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.

Frances Burney, Evelina (1778)

Evelina, or the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World, is an epistemological novel retelling the young Evelina’s adventures in Georgian London. Evelina was raised in the countryside by a minister, in relative solitude. Her mother had married a certain Sir John Belmont who abandoned his wife shortly after she was pregnant with their daughter; she died whilst giving birth to Evelina. The young girl is thus an orphan at the beginning of the novel because, although she knows who her father is, she has never met him and he has never acknowledged her existence. One Spring, Evelina goes to London with her friend, Maria Mirvan, to welcome home the latter’s father, referred to as ‘The Captain’. In London, Evelina discovers the life of theatre and opera-going, of balls, and polite society; but because she grew up away from all this, she is not too aware of the manners she should adopt. Yet, because she is extremely beautiful, her entrance into society doesn’t go unnoticed and many men admire her, even if some have suspicious intentions towards her. Evelina is a sort of Bildungsroman in which a young woman has to come to terms with the ways of the world, and is rewarded for her exemplary conduct in the end with a marriage to the man she loves.

Evelina

What interested me the most whilst reading this novel was to see how French people were seen and treated by the other characters. Evelina finds her grandmother, Madame Duval, in London, who also happens to be French. She is always escorted by Monsieur Dubois – another French man. From the moment Evelina and her party meet them, the Captain’s favourite occupation is to tyrannise them. There is a certain disgust for the French that transpires through Burney’s words. The way they are described contrasts with the opinion English artists might have of their French counterparts later in the nineteenth century – a view that is more familiar to a twenty-first century reader, in my opinion. Here, France is not the country of refinement and astounding poets, but of singularly repulsive individuals. Although Madame Duval is supposed to be a rather well-off French lady, she is portrayed in the same unflattering light as her impoverished English relatives. Evelina is ashamed of her, and is embarrassed when people within the higher ranks of society see her with such company. Actually, Madame Duval reminded me of the French governess in Sheridan Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas (1864) who is one of the most ridiculous characters I have ever read.

Of course, Franco-English rivalry is not a new thing and I think it will always be there. I remember when I was little and my grandfather – who was probably the French-est man that has ever been – would mock the English with their Queen and their silly cuisine. I wonder what he would think now that I live in London! I especially like this mutual ‘hatred’ in the late Georgian and Victorian period because with the French revolution, the Napoleonic wars, and the fact that these two countries ended up being the most powerful European countries by the end of the century, there’s just so many sources for rivalry and mockery – which almost always hide a certain degree of fear or admiration. (I’d like to note that I talk about England, and not Britain, because there’s nothing of that kind with Welsh, Scottish or Irish people) It’s just something I particularly enjoy, because it’s not a toxic rivalry, and it’s not really harmful to any one; like two siblings who keep on teasing each other but are bored on their own. Here is an extract of a conversation between Madame Duval and the Captain that I think illustrates well what I’m trying to say:

Pardi, Monsieur,’ returned she, ‘and so I shall; for, I promise you, I think the English a parcel of brutes; and I’ll go back to France as fast as I can, for I would not live among none of you.’

‘Who wants you?’ cried the Captain; ‘do you suppose, Madam French, we have not enough of other nations to pick our pockets already? I’ll warrant you, there’s no need for you for to put in your oar.’

‘Pick your pockets, Sir! I wish nobody wanted to pick your pockets no more than I do; and I’ll promise you, you’d be safe enough. But there’s no nation under the sun can beat the English for ill-politeness; for my part, I hate the very sight of them, and so I shall only just visit a person of quality or two, of my particular acquaintance, and then I shall go back again to France.’

‘Ay, do,’ cried he, ‘and then go to the devil together, for that’s the fittest voyage for the French and the quality.’

‘We’ll take care, however,’ cried the stranger, with great vehemence, ‘not to admit none of your vulgar, unmannered English among us.’

‘O never fear,’ returned he coolly, ‘we sha’n’t dispute the point with you; you and the quality may have the devil all to yourselves.’

Evelina, p. 58.

To go back to Evelina itself, it’s a very amusing satirical novel about the roles of women in society, and it looks at fatherly duties with a very sharp eye. I found it wonderful to read about a very old – and much smaller – London and I think it is the perfect book for a Jane Austen fan who would like to broaden their horizon. Highly recommend!

Featured image: Thomas Gainsborough, The Mall in St. Jame’s Park (1783)

The Night Guest, Fiona McFarlane (2013)

the-night-guest-by-fiona-mcfarlane-1

Ruth and Harry retired to their beach house a few years ago. Harry did not get to enjoy much of the house, since he died shortly after moving in, leaving Ruth on her own, in this isolated house. Her sons are in New Zealand and Hong Kong thus, although they call her regularly, she does not get to spend much time with them. One night, Ruth feels as if a tiger is in her house. She knows there is no wild animal, but she can feel it. The morning after, a woman knocks at Ruth’s door; she’s been sent by the government to take care of her. Her name is Frida and she moves everything around in Ruth’s life and breaks the routine of the pensioner with her extravagant hairstyles which she changes on a daily basis. She is tall, stout, and dark and to Ruth, she looks Fijian which reminds her of her childhood, her missionary parents, her first love, and the sight of the young Queen Elizabeth at a ball.

‘She thought of Harry as she lay there in the garden because she knew he was dead, and she knew she had forgotten he was dead. That seemed the same as forgetting he had lived.’

It is incredibly difficult to sum up The Night Guest and do it justice, without completely revealing the end. What I can say is that this is a wonderful little gem about ageing, love, and trust. It is quite rare that recent releases give me a lot of things to say about them, I tend to read them to relax and shift gears from my beloved lengthy Victorian tomes. However, Fiona McFarlane’s debut is an accomplishment and it moved me beyond anything I could have ever expected.

I actually found very refreshing to read the story of a 75-year-old, I am too used to reading Bildungsroman so I rarely deal with the elderly (except when they are old spinsters with a lot of money to inherit of) and this novel challenged my habits, putting things into perspective as a consequence. It really made me ponder on being older and alone, which is a tragic reality of our society. Ruth lives in a isolated house on a beach in Australia, but it is a fact that, past a certain age, you can live in a big city and be just as isolated as her.

Of course, this novel also deals with dementia. I thought this term was a bit too strong for Ruth, at first; she feels there’s a tiger in her house, but she deals pretty well on her own and lives a nice and quiet life with her cats. What I felt at first, is more the fact that at a certain point, the brain is not as efficient as it used to be and some connections are late to be made – if made at all. But then, I realised that she mentions her sons as infants, and her husband on several occasions, but never really thinks in details of her adult life. What Ruth mostly remembers is her childhood on Fiji, she looks back on this episode of her life and remembers all the little details. Obviously, this hints strongly at the fact that she may have started a degenerative phase of her life. The story is narrated at the third person, but really you are in Ruth’s head so you do not understand fully all the situations and because of her age, she doubts herself so you find yourself doubting absolutely everything. It becomes increasingly difficult to differentiate truth from lies: a guest comes to her house… or not? Frida locked her in… or did she? This feeling kept me on edge and made the novel gripping, as well as incredibly hard on an emotional level.

‘It was one thing, maybe, to die […] but it was quite another to go on being dead. That was obstinate; it was unkind.’

The Night Guest gave me a lot of food for thought, and I cannot recommend it enough. Ruth is a very endearing character because she is very sweet with her taste for swearing and her constant daydreaming. She just wants to tell her story to someone, and it is very pleasant to be this person.

Le Reve Douanier Rousseau
I thought of that painting to illustrate my article, it’s The Dream by Douanier Rousseau (1910). A fragile woman with two tigers lurking in the dark… that’s our story!

He Knew He Was Right, Anthony Trollope (1869)

“A man who is a gentleman in his cups may be trusted to be a gentleman at all times.”

9780140433913

Louis Trevelyan is young and wealthy English man who meets Emily Rowley during a visit to the Mandarin Islands. Emily is the eldest daughter of the governor of the island and quickly the pair falls in love, and Louis proposes to Emily. Louis and Emily, and her sister Nora goes to live together in London. It is a very happy household, quickly joined by a baby boy.

However, quite rapidly, the marriage of Louis and Emily starts to wither when an old friend of Emily’s father visits her. This old friend is Colonel Osborne and he has the reputation to maintain quite close relationships with married women, let’s say. Louis does not like to have his wife’s name associated with such a man and orders Emily not to see him anymore. She feels hurt by his mistrust and decides to disobey him because she feels like she has nothing to feel guilty about. This lack of obedience drives Louis so angry that he decides to have a separation. Emily and her sister, and the boy, have to go from a relative to another to live as they can – their parents being too far away to be able to do anything at all to help them.

Louis gradually loses his mind for he keeps thinking about his wife’s attitude and whether or not she did have an affair with Osborne. He ends up in Italy and is but the shadow of his former self. Emily joins him there in the hope of winning him back and restore him to health, also because he has brought their child with him. Somehow, Emily manages to convince Louis to come back to England with her to start afresh.

That is the main story of this novel, but being an almost 900-pages book, there are many parallel stories like that of Nora’s suitors and Miss Stanbury’s inheritance, so it is very hard to sum up this great tome in just a small paragraph. There are so many interesting characters and turns in this story, it is so rich that I am not sure whether I am able to do it justice.

“Words spoken cannot be recalled, and many a man and many a woman who has spoken a word at once regretted, are far too proud to express that regret.”

I find very interesting to study relations between men and women during the Victorian era, and I have learnt so much with He Knew He Was Right. For instance, I know that it was not uncommon at the time to send a small photograph of you to the man you love. I thought that this practice really started much later in the century, and I found that very important to see how relationships could evolve. There is a fantastic set of characters of all ages and backgrounds, and so many details, that you get a good grasp of the period. And although, there’s some literary goodness to it of course, I found the style to be of very little importance when it comes to what was actually said.

Trollope was not really an advocate for the rights of women since he was quite Conservative, but with this novel, you could really doubt it. His strongest characters are women who manage to live their lives as they intend to. First, there is Miss Stanbury. She’s a rich old woman, and a spinster. She had a love story with a man in her youth but they never married – it seems to me evident thus, that this dear Jemima lived in sin for a while, which I find quite shocking for such a Conservative woman. She struggles to accept and understand progress, especially when it comes to young women’s dresses and hair – she just cannot stand chignons – and the author makes fun of that with, I think, a lot of tenderness. She is an old woman, and as many old women still today, they love to criticise the new ways in ridiculous terms. But although I laughed at her, I couldn’t help but to notice that she was a very strong woman who deserved respect. She has very strong values, sometimes maybe too strong when she disinherit her nephew who has become a writer for a radical penny newspaper, and she follows them without compromising her heart and feelings. She is well-aware of people wanting to take advantage of her for her money, but she never lets them play too long.

But she is nothing compared to Nora. Jemima Stanbury can afford to be stubborn in her ways, Nora Rowley just cannot. But still, when a rich aristocrat proposes to her, she refuses. She understands all the advantages that such a union would bring but her mouth says no. There was something in the proposal that did not feel quite right, and there was something missing from her as well. Her mind is set on Hugh Stanbury (Miss Stanbury’s nephew) and although, he cannot support her, she decides that she will marry him anyway. It is obviously as romantic as it sounds, but in a very realistic novel like this one, it is more a proof of Nora’s strength.

And then, there is Priscilla Stanbury, Hugh’s sister. She is not rich at all, she is quite plain and fully accepts the fact that she will never marry. And she even clearly states that she doesn’t like men this much. Of course, she’s thought of it because every girl is raised towards that goal and she knows the comfort it would bring her. But she is alright with being single and not knowing love – also because she is very pragmatic and clever, she knows love is not the foundation of most marriages around her. Somehow, she reminds me of Jane Eyre: Jane at first accepts the fact that she has to work for herself and will never be part of the ‘married world’. She is not too sad about it – she seems quite indifferent to it before she meets Rochester – but she still knows that this is not a satisfying life, either.

“If I had a husband I should want a good one, a man with a head on his shoulders, and a heart. Even if I were young and good-looking, I doubt whether I could please myself. As it is I am likely to be taken bodily to heaven, as to become any man’s wife.” 

It’s no secret that the Victorian society was absolutely patriarchal, but it is very interesting to read about what the impact was on ‘real’ people. I say people because men suffer from this attitude, too. In the novel, the victim is Louis Trevelyan. He slowly becomes mad because of all the pressure he puts on himself: a wife has to obey her husband. And his wife doesn’t, which makes him a bad husband. I do not think he actually cares that much about the details of Emily’s relation with Osborne, what is important to him is his wife’s obedience because that is the way a marriage is supposed to work. He believes what he has been told and thinks that a woman on her own is not much, she has to let her husband guide her towards morality and propriety. However, Emily is not so submissive and she has a rather strong personality and set of principles. She obviously is a victim of Louis’s patriarchal beliefs since she found herself with nowhere to live with her child. A woman had just no right at the time and without her father or husband, she was nothing. Helen Graham, in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, has a brother who helps her find shelter, but Emily only has an uncle who can’t really support her.

Nonetheless, I believe the first victim of this authoritative society is Louis. If he hadn’t has as much pressure to tell him how to behave as a husband, he would not have started this in the first place. But because society expected him to behave a certain way, he acted accordingly and dragged many other victims in his downfall.

He Knew He Was Right is an amazing novel that I can’t recommend enough. Because it is so long it obviously suffers from repetitions, which are sometimes very heavy and boring because you understood the first time you read it, a couple of chapters ago. And although, they had me sighing with exasperation quite a few times, it was nothing compared to the richness of what I was able learn.

The novel was adapted for TV by the BBC in 2004. I haven’t watched it but I read it was quite good and must be probably more digestible than this massive tome!