of Bertha’s influence on acting as a turning point in Jane’s life. The end of the novel shows how power is redistributed: the colonial trade which leads to Rochester’s decline in status signifies also Jane’s economic empowerment. When Jane arrives at Ferndean, the trunk she orders to be taken upstairs and which probably contains her uncle’s legacy35 is a new one, in metonymic connection with the more expansive self of a woman who has retrieved her past and who has gained economic and social status as well as a linguistic identity. Jane’s inheritance, which leads to her social empowerment, is metonymically interwoven with her autobiographical I. As Susan Meyer notes, “St John announces Jane’s accession to fortune by pulling the letter out of a ‘morocco pocket-book’ ”,36 and he is able to identify Jane as the heiress because she has written her name, on a white sheet of paper, in Indian ink. In this apparently trivial detail the woman writer not only inscribes Jane’s identity but she also betrays her intention to implicitly pose the complex discourse on colonialism, implying Bertha’s liberation from being merely encrypted inside a romantic story. Moreover, if we think of Madeira as the location and source of Jane’s inherited wealth we cannot help but remember that Madeira was a place where slaves and fine wines were traded. Once again, Charlotte Brontë gestures towards colonial and racial relationships, which are implicitly represented in the text.

  • 37  The image of Thornfield as a volcano-house has been suggested by Oriana Palusci in her introductio (...)

19As we can see, a deep colonial discourse spans the whole text converging on the figurative centre of Bertha’s attic. This discourse is sustained by the hidden implications of language, overdetermined by wide gaps between the signifiers and the signifieds which suggest an oceanic sense of boundlessness couched in the recurring images of fluidity that stand for Jane’s many selves, her restless desire which is always displaced, like a fluid ripple spreading out across the open text and converging on the very sea of the Caribbean where Bertha was born. Echoing the rumbling West Indian sea described by Rochester to Jane, Bertha’s semantic disruption is represented also by her laughter, as if, although deprived of her language, in her monstrous yells she desires to speak out her colonial identity “trans-lated” into England. In her unruliness Bertha embodies a nature that has not been domesticated, like that of the Caribbean: on the verge of death, Bertha is on the roof of Thornfield, turned into a volcano-house37 that is going to blow up. Outside the attic of Thornfield Bertha can give expression to her unruly nature again, she almost becomes a personification of nature,  and thus she takes vengeance on Rochester by setting the prison-house on fire.

20By the end of the novel much remains silenced about Jane’s new status: the trunk Jane carries over the threshold of Ferndean seems to keep alive that sense of concealment dominating all the narrative, as if to keep alive the haunting presence of Bertha. Jane Eyre’s Bertha embodies a historical dimension that is foregrounded not only metaphorically. The very issue of colonialism underlying the whole novel leads to our understanding of Bertha’s cultural embeddedness, her exceeding beyond the mere function of preventing Jane’s marriage. Her ambiguous and marginalized condition offsets Jane’s restless desire to trespass boundaries, multiplying hidden connections between class, race and gender and weakening fixed notions of identity and language. By creating Bertha, a disruptive female figure, Brontë questions the boundaries of female fiction and its ideological containment and seems to rewrite its conventions.

The mystery of Lotusblume

21The theme of the mystery of the past returns in Eugenie Marlitt’s The Second Wife and, in the context of a story serialized in a domestic magazine, it served on the one hand to keep the readers of the time at a fever-pitch of suspense, on the other to celebrate the triumph of the middle-class values with the removal of all the elements which represented a threat to a happy domestic space.

  • 38  R. Joeres, op.cit., 238.

22 The revisitation of the Thornfield Hall theme revolves around the figure of the Indian woman who has been kept for thirteen years inside a little house near the castle where Liane lives with her husband. She was the mistress of Raoul’s uncle, who loved her jealously and obsessively until his brother, the majordomo, declared her a prostitute. However, whereas the Thornfield Hall theme in Brontë’s novel is charged with extra meaning, in Marlitt’s novel it becomes subsumed into a stereotyped sensational motif as in Pfeiffer’s stage adaptation. This restriction of meaning is exemplified both on thematic and discursive levels. Thornfield is only a phase in Jane’s pilgrimage but the strong symbolic meaning associated with it resonates throughout the whole text. At the same time the suspense related to the story of Thornfield heightens the emotional dimension of Jane and enables a deeper presentation of selfhood that goes beyond prescribed outlines. In The Second Wife the Thornfield Hall theme occupies the whole length of the book and runs parallel to the main story of Liane and Raoul Mainau. Nevertheless, it is not central to the development of the main heroine but to the development of the plot. As an example of popular literature Marlitt’s novel has “to supply comfortable grounding for the readers by presenting class and gender expectations that they could recognise so that their representation reconfirms the usual and expected, but it also offers the thrill of some change and difference”.38 It is the mystery and detective story clustered around the love relationship between Raoul’s uncle and the Indian woman that provides this thrill.

23The Indian woman’s appearance in the text marks a fundamental difference from Bertha in Jane Eyre. While Bertha tends to remain concealed, the Indian woman enters the novel early on and unambiguously. It is Liane who discovers the little house where she is kept imprisoned and on peering inside she discovers that:

  • 39  E. Marlitt, The Second Wife, op. cit., 67.

A lamp was burning in the middle of the room, and in one corner stood a cane bedstead. On the snow-white sheets lay a small, delicate head with the face hidden in the pillows. Was it child or woman soft white muslin enveloped the figure from the head to the feet, which were bare and beautifully small, but colourless and very still. One arm was bare, so slender and thin, that it might have belonged to a girl of twelve or thirteen, and the broad gold band which encircled it seemed almost too heavy for the tender flesh it rested on.39

24Whereas Bertha is confined within the main building, the Indian woman’s external incarceration symbolically evokes the revision of the “eternal triangle” represented in Jane Eyre: in The Second Wife there is no living first wife menacing Liane’s married life; there is a troubled marriage story between a white man and a white woman and there is another love story related to the first for reasons of marketability. But the physical isolation of the Indian woman also resonates also at the level of discourse: it entails a clichéd representation of race according to which the colonial woman is clearly associated to a marginalized space which in its display of exotica—a garden full of monkeys, a Valley in Kashmir and a Hindu temple—proves to be counterfeited.


1  Patsy Stoneman, Brontë Transformations. The Cultural Dissemination of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, Prentice Hall: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1996, 4.

2  For an analysis of Jane Eyre’s success in the nineteenth century, see also Oriana Palusci, “Le eredi di Jane Eyre”, in L’impero di carta, a cura di Carlo Pagetti, Roma: Carocci, 1998, 221-256. For an analysis of contemporary rewritings, see Margarete Rubik and Elke Mettinger-Schartmann (eds.), A Breath of Fresh Eyre. Intertextual and Intermedial Reworkings of Jane Eyre, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007.

3  Umberto Eco, “Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage”, in David Lodge (ed.), Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader, London: Longman, 1988, 447.

4  Ibidem.

5  P. Stoneman, Transformations, op. cit., 1.

6  See Susan Stanford Friedman, “Migration, Encounter, and Indigenisation: New Ways of Thinking about Intertextuality in Women’s Writing”, in European Intertexts. Women’s Writing in English in a European Context, Bern: Peter Lang, 2005, 226.

7  Liane finds out that Gabriel is Gisbert’s son and is therefore a legitimate heir to the family of Raoul Mainau. See Eugenie Marlitt, The Second Wife, Chicago: M. A. Donohue & Co., 1875, 293. This first English edition is used for subsequent quotations.

8  Lady Eastlake, “Review of Vanity Fair and Jane Eyre”, in Eleanor McNees (ed.), The Brontë Sisters. Critical Assessment, Vol. III, Mountfield: Helm Information, 1996, 44.

9  Ibidem.

10  For the text of Charlotte Birch Pfeiffer’s drama, see  Patsy Stoneman, Jane Eyre on Stage, 1848-1898, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007, 138-197. Quotations from Jane Eyre are from  Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

11  Linda Hutcheon, A Theory of Adaptation, New York: Routledge, 2006, 16.

12  Julie Sanders, Adaptation and Appropriation, New York: Routledge, 2006, 19.

13  Ibidem, 3.

14  P. Stoneman, Transformations, op. cit., 5.

15  J. Sanders, op. cit., 22.

16  P. Stoneman, Transformations, op. cit., 9.

17  P. Stoneman, Stage, op. cit., 11.

18  See Inga-Stina Ewbank “Adapting Jane Eyre. Jacob Spitzer’s Die Waise aus Lowood”, in Norbert Bachleitner (Hrsg.), Beiträge zur Rezeption der britischen und irischen Literatur des 19. Jahrhunderts im deutschsprachigen Raum, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000, 284. The title refers to Spitzer’s Die Waise aus Lowood (1862), another revisitation of Jane Eyre in the German language, which differs from Pfeiffer’s drama in that the theme of the orphan girl is transformed into a pedagogic work.

19  P. Stoneman, Stage, op. cit., 141.

20  Ibid., 11.

21  Ruth Ellen Boetcher Joeres, Respectability and Deviance. Nineteenth-Century German Women Writers and the Ambiguity of Representation, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998, 225-226.

22  Kirsten Belgum, “Domesticating the Reader: Women and Die Gartenlaube”, in Women in German Yearbook 9, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993, 95.

23  Russell West, “English Nineteenth-Century Novels on the German Stage. Birch-Pfeiffer’s Adaptations of Dickens, Brontë, Eliot and Collins”, in Bachleitner Norbert (Hrsg.), op. cit., 295.

24  P. Stoneman, Transformations, op. cit., 15.

25  P. Stoneman, Stage, op. cit., 197.

26  See Charmian Knight, “Thornfield Hall Revisited”, in Charmian Knight & Patsy Stoneman (eds.), The Brontë Influence, Haworth: The Brontë Society, 2004, 64.

27  Edward Said, Culture & Imperialism, London: Vintage, 1994, 106.

28  Susan Meyer, “‘Indian Ink’: Colonialism and the Figurative Strategy of Jane Eyre”, in Imperialism at Home. Race and Victorian Women’s Fiction, New York: Cornell University Press, 1996, 67.

29  Carl Plasa, “’Incongruous Unions’“: Slavery and the Politics of Metaphor in Jane Eyre”, in Critical Issues. Charlotte Brontë, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, 80.

30  Ibidem, 14.

31  See  S. Meyer, “’Indian Ink’: Colonialism and the Figurative Strategy of Jane Eyre”, op. cit., 70.

32  C. Brontë, Jane Eyre, op. cit., 307.

33  Ibid., 296.

34  Ibidem, 298.

35  At the end of vol. 2, chapter VII we read that the fortune is legally divided and transferred and Jane receives five thousand pounds.

36  S. Meyer, op. cit., 93.

37  The image of Thornfield as a volcano-house has been suggested by Oriana Palusci in her introduction to the Italian version of Jane Eyre in Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, Milano: Rizzoli, 1994, XXIII.

38  R. Joeres, op.cit., 238.

39  E. Marlitt, The Second Wife, op. cit., 67.

40  See Stuart Hall, The Work of Representation, London: Sage Publications, 1997, 245.

41  German colonialism does not present the same features as British. It started late to compete with the other European countries and was of brief duration (1884-1919), accompanying the rise of the nationalist impulse of the second half of the nineteenth century enhancing the values of Heimat and Vaterland in the German Empire under Prussian leadership.

42  In Phantasiereiche. Zur Kulturgeschichte des deutschenKolonialismus, Frankfurt: Campus, 2003.

43  S. Hall, op. cit., 235.

44  Susan Purdie, “Janice Radway, Reading the Romance”, in Martin Barker & Anne Beezer (eds.), Reading Into Cultural Studies, , London & New York: Routledge, 1992, 160.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

La Revue LISA/LISA e-journal

Référence électronique

Ivonne Defant, « The Mystery of the Past Haunts Again: Jane Eyre and Eugenie Marlitt’s Die zweite Frau », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Écrivains, écritures, Les Brontë et la notion d'influence, document 3, mis en ligne le 09 mars 2010, consulté le 14 décembre 2017. URL :

Haut de page


Ivonne Defant

Ivonne Defant holds a Ph.D. in Literary Theory and Comparative Literatures from the University of Trento (Italy). Her fields of interest are cultural studies, gender studies and translation studies. She has written essays on Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, on the representation of London in Clare Boylan’s Emma Brown and on nineteenth-century British women journalists and translators. She is currently working on gender and translation.

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Licence Creative Commons
Les contenus de la Revue LISA / LISA e-journal sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Haut de page
  • OpenEdition Journals