The Brontës Part 2 – Problematic “Heroes”

This article is part of The FrankenPod’s continued exploration of gothic writers and accompanies our most recent episode; 50 Shades of Heathcliffe with Oh No! Lit Class

The Brontë canon is filled with unique and intriguing women, they are flawed and driven. The men are a whole great big Byronic mess of sulky pains that we will have to save for another time. I’ve chosen to use stills from screen depictions for all but one of the photos of these characters for reasons that may become apparent.

Promotional photograph for the 1943 film Jane Eyre: Orson Welles & Joan Fontaine
Promotional photograph for the 1943 film Jane Eyre: Orson Welles & Joan Fontaine

Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Look, Jane knows she’s pretty special. It’s like she’s aware that someone is writing a book about her. The popular image of Jane as a virtous, but passionate young woman has indured for well over a century. Romanitic depictions often frame her as a misguided lamb walking into a situation, her love for Rochester and the inconvienience of his very much not dead wife have pitted Bertha and Jane somewhat against each other. Or have positioned Bertha as Rochester’s torturer (despite the fact that she is the one trapped in the attic). The fact is that Jane herself is not a particularly likelable or ethical person, but she does have principals and doesn’t tend to take much crap. Even walking out on Rochester in a situation in which other Bronte heroines may not have (see below).

 

Photo of Sir Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon from the 1939 film Wuthering Heights.
Photo of Sir Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon from the 1939 film Wuthering Heights.

Catherine Earnshaw

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Cruel and wild as a kid Catherine tries to fit into society’s expectations of her as a young adult, but personality development does not appear to stick in Wuthering Heights. Or, more likely, her ties to Heathcliffe and their super unhealthy relationship undo any growth she has done as a human. Emily frames the change in Catherine in negative terms, and we are supposed to infer that if she remained wild and cruel like Heathcliffe then none of this would have happened. But as every tale of forbidden romance needs a social construct for the couple to rally against, Catherine is in a more privilidged position than Heathcliffe and that is seen as being the reason they cannot be together. Heathcliffe is described as “Romany” and he was adopted into the family so he doesn’t wasn’t born into the position of power that Catherine and her brother were. When Heathcliffe comes back and she has the nerve to have gone on with her life, the toxicity of their relationship and their codependency returns. Things turn bad, and Catherine has a fit and stops eating, starving herself to death, because  proportionate reactions are something that Emily did not seem to get.

 

 

Tara Fitzgerald as Helen in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Tara Fitzgerald as Helen in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, 1996

 

Helen Graham

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

Helen tried being married to the type of men that Emily and Charlotte cast as the romantic leads of their books, and decided that she was not putting up with that particular brand of patriarchal bullshit. It really is quite the stark contrast between the resourcefullness and bravery of Helen Graham or Helen Lawrence Huntingdon and the reaction of Catherine to lie down and die. Helen acheives something in the 19th century that it is still not possible for everyone; she got her, and her child out of an abusive relationship. It is made an even more impactful tale when we realise that she went into the marraige with agency, thinking that she had made the right call, rather than being forced into a marraige was bad before it started. She chose to marry Huntingdon and then when he turned out to be the worst she tries to ‘fix’ him, but then realises that is just false reasoning, and she leaves him. In a bizarre but compassionate move she goes back to nurse him until his death, and then is able to move on with her life. However you will see that the picture I have used is from 1996, unlike Catherine and Jane, it wasn’t until recently that audiences saw the appeal of this wonderful creation of Anne Bronte’s.

 

This is the front cover of Jean Rhys's piece of literary revisionist fiction which gives Bertha much need voice
It’s so hard to find a photo from any screen depictions of Bertha as she is often set up as such an elusive and disposable character. This is the front cover of Jean Rhys’s piece of literary revisionist fiction which gives Bertha much need voice

Bertha Rochester

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

I am not going to call her Bertha Mason because for the majority of the book she IS Bertha Rochester (although I’ll be honest I wouldn’t want that name associated with me if I was her, but in the absence of her voice to decline the title then Bertha Rochester it is). Bertha is perhaps the most important female character in the Brontë canon, she certainly rivals Helen when we are looking at feminist readings for the big three Brontë sisters. The “Madwoman in the attic” has been seen as a metaphor for the unchained female self. The sympathetic feelings of the modern reader toward Bertha are almost certainly not what Charlotte had in mind. Bertha is painted as a feminine monstrosity, albeit a slightly more nuanced monstrosity than many other unsympathetic portraits of a “hysterical”, “mad” or othered woman of her time. Bertha’s ambiguous ethnicity or race might shed a little more light on why Charlotte thought it was okay to imprison Rochester’s wife in the attic. It’s not a comfortable thought that a book that is so esteemed in the literary canon of female authors could essentially imprison a woman from another culture and drive her to self-destruction through isolation and emotional torture for essentially being difficult (flirting or having an affair does not excuse this kind of abhorrent treatment). Bertha’s moment for a romanticised and sympathetic BBC or Hollywood period drama has not arrived yet, when it does happen it won’t be a moment too soon.

 

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