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 undeniable masterpieces.
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. Prose was looked down on, the 'reality show' of the 19th century. The publication of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights as complete novels, rather than penny dreadfuls or weekly serials of a standard made popular by the prolific Charles Dickens, was a giant leap forward in the maturation of prose. 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 all the more remarkable given their contact with the wealthy, influential cliques of high society was little to nil. The sisters worked their art in the same remote family vicarage of their birth, isolated on the North Yorkshire moors, spinning the golden threads of make-believe games from their childhood into the refined yarn of a wholly adult gothic literature that would come to redefine both the form and the substance of written prose creativity across the world.
Gothic has been a much misunderstood and increasingly overused word for a very long time. Nowadays it’s synonymous with “horror” – a distinct but often limited genre. 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 mere 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 of the late evening and the wild lash of the storm driving waves against desperate ships lost far out at sea. In the evening pitch black night, a distant corpse-light is a lantern in the upstairs window of a tumbledown cottage. At sea, the storm is a frenzy in the darkness broken only by the white-foam crash of waves crashing across the ship’s deck – but let all that pause for a moment as a solitary fulgent beam from a faraway lighthouse shines out, reviving hope by the simple human-made touch. All of these are essential shades of living colour in the Gothic spectrum.
Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are not only two of the finest exemplars of the novel but in their complex evocation of the gothic ideal, the paradigm is evolved into a greater palette than it had before. This permanently changes the art form for the better and secures the Brontë sisters their place in the illustrious literary canon but, when it comes to the two novels as the distinct works of two individuals expressing their creative genius, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are also as different and as diverse in their 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 a 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 all sorts of 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. Wuthering Heights could be framed in terms of a question she might have 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. Jane Eyre, in its entirety, could be framed in terms of the question she asked 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?”
This deceptively innocent question has many layers, of course. It’s a reaction against the suffocation of extant conventions disdained by the Brontë family. It is a mischievous subversion of traditional wisdom and contemporary wisdom, i.e. the Brontë sisters embrace the unknown supernatural shadows – they have no fear of Baba Yaga and old wives tales – and Jane Eyre in particular turns on its head the popular plot convention to which most novels submitted themselves: “how does the downtrodden saint heroine escape bondage, overcome the big scary cosmopolitan society world and find a perfect husband?”.
Both novels embrace, expose and marginalise traditional gothic, too, but not by deconstructing the mystery of supernatural spiritualism. Instead, quite the opposite. Charlotte Brontë declines to submit her heroine to the ‘happily ever after’ subservience (by wedding oath) to an “ideal” husband – think Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice – and Emily Brontë kills off her heroine early in the novel turning the hero into an antihero, taking the plot as far from ‘happily ever after’ as it’s 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 dark 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 independent woman, there’s more to the strange plain-faced orphan than meets the eye. Jane is marked 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. Indeed, 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 real and 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 try 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, among other things, 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 freely choose each new 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 is focused 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 indeed 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 early 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. All must be sacrificed 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 clearly 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, realistic 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 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 cold stone. Gothic is exemplified by Dracula and Frankenstein. Gothic comes to maturity in Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre.