Charlotte Brontë’s Rochester as A Hero of Romance

Last June, I took part in the MA conference organised by Queen Mary University of London, where I did an MA in Victorian Literature. I presented a paper on Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, more precisely on its hero, Edward Rochester. I argue that he is a hero of romance as he is a fantasy, a true creation and most importantly, a space for the author to develop a new form of masculinity.

Edmund H. Garrett 1897

At first, Edward Fairfax Rochester, hero of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), appears as a strange hero of romance: he is ugly and sometimes rude, but most importantly, he is a forty-year-old man who tries to trick an eighteen-year-old girl into a bigamous marriage.  Surprisingly nonetheless, this strange character has fascinated generations of heterosexual female readers. In a review from 1849, James Lorimer already recognised his irresistible appeal as he wrote: ‘We cannot blame [Jane] for ultimately falling in love with Rochester, for in doing so she did nothing more than every woman who has read the book has done since’.[1] There is no doubt that Rochester’s attractiveness has been reinforced over the years by numerous cinematographic portrayals: for instance, among others, by the hugely popular Orson Welles in 1944; by Timothy Dalton in 1983 – who also played James Bond; and by Toby Stephens in a rather more erotic BBC take on Jane Eyre in 2006; the latest being Michael Fassbender in 2011. The regular intervals at which Brontë’s novel is adapted tells us that Mr Rochester is still a popular hero. Critics all agree that he is a Byronic hero, meaning he resembles the characters developed by the poet Lord Byron. Patsy Stoneman gives a thorough definition of the type: ‘Byron’s heroes are not heroic because of any moral or social excellence. They may in fact be moral outcasts, yet have passed somehow ‘beyond good and evil’. They are passionate, unpredictable, mysterious, irresistible to women, yet strangely vulnerable’.[2] Charlotte Brontë was herself an avid reader of the poet and so she was familiar with Byron’s dark and intriguing heroes.

As it happens, the Byronic is also an important element of popular romance novels. In 1867 Margaret Oliphant had already noticed the change that Jane Eyre brought to the literary landscape, noting that

Now it is no knight of romance riding down the forest glades, ready for the defence and succour of all the oppressed, for whom the dreaming maiden waits. She waits now for flesh and muscles, for strong arms that seize her, and warm breath that thrills her through, (and a host of other physical attractions, which she indicated to the world with a charming frankness.)[3]

If we take the example of popular books like Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey, we can see how true that is. Sarah Wooton explains that those are ‘fantasy romances that reinscribe our fascination with a damaged and damaging anti-hero – a seductive outsider who is superior in suffering, sinfulness, subversions, and perversions – as encountered by an inexperienced, yet curious, young woman’.[4] Of course, this pattern recalls Jane Eyre as Mr Rochester is an experienced older man who has ‘travelled a great deal, and seen a great deal of the world’ whereas Jane is a young governess of eighteen ‘little acquainted with men’.[5]

Immediately after the release of the novel, critics were quick to notice the appeal of Jane Eyre on readers, and the interest female readers had for Rochester. A critic for The North American Review noted that:

The hero, Mr Rochester […] became a great favorite in the boarding schools and in the worshipful society of governesses. That portion of Young America known as ladies’ men began to swagger and swear in the presence of the gentler sex, and to allude darkly to events in their lives which excused impudence and profanity.[6]

In spite of the satirical tone of the critic, the influence of a hero like Rochester can be understood in terms other than a mere female fantasy. We can see here that he also exerts an influence on young male readers who try to act as he would in order to attract women. Thus, his masculinity becomes an example to follow in order to gain female attention. Although some male reviewers recognised that ‘there is truth in the abrupt, strange, clever Mr Rochester’, most critics were adamant that Rochester could not but be ‘the vision of a woman’s fancy’.[7]

Yet, it seems that a character like Rochester is worth considering when evaluating the striking changes to masculinity which occurred in the early nineteenth century. After the French revolution, and the rise of industrialism, there was a shift from the eighteenth-century dandy to the bourgeois ideal, yet ideal manhood remained an elusive concept. In 1831, Thomas Carlyle wrote, ‘The old ideal of Manhood has grown obsolete, and the new is still invisible to us, and we grope after it in darkness, one clutching this phantom, another that; Werterism, Byronism, even Brummelism, each has its day’.[8] So Jane Eyre can be read as a  woman’s attempt to redefine masculinity, clutching the ‘phantom’ of the Byronic and replanting him in the early Victorian period. Mr Rochester embodies the change that occurred in the ideals of manliness during the period; during his time in Paris, he behaves as an aristocratic libertine who duels his love rival yet by the end of the novel, he is a manly man who nonetheless experiences his masculinity from within. As John Tosh explains, throughout the period, there was a ‘gradual transition from masculinity as reputation [so, from outside] to masculinity as interiority’.[9]

Although, as Patsy Stoneman claims, Rochester is ‘the father of Mills and Boon romances’, he nonetheless remains anomalous in the landscape of romantic heroes.[10] Rochester is like the Roman god, Vulcan, ‘a real blacksmith, brown, broad-shouldered’.[11] When asked, Jane even bluntly tells her master she does not find him handsome. However, as he is not ‘a handsome, heroic-looking young gentleman’ Jane feels at ease with him. Because she is not impressed by him at first, she can undertake the role of a heroine of romance as defined by Janice Radway in her study on women and romance; the hero is a challenge to the heroine who has to reform and soften him.

Rochester swears, he is ‘very changeful and abrupt’ because ‘he has painful thoughts, […], to harass him, and make his spirits unequal’.[12] As we have seen, these faults are to do with the Byronic dimension of his character and, at the end of the novel, that trait of character doesn’t really change as he is still rough. His ‘vigorous spirit’ is still the same when Jane finds him at Ferndean, but it is subjugated ‘to a corporeal infirmity’.[13] Indeed, after the fire of Thornfield during which Rochester tries to save his wife, he becomes blind and loses the use of one arm. Rochester’s reform is thus firstly physical. Rochester’s physical strength is highlighted in the text through his athletic figure, ‘his unusual breadth of chest’; he is a ‘practised […] horseman, a ‘beauté mâle’, according to his French mistress.[14] These traits make him more manly according to the standards of the time. When it came to define manliness, the emphasis was very much put on the physical power of men; as John Tosh explains:

[the idea is] accurately conveyed by the Oxford English Dictionary, which gives the “possession of manly vigour” before “those virtues characteristic of a man”. Manly vigour included energy, virility, strength – all the attributes which equipped a man to place his physical stamp on the world. Next came the moral qualities which enabled men to attain their physical potential – decisiveness, courage and endurance.[15]

Yet, although his physical power makes Rochester more manly and desirable, Charlotte Brontë knows it creates an imbalance in his relationship with Jane. His strength gives him an ascendency over Jane that she will never have, even if she is morally and spiritually superior. When she refuses to flee to Europe to be his mistress, he holds her and says, ‘A mere reed she feels in my hand! […] I could bend her with my finger and thumb’.[16] The maiming of Rochester has always puzzled readers, and has generated a lot of criticism. It can be read as a punishment, as a vengeance, as an image of Jane’s inner anger against him, or as her victory over her lover; as Charles Buckhart puts it, ‘The almost ferocious ethic of Jane, her sense of duty, her Christian self-respect, are entirely victorious – Rochester now talks about God a good deal. She has brought him firmly into line, morally as well as sexually’.[17] In any case, in maiming him this way, even if it makes Jane victorious, Brontë restores the balance between the lovers.

Through her hero’s ‘infirmity’, Charlotte Brontë manages to develop a new idea of masculinity that mainly lies on mental strength and equality with women. Rochester may be physically harmed, but he is still a man and his masculinity is still present; however, it is not a threat to Jane’s integrity anymore and instead enables them to live in harmony. In that, Rochester is a hero of romance as he remains an absolute fantasy, a hero who has some truth in him but he is an ideal. His role in Jane Eyre is to attract the heroine and offer her a challenge of reform and education, but he also serves as canvas for the author to show what a more desirable sort of masculinity could be like.

[1] James Lorimer, in The Brontës: The Critical Heritage, ed Miriam Allott (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974), p. 114.

[2] Patsy Stoneman, ‘Rochester and Heathcliff as Romantic Heroes’, Brontë Studies, 36:1 (2011), 111-118 (p. 112).

[3] Margaret Oliphant, ‘Novels’, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 102 (September 1867), 257-280 (p. 259).

[4] Wootton, Byronic Heroes, p. 2.

[5] Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, ed. By Stevie Davis (London: Penguin, 2006), p. 124, p. 305.

[6] The North American Review, 67 (October 1848), 354-369 (p. 356).

[7] Allott, Critical Heritage, p. 72, p. 89.

[8] Thomas Carlyle, “Characteristics”, The Edinburgh Review, 1831 <https://cruel.org/econthought/texts/carlyle/carlchar.html&gt; [Accessed 30 May 2019].

[9] John Tosh, Manliness and Masculinities in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2005), p. 72.

[10] Stoneman, Rochester and Heathcliff, p. 117.

[11] Brontë, Jane Eyre, p. 509.

[12] Brontë, Jane Eyre, p. 149.

[13] Brontë, Jane Eyre, p. 506.

[14] Brontë, Jane Eyre, p. 155, p. 284, p. 169.

[15] Tosh, Manliness and Masculinities, p. 87.

[16] However, he realises that for all his strength, he cannot bend Jane’s spirits, ‘Whatever I do with its cage, I cannot get at it […]’; Brontë, Jane Eyre, p. 366.

[17] Charles Buckhart, Charlotte Brontë: A Psychosexual Study of her Novels (London: Gollancz, 1973), p. 75; quoted in Valerie Grosvenor Myer, Charlotte Brontë: Truculent Spirit (London: Vision Press, 1987), p. 162.

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