Charlotte Brontë‘s Jane Eyre and Emily Brontë‘s Wuthering Heights are two of the most popular, most enduring and most influential novels in literary history. Both were published in 1847 and though some modern readers, used to simpler, less evocative language, find them a little difficult to get into initially, they are undeniably major milestones in the maturation of long-form works of fiction.
Back in the early Victorian period, the novel was still a relatively young literary form and despite it evolving year on year, poetry and drama monopolized the criteria for artistic greatness. The 19th-century looked down on prose, the ‘reality show’ of the 19th century. The publication of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights – as complete novels, rather than penny dreadfuls or as weekly serials made popular by the prolific Charles Dickens – was a giant leap forward in the maturation of prose. The two monumental works of the Brontë sisters tower over the literary timeline for the rest of the 19th century.
The influence of Brontë genius and the impact of their gothic masterpieces on literature across the world is even more remarkable given they had little to no contact with the wealthy high society cliques whose influence defined popular fashions in art and literature of the mid-19th-century. The Brontës had no interest in conforming to the butterfly ideals of Victorian femininity. Their art could only emerge from the remote family vicarage, isolated on the North Yorkshire moors. There the sisters could live free, spinning the golden threads of supernatural make-believe from their childhood into the luminous literary force of adult creativity, redefining both the form and the substance of gothic prose across the world.
Gothic is an oft-misunderstood idea and the word, much overused, was a catch-all for tales of the dark supernatural in everyday life. Nowadays it’s synonymous with “horror”, a distinct but often juvenile genre, more form than substance. Gothic includes but isn’t limited to “horror”. Brontë handling of a deeper gothic juxtaposition of folk mythologies and supernatural anthropomorphic is de rigueur.
If you give the word “gothic” a moment’s consideration, what does it mean to you, what sense-pictures does “gothic” evoke? Perhaps it conjures up images of veiled power and dread, like dark shadowy statues of gargoyles looming over cathedral doors, or windowless crypts underground lit by recessed candles shedding a frail light on ancient coffins as unseen supernatural breath clings heavy to the musty air.
These common examples of what has become the cliche and though not wholly misleading, the sensual gothic is an overemphasis on the “horror” and misses the subtle, far more profound metaphysics of the true gothic paradigm.
Gothic is elemental and fundamental. It’s not merely superficial form packaging a binary life-or-death substance. Gothic is the spectrum of shadow and stone.
Gothic looms and creeps. Gothic is in the crepuscular half-light silence of the late gloaming and the primal howl of the storm tormenting a looming colossal crouching form big as the horizon, lit by staccato lightning flashes, a granite cliff-side, sheer and brutal and obdurate.
Far in the distance, through a lull in the storm preternaturally calm in the pitch black night, a distant corpse-light is a lantern in the upstairs window of a tumbledown cottage. Behind it looms the silhouette of a church-tower and a bell is tolling misericordia.
At sea, the storm is at frenzy pitch and the darkness is broken only by the white-foam crash of waves against the lurching ship’s deck, its crew deafened by the boom and the bell tolling its unheard summons. But let all that pause for a moment as a solitary fulgent beam shines out from a faraway lighthouse. Hope and torment bound in the simple human act of ingenious care. These are some essential shades of living colour in the Gothic spectrum.
Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are not only exemplars of the written word, but their evocation and innovation of the living gothic ideal is the maturation of two genuinely original forces of imagination. They drive the entire literary paradigm forward. No longer poor cousin to poetry and drama, the latter half of the 19th-century completes the elevation of the long-form novel from by-the-word periodical to uniquely pure, intimate human expressionism.
The Brontë sisters’ gothic masterpieces are part of that leading edge ablation, securing the sisters their place in the illustrious literary canon. Without Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, the novel may not have developed fast enough, by the 20th-century, to give voice to Woolf, Joyce, Kerouac and Lowry.
The two great gothic novels stand out, in their own time, as works by two individuals expressing their creative genius. Gothic masterpiece, romantic literary fiction, proto-feminist liberation, two adult sisters carrying on their games; Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights have much in common but, under the cover, there is a devil in the detail. The novels are as different and as diverse, each in its own right, as the eponymous Gothic spectrum of shadow and stone.
COMING IN FROM THE SHADOW – BREAKING OUT FROM THE STONE
The concept of Gothic insists on many great novels of this period and while Jane Eyre has as much right as any to be included in the “Gothic” canon, it is in the profound evolution of elemental gothic archetypes that its originality makes an indelible mark on the fast proliferating timeline of English literature and the novel as its own distinct literary form.
Look at it this way: Charlotte and Emily Brontë are precocious young girls, given freedom by their forward-thinking parents to roam the gardens and the local moorland around their isolated vicarage home. The sisters would play intense games of imagination at the foot of the garden and, far from the madding crowd, the children would people these game-worlds with many entities from myth and legend.
In the hands of the creative Brontë sisters, the trees, flowers, wood-creatures and hedgerows were imbued with supernatural wonder. Faeries were a naturally popular presence in the Brontë creativity ensemble and the girls would play for hours, across days and weeks, epic drama from sunrise to gloaming. It was from these games the sisters took inspiration for their great gothic novels.
Emily looked out, beyond the garden, to the moorland purple shadows. She might have framed Wuthering Heights in terms of a question she asked as a child: “what if we stole away two faerie children who loved each other, save them from the horridly unpredictable faerie life at the bottom of the garden; and raised them in the big house as humans?“. Then “what if their love got broken because one of them died ever so young?“
Charlotte looked back from the garden to the homely vicarage. She may have framed Jane Eyre in terms of a question she asked, also as a child: “what if, instead of living hidden at the bottom of our garden, one of the lonely fairies younglings yearned to be with us humans; and swapped souls with a baby and somehow got brought into the big house?”
These deceptively innocent questions have many layers. Both are essentially a reaction against the conventions and rituals of “society” as it contrasted with the unshackled uncivilised wildness of the Brontë family’s moors. It roots both novels in a mischievous subversion of traditional and contemporary wisdom. The Brontë sisters embrace the unknown supernatural shadows. The girls have no fear of Baba Yaga Bony Legs. Brontë imagination, repulsed by genteel society, is drawn instead to the ancient pagan spiritualism of the folk myth.
The sisters’ rejection of orthodoxy runs throughout the novels but to take two standout examples: Charlotte Brontë uses Jane Eyre to turn marriage convention on its head with our heroine, Rochester, Bertha Mason and grasping St John playing out a mockery of the dewy-eyed hypocrisy of wedded bliss.
It may be less startling in the 21st-century but in the 19th-century it subverted the ubiquitous plot template. Victorian novels answered “how does the downtrodden saint heroine escape bondage, overcome the big scary cosmopolitan society world and find a perfect husband?” time and time again. Jane Eyre’s plot would have been a heresy.
Not to be outdone in Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë puts the whole notion of the family into the gothic crucible, treating that most sacred of institutions to her merciless, surgical exposure.
Both novels embrace, expose and marginalise traditional gothic. Not by deconstructing the mystery of supernatural spiritualism but instead, quite the opposite.
Charlotte Brontë declines to submit her heroine to ‘happily ever after’ i.e. subservience (by wedding oath) to an “ideal” husband – think Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice – and Emily Brontë kills her heroine early in the novel, turning the hero into an antihero, taking the plot as far from ‘happily ever after’ as it is possible to go!
The Brontë sisters, like all artists combining skill and genius, create, destroy and redefine convention in their wake. Wuthering Heights marks out more traditional territory, albeit with virtuoso boldness. It is landscape, architecture and environment sensually dominated by shadowy passions trapped by an entrenched society of civilised structure, insisting on and eventually overwhelming the unfolding drama. The wild passions unleashed by the tragic love of Heathcliff and Catherine are separated, one loosed on the moors, the other imprisoned by the stone, against its will. This has violent, fatal consequences.
Wuthering Heights is the gothic of the angry shadow and imprisoning stone. It is enclosed, claustrophobic, characters huddling together against the hostile virulent passions of the moors. Nothing of the light or the gentle civilised remain unbroken by the time the central story has played out. Jane Eyre, conversely, is a novel on a more expansive canvas. It’s the gothic of the light shadow and sanctuary stone. Though there are glimpses of the destructive forces of the darker passions, these occur only when Jane is absent.
LIGHT IN SHADOW, SANCTUARY IN STONE
To engage fully with Jane Eyre – that is to say, to get close to Charlotte Brontë’s own world – one needs to appreciate that Jane herself is not entirely human but instead of the most well-developed faerie characters in all literary fiction. While the novel presents itself as a biography of the life and maturation of Jane Eyre, girl to governess to an independent woman, there’s more to the strange plain-faced orphan than meets the eye. We mark Jane as an outsider – an intruder – often unwelcome – from the start. She is not as others are. This begins in early childhood and continues throughout the novel. It’s Jane herself, imposing the standard by the second half of the novel.
It would be crude to dismiss Jane’s outsider status as a mere by-product of her adoption by a wealthy family. Charlotte Brontë is clear from the outset Jane is a deeper, more complex personality than her boorish counterparts in the adopted Reed household. She’s small and physically weak, but it is the faerie within – crudely put, her essential soul, the intangible but inviolate substance – that differentiates; and inevitably alienates as she refuses to ‘know her place’.
This conflict between Jane’s faerie-shadow otherness and its relation to the practicalities and circumstances of her path through human society is the key to Charlotte Brontë’s heroine. The plot twists and turns but throughout the book, Jane Eyre stands out in her otherness, uncompromising in her quest to domesticate the faerie-shadow without sullying her spirit along the way.
The powers at work in Jane Eyre play out behind the veil. It is more imaginatively sensual than tactile, defying darkness and refusing the glare, expressing a determination almost other-worldly; enough to infatuate and then restore love to the dominant archetype – Rochester, master of the house and its enclosed dark gothic stone. Rochester’s stone is the proud, masculine strength of Victorian society. Jane Eyre’s shadow is the gentle, feminine strength of freeborn womanhood.
Jane’s independence is absolute, though she has no wealth or position in the upper social order. She is wholly self-contained because of her character, born and nurtured to prefer solitary introspection – her shadowland, peopled by the intangibles of her imagination – patient and self-reliant enough to know her strengths and weaknesses. From childhood, Jane Eyre had been naturally drawing her to the unseen, twilight gothic of the secret shadow places. She knew them but was not entirely of them, and though the stolid common-folk were frightened by these faerie superstitions, Jane Eyre had no fear and never brought darkness into the stone houses of civilised society.
Jane Eyre is perfectly at home in the faerie half-world but chooses, by preference, to live and be happy in the society of her fellow gentlefolk. The novel is punctuated by established gothic tradition but each time made more subtle: gothic of the shadow unseen or in the twilight. Walk-on parts may have been given to the expected loom of the architecture or to a supporting cast of macabre individuals, all the solid dark tropes of popular gothic paradigm, but in Jane Eyre it’s the faerie shadows that pervade, unfettered by the constraints of brute form, more potent ultimately than the stone certainty of Rochester’s reserve and St John’s missionary manliness.
As if to remind us of the power of the shadow, Grace Poole’s patient, Bertha Mason – Rochester’s imprisoned first wife, possessed in her madness and jealously – releases the shadow’s most destructive force – the flame – to burn down Thornfield Hall while Jane Eyre is away. The contrast is clear. Jane Eyre is not of the violent devouring shadow but the faerie light fortitude. Her return and the acceptance of her terms is an exorcism and a compact between the shadow and the stone.
To leave us in no doubt where the greater strength lies, Jane Eyre finds her own place in the world – a permanent move from the faerie shadowlands into society’s four stone walls – by the end of the novel and this is achieved not, as is the norm in Victorian literature, by marrying the hero and living happily ever after. Instead, Jane Eyre will not marry Rochester but is only content to choose freely each day to affirm her loving choice to be with him. These are the terms on which Jane Eyre the faerie comes in from the secret shadow places permanently, at last.
DARKNESS IN SHADOW, PRISON OF STONE
In contrast to Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights’s plot focuses on the interplay of characters in the microcosm of society created by two austere mansions: Thrushcross Grange and the titular Wuthering Heights. Between these two and surrounding both is the brutal, elemental landscape of remote North Yorkshire. Hard facts and society is the stone; in the grand inhabited houses and the local villages. Dreams and passions are the shadow; in the winds and the great open moors.
The shadow invades the stone – the ghosts and the blighted love brought in from the moorland, into society, to wreak havoc. Heathcliff’s tortured soul fights to escape the obdurate burden of his place in society, perverting it and making it grotesque while he remains trapped (by life).
Heathcliff is the shadow driven to madness and turned against stone, forced to ape the ways of society (which he hates) as he lives out his unhappy painful days, separated from his Catherine by her untimely death. Heathcliff may still be alive – though his dreams are in the shadowlands, calling for his lost mate – but his waking mind is twisted to thoughts of escape and revenge against the world. All must crash against him and break and know the architect of their downfall. He must sacrifice all to propitiate Catherine’s death, in some vain hope it might draw her back from the shadow.
Decades of degraded struggle against fate and the stone, called each night by Catherine from the moorland wind-shadows, Heathcliff finally gains relief and is let out of the imprisoning stone. The surviving characters see the folly of trying to shackle wild things to civilised society against their will.
The dynamics of Wuthering Heights are the very opposite of pragmatic and optimistic Jane Eyre, where the shadow came by choice into the great house – the stone – and endured persecution and found love and discovered society was not strong enough to be a prison except by voluntary submission.
In Wuthering Heights, a far more pessimistic, preternatural, tormented world, the shadow is trapped against its will – tamed briefly by love but driven to madness by its loss – the great house becomes a prison, the local moors are turned into a crime scene as good society is perverted by the will of tortured shadow struggling to escape from the stone.
Gothic is in the weather, gothic is in the dangerous shadows that make people lost never to return. Gothic is in the moan of the winds, gothic is in the face at the casement howling to a stolen love. Gothic is in the fuck-the-elements facades of great manmade mansions, gothic is in the cut of the wood and the stone and the domestication of the moorland. Gothic is in the consecrated church steeple, gothic is in the mythology of the mausoleum. Gothic is in the anger and the violence of loving madness, gothic is in the elemental shadow-play of fire and water and air and earth. Gothic is in the faeries coming in from the cold shadow and the tortured souls let loose from the icy stone. Gothic is exemplified by Dracula and Frankenstein. Gothic comes to maturity in Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre.
[last 2 pages of this old essay plus corrections/edits to the above have been misplaced – out of reach – but I know where they are and they’ll be picked up at the weekend (latest) and appended here to complete this archive work]