Charlotte is My Brontë

This piece originally appeared at in June, 2011.  Something reminded me of it the other day, and here it is.

In high school I had a teacher who loved Wuthering Heights.  I was, I blush to say, a bit of a suck-up in English class because I loved the subject, I loved writing about books and writing, and I didn’t see any reason to be all cool about it. Except when we read Wuthering Heights. Then I had to fake it: I read the book and took the test and did the essay, but all the time that I was paying attention to the fact that Nelly Dean is an unreliable narrator and Edgar Linton is Heathcliff’s pale reflection and yada-yada, I was suppressing the urge to stand up in class and scream.  I just wanted to smack them all: Heathcliff and Catherine and Edgar and his dopey sister Isabella.  My teacher, and indeed several other girls in the class, found Wuthering Heights to be the apotheosis of romance.  I couldn’t finish the damned book fast enough.  I admire the skill and artistry of WH, but I still want to kick the characters.

I’m not anti-Brontë.  I admire Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (which has probably the most rounded and compelling character-inspired-by-Branwell-Brontë, the dreadful Arthur Huntingdon). But for me Emily suffers by comparison with her sister Charlotte.  I am an unabashed fan of Jane Eyre. Jane may, in fact, be my favorite character ever (the fact that Jane might push Elinor Dashwood and Anne Elliott out of the way says a lot about my feelings for her).  It drives me crazy when the book is shrugged off as the grandmother of gothic romanceJane Eyre is about a woman who is, as she says to Rochester, poor, plain and obscure–but also fiercely principled, even when it costs her what she loves.  Jane doesn’t want to be a rock star; she doesn’t want to vote, or run off and join the circus; she wants something even more unsettling for her time and place: she wants to be taken seriously as a human being.

Some people complain about the first part of the book, the “Jane’s background and education” section.  But unless you know the things that are revealed there, both the awful treatment to which Jane is subjected, her gratitude and affection for the small scraps of kindness she encounters, her education, and most particularly the fact that even as a child there’s a war in Jane between her hunger for love and her hunger to be treated like a person regardless of her status, the book doesn’t work.  Jane doesn’t live in a time or place that values or even understands that second yearning.  But until you understand Jane’s moral education and her character, you (the modern reader) can’t understand why she doesn’t just stay with Rochester when his marriage is discovered.  Why she’d rather starve on the moors than take anything from him when she leaves.  And why she’s able to hold out against the cold, loveless proposals of her self-imolating cousin St. John Rivers.  Jane is a whole human being, and she wants to be taken as a whole human being.  And you know what?  Rochester is the only one who sees that, values her, and loves her for her whole self.

And Rochester.  Wow.  Rochester is sort of where Charlotte Brontë blows me away.  The first time I read Jane Eyre I could not understand what in God’s name Rochester was up to, playing c’mere, c’mere, c’mere/g’way, g’way, g’way with Jane as he does.  The scene under the oak where he finally declares himself is painful, not least because he forces Jane to declare herself before he tells her that he loves her too.  He treats her horribly in that scene, lays her out bare; what sort of sadist is he? Simple: he has a secret: a wife.  He has to make absolutely certain that Jane is in love him before he can declare himself.  Until they marry and she becomes complicit in his bigamy he has to keep her off balance, because he knows her, he knows that she won’t put up with what he’s proposing, that she’ll see through his sophistic reasoning and do exactly what she winds up doing–running away, for his sake and her own.  He’s a son of a bitch to her because he recognizes her for the person she is, and he wants her (I’ve heard it argued that Rochester winds up maimed at the end because that “levels” him and Jane; I’d say rather that he has to be punished for his falseness before he can have a happy ending).

I could go on.  I love this book and I am constantly amazed by what I find in it.  Jane Eyre is heroic without being priggish, fierce without being hostile, funny (yes, seriously), hardworking, and I love her.

Sorry, Emily.  I know the reasons I’m supposed to love Wuthering Heights, but that romantic anguish thing doesn’t work for me.  If there’s going to be anguish, I don’t want to see the characters run up to it, grab it by the ears, and give it a big sloppy kiss.  I want to see the character deal with it, get into a sweat wrestling with it, and finally win.


About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


Charlotte is My Brontë — 9 Comments

  1. It is one of my favorite novels of all time, too. (Have you seen my plan, to write a British TV sitcom titled “All Those Brontes”? Madcap arty children on the Yorkshire moors supervised by bumbling pastor dad. I am going to get Chaz in on it…)

  2. I’m struggling to remember who wrote the short story that is set after the events of the novel, with Jane, Rochester and their child living in the country. Chilling!

  3. Wuthering Heights, to me, is a perfect example of a work by an Aspie who was surrounded by writers. Emily had no friends, ever. She didn’t want any. She was peculiar, watching from under beetling brows as sister Charlotte went through the agony of her crush on a married man. None of the people in Wuthering Heights are like real humans, but demonstrate collections of traits from novels, especially Byronic novels.

    All the Bronte kids were in love with Byronic anti-heroes, and wrote them. I think Anne’s were more interesting than Charlotte’s, and most heart-rending was their brother’s attempt to act out the life of one, after he and Charlotte poured all their teenage sexual energy into variations on them in their juvenilia. Wow, all those rapes, almost-rapes, duels, murders, abductions! (Anne and Emily might have, too, but Charlotte burned theirs.)

    Charlotte’s Jane is willfully, passionately, fiercely self-involved, whereas Anne’s heroines are so observant of the others’ inner and outer lives that her heroines are all but invisible. It doesn’t surprise me that Jane Eyre is popular today–she, I think, is one of the heroines who made today’s heroines possible.

  4. I read “Jane Eyre” every decade or so and find something new in it every time. The last time I read it, I was struck by the fact that the novel’s last words are St. John’s. What’s that about? I’m still not sure.

  5. Not a fan of either Emily or Charlotte. I’ve read Jane Eyre 3 times at 3 different ages and it never improved as far as I was concerned. My dislike of most of the characters overwhelms any appreciation I have for the writing. My Bronte sister is Anne. I like The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

    • Not everyone loves everything I love, which I think is a fine thing. I do like Tenant a lot too. When I first discovered it I was sort of stunned that we never heard much about Anne, except as Charlotte and Emily’s sister. When I got my Nook last year I got the Complete Brontës for something like $3.00, and immersed myself in the sisters–including Agnes Gray, which I liked too.

  6. I shall have to take another stab at Jane Eyre, which I read in high school but which made little impression on me then. (I was rather caught up in 20th Century US writers in my youth and had trouble with anything written before about 1925.) I recently read Villette and found it quite fascinating, so I suspect I might read Jane Eyre with a different perspective these days.

  7. I avoided Jane Eyre because of the ‘romance’ billing. When I finally read it, I broke out in feminist rage: nobody accuses Charles Dickens of writing soppy stuff suitable only for soppy men, yet I feel there’s not that much to choose between them: Jane Eyre exposes the gritty underbelly of society, Dickens has very soppy moments, yet one is billed as social criticism and the other as ‘romantic novel’.

    I don’t love the book, but I like what it is trying to do.