Why Brontë Chose Byron. "Jane Eyre" and her Byronic Lover
A Desirable Husband for a Governess in Nineteenth-Century England
Term Paper 2012 17 Pages
Table of Contents
II. The Reception of Byron’s Works in Nineteenth-Century England
III. Rochester as a Byronic Hero and his Relevance for Jane Eyre
IV. Unfulfilled Desires of Governesses in Nineteenth-Century England
V. Conclusion: Why Brontë Chose Byron
165 years after its first publication in England, Charlotte Brontë’s “female Bil- dungsroman” (Gilbert and Gubar 339) Jane Eyre still prompts questions for both its readership and the literary scholars of today. Depicting the protagonist’s development from a poor orphan girl to a young governess who “yearns for true liberty” (Gilbert and Gubar 347), Brontë evokes a utopian ideal of a strong-minded heroine who defies social customs by marrying her master, Edward Fairfax Rochester. When pondering over Brontë’s comment to her publisher in 1848, “[t]he standard hero[e]s and heroines of novels are personages in whom I could never . . . take an interest, believe to be natural or wish to imitate: were I obliged to copy these characters, I would simply not write at all” (qtd. in Brennan 16), one can draw conclusions about Brontë’s intention to reward her heroine with Rochester, who is widely accepted as the epitome of a Byronic hero (cf. Wootton 231, Gilbert and Gubar 337) – a “unique” (Thorslev 12) hero whose name re- fers to its real-life impersonator, the English Romantic poet George Gordon “Lord” By- ron.
As this paper is concerned with the question whether the Byronic hero embo- dies the desirable husband for a governess in nineteenth-century England, a brief over- view of the reception of Byron and his works as a “cultural phenomenon” (Elfenbein 47) during Brontë’s time seems necessary and will be dealt with in the first part of this pa- per. Andrew Elfenbein’s study Byron and the Victorians from 1995 serves as a valuable source which particularly considers Byron’s female readership and offers reasons for his popularity among them.
Since most scholars view Rochester as a Byronic hero while merely focussing on his physiognomy (cf. Wootton 231), the second part of this paper draws comparisons between Rochester’s character and the main features of a Byronic hero, as Peter L. Thorslev Jr. framed him in depth in his study The Byronic Hero: Types and Prototypes from 1962. In the third and last part of this paper, the social context of women in ge- neral and governesses in particular with due regard to love, marriage and legal rights will be taken into account. It will be argued that a marriage despite gender and social borders is enabled between the governess Jane and her master Rochester by making the latter Byronic, whereby Rochester becomes the epitome of a desirable husband for a governess in nineteenth-century England.
II. The Reception of Byron’s Works in Nineteenth-Century England
“[T]he life of Byron has always been more fascinating than his poetry,” (4) claims Thorslev in his introduction to The Byronic Hero: Types and Prototypes.
Therefore, he argues further, “Byron’s influence on later literature stems not only from his works and perhaps not even principally from his works, but rather from his life and legend” (5). And indeed, many previous studies rather concerned themselves with making comparisons between Byron’s biography and his heroes (cf. Thorslev 3 – 13) instead of analysing the Byronic hero as he is portrayed in the text (cf. Thorslev 11). However, the fame of Byron during the nineteenth-century depended primarily on a wide readership (cf. Elfenbein 47). Whereas Byron’s works were initially affordable for the wealthy, publishers like John Murray published them in cheaper editions (cf. Elfenbein 61) in order to address the lower social class since working-class literacy had risen (cf. Elfenbein 85). Consequently, working-class readers were able to participate in the cultural sphere (cf. Elfenbein 85). The Chartists even associated Byron with poli- tical radicalism (cf. Elfenbein 87) and celebrated him as an “icon of rebellion” (Elfen- bein 85). Thus, publishers like Murray succeeded in profiting from Byron’s popularity, which expanded to an economic phenomenon that Elfenbein terms “Byronism” (49). He concludes: “[f]or a time, any book or item related to Byron found an audience” (75) among all social classes (cf. Elfenbein 85).
As the biggest share of Byron’s admirers was supposed to be women (cf. Elfen- bein 58), however, it is not surprising that by the 1830s, the women of the lower social class reacted similarly passionately to Byron as the financially privileged women had reacted earlier (cf. Elfenbein 61). Elfenbein suggests, “[h]is work offered itself as an es- cape into a realm of transgressive sexuality, love with a glamorous aristocrat who seemed to cry out for female companionship . . . . Byron’s heroes suggested the possi- bility of a secret inner life of passion, which could never be expressed” (63). When the reason for Byron’s popularity among a female readership was his hero’s expression of unfulfilled desires of love and eroticism that reflected those of Victorian women in a period of oppressive gender norms, one could argue that those women, by reading By- ron and delighting in his works, indirectly rebelled against them. Elfenbein, though, points out that “reading Byron was a way to maintain those norms by containing sexual passion entirely within fiction” (64). But if the attraction of Byron’s heroes was merely a sexual one, how could it be that the commercial exploitation of Byron and his works might have encouraged an “identification across genders” (65), as Elfenbein proposes? Around the time when Jane Eyre was first published, he sees the identification of women with the Byronic hero as most obvious with the beginning “vogue for female characters who revivified Byronic romanticism by appropriating its clichés” (65). By taking Charlotte Brontë as an example, he disputes that her reproduction of the Byronic hero through Rochester was only a means to create an “object of desire” (65). Instead,
he suggests that “the figure [of the Byronic hero] was available not solely for desire and admiration, but also for imitation and identification” (65). Although Byron attracted fe- male readers in particular by “providing women with a fantasy image of desire” (Elfen- bein 64), his accomplishment of portraying “subjectivity” (Elfenbein 47), a “category that transcended gender difference” (Elfenbein 65), created a basis for identification between his female readers and his heroes. Elfenbein poses an interesting question:
[y]et if a woman could possess a subjectivity that was no different from a man’s, then she could be a Byronic hero just as well as he. Any differences between men and women would become the superficial effects of culture, not the basic ones of nature . . . . If subjectivity is truly universal, then genuine otherness does not exist. Desire can be based only on identification. (21 – 22)
If reading Byron was a means for women to preserve the social norms by con- taining their unfulfilled desires in the realm of fiction (cf. Elfenbein 64), Brontë could have indirectly woven this reality into her novel. By “reproducing Byronic clichés” (Elfenbein 87), her “anti-heroine . . . who defied the conventions of both fiction and so- ciety” (Moglen 106) is rewarded with an “individualistic [Byronic hero] who is passion- ately concerned with individual freedom” (Thorslev 195). As a consequence, an iden- tification between two oppositional genders on grounds of personality is achieved, which results in an egalitarian relationship, as will be shown in the next chapter.
III. Rochester as a Byronic Hero and his Relevance for Jane Eyre
With reference to Jane’s first encounter with Rochester, Zoe Brennan remarked in her monograph Brontë’s Jane Eyre: Reader’s Guides: “[u]ndercutting the reader’s expectations of Rochester as a knight on a white charger, his horse slips on the ice, a decidedly ordinary and unheroic event, and he requires Jane’s assistance to right him- self rather than vice versa” (53). And indeed, when examining both protagonists more closely, Brontë achieves to reverse gender roles. Depicting Rochester as such a “knight on a white charger” (Brennan 53) would have served as an embodiment of a chivalrous hero in tales in which women are treated as inferior, helpless maidens. But Jane, al- though her “class and sex define her as victim” (Moglen 109), becomes an “emblem of a passionate, barely disguised rebelliousness” (Gilbert and Gubar 337). Therewith, the only possible love interest for the strong-minded heroine can be found in a Byronic hero. Whereas Brontë selected attributes from Byron’s heroes (cf. Wootton 229) in- stead of “recycling a predictable literary ‘type’” (Wootton 231), Thorslev points out that even the credits for the typecast Byronic hero, despite his name, do not belong solely to Byron: “the Byronic hero shows the elements of every major type of Romantic hero” (4). Hence, “all the elements of the Byronic [h]ero existed before him in the literature of the age. This hero is unique . . . in the powerful fusion of these disparate elements into a
single commanding image” (Thorslev 12). These elements of which Rochester is con- stituted are the Child of Nature, the Hero of Sensibility, the Gothic Villain and, eventu- ally, the Noble Outlaw (cf. Thorslev 27 – 83), which will be briefly summarised due to the limited space. Consequently, this paper makes no claim to offer a complete analysis of Rochester as a Byronic hero but will cover the most important aspects.
According to Thorslev, the Child of Nature is characterised, as the name sug- gests, by his closeness to nature (cf. 30). As he is inclined to solitude (Thorslev 34), his love for nature can be interpreted as a refuge from society since he is “sometimes used as a critic of society” (Thorslev 21). When Jane observes Thornfield after having spent her first night in Rochester’s mansion, she beholds “lonely hills” (Brontë 84) which “embrace Thornfield with a seclusion . . . not expected to find existent so near the stir- ring locality of Millcote” (Brontë 84). Although Rochester “shuns the old place” (Brontë 109) by visiting Thornfield rarely (cf. Brontë 89) in order to avoid negative memories like Bertha, its isolated spot not only serves as a retreat from social life but symbolically reflects Rochester’s inner nature as well. Furthermore, a Hero of Sensibility is capable to love passionately (cf. Thorslev 180) with an “undying fidelity to the women he loves” (Thorslev 163). Despite his failed love affair with Adèle’s mother Céline Varens or his impedimentary marriage with his first wife Bertha, Rochester still clings to love as a “redemptive power” (231), as Sarah Wootton suitably outlines in her article “‘Picturing in Me a Hero of Romance’: The Legacy of Jane Eyre ’s Byronic Hero”. Rochester “pur- sued wanderings . . . . to seek and find a good and intelligent woman . . . a contrast to the fury . . . left at Thornfield” (Brontë 264), as he confesses to Jane. When she intends to leave Rochester, the Hero of Sensibility’s “gentleness of nature” (Thorslev 22) almost borders on madness when Rochester abandons himself by figuratively putting Jane on the same level with his hope, his love and his life (cf. Brontë 272). Originating in the Child of Nature, a Hero of Sensibility’s strong innate feelings alienate him from man- kind nonetheless (cf. Thorslev 39). Before Mrs Fairfax tells Jane about Rochester’s haunting “painful thoughts” (Brontë 109) on “[f]amily troubles” (Brontë 109), his “pe- culiarities of temper” (Brontë 108), as Mrs Fairfax euphemises his nature, appear to Jane even more negatively as “abrupt” (Brontë 108). As a result, strangers like Jane struggle with the rudeness of Rochester’s behaviour that originates in his past and pro- vide him with an “air of mystery” (Thorslev 54) that sets him off from ordinary society.
Another pre-Byronic character can be found in Rochester: the Gothic Villain. While his “sadistic cruelty” (Thorslev 70) prevents his readers to engage any sympathy for him (cf. Thorslev 53), his quality lies in his rebellious inability to adjust to society (cf. Thorslev 66), which is a crucial precondition for the master Rochester to marry the
governess Jane. By exclaiming “My bride is here . . . because my equal is here, and my likeness” (Brontë 217), he openly rejects any distinctions between sexes or classes and even contradicts the convention that the submissive Mrs Fairfax holds: “[g]entlemen in his station are not accustomed to marry their governesses” (Brontë 226). Moreover, Rochester heightens Jane by acknowledging her power over him: “you master me” (Brontë 222), whereby he imposes inferiority on himself in return. He proves his re- fusal of superficial social customs further by showing no interest in the “noble and beautiful” (Brontë 215) Blanche Ingram, as she is only interested in his economic posi- tion (cf. Brontë 217). Due to his greater sensibility, he prefers “plain” (Brontë 216) Jane instead, which Gilbert and Gubar congruously interprete as their mutual ability to see beyond their everyday disguise as governess and master (cf. 353). Contrasting the ordi- nary Gothic Villain further, Rochester committed no crimes (cf. Thorslev 8). His “secret sin” (Thorslev 54), his marriage with Bertha, was inflicted upon him by his own family, as he confesses to Jane (cf. Brontë 260). Arousing her pity (cf. Brontë 261), he is made a victim of society (cf. Thorslev 22), which erases any guilt for his rebellion by having a “plausible motive” (Thorslev 70). Accordingly, he appeals to the reader’s sympathy (cf. Thorslev 70). Nevertheless, remorse is a prerequisite for the transformation from the Gothic Villain to the Noble Outlaw (cf. Thorslev 22). While Rochester is a victim of the arranged plot of his elder brother and father (cf. Brontë 261), his marriage to a mad- woman makes his name be forfeited in the eyes of society: “[i]n the eyes of the world I was . . . covered with . . . dishonour . . . . society associated my name and rank with hers!” (Brontë 262). In her monograph Charlotte Brontë: The Self Conceived, Helene Moglen resumes the fate that made Rochester Byronic:
Rochester also lives as an “outsider”. Circumstances have made him one and like other Byronic heroes . . . he embraces this definition of himself. He knows that “Nature meant to me to be, on the whole, a good man”, but he was wronged by fate, weakened . . . First made desperate and then degenerate by the misery of his enforced marriage, orphaned, the last of his family, he is isolated. Sur- viving his father and older brother, but still suffering the effects of their cruel and selfish treatment, he rejects external authority, defying the world’s judge- ment and man’s opinion, claiming his . . . right to pleasure since he cannot find happiness. (118)
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- hausarbeit british studies jane eyre rochester byronic hero nineteenth-century england charlotte bronte literaturwissenschaft literary studies english