Friday, January 27, 2012

Consuming Passions: Gothic Romance and the Brontë Sisters


A pair of tortured lovers, with pale faces and burning eyes, stand against the backdrop of a menacing natural world. Between them lie great chasms of difference, terrible secrets, and their own conflicted hearts. Surely that tall, dark, handsome man is a threat to the girl he loves; perhaps he will seduce her and destroy her honor, or her hopes of wealth and comfort, or her very life itself.  Perhaps she is afraid of him, and perhaps she is only afraid of her own desire.
If you describe this scene to any teenage girl today, she’ll probably identify those suffering lovers as Edward and Bella of the Twilight craze, and there’s a very good chance that an adult you ask will reply that it must be Bill Compton and Sookie Stackhouse of the Southern Vampire books or the True Blood television series.  The current fad for vampire romance has done a great deal to popularize this classic Gothic image, but neither Stephenie Meyer nor Charlaine Harris could have brought their characters into existence without the inspiration provided by earlier novelists like the Brontë sisters, Emily, Anne, and Charlotte, those English North Country siblings who eked out a restricted middle class existence while their imaginations ran wild across the stormy heaths and moors of their homeland.  Much of today’s popular Gothic literature and film owes a great debt to the mysterious men and convention-defying women who populate the Brontës’ novels, and my talk today focuses on the traditions that the Brontës both followed and created in their immortal tales of passion, violence, and the forbidden zones of the human heart.
The Brontës themselves lived a very Gothic life, full of domestic tragedy and unrealized hopes and dreams. The Reverend Patrick Brontë and his wife, Maria, produced six children, Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne, before tuberculosis first struck the family and caused the death of Mrs. Brontë. Maria and Elizabeth also died of tuberculosis when an outbreak of the disease occurred at the boarding school that they and their sisters Charlotte and Emily attended. Their father managed to bring the younger girls home in time to save their lives, but the dreaded disease continued to ravage the family. The only Brontë son, Branwell, was artistically talented and the family’s great hope, but he became addicted to alcohol and laudanum, which only served to mask the symptoms of illness until he, too, died of tuberculosis at the age of 31. Emily was the next to succumb, followed by Anne, and, last of all, Charlotte. Their father survived his entire family and lived to the age of 84, cared for at last by Charlotte’s husband, the Reverend Arthur Bell Nicholls, who had been married to Charlotte for only a year before her death in 1855.  Throughout their lives, the sisters endured periods of time as both students and teachers at girls’ boarding schools, an environment that proved uncongenial to them at best. Literary success came too late for most of them; Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Anne’s Agnes Grey were all published in 1847, but by 1848 Emily would be dead, with Anne following soon after in 1849.
If the inspiration of their own lives was not sufficient, the Brontë sisters had plenty of models to follow in the literary culture of the age. The Gothic had sprung to life as a genre when Horace Walpole published his wildly imaginative Castle of Otranto in 1765. Writers in the late eighteenth century and the Romantic Age ran with the new style, producing dozens of Gothic novels, and the genre became popular with women writers and readers, in particular. Ann Radcliffe and Charlotte Smith were two of the most successful female authors to pen Gothic fiction; in fact, Radcliffe was one of the most successful and popular novelists of the entire eighteenth century, and her novels, first published throughout the 1790s, would have been readily available to the young Brontë sisters in the early decades of the 1800s. Less accessible to middle class ladies were texts like Matthew Lewis’ The Monk, published in 1796, because its scandalous content made it forbidden reading for polite members of the fair sex. These novels helped to establish the conventions of the Gothic genre, which included ruined buildings, secret passages and rooms, sublime landscapes, and the occurrence or appearance of the supernatural. The heroes and heroines of these novels were usually quite genteel, with the ladies in particular prone to fainting at the scenes of horror and distress which unfolded before them, while the villains were outrageously bad, demonic forces of pure evil who sought to manipulate, marry, or destroy the heroines, depending on whichever option yielded the most pleasure or profit to them. 
Many young ladies of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries spent their leisure hours gripping the pages of these stories and delighting in their spine-tingling pleasures, including the young Jane Austen, who makes allusions to such tales in her 1817 novel, Northanger Abbey. Of course, Austen’s novel parodies the thrilling scenes of the Gothic, which might explain why Charlotte Brontë didn’t like her. Brontë had this to say about the novels of the illustrious Austen:
Anything like warmth or enthusiasm, anything energetic, poignant, heartfelt, is utterly out of place in commending these works: all such demonstrations the authoress would have met with a well-bred sneer, would have calmly scorned as outré or extravagant. She does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well. There is a Chinese fidelity, a miniature delicacy, in the painting. She ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him with nothing profound. The passions are perfectly unknown to her: she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy sisterhood ... What sees keenly, speaks aptly, moves flexibly, it suits her to study: but what throbs fast and full, though hidden, what the blood rushes through, what is the unseen seat of life and the sentient target of death--this Miss Austen ignores....Jane Austen was a complete and most sensible lady, but a very incomplete and rather insensible (not senseless woman), if this is heresy--I cannot help it.
Charlotte’s criticism underscores the extent to which she, and her sisters by extension, were in sympathy with the emotional turmoil that welled up in the pages of Gothic fiction. Rather than parody the genre, as Austen had done, the Brontë sisters harnessed it for their own ends.
Many traditional Gothic elements appear largely unaltered in the Brontë novels. The themes of persecution, romantic misery, claustrophobic social constraint, madness, and cruelty all come into play. The appearance of the supernatural opens Wuthering Heights, which starts with Lockwood’s encounter with the ghost of Cathy, and forms the emotional climax of Jane Eyre, when Jane “hears” Rochester calling out for her even though they are separated by many miles. In Villette, Lucy Snowe is terrified by the sight of a seemingly ghostly nun, although, in true Radcliffian fashion, the specter turns out to be a mere mortal in disguise. Even the deathbed of Arthur Huntingdon in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is surrounded by a sense of supernatural terror; one can almost imagine demonic figures cavorting before the dying drunkard’s eyes.
 The sisters also shared a strong appreciation for sublime Gothic landscapes; the moors of their Yorkshire home served as a perfect example to them of the “terror and awe” that the sublime strikes in its observers. Emily captured that terrible but compelling vision best in Wuthering Heights, where the sublime qualities of the natural world, full of storms, dangers, and rough, untamed strength, reflect the interior landscapes of her protagonists’ hearts.  We see that same sense of the natural world in Jane Eyre, as Jane passes through the wilderness in her flight from Thornfield Hall, and in the mysterious, apocalyptic storm that concludes Villette. The ideas of domestic space as a trap and of the family as the source of persecution, rather than a shelter from it, also come straight from the pages of the Gothic playbook, where father figures are more likely to be villains than protectors and suitors often transform themselves into tormentors once the heroines are entangled in their embraces.
The dark, brooding hero was another element that came from the Gothic tradition, although the type had only really been formed as such in the Gothic texts of the Romantic Age.  Called “Byronic” after George Gordon, Lord Byron, who presented some striking examples of the type in both print and his own personal life, the emotionally troubled, secretive hero was a far cry from the masculine paragons of polite eighteenth-century literature, like Samuel Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison. Instead, the new hero took his cues from another of Richardson’s characters, his wildly popular and seductively evil anti-hero, Lovelace, the admirer and antagonist of Richardson’s eponymous heroine in the blockbuster bestseller, Clarissa. Lovelace himself had been inspired in large part by Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost, and the Gothic heroes of Byron, Mary Shelley, Lady Caroline Lamb, and John Polidori, among others, all traced their lineage back to these potent literary fathers. The Brontë sisters must have been all too aware of the popularity of this new breed of hero, and they clearly felt his appeal themselves. Heathcliff, Rochester, and Arthur Huntingdon are all variations on the theme of the Byronic hero. Insidiously attractive, all three characters present a threat to the women who love them, with Heathcliff being the most intentionally destructive of the lot, and only Jane Eyre’s Rochester being really redeemable by his novel’s close. The allure of such heroes was the same combination of sexuality and menace that had made Lady Caroline Lamb describe Lord Byron himself as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.”
As much as the sisters borrowed from these established elements of the genre, they also revised earlier Gothic conventions, putting their own spin on the plots and characters that were the cornerstones of the genre. Brontë heroines resemble their forebears in their situations - friendless, without money or influence, subject to persecution from the very people who ought to defend them – but they differ in their responses to those situations. Gone are the fainting, meekly beautiful angels who dominate the traditional Gothic novel. Brontë women fight back against the world that seeks to control or destroy them; they take action with grim determination, sometimes for good and sometimes for their own selfish reasons.  Charlotte, in particular, rejects the traditional Gothic heroine in her preference for protagonists who are NOT beautiful; rather, the force of their personalities constitutes what charm they have. Moreover, these women are all too aware of the charms of the Byronic heroes who pursue them; their desire for the bad boy, even when they know it to be wrong, and even when they themselves deny that desire, fairly pulses throughout the pages of their novels.
These protagonists, so different from the proper ladies who normally populated women’s fiction at that time, made the Brontë novels different in a way that unsettled some reviewers. Those reviewers were unhappier still because the heroines’ sufferings and tortured courtships take place not in faraway continental castles but in alarmingly real country homes and schools, and the depiction of cruelty and violence in those hallowed institutions laid bare a far more uncomfortable kind of Gothic terror. Debate about the sex of the authors, given that the sisters wrote under the pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, colored some of the responses to their work. If it was questionable for a man to present such horrors, it was certainly scandalous for a woman to do so. Reviewers called The Tenant of Wildfell Hall “morbid” and “unhealthy,” the Rambler denounced Jane Eyre as “one of the coarsest books we have ever perused,” and conservative writer Eliza Rigby even condemned Jane Eyre as “anti-Christian” because of its heroine’s personality and attitude.  Of Wuthering Heights, the anonymous reviewer for Graham’s Lady’s Magazine wrote, “How a human being could have attempted such a book as the present without committing suicide before he had finished a dozen chapters, is a mystery. It is a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors...” while the Atlas reviewer opined that “We know nothing in the whole range of our fictitious literature which presents such shocking pictures of the worst forms of humanity.”
 In terms of Gothic fiction, English writers had been presenting equally if not more outrageous scenes of suffering and depravity since Horace Walpole first penned The Castle of Otranto, but the Brontë sisters had taken the foundations of Gothic fiction and stripped away the veneer of fantasy that made its messages coded rather than explicit. Once the full force of the genre’s implicit passion was unleashed, the whole enterprise seemed shocking and vulgar, although of course there had been critics who had pointed out the torrential undercurrents of the Gothic all along, usually in order to denounce such works as inappropriate reading material for young ladies, wives, and servants.
Despite the reviewers’ concerns, and precisely because of the elements that concerned them, the Brontë sisters’ novels held on to the public’s imagination, and they have yet to let go. Cathy and Jane Eyre, along with Heathcliff and Rochester, have been brought to life on both the big and small screens countless times.  In 1939, Merle Oberon played Cathy to Laurence Olivier’s Heathcliff, while 1944 saw Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles take the lead roles in Jane Eyre. Daphne du Maurier used Jane Eyre as the template for her own tale of secrets and seduction, Rebecca, which, interestingly enough, saw Olivier again as the Byronic hero and Joan Fontaine as the heroine in its 1940 film adaptation. Val Lewton capitalized on the Gothic horror of Jane Eyre’s plot in his post-colonial film revision, I Walked with a Zombie, which was released in 1943, and in 1966 Jean Rhys offered a prequel to the events of Jane Eyre in her novel, Wide Sargasso Sea. Like the novels of Jane Austen, the Brontë works have inspired endless modern sequels, prequels, and revisions from authors of varying skill and intent, the best and most interesting of which might be Sheila Kohler’s 2009 work, Becoming Jane Eyre: A Novel, which presents a fictionalized biography of the Brontë sisters. The most inventive of the lot might be Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair, in which the characters of Jane Eyre literally come to life and leave the pages of their book.
But what of those pale lovers standing in the moonlight? The current passion for Gothic entertainment has taken the vampire lover and his human beloved as its central image, but the fangs are merely a modern marker for the differences that class, wealth, and gender presented in earlier centuries. That vampiric anti-hero is as much Heathcliff as Count Dracula, sometimes even a heady mix of Rochester and Austen’s Mr. Darcy.  Emily Brontë’s gypsy-like orphan might well have been a demon in human form, and it isn’t hard to imagine the puppy-strangling Heathcliff with fangs and a taste for blood. In Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight novels, Gothic lovers Bella and Edward even proclaim Wuthering Heights to be their favorite novel, a revelation which sent Emily’s work soaring up onto the bestseller lists in 2009, according to the UK Guardian. I have no idea what to make of the impending release of Sherry Browning Erwin’s Jane Slayre, which recasts Charlotte’s heroine as a vampire hunter and Bertha Rochester as a werewolf, but if Pride and Prejudice and Zombies can be a hit, then surely Jane Eyre is even more fertile territory for such treatment.  Television series like True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, Moonlight, Forever Knight, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Dark Shadows, and the Canadian show Blood Ties have all demonstrated our ongoing appetite for supernatural Gothic horror heavily influenced by the Brontë model, in which lonely, independent heroines fall for dangerous, wounded men. The consuming passion that pulsed through every page of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights has proved vampiric itself, enjoying deathless vigor even as its creators succumbed to the grave all too soon. If the mania for Gothic fiction today leads a new generation of young readers to discover the genius and raw power of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, then we can only be grateful for that, even if it comes with fangs attached.  For the “sleepers in that quiet earth,” the sisters themselves, all passions have ceased, but those of their creations will live forever. 

NB: This lecture was originally given at the Huntsville-Madison County Public Library for the 2010 English Author Tea. Citations for quotations are not included because of the nature of the presentation, and I have not added them because they would only encourage plagiarists. Plagiarists should be warned that vampires come and eat people who steal other people's work!