Behind Closed Doors

Portrait of Anne Bronte (Thornton, 1820 – Scarborough, 1849), Emily Bronte (Thornton, 1818 – Haworth, 1848) and Charlotte Bronte (Thornton, 1816 – Haworth, 1855) Oil on canvas by Patrick Branwell Bronte (1817-1848), caa 1834, 90.2 x74.6 cm.

When at the beginning of the past century more occupations were opened to middle class women, marriage ceased to be their only means of emancipation. They become free to choose the man they wanted, free to get a more specific education that could provide them with a career, free to live the life they wanted and be the architects of their fate. The dawn of a new era.

Yet, if we go back to Regency or Victorian times the word emancipation for a woman could only but coincide with one event in the life of a girl: the catching of a husband. On this purpose girls were taught to be “accomplished”, that is the learning of all those talents like singing, drawing, dancing which were useful to be noticed and appreciated in society, but useless outside those circles. Since a woman dreamed to break free from family ties as soon as possible, there was often no time to wait for a Prince Charming to be met in one ball or another, so if a good offer came, well, it couldn’t but be accepted. 27 years old, still unmarried Charlotte Lucas’ s concern to become a “burden for her family“, meant, above all, her fear to be exposed, unprotected, alone without the presence of a man beside her, that is why she promptly grabs what she believes to be her last opportunity to marry, which comes in the shape of Mr Collins. Odious Mr Collins represents her independence and she is happy with it.

Of course, we cannot know what happened behind closed doors once married: were these women satisfied with their new position of mistresses of house? Is that the life they expected? Did they feel really liberated once left their native homes? If we peruse the gallery of female characters drawn by the three Brontë sisters, we may find some interesting answers to our questions. In Wuthering Heights, just to start with, Emily Brontë ‘s heroine, Catherine Earnshaws, marries for money. She accepts the proposal of a very good man, Edgar Linton, the best catch in the neighbourhood, who offers her wealth, station, his heart. Nonetheless the charming lot won’t be enough to secure their happiness. Catherine’s obsessive love for Heathcliff will make her feel entrapped in a match she has learnt to loathe, till torn between duties and unfulilled desires, she dies. Catherine is actuallly overwhelmed by the weight of Victorian code of behaviour and morality. She is not strong enough to ignore what society required and accept the man she loves, Heathcliff, as her companion, because he is too far beneath her station. She cannot be blamed for that.

Helen Huntingdon, Anne Brontë’s protagonist of the “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall”, marries for love, but once the first intoxication of the mind and senses vanishes, what remains is the naked truth made of abuse and fear. She will suffer abuse and mistreatment from her husband Arthur, a libertine and lover of London social life, but since she cannot accept it and she convinces herself that she can redeem him – huge common mistake – that is why she closes herself in a marriage in which she is first tyrannized and then abandoned and betrayed, even forced to suffer the presence of Arthur’s lovers at home. Only when she realizes that Arthur is turning her son against her by educating him to alcohol and gratuitous violence, she decides to leave the marital home going against all moral and social laws. This is precisely the crucial point of Ann Brontë’s work. She focuses on the problems of the Victorian era: from the custody of children to the theme of divorce. Anne fits perfectly into that group of dissident intellectuals of the Victorian era who rebel against the hypocrisy of the upper classes and the enslavement of bourgeois respectability.

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë’s heroine, marries for love, compassion, as her free choice. It is the most unlikely of the three plots considering the times. Rude, liar, seductive, rich, Mr Rochester offers his love and hand to Jane, a poor governess, omitting to say that he is still married to a woman, Bertha Mason, he keeps secluded in a room. He has got his reasons, of course, she is mad and dangerous. He also claims his right to happiness and in a way, being Jane’s social and economic superior, he thinks he is allowed to behave so. But Jane will accept to marry him only when she feels herself his equal, and of course, after the most important obstacle between them will be removed, that is, his wife, who will die eventually.  Rochester, who will be blinded by the fire, which will destroy his manor house at the end of the novel, becomes weaker while Jane grows in strength and confidence, after having inherited from an uncle, found real connections and even another suitor at hand. She is free to marry a man who loves and  whose faults are no mystery to her, thus contradicting one of Charlotte Lucas’s pearls of wisdom:

“‘ . . . it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life.’

(Pride and Prejudice)

Jane wanted no surprises. At least no more.

 

The Darkness behind the Locked Door

One of the most fascinating take on Wuthering Heights, in my opinion, is the Jungian interpretation,  which sees  Heathcliff as Catherine‘s dark side, her shadow. In the personal unconscious, the shadow consists of those desires, feelings, which are unacceptable, for both emotional or moral reasons : it is the dark side of human nature. Heathcliff represents her repressed sexuality, her unconfessed desire which, however, is arduous to control, as the shadow is impulsive, powerful, wild, and hence can become obsessive or possessive. When Catherine marries Edgar, she tries to reject that secret part of her,  that’s why Heathcliff mysteriously disappears. But Heathcliff, as the shadow, refuses to be suppressed permanently, in fact, he surfaces after two years to claim his place next to Catherine, who, despite her desperate efforts to integrate him, is eventually defeated and dies.

This paradigm can also be applied to Jane Eyre as well. In this novel the role of the shadow belongs to Bertha Mason, Mr Rochester‘s first wife. Both Bertha Mason‘s and Heathcliff‘s descriptions conform to the archetype of the shadow. Heathcliff is always portrayed as dark as a gypsy , while Bertha is a Creole, the daughter of a white European settler in the West Indies with “dark hair” and “discoloured black face“. At those time the Creoles were more associated with the native Caribbean populations than the white, civilized Europeans. Creole women were often described as obstinate, dissolute and untrustworthy, which is exactly what Rochester will tell about Bertha.

Rochester had been entrapped  in this marriage. He had been beguiled by her uncommon beauty, wealth and that Creole sensuality, but only when it is too late, he open his eyes to face the real truth: his wife is mad. Once back to England and to the strict conventions of the Victorian society he cannot but hide and lock Bertha in a remote chamber of Thornfield, thus caging his own sexuality.  Thornfield will represent for him from that moment on, what the very name foreshadows, a field, as his soul, tormented by the thorns or guilt, sexual frustration and disappointment. That’s why he is often away. Till Jane Eyre crosses his way.

The growing attachment he feels forJane will make him spend more time at Thornfield, thus it will be impossible for him to ignore his surfacing powerful shadow. As I mentioned before, the shadow cannot be repressed forever, in fact, Bertha walks the night undisturbed, her screams and hideous laughter can be heard by everybody and she even attempts at punishing Mr Rochester setting his room on fire for having been thus neglected and confined, but above all for having brought in the household the “other” woman, Jane Eyre.

 Bertha is, of course, Jane’s polar opposite but she is also her truest and darkest double. Her confinement in the attic mirrors Jane’s imprisonment in the Red Room at Gateshead, a punishment for her anger and lack of conformity. This doubling  makes Bertha’s role within the novel much more complex, and  that means that any analysis of her character must take account of her relationship with Jane. For example one night, when Jane sees Bertha  at the foot of her bed, dressed in white with a bridal veil, while she is looking in the mirror, Jane continuously repeats that she has never seen such a face. Only a few pages later, the morning of her marriage, Jane looks at herself in the mirror and says:” I saw a robed and veiled figure, so unlike my usual self that it seemed almost the image of a stranger. It is impossible not to notice that the two scenes are almost identical.

Mr Rochester‘s attempt to marry Jane is but his extreme effort to reject that contemptible part of himself and be free to live his life. But in vain. The disclosure of the truth will have as consequence the disappearance of the “good ” self, Jane, who will come back only when Bertha Mason dies, committing suicide. It is interesting to notice that Mr Rochester will be permanently injured in the endeavour of saving Bertha from the fire she had herself set. After all, as his shadow, she was part of him, therefore, letting Bertha die was just like dying himself.

 

 

 

 

 

Teaser and Seductive

It is true: when it happens to re-read a book after many years, even one that you think to know very well, it will inevitably appear under a different light. The book is just the same, but the reader has changed in sensibility and life experience, hence; words, actions unexpectedly take different forms and meanings and the novel, like a precious jewel case, opens to your mind to reveal its new treasure.

So, when I recently analyzed with my students chapter XXXVIII of Jane Eyre, I couldn’t help but noticing a tension in the book, that I had missed before and, I have to say, I quite enjoyed it. Whoever has bumped into my old articles about Jane Eyre, knows that she is not exactly my favorite heroine and not certainly one I naturally emphatize with. I have often found tedious such display of prudery, modesty and self-righteousness, however, between the lines of that chapter I could perceive a new aspect of Jane which I had totally missed.

First of all, I felt that Charlotte Bronte, through Jane, must have really had a great deal of fun ( mixed with a little degree sadism) in humiliating her Byronic hero: Mr Rochester. She tortures him slowly in this very long chapter, which apparently celebrates the re-union of the two lovers. When Jane Eyre comes back to Thorfield after a year, she only finds physical and spiritual ruins. Thorfield has been destroyed by a fire set by Mr Rochester’s wife Bertha Mason and Mr Rochester, in the attempt of rescuing her, has become lame and blind. When Jane approaches him for the first time, what she sees is only a shuttered, miserable, brooding man: a pale shadow of the man he used to be. However; after she has revealed her presence to him( which, I have to admit, is one of the most effective love scenes ever) thus giving Mr Rochester a sparkle of joy, she soon inflicts him one last terrible blow confessing that she is a rich and independent woman now.

Jane had left Thornfield a year before penniless, that is why Rochester had believed her  “dead in some ditch under some stream” or  “pining outcast amongst strangers”. Now that she has turned up rich and independent and being in such a wretched physical and mental state, he is convinced he has no longer any power on her. No more. Nevertheless, our heroine doesn’t seem to show any real mercy and keeps teasing him, in fact, right before going to sleep, somehow she hints at the presence af a man near her in the time she had been missing. The pangs of jealousy work during the night till the next morning, when the two meet again, Mr Rochester will flood a super satisfied Jane with questions on whom he perceives as his rival.

Her answers will just add pain to his tortured soul. That man is Jane’s cousin St. John Rivers, whom she describes at first as a sort of cultivated, refined, handsome Apollo with a Grecian profile too, exactly the kind of person that in that moment makes him feel undeserving of Jane’s love and attentions. At a certain point, probably feeling that this game was lasting a bit too long, Jane justifies her behaviour saying that she was doing this for his own good: to relieve him from his state of melancholy. Maybe she was right, but I could see her exultant smile between the lines. When Jane hears that Mr Rochester has been wearing  her little pearl necklace fastened round his bronze scrag under his cravat since the day he left, she cannot but triumph over the ashes of somebody who once could be rightly defined a true Byronic hero. What an end!

What is surprising in these last scenes is the sensual tension between the two lovers and it is Jane who makes the rules of the game. She is seductive. She approaches silently Mr Rochester till he feels her presence and only then she allows him to touch her fingers, her face and her entire body so that he might have the joy and the pleasure of identifying her.  Mr Rochester’s joy for having his Jane back at last is balanced by the uncertainties due to his condition and our heroine plays this bitter-sweet game as long as she can, till she eventually accepts to be his wife. From the ashes of the Byronic hero a dominant, self-confident woman is born.