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Literary studies
The Brontës and the Idea of Influence (Dossier by Elise Ouvrard)
Influence on the Brontës

Emily and Charlotte Brontë’s Re-reading of the Byronic hero

La réécriture du héros byronien par Emily et Charlotte Brontë
Cristina Ceron
p. 1-14


La popularité considérable dont jouissait l’œuvre de Byron pendant l’ère victorienne fut à l’origine de plusieurs lectures subversives considérant ses personnages comme des icônes de la transgression ou des aperçus de figures littéraires proscrites. Pour les romanciers victoriens, un des aspects les plus déroutants de son œuvre se trouvait dans ses explorations obsessionnelles de l’inceste fraternel – littéral ou symbolique – révélant la possibilité que le désir naisse d’une identification entre les versions masculine et féminine d’un même psychisme. La lecture que fit Emily Brontë de Byron privilégie ce côté sombre du mythe littéraire et se concentre essentiellement sur l’identité mystérieuse et les aspects gothiques du héros byronien. Même si plusieurs critiques ont en réalité classé le personnage de Heathcliff comme héros byronien, le débat ne s’est pas appesanti sur les preuves textuelles ou thématiques du lien entre le protagoniste brontëen et les hypertextes de Byron. Cet article entend creuser la lecture que fit Brontë des œuvres de Byron, en particulier l’inspiration qu’elle puisa dans Manfred et dans la relation entre Manfred et Astarte pour créer la passion morbide qu’éprouvent Heathcliff et Catherine. L’analyse se concentrera sur la manière dont Brontë se réapproprie et accentue les éléments gothiques que présente Manfredin nuce, tels que la nature spectrale de Astarte ou les aspects surnaturels de la nature de Manfred, dont la volonté supplante même le destin. Mon hypothèse est que Brontë utilise ces aspects des personnages byroniens dans le but précis de proposer l’élément gothique comme un mode narratif alternatif, comme l’élément subversif au sein d’un roman réaliste. Au contraire, bien que s’étant essayée au gothique dans ses écrits juvéniles, Charlotte offre une lecture du héros byronien qui cadre beaucoup plus avec les conventions du roman réaliste, et dans la deuxième partie de mon essai, j’affirme que ce qui est mis en avant dans Jane Eyre, c’est la maîtrise inégalée dont la romancière fait preuve dans la combinaison de l’intrigue réaliste et des éléments et traits gothiques des personnages. Loin d’illustrer une simple passion romantique, la relation entre Jane et Rochester, tout comme la liaison entre Catherine et Heathcliff, répond à la dynamique textuelle de la romance gothique, dans le sens où la femme devient la proie des instincts plus ou moins démoniaques de son amant, endure la violence de ses sentiments et se retrouve finalement prise au piège de sa passion contrariée, même si le dénouement heureux tend à faire oublier la matrice gothique de l’histoire…

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1In the Victorian age, Murray’s conventional edition of Byron’s works was the most familiar to intellectuals and artists, yet it was not the only one available. The writer’s widespread popularity led to the production of several less conventional cheap editions, which introduced the more subversive possibility of reading Byron’s characters as icons of transgression and providing insights into the literarily tabooed. Unlike the other Romantics, Byron became more and more appreciated by the Victorians for the intriguing aspects of his works, such as, for instance, the gothic leitmotiv of literal or symbolic sibling incest—so powerfully presented in The Bride of Abydos and in Manfred—explored not so much as morbid perversion, but rather as a narcissistic attraction between a male character and his female alter ego.

  • 1  Charlotte Brontë, The Professor, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987, 159.
  • 2  Andrew Elfenbein, Byron and the Victorians, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, 132.
  • 3  Christine Alexander (ed.), An Edition of the Early Writings of Charlotte Brontë, Oxford: Basil Bla (...)

2The Brontë sisters’ reading of Byron privileges this dark side of the literary myth, and their main focus is on the mysterious identity and gothic aspects of the Byronic hero. The appeal of Byron to young Charlotte is, for instance, easily synthesized in the attitude of Frances to the artist, as described in The Professor. When talking about the girl’s reaction to Wordsworth, the narrator explains that her instinct “instantly penetrated and possessed the meaning of more ardent and imaginative writers; Byron excited her…”.1 This feeling of excitement led the young writer to reshape the outlines of her Angrian hero Zamorna, in order to render him more appealing. Thus, after Charlotte’s reading of Byron’s complete works in 1833,2 the noble and gentle duke suddenly turned into a much darker character, which the novelist did not hesitate to label as a “young demon”, endowed with a supernatural power that rendered him indomitable and invincible: “he stands as if a thunderbolt could neither blast the light of his eyes nor dash the effrontery of his brow. […] All here is passion and fire unquenchable”.3

  • 4  See Cagliero’s introduction to the Italian edition of the Angrian tales, especially his reading of (...)

3Moreover, in the fragment, Caroline Vernon, the young protagonist, falls in love with the same Zamorna, her guardian, who, far from discouraging the incestuous passion, kindles her infatuation by resorting to his dark demonic appeal. Of course Caroline is doomed to succumb to his embrace, and to be annihilated by his power. What Charlotte takes from the gothic hero is his mystical power to triumph over women’s will and conscience; yet, this fascination with the evil side of the character was soon to be superseded by a more mature and critical reading of the Byronic hero, and the juvenile experiments were discarded almost with a sense of guilt.4 Charlotte’s definitive answer, indeed, is clearly given in Jane Eyre, in particular in the Bildung of Rochester. His complex  development as a character, in and out of the gothic cliché, will be analysed in the second section of this essay, which—hopefully—will fulfil the task of giving an overall view of the Brontës’ astute re-reading and personal appropriation of Byron’s lesson on the use of the gothic in the literary creation.

4But, in order to assess Charlotte’s reading of Byron, it is necessary to explore first of all Emily’s exploitation of the Byronic topos of forbidden love as a pivotal theme in Wuthering Heights. In fact, even though several critics have labelled the character of Heathcliff a Byronic hero, the debate has not delved into the textual or thematic evidence of the relation between Brontë’s protagonist and his Byronic subtexts. This essay aims at investigating the novelists’ reading of Byron’s works, in particular Emily’s indebtedness to Manfred and to the relationship between Manfred and Astarte for the development of the unquenchable passion experienced by Heathcliff and Catherine. Thus, in the first section I will concentrate on the writer’s appropriation and emphasis on the gothic elements presented in nuce in Manfred, such as the spectral nature of Astarte, and the supernatural aspects of Manfred’s nature, whose will supersedes even Fate.

5My hypothesis is that Emily Brontë makes use of these aspects of Byron’s characters with the precise aim of setting the gothic element as an alternative narrative mode, as the subversive element within a realistic novel. For instance, Catherine’s condition, torn between a socially acceptable super ego, represented by Linton, and the much stronger drive towards a forbidden alter ego, embodied by Heathcliff, with whom she claims total identification, mirrors Manfred’s guilt-stricken conscience for his supposedly incestuous bond with Astarte. Far from enacting mere Romantic passion, both relationships follow the textual dynamics of gothic romance, in that the woman falls prey to the obsessive instincts of her demon lover, suffers from the violence of his feelings, and in the end is utterly annihilated by his thwarted passion, which survives even after her death as necrophilia.

6It is not easy to write about the Byronic hero without falling into literary cliché, so I will try to apprehend how Emily Brontë made use of several Byronic features in order to represent an “unstageable” passion within the confines of the realistic novel. The question she must have tackled is a meta-literary one: how to reconcile the realistic claim of the genre with the overflowing presence of a gothic hero? In my opinion, Emily was perfectly aware that by inserting the Byronic Heathcliff her narration would turn into something very different from a domestic novel, and she must have had a clear reason in mind for risking its being labelled as a gothic romance. My thesis is precisely that the presence of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights is pivotal in order to stage a sublime passion.

  • 5  See the Introduction to G. Byron, Manfred / Manfredi,by Guido Ferrando (ed.), Firenze: Sansoni, 19 (...)

7In order to assess Manfred as the primal subtext of Wuthering Heights, it is necessary to consider first of all Byron’s personal approach to his dramatic poem. According to biographical references, the creation of the tragic hero springs from an extremely strong drive to portray an unconventional character, a projection of the author’s own idiosyncratic relation to life. Manfred is the alternative hero, the one who disowns every characteristic of the classical model, and is not identifiable with any precedent. It is true that the character has been assimilated to Goethe’s Faust because of his superhuman aspirations, but in fact Byron always denied his indebtedness to the German writer, and made clear that the mysterious character “had a better origin”5 than the one attributed by reviewers. This undefined “better origin” has often been identified with Byron’s own sense of guilt and desire to expiate his troubled sentimental life; in fact, what is relevant to this study is not the biographical truthfulness of the critical claim, but rather the similarity between Byron’s literary projection of personal anxieties and feelings with Emily Brontë’s shaping of Heathcliff.

8Although the general atmosphere of the two works is very different, it is interesting to notice that Manfred and Heathcliff seem to share a strong need to represent a disruptive element that subverts the entire economy of the narratives. Even though they are set against a hostile environment, both characters manage to monopolize the scene and make it their own: Manfred does so by metaphorically appropriating his doom and acting above human characters, while Heathcliff gains concrete possession of Wuthering Heights and subsequently of Thrushcross Grange.

9As for specific textual reference, we notice that from the very beginning both Manfred and Heathcliff are haunted by a spiritual burden that will not let them rest. Byron’s hero introduces himself with these words:

My slumbers—if I slumber—are not sleep,

But a continuance of enduring thought,

Which then I can resist not: in my heart

There is a vigil, and these eyes but close

To look within … (I i 3-7).

  • 6  Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights, David Daiches (ed.), Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968, 262. All quota (...)

10This condition of existential restlessness is epitomized also by Heathcliff, who is described by Nelly as “going blind with loss of sleep”.6Both characters rationally long for the oblivion of their troubled past, but in fact they are unable to reach it because they cannot divert their minds from the only thought dwelling there, and therefore they keep invoking and conjuring up the ghosts of their beloved ones.

11The pervasive gothic atmosphere of Manfred appears influential in a few scenes of the novel, in particular when Lockwood has a nightmare and starts in terror at hearing Heathcliff invoking Catherine’s return: “Cathy, do come. Oh do—once more! Oh! My heart’s darling! Hear me this time—Catherine, at last!” (70). In fact, Heathcliff’s desperate appeal closely resembles Manfred’s invocation of Astarte: “Speak to me! Though it be in wrath;—but say—/ I reck not what—but let me hear thee once—/ Thus once—once more!” (II iv 148-50). After addressing the spirits, Manfred finally discerns a “beautiful female figure” and soon moves towards her, exclaiming: “I will clasp thee, / And we again will be—” (I i 190-1). He does not even know whether the figure is actually Astarte or a mere projection of his mind; nevertheless, when it vanishes, his heart is “crushed” (I i 191). Brontë avoids the explicit spectral meeting between the protagonists, but hints at their post-mortem relationship as suggested by a shepherd boy who claims to have seen Heathcliff and a woman walking together.

12Manfred’s obsessive quest for oblivion certainly inspires Heathcliff’s existential restlessness, and it is clear that both characters are doomed and compelled to be “[their] proper Hell”, as the spectral voice intimates to Manfred (I i 251). What makes these characters so strong and modern, is not so much the tragic curse that hovers over their destinies, but rather the perfect awareness that they both show as to their alien nature. Both characters act as self-exiled beings, inherently different from their fellows, and therefore are doomed to isolation. Indeed, in the powerful first act monologue, Manfred describes himself in terms of a satanic creature:

Half dust, half deity, alike unfit

To sink or soar, with our mixed essence make

A conflict of these elements, and breathe

The breath of degradation and of pride,

Contending with low wants and lofty will,

Till our Mortality predominates,

And men are—what they name not to themselves,

And trust not to each other. (I ii 40-7).

13Even though Heathcliff’s poor cultural background does not allow him to give a parallel definition of himself, the narrative development of the novel adheres perfectly to Manfred’s words. First of all, the Brontëan hero is labelled as “dark almost as if [he] came from the devil” (36), and very soon he appears equally unable to accept his humble origin or to be integrated into a higher social class; consequently, his whole existence is a continuous struggle between the degradation of his past and the frustrated pride of his unachieved aspirations. What emerges is a man who is not only distrustful of everybody, but utterly unable to engage in any social relations.

14A closer look at the characters reveals that they both share great potential that could have evolved into positive features: Manfred could have been “a goodly frame of glorious elements, / Had they been wisely mingled” but, as they are, “It is an awful chaos” (III i 160-4). For his part, the young Heathcliff shows a strong will to do his best and improve his station in life, but his unfortunate background and his repeated frustrations turn his nature into a devilish one. The result is utter alienation for both heroes, as Manfred acknowledges explicitly:

From my youth upwards,

My Spirit walked not with the souls of men,

Nor looked upon the earth with human eyes.

The thirst of their Ambition was not mine—

The aim of their existence was not mine—

My joys—my griefs—my passions and my powers

Made me a stranger, though I wore the form

I had no sympathy with breathing flesh,

Nor mid’st the Creatures of Clay that girded me

Was there but One … (II ii 50-9).

15Of course “the one” is Astarte, the protagonist’s supposed sister, his alter ego, the only creature who can look into his heart and recognize her soul mate, as Catherine does with Heathcliff, when she admits: “He’s more myself than I. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same” (121). Indeed, the portrait Manfred gives of Astarte is similar to Catherine’s own perception of the nature of Heathcliff:

She was like me in lineaments—her eyes—

Her hair—her features—all, to the very tone

Even of her voice, they said were like to mine;

[…] She had the same lone thoughts and wanderings,

The quest of hidden knowledge, and a mind

To comprehend the Universe

[…] Her faults were mine—her virtues were her own—(II ii 107-18).

16In the apprehension of Manfred’s satanic nature, the woman cannot avoid being annihilated by his superhuman feelings, beyond any notion of good and evil:

Manfred: I loved her, and destroyed her.

Witch of the Alps: With thy hand?

Manfred: Not with my hand but heart, which broke her heart;

It gazed on mine and withered. I have shed

Blood, but not hers—and yet her blood was shed—

I saw, and could not staunch it. (II ii 119-23).

17Manfred’s confession of his tragic guilt to the witch must have charmed Emily Brontë’s imagination to the point that the whole relationship between Catherine and Heathcliff can be read in terms of his fatal destructive love and her human helplessness. Just like Astarte, Catherine gazes into Heathcliff’s heart, and finally sees his love for what it is, a gothic form of thwarted egotism and will for power, as she tries to explain to the naïve Isabella: “[He is] an arid wilderness of furze and whinstone. […] He’s not a rough diamond—a pearl containing an oyster of a rustic; he’s a fierce, pitiless, wolfish man” (141).

18Manfred and Heathcliff share the fundamental features of the damned hero: once they lose the possibility of rejoining their split selves, in the Platonic embodiment of their beloved, they find no alternative aim in life, but start on a journey, far away from familiar people and places. This need to flee and try to break free from the haunting past makes up one fundamental literary topos of all ages, that of Cain, or of the Wandering Jew: the journey outside as the journey inside the self. For Manfred as for Heathcliff, the journey away from the beloved highlights a transcendental feeling of homesickness which is much stronger than the wish to forget. Manfred shows the intensity of his feelings in his contradictory plea for oblivion and for a last glimpse of Astarte; likewise, the forsaken Heathcliff despises Catherine for her conduct but cannot help coming back to her, inasmuch as she represents his past, his home, his only true self.

19Both the Byronic and the Brontëan lover are inevitably doomed to failure, in that the tragic matrix of their role does not allow them to devise a happy ending. All the reader is allowed to hope for is a post-mortem platonic reunion of the divided soul, but the textual evidence insists on a lifelong journey of guilt and torment. The reason why there can be no redemption for the Byronic hero is that he does not refer to any superior entity who can administer punishment and absolution: as true gothic characters, Manfred and Heathcliff refuse to be inscribed within a shared set of values, and obey only their free will. Therefore, their pains are self-inflicted, and the whole cosmos revolves around their hypertrophic ego. Manfred strenuously rejects the Christian consolation the Abbot offers him; likewise, Heathcliff dismisses Nelly’s suggestion to pray, because he feels totally alien to religion.

  • 7  Deborah Lutz, The Dangerous Lover: Gothic villains, Byronism, and the nineteenth-century seduction (...)

20In her illuminating study on “the dangerous lover”, Deborah Lutz argues that the Byronic hero exiles himself from society because his consciousness creates the world as a mirror of his hellish mind, thus becoming an interior space where all is bereft of meaning.7 While craving for a perpetual stasis within his mental portrait of the union with his beloved, the hero loses the possibility of altering his present and his future, and remains trapped within the autistic dimension of his all-encompassing mindscape. In this light, his physical restlessness and the long journeys enact the paradoxical reaction to the impossibility of stepping out of his mental scenario. When Heathcliff states, “[m]y mind is so eternally secluded in itself” (320), he anticipates the disease of the modernist anti-hero who has lost forever the possibility of entering into communion with the world, and can only hope to rediscover his alter ego, his half self.

21Lutz’s philosophical explanation of the “cosmic conscience” of the Byronic hero appears particularly convincing in her reading of his obsessive and exclusive relation with the world as mere imaginative emanation of his generative mental power:

  • 8 Ibid., 58-9.

The subjectivity of the lost wanderer is more closely related to […] what Kant himself called “transcendental idealism” […]. The “thing in itself” must always be filtered through our sense of time and space—forms of our sensibility with which we perceive the world. […] Hölderlin feels that the essence of tragedy is that we can never have immediate experience, that as soon as we think we have already lost immediacy. […] The Byronic figure’s tragedy, similarly, is that consciousness itself always brings […] loss of immediacy, loss of presence. [This] philosophy contains a desire for the world to contain his ideals, to fulfil his longing, and [the hero] brings the whole world into play and sets it in relation to his […] consciousness. But because he fails, the relationship between the travelled world and the mind does not bring a sense of the “whole”, but rather of the irrevocably lost.8

  • 9  “We were not made / To torture thus each other—though it were / The deadliest sin to love as we ha (...)

22Manfred’s conception of his soul and his feelings is so excessive and inordinate, his faculty of concentrating all his existential drives into one single thought is so absolute and sublime that it forces the mind to exclude the world and revolve around its inner universe. In the end, this approach to life becomes a hell both for the victim and the lover, who falls prey to the only passion he can conceive: incestuous love, the love of his own alter ego.9

23In order to conclude on Wuthering Heights, we can say that the worldwide success of the novel has shown that Emily Brontë’s apprehension of the gothic nature of Manfred and its insertion into a novel has proved effective and has answered the readers’ and her own need to get something different from a domestic love story. As Elfenbein has astutely noted, the novel is a masterpiece in that it is neither a realistic narrative nor a vapid romance:

  • 10  Andrew Elfenbein, op. cit., 154. The critic also makes an astute comment on genre shifting in rela (...)

While its treatment of Manfred pushes against the restrictions of realism, it does not idealize Byronic romance. Instead, Heathcliff’s story suggests the consequences of taking Manfred’s narcissism to an extreme within a realistic setting. Underneath Heathcliff’s greater fidelity to Catherine lies an egoistic violence far more aggressive than that of Manfred, Zamorna, or Crimsworth.10

24This egoistic violence is made apparent in Heathcliff’s different but equally uselessly cruel treatment of Catherine and Isabella who, in spite of being far less naïve than the ethereal Astarte, cannot counter the all-embracing destructive drive to death of the gothic protagonist. In life and in death, Heathcliff must exercise his control over his victims, thus adhering perfectly to the gothic necrophiliac lover who refuses to be defeated by superior powers. Only he is the deus ex machina who decides whether to be separated from his victim or not; thus, when the ghost of Catherine refuses to appear, he forces the sexton to unearth the coffin and open the lid in order to get a last glimpse of her. He does not go so far as he had anticipated, and let himself be buried alive next to her, but in fact, from the moment of her death all his actions are aimed at the annihilation of the other characters’, as well as of his own, body and soul.

25The last analogy between the two gothic characters can be traced in their apparently different deaths—Manfred craves suicide, while Heathcliff almost lets himself die of inanition—but in fact both characters confirm what Manfred tells his witness, that: “’Tis not so difficult to die” (III iv 151). Once again, both protagonists prevail over Fate by anticipating their own deaths, keeping aloof from the human world until the very end…

  • 11  For more details see Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, Michael Mason (ed.), London: Penguin Classics, 1 (...)

26Charlotte’s Jane Eyre shows several analogies with the intertextual dynamics of Wuthering Heights, but the overall structure of the novel responds undoubtedly to the realistic claim of the genre. The gothic elements introduced by the novelist are shrewdly inserted at the pivotal points of the narration, and therefore they perfectly fulfil their constitutive role of surprising and shocking the reader. For instance, the discovery of “the mad woman in the attic” is undoubtedly the most striking passage in the whole novel, and from that moment on the gothic nature of Bertha seems to contaminate the other characters. When Jane describes her vision of the strange creature to Rochester she anticipates the bloodsucking scene by saying that the woman reminds her of “the foul German spectre […] the Vampyre” (317). In his note to the text, Michael Mason explains that Brontë’s choice of the German version of the gothic topos is faithful to the tradition of the vampire-bride who comes to ruin her husband’s second marriage, as in Goethe’s The Bride of Corinth or other tales by Tieck and Hoffmann.11 The English tradition, instead, portrays the vampire as male, as in the works of Byron or Polidori.

27In spite of this effective and extremely gothic insertion, Charlotte seems much more eager than Emily to keep her material under control, and she manages very cleverly to balance the powerful gothic elements within the domestic narration. In my opinion, her mastery is at its best in the development of the character of Rochester, in that his very presentation seems to anticipate a different version of Manfred, or of Heathcliff. Like the Byronic heroes, Rochester is an obscure character with a mysterious past and an ambiguous present. His existential restlessness is made apparent by his inability to settle at Thornfield for long, and his sulkiness with his interlocutors shows his difficulty in communicating with the outside world. The character of Jane follows in these ambiguous footsteps, in that she is equally restless and unable to accept her place in the world, even when she finds a rewarding position. She overtly aspires to what she can reasonably not even dream of, that is, defying the beautiful and rich Blanche Ingram in order to become her master’s wife.

  • 12  Kathleen Tillotson, “Jane Eyre and the triumph over Angria”, in Charlotte Brontë: Jane Eyre and Vi (...)

28Charlotte’s use of the gothic subtext throughout the novel is functional to the development of the plot, and it serves the classical cathartic purpose of creating suspense, fear and sympathy towards the characters. The gothic allure is never let loose, and is always mitigated by the domestic nature of the narration. For instance, as Kathleen Tillotson explains, the gothic atmosphere Jane finds when she arrives at Thornfield Hall, entering a rather gloomy house, with a strange servant—Grace Poole—and an absent master, is assuaged by the cheerful presence of the reassuring Mrs. Fairfax.12

29The only diversion from the realistic path of the narration is carried out at the last turning point of the novel, when Jane and Rochester experience a kind of telepathy, and consequently Jane runs back in order to save him from misery. The capacity for establishing a mental connection in absence responds to the gothic cliché of the sublime entente between two superior minds, and in this respect it mirrors Catherine and Heathcliff’s post-mortem relationship. This effective coup de théâtre enhances the irrational component of the plot, as it undermines its overall realistic nature; nevertheless, the reader has no difficulty in trusting the final redemption of Rochester, his “domestication” by the strong-minded Jane and their perfect marital life. Of course, this Victorian happy ending could not be conjectured either for any Byronic heroes or for Emily’s Heathcliff.

  • 13  When telling Jane about his troubled past, Rochester defines himself “degenerated”, that is, he cl (...)

30The difference between the two sisters’ approaches to the gothic is structural and meaningful: while Emily lets her admiration for the Byronic hero take hold of her, become real rapture and dominate the narration, Charlotte aims at writing a domestic novel with an ethic stance: true love and determination can redeem even a “borderline character” like the Byronic Rochester. Feminists have not hesitated to read this difference in terms of gender shift, that is, in terms of the author’s will to give a more prominent role to the strong woman rather than to the debauched man.13 Undoubtedly, Charlotte wanted her Jane to shine for her virtue and be solely responsible for the novel’s happy ending but, in my opinion, this feature adheres once again to the gothic models of the male and female alter ego. If the novelist had failed to portray a strong and volitional character, the governess would have been too lowly in social position, nature and personality with respect to her male counterpart. The character of Rochester would have lost all his truthfulness if he had had to interact and fall in love with a shy and compliant young girl. In fact, the strongest dynamics the novel puts forth are in the agonistic relation the protagonists build up from the very beginning when, far from acquiescing in her master’s wishes, Jane seems eager to counter them, in order to stress her individuality.

31Moreover, at the highest of her crises, Jane may feel utterly inferior to Blanche Ingram in beauty, but in fact she never bends the knee to anyone, not even to Rochester, as she lucidly explains when she sets social distinctions apart from inner nature: “I feel akin to him—I understand the language of his countenance and movements: though rank and wealth sever us widely, I have something in my brain and heart, in my blood and nerves, that assimilates me mentally to him” (199). Jane’s feeling of affinity with Rochester is reciprocated by him, not only in terms of individual worth and dignity, but more prominently in terms of a cosmic bond which seems to reach beyond their will:

“Are you anything akin to me, do you think, Jane?” […] “Because,” he said, “I sometimes have a queer feeling with regard to you—especially when you are near me, as now: it is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame. And if the boisterous channel, and two hundred miles or so of land come broad between us, I am afraid that cord of communion will be snapt; and then I’ve a nervous notion I should take to bleeding inwardly.” (283).

32Rochester may be misogynous; but he also makes jokes, as we see here, whereas the normal Byronic hero is never amusing. The attraction between Rochester and Jane seems to stem from inner compulsion, more than from romantic feelings and expectations, as the anti-romantic statement, uttered in the middle of his marriage proposal, makes clear: “It is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal—as we are!” (284).

  • 14  Sally Shuttleworth, “Jane Eyre: Lurid Hieroglyphics”, in Charlotte Brontë and Victorian Psychology(...)

33Even though they are inserted within the frame of a domestic narration, Rochester and Jane cannot fail to acknowledge their “superior” nature, that is, those innate qualities that make them different from any other character. For instance, when Jane refuses St John Rivers’ proposal to go to India and live (and die) with him, she defines herself as antonym to his “cold” nature, and states: “I am a creature of fire, I am hot, and fire dissolves ice” (428). In so doing, she gives a rather unconventional, and even improper, definition of herself as woman, and moreover she claims a power to overcome St John’s will and determination. This is only one instance of Jane’s full consciousness of her “gothic” nature, that is, of something inside her soul which exceeds the boundaries of customary femininity. In Shuttleworth’s psychoanalytic terms, the protagonist’s status is problematic, in that “she is aligned with the two figures from the discourse of Victorian psychiatry who demarcated the sphere of excess: the passionate child and madwoman”.14

  • 15  Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, The Coherence of Gothic Conventions, New York: Arno Press, 1980, 11.

34In building up such a complex character, utterly conventional in social role and upbringing, yet totally innovative in soul and existential expectations, Charlotte probably aimed to rehabilitate the extra-rational side of the human being, which was hardly accepted for powerful characters such as the Byronic heroes, and totally discarded in relation to proper positive female models. She wanted Jane to be admired and sympathized with by the reader, not in spite of her irrational and fiery soul, but because of it, as if to demonstrate that the dark—at times gothic—side of the human being is not necessarily dangerous and shameful, but that it can render a woman strong and indomitable, if duly kept in check. In her stimulating dissertation on the transmission of gothic conventions from anti-realistic romances to the Victorian novel, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick ponders the reason why it took so long for gothic conventions to become available to other novelistic traditions.15 In her opinion, in fact, if the gothic aims at acknowledging the non-rational, deeper aspect of the human being, then it should represent the most realistic approach to the exploration of “the truth” of the character; therefore, it should be largely employed by narrators of any time.

35It might be appropriate to conclude by visualizing the novel’s last scene, where Jane’s Victorian words and deeds counterbalance and almost transform the disturbing gothic aspect of the disfigured Rochester. Indeed, her perception of him is that of a man who has been “metamorphosed into a lion” (484), surely not a symbol of a repulsive humble or tamed creature. Her metaphor shows that, just as Catherine could see Heathcliff in his deepest self, Jane has the capacity to see beyond Rochester’s lowered physical appearance, in order to assess once again his most genuine identity.

36Even though critics have long failed to understand the import of the Brontë sisters’ experiments, it is finally generally acknowledged that they have found two different but equally effective ways of achieving an as yet unaccomplished task. In fact, in their intertextual appropriation of Byron’s characters and topoi, they prove that even such an unrealistic and hypertrophic creation like Manfred can be made to interact with the gothic but realistic world of Wuthering Heights in the new guise of Heathcliff, or can even be tamed into a modest and faithful husband, with the fundamental help of a woman who is “at once so frail and so indomitable”, as Rochester himself defines Jane (357).

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ALEXANDER Christine (ed.), An Edition of the Early Writings of Charlotte Brontë, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, vol. II, 1987.

BRONTЁ Charlotte, Jane Eyre, Michael Mason (ed.), London: Penguin Classics, 1996.

BRONTЁ Charlotte, The Professor, M. Smith and H. Rosengarten (eds.), Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.

BRONTЁ Emily, Wuthering Heights, David Daiches (ed.), Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968.

BYRON George Gordon, Manfred / Manfredi, Guido Ferrando (ed.), Firenze: Sansoni, 1950.

CAGLIERO Roberto (ed.), Charlotte Brontë. Da Haworth ad Angria, Milano: Coliseum, 1987.

ELFENBEIN Andrew, Byron and the Victorians, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

HEILMANN Robert, “Charlotte Brontë’s ‘New’ Gothic in Jane Eyre and Villette”, in ALLOTT Miriam (ed.), Charlotte Brontë: Jane Eyre and Villette, A Casebook, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1973.

KOSOFSKY SEDGWICK Eve, The Coherence of Gothic Conventions, New York: Arno Press, 1980.

LUTZ Deborah, The Dangerous Lover: Gothic villains, Byronism, and the nineteenth-century seduction narrative, Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2006.

SHUTTLEWORTH Sally, “Jane Eyre: Lurid Hieroglyphics”, in Charlotte Brontë and Victorian Psychology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

TILLOTSON Kathleen, “Jane Eyre and the Triumph over Angria”, in ALLOTT Miriam (ed.), Charlotte Brontë: Jane Eyre and Villette, A Casebook, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1973.

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1  Charlotte Brontë, The Professor, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987, 159.

2  Andrew Elfenbein, Byron and the Victorians, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, 132.

3  Christine Alexander (ed.), An Edition of the Early Writings of Charlotte Brontë, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987, vol. II, 92-93.

4  See Cagliero’s introduction to the Italian edition of the Angrian tales, especially his reading of Charlotte’s aesthetic evolution form the first tales to the last one, “Farewell to Angria” [1839]. Roberto Cagliero (ed.), Charlotte Brontë. Da Haworth ad Angria, Milano: Coliseum, 1987.

5  See the Introduction to G. Byron, Manfred / Manfredi,by Guido Ferrando (ed.), Firenze: Sansoni, 1950. All quotations from the play are taken from this edition.

6  Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights, David Daiches (ed.), Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968, 262. All quotations from the novel refer to this edition.

7  Deborah Lutz, The Dangerous Lover: Gothic villains, Byronism, and the nineteenth-century seduction narrative, Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2006, 55.

8 Ibid., 58-9.

9  “We were not made / To torture thus each other—though it were / The deadliest sin to love as we have loved.” (II iv 121-3).

10  Andrew Elfenbein, op. cit., 154. The critic also makes an astute comment on genre shifting in relation to gender: “Catherine’s relation to contemporary literary modes appears as a choice between two equally problematic men: Heathcliff, romance, and Byronism are set against Edgar, realism, and anti-Byronism. If in Heathcliff’s story, the novel represents the hero’s power to move between literary modes, Catherine’s story reveals how unavailable such oscillation is to a female character” (158).

11  For more details see Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, Michael Mason (ed.), London: Penguin Classics, 1996, 522 (note 14). All quotations from the novel refer to this edition.

12  Kathleen Tillotson, “Jane Eyre and the triumph over Angria”, in Charlotte Brontë: Jane Eyre and Villette, A Casebook, Miriam Allott (ed.), Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1973, 184. Tillotson’s essay traces the steps of the novelist’s development from the sensational narration of the Angrian romances to her realistic mastery of the fictive material. In this respect, the triumph over Angria can be paraphrased also in terms of the triumph over the gothic. Robert Heilmann, on the other hand, reads Charlotte’s style in terms of “new gothic”, as opposed to the traditional romance. See “Charlotte Brontë’s ‘New’ Gothic in Jane Eyre and Villette”, in Miriam Allott (ed.), op. cit., 195-209.

13  When telling Jane about his troubled past, Rochester defines himself “degenerated”, that is, he claims for himself a positive nature which has been spoilt by circumstances. This is a meaningful difference with respect to the original Byronic hero, who claims to possess a nature totally alien to the human beings (155).

14  Sally Shuttleworth, “Jane Eyre: Lurid Hieroglyphics”, in Charlotte Brontë and Victorian Psychology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, 153.

15  Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, The Coherence of Gothic Conventions, New York: Arno Press, 1980, 11.

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Cristina Ceron, « Emily and Charlotte Brontë’s Re-reading of the Byronic hero »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Le coin des écrivains, document 2, mis en ligne le 09 mars 2010, consulté le 29 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Cristina Ceron

Cristina Ceron is an independent scholar of English Literature. After completing her PhD at Ca’ Foscari University in Venice with a thesis on Thomas Hardy’s poetry of memory, she taught English language and literature at the University of Verona for six years. She gave papers at several international conferences, such as Byron at the Theatre (Nottingham, 2007), Waste and Abundance in literature (Belfast, 2007), Hardy at Yale (New Haven, 2007), Byron and the Gothic (Nottingham, 2008), Gissing and Otherness (Lille, 2008). She has published a monograph on John Keats’s poetry of the ideal and an introduction to three forgotten late-Victorian novels by George Meredith, Grant Allen and Sarah Grand. At the moment, she is writing on the concept of marriage in the late-Victorian novel.

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