illustrated portrait of English author Charlotte Brontë

Charlotte Brontë

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Jane Eyre

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SOURCE: Whipple, E. P. "Novels of the Season." The North American Review 67, no. 141 (October 1848): 354-70.

In the following excerpt from a review of Jane Eyre, Whipple presumes the novel was written largely by Patrick Branwell Brontë—due to the novel's "masculine tone"—with additional material supplied by the Brontë sisters. Whipple also asserts that the Brontës' portrayal of the darker side of humanity is not representative of most people, but rather of "a sense of the depravity of human nature peculiarly their own."

Not many months ago, the New England States were visited by a distressing mental epidemic, passing under the name of the "Jane Eyre fever," which defied all the usual nostrums of the established doctors of criticism. Its effects varied with different constitutions, in some producing a soft ethical sentimentality, which relaxed all the fibres of conscience, and in others exciting a general fever of moral and religious indignation. It was to no purpose that the public were solemnly assured, through the intelligent press, that the malady was not likely to have any permanent effect either on the intellectual or moral constitution. The book which caused the distemper would probably have been inoffensive, had not some sly manufacturer of mischief hinted that it was a book which no respectable man should bring into his family circle. Of course, every family soon had a copy of it, and one edition after another found eager purchasers. The hero, Mr. Rochester, (not the same person who comes to so edifying an end in the pages of Dr. Gilbert Burnet,) became a great favorite in the boarding-schools and in the worshipful society of governesses. That portion of Young America known as ladies' men began to swagger and swear in the presence of the gentler sex, and to allude darkly to events in their lives which excused impudence and profanity.

While fathers and mothers were much distressed at this strange conduct of their innocents, and with a paradonable despair were looking for the dissolution of all the bonds of society, the publishers of Jane Eyre announced Wuthering Heights, by the same author. When it came, it was purchased and read with universal eagerness; but, alas! it created disappointment almost as universal. It was a panacea for all the sufferers under the epidemic. Society returned to its old condition, parents were blessed in hearing once more their children talk common sense, and rakes and battered profligates of high and low degree fell instantly to their proper level. Thus ended the last desperate attempt to corrupt the virtue of the sturdy descendants of the Puritans.

The novel of Jane Eyre, which caused this great excitement, purports to have been edited by Currer Bell, and the said Currer divides the authorship, if we are not misinformed, with a brother and sister. The work bears the marks of more than one mind and one sex, and has more variety than either of the novels which claim to have been written by Acton Bell. The family mind is strikingly peculiar, giving a strong impression of unity, but it is still male and female. From the masculine tone of Jane Eyre , it might pass altogether as the composition of a man, were it not for some unconscious feminine peculiarities, which the strongest-minded woman that ever aspired after manhood cannot suppress. These peculiarities refer not only to elaborate descriptions of dress, and the minutiae of the sick-chamber, but to various superficial refinements of feeling in regard to the external relations of the sex. It is true that the...

(This entire section contains 5621 words.)

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noblest and best representations of female character have been produced by men; but there are niceties of thought and emotion in a woman's mind which no man can delineate, but which often escape unawares from a female writer. There are numerous examples of these inJane Eyre. The leading characteristic of the novel, however, and the secret of its charm, is the clear, distinct, decisive style of its representation of character, manners, and scenery; and this continually suggests a male mind. In the earlier chapters, there is little, perhaps, to break the impression that we are reading the autobiography of a powerful and peculiar female intellect; but when the admirable Mr. Rochester appears, and the profanity, brutality, and slang of the misanthropic profligate give their torpedo shocks to the nervous system,—and especially when we are favored with more than one scene given to the exhibition of mere animal appetite, and to courtship after the manner of kangaroos and the heroes of Dryden's plays,—we are gallant enough to detect the hand of a gentleman in the composition. There are also scenes of passion, so hot, emphatic, and condensed in expression, and so sternly masculine in feeling, that we are almost sure we observe the mind of the author of Wuthering Heights at work in the text.

The popularity of Jane Eyre was doubtless due in part to the freshness, raciness, and vigor of mind it evinced; but it was obtained not so much by these qualities as by frequent dealings in moral paradox, and by the hardihood of its assaults upon the prejudices of proper people. Nothing causes more delight, at least to one third of every community, than a successful attempt to wound the delicacy of their scrupulous neighbours, and a daring peep into regions which acknowledge the authority of no conventional rules. The authors of Jane Eyre have not accomplished this end without an occasional violation of probability and considerable confusion of plot and character, and they have made the capital mistake of supposing that an artistic representation of character and manners is a literal imitation of individual life. The consequence is, that in dealing with vicious personages they confound vulgarity with truth, and awaken too often a feeling of unmitigated disgust. The writer who colors too warmly the degrading scenes through which his immaculate hero passes is rightly held as an equivocal teacher of purity; it is not by the bold expression of blasphemy and ribaldry that a great novelist conveys the most truthful idea of the misanthropic and the dissolute. The truth is, that the whole firm of Bell & Co. seem to have a sense of the depravity of human nature peculiarly their own. It is the yahoo, not the demon, that they select for representation; their Pandemonium is of mud rather than fire.


SOURCE: Abartis, Caesarea. "The Ugly-Pretty, Dull-Bright, Weak-Strong Girl in the Gothic Mansion." Journal of Popular Culture 13 (1979): 257-63.

In the following essay, Abartis illustrates how Jane Eyre serves as "the prototype for the modern Gothic" or romance novel in which a female protagonist overcomes personal challenges and escapes peril to win the love of a man to whom she will remain "subordinate economically and socially."

If you ask a reader of modern Gothic novels to describe the heroine, you are liable to get an impossible portrait: the Gothic heroine is passive, weak and virginal, but simultaneously, or under another name and in another novel, she is passionate, strong and independent. How do these apparently paradoxical types function in the Gothic formula? In the former type of plot someone else—usually the hero—wins; in the latter type she loses. These types can be seen clearly in four novels: Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847), Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca (1938), Victoria Holt's Kirkland Revels (1962) and Claudette Nicole's House at Hawk's End (1971).1

If I may be permitted to judge a book by its cover, I can derive some of the chief elements of the Gothic novel from the artist's cover painting. Always there is a young and beautiful woman facing front, with a high wind scattering her hair about. Often she is wearing a nightgown. Invariably she is running away from a gloomy castle or Victorian mansion which has a light in only one window. Less often there is a second figure on the cover—a man—strong, handsome, with the symbols of wealth and power. He may be riding a horse in pursuit of the heroine, or perhaps standing some distance behind her, watching her. The composition of the cover depicts, in short, the character, plot and setting of the Gothic novel: in a rich and exotic setting the lovely heroine meets with some vague danger from which she must escape.

The modern Gothic has its roots in the eighteenth- and nineteenth century thrillers like Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764), Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), Matthew Lewis' The Monk (1796), Charles Brockden Brown's Wieland (1798) and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818). The purpose of these novels is presumably to elicit and purge feelings of fear and horror in the reader. This purgation is achieved by setting the story in castles appointed with secret passages, ghosts, corpses, spooky sounds and A Dark Secret. In the modern Gothic the supernatural has been pretty much suppressed and rationalized, while the heroine and her romantic interests have assumed the center of the novel. Thus in Kirkland Revels, what seems to be an apparition is ultimately explained logically; in House at Hawk's End, just as important as the solution to the mystery is the choice of a lover from the three men who present themselves to the heroine. The Gothic novel has moved from ghostly horrors to love fantasies and this shift has sociological implications. This category of popular fiction is written almost, or perhaps exclusively, for women, about women and by women (the pseudonyms are nearly always female even though some of the writers are male). In the past, it has been dismissed from serious study because it is subliterary, but it is an immensely popular form, as I have discovered from casual inquiries of women and from examining bookracks in supermarkets, drugstores and bookstores.2 The Gothic novel gains significance, if not from its artistry then from its overwhelming popularity.

The prototype for the modern Gothic is Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. Brontë exploits all the motifs and themes of the Gothic novel, but in an ambiguous way. Jane is an impoverished orphan who is neglected and abused by her aunt. Jane eventually becomes a governess to a child at Thornfield Hall where the master is Edward Rochester, a moody, brusque, older man. She almost marries Rochester before the secret of the third floor is made known: Rochester has a wife—demented and bestial. Ultimately, of course, Jane and Rochester marry, but only after his first wife has died in the fire which destroys the manor and cripples and blinds Rochester in a poetic punishment for his bigamous desires.

Jane is the picture of an outsider. She is an orphan; more, she is a poor orphan; more than that, a homely, unloved, poor orphan. Almost obsessively and from the first page, Jane emphasizes what she calls her "physical inferiority" (ch. 1, 5), that is, her unattractive face and slight figure. Years later, after Jane has grown up, she meets her nursemaid Bessie, who agrees in that evaluation, "You were no beauty as a child." Jane reponds with a rueful smile: "I felt that it was correct, but I confess I was not quite indifferent to its import: at eighteen most people wish to please, and the conviction that they have not an exterior likely to second that desire brings anything but gratification" (ch. 10, 80). On her first day as governness, she dresses herself carefully:

It was not my habit to be disregardful of appearance, or careless of the impression I made: on the contrary, I ever wished to look as well as I could, and to please as much as my want of beauty would permit. I sometimes regretted that I was not handsomer. I sometimes wished to have rosy cheeks, a straight nose, and small cherry mouth; I desired to be tall, stately, and finely developed in figure; I felt it a misfortune that I was so little, so pale, and had features so irregular and marked.

                                           (ch. 11, 86)

Jane's description of her physical appearance is a key to her personality; she has irregular features and irregular views, but she longs for "regularity." Jane sees herself as different by temperament and education from many of the people with whom she associates. Thus, she looks down on uneducated vulgar servants like Sophie, Grace Poole and even Mrs. Fairfax, none of whom can be a companion to her soul, but Jane is also alienated from the rich and beautiful people because she is poor and homely.

From childhood she has been strong, passionate and independent—when she strikes back at John Reed who is bullying her, when she rebels and denounces Mrs. Reed for her coldness, when she decides to leave Lowood to look for a position as governess, when she leaves Rochester because she cannot live with him unmarried, when she resists St. John's proposal despite his almost hypnotic power over her. She is a restless and curious woman. At Thornfield she occasionally separates herself from the household to go to the roof of the house and to look toward the horizon and imagine the variety and adventure of the world that she can never see:

… then I longed for a power of vision which might overpass that limit; which might reach the busy world, towns, regions full of life I had heard of but never seen: that then I desired more of practical experience than I possessed; more of intercourse with my kind, of acquaintance with variety of character, than was here within my reach. I valued what was good in Mrs. Fairfax, and was good in Adele; but I believed in the existence of other and more vivid kinds of goodness, and what I believed in and wished to behold…. It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth. Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.

                                    (ch. 12, 96-7)

This strong feminist statement is, however, undermined by the plot. Jane exhibits heroic discontent and eccentricity—traits that the readers of the novel identify with and admit to themselves only in their fantasies where wealth and status are bequeathed upon them so that their discontent can be relieved and their eccentricity redeemed. It is ironic that even Jane, original and passionate as she avows herself, is subdued to a conventional ending. She does not travel to faraway cities and meet with vital and various people. The closest she gets to attaining this dream is to marry a well-traveled man.

The master of Thornfield, Edward Rochester, falls in love with her despite the fact that she is "poor and obscure, small and plain" (ch. 23, 224). He admires her sincerity, intelligence, passion and strength and promises to be true to her:

"To women who please me only by their faces, I am the very devil when I find out they have neither souls nor hearts—when they open to me a perspective of flatness, triviality, and perhaps imbecility, coarseness, and ill-temper: but to the clear eye and eloquent tongue, to the soul made of fire, and the character that bends but does not break—at once supple and stable, tractable and consistent—I am ever tender and true."

                                    (ch. 24, 228-9)

When Rochester proposes to Jane, he says she is his "equal" and his "likeness" (ch. 23, 223).

Rochester perceives their relationship in terms of power. When they at last reveal their love to each other, after having held back the admission out of mingled pride and humility, Rochester says to her: "Jane, you please me, and you master me—you seem to submit, and I like the sense of pliancy you impart" (ch. 24, 229). Jane is also aware of her power over him:

It little mattered whether my curiosity irritated him; I knew the pleasure of vexing and soothing him by turns; it was one I chiefly delighted in, and a sure instinct always prevented me from going too far: beyond the verge of provocation I never ventured; on the extreme brink I like to try my skill

                                    (ch. 26, 138)

She is his subordinate economically and socially, but emotionally she enjoys power over him.

Jane is an active principle in the novel, not a damsel in distress. She even performs the function of the savior—almost always reserved to the male protagonist in more recent examples of the Gothic novel. She saves Rochester's life at least once and helps him twice. The first time she meets him, he falls off his horse and he must lean on her because he has sprained his ankle. She saves his life when she wakes in the night to smell smoke and puts out the fire that Bertha had started in Rochester's bedroom. At the end, Jane returns to a Rochester who has been crippled and blinded in the fire that burns down Thornfield Hall. Her return lifts him out of his depression. In a sense, she is no longer physically inferior to him (because he has lost a hand and an eye), nor is she financially dependent on him (because of her inheritance). She says to him, "I love you better now, when I can really be useful to you, than I did in your state of proud independence, when you disdained every part but that of the giver and protector" (ch. 37, 392).

The ending is not the ending of a typical Gothic novel. Paradoxically it is Jane's Victorian scruples that save her from being a conventional Gothic heroine. It is not a ghost or murderer that chases Jane from Thornfield Hall but the revelation of the existence of Rochester's first wife. The Gothic machinery grinds to a halt; what propels the rest of the book is Jane's struggle with the immorality of her love. If the questions of guilt and religion were removed, the book could conceivably end earlier with, for example, a fire on the day after Rochester's confession. The conflagration could remove the inconvenient first wife, but not harm Rochester. He could save Jane and thereby prove his love. This would be a more typical modern Gothic ending. Apparently, however, Rochester's payment of a hand and an eye is essential to the scheme of retribution. When she returns to him at the end, it is not, however, as his equal. Implicit in the final chapter is the reversal of their roles: whereas before he was the powerful father-figure and she the child, at the end she is the mother-figure and he the helpless child.

Another Gothic novel in which the heroine "saves" the hero but still submits to convention and domestic joys is Rebecca. The narrator is, like Jane Eyre, a shy and sensitive orphan. She is not a governess but she performs an analogous service—she is a companion to a wealthy woman. Like Jane, she is considerably younger than her husband—she is twenty-one, he is in his forties and very much a father-figure to her.3 The heroine is throughout the novel known only as the second Mrs. de Winter. We never learn her maiden name, nor her given name. There is a story in that omission, for it is her function to become completely the second Mrs. de Winter and to assume control of Manderley, the centuries-old ancestral home. The Great Old House is the indispensable setting of the Gothic novel and the symbol of what the Gothic heroine, typically lower class but well-educated and "different," aspires to and deserves. As in this novel, the house is often important enough to be named, and it is symbolic of the wealth and states that the reader yearns for and the heroine achieves. The Great House is not, however, associate with political power and not the symbol of what a Lady Macbeth aspires to. It is a glorified domestic dwelling—that which will make the little woman of the house into the lady; it is a middle-class housewife's dream. Once the heroine has possession of the house, the emphasis is on conspicuous consumption—on the magnificent parties, the dinners, the furnishings, the repartee of the guests. (We will never find a Gothic novel set in an efficiency apartment.) When Maximilian de Winter brings his young bride to Manderley, she tries to accustom herself to the elegance of the estate:

I leant back in my chair, glancing about the room, trying to instil into myself some measure of confidence, some genuine realisation that I was here, at Manderly, the house of the picture postcard, the Manderley that was famous. I had to teach myself that all this was mine now, mine as much as his, the deep chair I was sitting in, that mass of books stretching to the ceiling, the pictures on the walls, the gardens, the woods, the Manderley I had read about, all of this was mine now because I was married to Maxim.

                                     (ch. 7, 69)

That is her struggle throughout the book—to achieve the true possession of Manderley, to assume her rightful place as Mrs. de Winter, lady of leisure.

Out of her insecurity, the second Mrs. de Winter suspects that everyone, the servants and friends, admired the first Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca, and she believes that Maxim still loves his first wife. The heroine's problems consist of getting society and the servants to accept her. Maxim finally confides to his wife that he killed Rebecca, that she was debauched and wanted to ruin him. The last fourth of the book, after the dark secret is revealed, is about the coroner's inquest into the death of Rebecca and the magistrate's investigation. Now the roles of hero and heroine are reversed. Like Jane Eyre, the second Mrs. de Winter must comfort her husband:

Maxim came over to me where I was standing by the fireplace. I held out my arms to him and he came to me like a child. I put my arms around him and held him. We did not say anthing for a long time. I held him and comforted him as though he were Jasper [their pet dog]

                                     (ch. 25, 352)

In the course of their ordeal, she demonstrates her loyalty and love. When Maxim is finally free of the murder charge, she is determined to take control of the house. She has grown up, she says, and this is what she has grown into:

I would go and interview the cook in the kitchen. They would like me, respect me…. I would learn more about the estate, too…. I might take to gardening myself, and in time have one or two things altered…. There were heaps of things that I could do, little by little. People would come and stay and I should not mind. There would be the interest of seeing to their rooms, having flowers and books put, arranging the food

                                     (ch. 27, 376)

Exactly what Jane Eyre was protesting against: making puddings and knitting stockings. She becomes the lady of the manor in this realization, the domestic achiever par excellence. At the end, the second Mrs. de Winter, like Jane Eyre, is deprived of the Great House, which in both cases burns down, but she is not deprived of the respectability that the Great House represents. Almost anthropormorphized, the house becomes the scapegoat for the sins committed in it. The death of the house allows the heroine to be preserved in spite of her dallying with a naughty man. The heroine is mildly punished; the evil past is purified by fire; wealth and love remain as the heroine's reward.

In these novels the heroine "saves" the hero and thereby demonstrates her worthiness to be the lady of the house. She is, in effect, the frog princess who becomes transformed by the love of a good-bad man, and inherits the rewards. But there is another pattern frequently found in Gothic novels in which it is the heroine who is saved by the hero, in such novels as Kirkland Revels and House at Hawk's End.

In Kirkland Revels, the heroine, Catherine Corder, will eventually marry Simon Redvers, who, in this case, is not much older, nor richer, nor classier than she is. Catherine has greater wealth and higher status than Simon—but this is a result of her first marriage to Simon's cousin. She is spirited, sensible, charming and courageous, and despite, or perhaps, because of these qualities she must be rescued at the end by the hero. While she is not an orphan and not impoverished she does feel alienated and unloved. She meets and marries Gabriel Rockwell, heir to Kirkland Revels, a three-hundred year old mansion. One week after he has taken her to the estate, he is found dead and the family assumes he committed suicide by jumping from a parapet. Catherine learns that she is pregnant and Gothic events transpire: she awakens and sees a person at the foot of her bed; an item is missing from her room; she sees a hooded figure. Catherine assumes that her husband was killed because he was heir to the estate; if her child is a boy, he will be heir and will also be killed. Catherine, spunky and nosey, keeps searching for the killer of her husband. At the end the villain chloroforms Catherine and takes her to a mental institution. The hero, like "a knight of old," saves her at the last minute (ch. 7, 250). Perhaps this is as liberated as the genre can get. Even though the heroine is active, logical and self-possessed, she must be in the grip of the villain for a thrilling climax so that she can be saved by the hero—not a girl friend or a brother, but a lover. Every spirited heroine needs a lover—if only to save her at the end. Certainly one of the implications of such a plot is that in a husband and in love there is safety.

Jean Burroughs, the heroine of House at Hawk's End, is the most "liberated" and the most in need of saving. She is a sophisticated city-girl, a buyer for a large dress house, who comes to Nova Scotia to forget the swingers and to forget the suicide of an old boy friend. Gothic events begin to happen: she hears noises; she sees a red glow on the sea; there is a rock slide that almost kills her; someone tries to sink her boat when she is sailing. In the last two chapters she is saved twice by her hometown boy friend—once from a mob that wants to burn down her house and a second time from the villains who want to drown her. This is the simplest, barest example of the Gothic formula that emphasizes the union of love and danger. When Jean comes to the town, two men court her. One is a good guy and one is a bad guy, but she is not able to sort out the good from the evil until the very end. A mistake in her love life could be fatal. The true lover proves his love by saving the heroine, but there is another implication for the heroine. Love is what the Gothic heroine lives for, what fulfills her, what saves her in the end.

The rewards and goals are the same for both kinds of heroines, for the strong and the weak, the unlovely and the lovely, the naive and the sophisticated, the proud and the humble, the saving and the saved. After a trial by danger there will be a husband, and often wealth. Historically, the Gothic novel was a way of purging horror and fear, a way of explicating and integrating the supernatural and irrational. In more recent Gothic novels the central character is female and love becomes a major interest: love solves the mystery and love is the reward for the heroine.

These books are an index to the dreams of many women readers and their fantasies of adventure and love. The heroine is an underdog who finds, in her man, the Prince Charming who can make a Cinderella out of her, who validates her hidden beauty and worth. The heroine is never the shopgirl who marries the clerk. She is never a doctor; never the woman who seeks adventure and is able to deal with it entirely by herself. If literature is, as Kenneth Burke says, "equipment for living," the contemporary Gothic novel equips the reader to be passive and to hanker after mansions.


1. Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, ed. Richard J. Dunn (New York: Norton & Co. 1971), Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca (New York: Avon, 1938), Victoria Holt, Kirkland Revels (New York: Fawcett World Library, 1962), Claudette Nicole, House at Hawk's end (Greenwich Conn.: Fawcett, 1971), Chapter and page citations will be given in the text.

2. I was able to find only four studies of contemporary Gothic novels, all of which I recommend: Joanna Russ, "Somebody's Trying to Kill Me and I Think It's My Husband: The Modern Gothic," Journal of Popular Culture, 6 (Spring, 1973), 666-691; Kay J. Mussell, "Beautiful and Damned: The Sexual Woman in Gothic Fiction," Journal of Popular Culture, 9 (Summer, 1975), 84-89; John G. Cawelti, Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1976); Ellen Moers, Literary Women (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976).

3. Maximilian responds to his wife's questions in this way, "Well, then. A husband is not so very different from a father after all. There is a certain type of knowledge I prefer you not to have. It's better kept under lock and key. So that's that. And now eat up your peaches, and don't ask me any more questions, or I shall put you in a corner" (ch. 16, 202).


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CHARLOTTE BRONTË (1816 - 1855)

(Also wrote under the pseudonym Currer Bell) English novelist and poet.

The author of vivid, skillfully constructed novels, Brontë created female characters who broke the traditional, nineteenth-century fictional stereotype of a woman as submissive and dependent, beautiful but ignorant. Her highly acclaimed Jane Eyre (1847) best demonstrates these attitudes: its heroine is a plain woman who displays intelligence, self-confidence, a will of her own, and moral righteousness. With an oeuvre consisting of four novels, some poems, and other writings from her youth, Brontë is hailed as a precursor of feminist novelists, and her works, often depicting the struggles and minor victories of everyday life, are considered early examples of literary realism. Her novels, particularly Jane Eyre and Villette (1853), have been discussed as part of the Gothic literary tradition, and contain elements of mystery, heightened passions, and the supernatural.


The eldest surviving daughter in a motherless family of six, Brontë helped to raise her remaining brother, Branwell, and two sisters, Emily and Anne. Her father, a strict Yorkshire clergyman, believed firmly in the values of self-education and forbade his family from socializing with other children. Intellectual growth was encouraged, however, and he introduced his family to the Bible and to the works of William Shakespeare, William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, and Sir Walter Scott. In their youths, the Brontë siblings collaborated on a series of imaginative stories, plays, and poems set in the fictional land of Angria. Charlotte's contribution to these tales, which were collected and published posthumously as Legends of Angria (1933), served as a catalyst for her mature works and marked the beginning of her interest in writing.

For many years Brontë concealed her writing from her family. After the accidental discovery that Emily, too, secretly wrote verse, and that Anne shared their interest, the three published, at their own expense, Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell (1846). The sisters assumed masculine pseudonyms both to preserve their privacy and to avoid the patronizing treatment they believed critics accorded women writers. Poems sold only two copies, but Charlotte was undeterred and continued to write. Her first novel, The Professor (1857), was rejected by six publishers, but her next work, Jane Eyre, was accepted immediately. The work received lavish attention, was praised by Queen Victoria and George Eliot, and brought Brontë into popular literary circles, where she met William Makepeace Thackeray (to whom she dedicated the second edition of Jane Eyre), Matthew Arnold, and Harriet Martineau.

Brontë went on to publish two more novels, Shirley (1849) and Villette. During the writing of Shirley, Brontë experienced a series of personal tragedies that marked the beginning of a time of intense sorrow and loneliness. Within a period of about nine months, Brontë lost her three remaining siblings, first Branwell, then Emily, and finally Anne in the spring of 1849. After their deaths, Brontë found it very trying to write in solitude. She eventually began work on her final novel, Villette, basing its plot and characters on her unpublished The Professor. The year after Villette's publication, in 1854, Brontë married Arthur Bell Nicholls. She became pregnant early in 1855, dying in March of that year from complications related to her pregnancy. The Professor was published after her death, in 1857.


Many who have studied Brontë's life and works have noted connections between the two, with each of her novels reflecting autobiographical details. In Jane Eyre, the young heroine spends many years as a student, and later a teacher, at a strict girls' boarding school, Lowood. This fictional school bears a resemblance to the Clergy Daughters' School at Cowan Bridge, the harsh institution where Brontë and her sisters were sent during their youths. As an adult Jane Eyre becomes a governess, a job also held by Brontë. The somber tone of Brontë's second published novel, Shirley, reflects her grief following the deaths of her brother and two sisters. The heroine of the book, modeled after Emily, is a stoic figure whose courage serves as both a tribute to Brontë's sister and a lesson to the reader. Shirley depicts the friendship of two women, Caroline Helstone and Shirley Keeldar, in the midst of conflict and upheaval in the industrial region of Yorkshire, England. Brontë's travels to Brussels and her passionate attachment to Constantin Héger, a married school-master in whose home she lived, are recreated in the student-teacher relationships and in the male characters of The Professor and Villette.


While Jane Eyre was immediately popular, initial critical reception of the novel varied. Several commentators admired the power and freshness of Brontë's prose; others, however, termed the novel superficial and vulgar. Perhaps the best known early review, by Elizabeth Rigby (see Further Reading), flatly condemned Jane Eyre as "an anti-Christian composition." Still other critics questioned the authorship of the novel. Some doubted that a woman was capable of writing such a work, while E. P. Whipple of the North American Review contended that the book was coauthored by a man and a woman. In succeeding generations, the critical assessment of Jane Eyre improved considerably, and for many years, Charlotte was considered the outstanding literary figure of the Brontë family. However, David Cecil's essay (see Further Reading), published in the early 1930s, proclaimed Emily the greater writer and marked a temporary end of Charlotte's critical superiority in the eyes of some critics. Influenced by Cecil's article, these critics compared Charlotte's works to those of Emily, disputing the originality and intellectual quality of Charlotte's novels. Many studies of Brontë's works are focused more on her life than on her writing. During the nineteenth century, reviewers often addressed the nature of Jane's character; by the turn of the century, critics tended to assess Jane as a person of courage and integrity. Critical interpretations during the twentieth and twenty-first century have tended to be more specific in their approach. The characters of Jane, Rochester, and Bertha have been the subjects of detailed analyses, and reviewers have also debated the nature and import of Rochester's disability. Critics frequently discuss the novel's structure, its symbolism, and its autobiographical elements. Feminist literary criticism has given new impetus to a revaluation of the significance of Brontë's attempts to depict through her fiction some of the struggles of women in the nineteenth century. While twentieth- and twenty-first-century discussions of the novel's single theme vary, most scholars agree that in Jane Eyre Brontë wished to stress the possibility of equality in marriage.

In terms of Brontë's novels as examples of Gothic literature, many critics have posited that Brontë broadened the definition of Gothic. While not adhering strictly to the model of traditional Gothic literature, Brontë did borrow liberally from the genre, incorporating dark, mysterious, and supernatural elements into the plots of her novels. In his influential 1958 essay, Robert B. Heilman described Brontë's works as "new Gothic" novels that expand the Gothic tradition by exploring the place of heightened passions in routine, daily life. Her use of Gothic literary elements, Heilman wrote, "released her from the patterns of the novel of society and therefore permitted the flowering of her real talent—the talent for finding and giving dramatic form to impulses and feelings which … increase wonderfully the sense of reality in the novel." A number of critics have suggested that Brontë expanded Gothic conventions through her unconventional female characters. In her 1999 essay, for example, Toni Wein categorized Villette as a departure from traditional Gothic literature because the female characters, with their manipulations and survival mechanisms, are portrayed as heroic rather than evil. In a 1979 essay, Caesarea Abartis examined the ways in which Brontë both adhered to and deviated from Gothic convention, suggesting that Jane Eyre is a precursor to the modern romance novel.


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SOURCE: Greg, W. R. "Recent Novels: Villette." The Edinburgh Review 97, no. 198 (April 1853): 387-90.

In the following excerpt, Greg offers a laudatory assessment of Villette.

Villette, by the author of Jane Eyre, is a most remarkable work—a production altogether sui generis. Fulness and vigour of thought mark almost every sentence, and there is a sort of easy power pervading the whole narrative, such as we have rarely met. There is little of plot or incident in the story; nearly the whole of it is confined to the four walls of a Pensionnat at Brussels; but the characters introduced are sketched with a bold and free pencil, and their individuality is sustained with a degree of consistency, which marks a master's hand. The descriptions, too, whether the subjects of them be solemn, ludicrous, or pathetic, are wonderfully graphic and pictorial. It is clear at a glance that the groundwork and many of the details of the story are autobiographic; and we never read a literary production which so betrays at every line the individual character of the writer. Her life has evidently been irradiated by but scanty sunshine, and she is besides disposed to look rather pertinaciously on the shady side of every landscape. With an almost painful and unceasing consciousness of possessing few personal or circumstantial advantages; with spirits naturally the reverse of buoyant; with feelings the reverse of demonstrative; with affections strong rather than warm, and injured by too habitual repression; a keen, shrewd, sagacious, sarcastic, observer of life, rather than a genial partaker in its interests; gifted with intuitive insight into character, and reading it often with too cold and critical an eye; full of sympathy where love and admiration call it forth, but able by long discipline to dispense with it herself; always somewhat too rigidly strung up for the hard struggle of life, but fighting sternly and gallantly its gloomy battle,—the character which Lucy Snowe has here drawn of herself presents rather an interesting study than an attraction or a charm.


SOURCE: Wein, Toni. "Gothic Desire in Charlotte Brontë's Villette." SEL: Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 39, no. 4 (autumn 1999): 733-46.

In the following essay, Wein examines Brontë's re-working of earlier Gothic devices and imagery in Villette, particularly in terms of how she used them to depict gender roles and sexual desire.

A letter of 16 June 1854 reads as follows: "My dear Ellen, Can you come next Wednesday or Thursday? I am afraid circumstances will compel me to agree to an earlier day than I wished. I sadly wished to defer it till the 2nd week in July, but I fear it must be sooner, the 1st week in July, possibly the last week in June … This gives rise to much trouble and many difficulties as you may imagine, and papa's whole anxiety now is to get the business over. Mr. Nicholls with his usual trustworthiness takes all the trouble of providing substitutes on his own shoulders."1

Despite the language of reluctance and regret, Charlotte Brontë was facing neither surgery nor the firing squad. Rather, the "it" she refers to in this letter to her friend, Ellen Nussey, is her long-deferred marriage. Admittedly, this letter carries biographical and psychological interest. But I am more interested in the way her characterization of Arthur Nicholls as "providing substitutes" announces a theme and dominant trope crucial to understanding Brontë's literary maneuverings.2 Like her future husband, Brontë works a series of substitutions in her novels.

Much light has been shed by critics who have focused on these doublings, displacements, repressions, and subversions.3 Despite their varying theoretical backgrounds, consensus that Brontë employed these strategies as a critique of Victorian culture has gradually coalesced. To that end, identities, bodies, gender, and genre have all been said to migrate; and, indeed, all of these emigrants wash up on the shores of Belgium's Villette. Yet less attention has been paid to an even more significant aspect of Brontë's work: her reterritorialization of migratory texts. Pondering Brontë's substitutions for possible relocations yields insights about her professionalism as well as her literary products.

After all, Villette is Brontë's reworking of her first novel, The Professor. Her initial efforts to publish it had provoked continual rebuffs from publishers; after the encouragement of George Smith had produced the success of Jane Eyre, Brontë's repeated suggestions that he next publish The Professor prompted gentle rebukes. Part of the objection to The Professor was its size, two volumes, a distinctly anomalous commodity.4 Charlotte wrote Smith on 5 February 1851, withdrawing her offer of her "martyrized M.S." to one "who might 'use it to light an occasional cigar.'" In her letter, Charlotte ironically suggests that she should be locked up in prison for twelve months, at the end of which time she would come out either "with a 3 vol. M.S. in my hand, or else with a condition of intellect that would exempt me ever after from literary efforts and expectations."5 In September, Smith placed additional pressure on her by repeating the firm's post-Jane Eyre suggestion that she write a novel in serial form. Charlotte refused.6

Although little credit is given to Charlotte as a business-woman, we can see her awareness of literary marketing from the very beginnings of her career as a novelist, a transition motivated by financial pragmatics after the failure of the sisters' volume of poems, for whose publication they had been forced to pay.7 When she finally revised The Professor, her remodeling entailed more than a narrative elaboration and a narratorial shift from the third into the first person. Brontë also carved emphatically Gothic features onto what had been principally a double bildungsroman. Those Gothic features bear a canny resemblance to one of the most scandalous Gothic texts of the previous century, Matthew Lewis's The Monk (1796).

A tale of substitutions and possession, The Monk's relics in Villette speak to Brontë's struggle to gain possession of herself as a woman, as an author, and as an heir to literary conventions. As Luce Irigaray imagines the dilemma: "How find a voice, make a choice, strong enough to cut through these layers of ornamental style, that decorative sepulchre, where even her breath is lost. Stifled under all those airs."8 But the voice that Charlotte Brontë finds by tunneling out from within the tomb of the Gothic novel does more than keen a "female Gothic" or lament the "feminine carceral" of domestic space.9 In Villette, that voice cries out against institutional forces of education, of art, and of religion, a message also contained in The Monk.10 She thereby sounds a second alarm: that possession can be barred as effectively by business conventions of literature as by literary conventions of style or voice. At the same time that the word possession points to ownership, it also means a haunting. To form the self, whether as a private individual or as a professional author, one must strive to ensure that the self one possesses is not formed or possessed by others.

Brontë's possession by Gothic in general may have provided her with models to substitute a different structural logic of desire from that fostered by serialization,11 as Linda K. Hughes and Michael Lund have described it: "[its] intrinsic form more closely approximates female than male models of pleasure. Rather than inviting sustained arousal of attention until the narrative climax is reached, spending the driving energy of narrative and sundering the readers from the textual experience, the installment novel offers itself as a site of pleasure that is taken up and discharged only to be taken up again (some days or weeks later), and again, and again."12 Yet I do not thereby mean to imply that Brontë resorts to a male structure of desire. Instead, in true Gothic tradition, she hybridizes: she encloses her structurally deferred climaxes in a three-volume tomb, at the same time that she thwarts the serial's (and autobiography's) construction of intimacy between readers and characters through her (and Lucy's) refusal to provide closure.

Brontë's structural Gothicizing reads as evidence that she consciously engaged in rewriting gender codes.13 But by limiting our attention to examples of so-called "female Gothic," and by seeing Ann Radcliffe as the only precursor for Brontë, we miss seeing how her reworking of gender codes also serves her professionalism.14 Narratively and thematically, Brontë redefines desire. In mapping the traces of The Monk in Villette, then, I will contend that Brontë draws on The Monk because in that novel she finds an analysis of substitution's dangers and delights. For Lewis, both dangers and delights lie in substitution's resemblance to a pornographic economy of exchange. Lewis sees women as counters in that system of barter. Forced to enter into an economy of exchange that demanded she relinquish autonomy while it promised her some range of mobility beyond the confines of the home, Brontë responds by making the nun the figure through which erotic desire becomes buoyantly disembodied and endlessly deferred, the possession of the self through substitution.15

Even more than Jane Eyre, with its "madwoman in the attic," Villette is a haunted text. Brontë possesses her literary heritage by creating a surrogate Gothic. Critics usually point to the haunting figure of the nun as the key Gothic element, although they seldom agree about its significance. To Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, the nun is a projection of Lucy's need for nullity;16 for Eve Sedgwick, the nun dramatizes Lucy's constitutive need for doubleness. Christina Crosby detects the nun as mirroring the narcissistic Lacanian Imaginary Other.17 To some, the nun represents Brontë's anticlericalism;18 while Q. D. Leavis, who saw the nun as nothing more than a plot device for maintaining suspense and for generating sales, is not far removed from Brontë's contemporary, the reviewer of the Literary Gazette, who recognized a Byronic prototype when identifying the nun as "a phantom of the Fitz-fulke kind."19 But a covey of nuns broods over more characters than Lucy. Paul's history with Justine-Marie forms the most obvious analogue. The prehistory of the pensionnat also suggests whole generations subject to ecclesiastic visitations whose terror—diurnal or nocturnal—may have been equal. These nuns form a sisterhood that extends beyond the borders of Villette, back to the Gothic novels half a century old.

Of all the possible precursors, Lewis's The Monk looms the largest in Brontë's text. Our first introduction to the legend of Brontë's nun reveals its close bonds with the story of Lewis's Agnes. Like the pensionnat's nun, Agnes is immured alive in the vaults of her convent "for some sin against her vow."20 Agnes's sin is fecund concupiscence; we never learn what the Belgian nun had done, although a sexual aura attaches to her by association, both because wanton nuns and monks were a cliché by that time, and because Ginevra confiscates the nun's identity to cover her own escapades.21 Confiscation of identity lies at the core of Lewis's tale as well: Agnes lands in the convent only after she has attempted to elope with her lover, Don Raymond, by assuming the guise of a bleeding nun, said to haunt the castle of her aunt.

If any figure can be said to haunt the pages of Villette, it is this last unwilling nun, Beatrice de las Cisternas. Raymond and Agnes's concerted plan fails when the real ghostly nun appears in Agnes's stead. Raymond cannot tell the difference; instead, he rapturously clasps the phantom to his breast and exclaims: "Agnes! Agnes! Thou art mine / Agnes! Agnes! I am thine! / In my veins while blood shall roll, / Thou art mine! / I am thine! / thine my body! thine my soul!" (p. 166). This jubilant crowing of patriarchal possession soon sticks in Raymond's craw, however. The Bleeding Nun nightly visits Raymond's bedchamber, not to glut him with the pleasures of the flesh, since she has none, but to rewrite his poetic will by reversing the possessive pronouns: "Mine thy body! Mine thy soul" (p. 170). Beatrice's haunting of Raymond's bedchamber, at the precise moment when his desire was to be realized, resembles the nun's appearances to Lucy at moments when she, too, seems poised to find happiness beyond the walls of her confinement, especially through her growing intimacy with Dr. John. Given the resemblance, it is doubly surprising that critics of Brontë read the scene as revealing Lucy's psychological inability to cathect with another human being or her anxieties about sex, or that critics of Lewis fail to so read his scene. Rather than evenly distribute a unilinear reading of this nature to either scene, however, we should recognize the similarity of their underlying logic. Like Lucy, Raymond has his desire stimulated by the encounter, setting off a chain reaction through which he will learn to love precisely the same kind of emaciated nun, as though the nun carries a contagion which purges the fleshly from both Raymond and Agnes.

Raymond escapes the nun's possession when the Wandering Jew miraculously arrives to shrieve her soul. Raymond, too, is enjoined to penitence: he must lay Beatrice's bones to rest in her ancestral grave, much as Lucy can only free herself from her obsession with Dr. John by burying his letters to her. In fact, Lucy creates a second tomb, sealing her letters under a slab of slate and mortar right beside that of the Belgian nun. And she acquires the casket in which those letters will rest by journeying into the "old historical quarter of the town," and purchasing a used glass jar from the "old Jew broker" who owns the pawn shop, as though Villette, the book, had metaphorically domesticated and domiciled the Wandering Jew in Villette, the town.22

This scene does not exhaust the presence of resemblances between The Monk and Villette.23 Nevertheless, the burial in the garden marks an apotheosis. Raymond's scene of burial may stage his penitence, but that repentance permits him to substitute new objects of desire. The same interpretation applies to Brontë's reenactment of Lewis's scenes. Like Lucy and Raymond, Brontë has her desire pointed by her Gothic encounters. Like theirs, this desire substitutes a new outlet for its original source. We can read these resemblances as a metanarrative about Brontë's authoring of her own literary self, for, while she exhumes ancestral texts, she also buries the spirit of their letters.

Brontë rejects and rewrites the perverted representations of women and/or of values that rustle through these earlier Gothic letters. It is not so much the logic of substitution to which she objects. This logic governs male Gothic from the time of Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, where Theodore is rewarded with another bride to replace the innocent female destroyed by Gothic ambition.24 Brontë targets the locus of this substitution in Lewis. With the exception of Beatrice, women are either bartered brides, functioning to consolidate wealth and status, or battered virgins, servicing a similar passion for power now figured as sexual dominance.

At first glance, Lewis may seem to critique such an instrumental attitude toward sexuality by revealing the pornographic outlook underlying it through his portrait of Ambrosio. Ambrosio, "drunk with desire," consummates his apostasy and his ecstasy in Matilda's arms, muttering "Thine, ever thine" (Lewis, p. 109). But just as Ambrosio's reference to his liaison as his "commerce with Matilda" reveals the economics of desire, so his swift revulsion betrays the tendency of consummation to consume the consumer, making any such lasting fidelity impossible (pp. 230, 236-7). Both Matilda and Ambrosio are victims of a gendered double bind. The more time Matilda spends with Ambrosio, the more she wants him: the more she wants him, the less he wants her. But Lewis here seems to want to have it both ways: he first blames Matilda for having caused Ambrosio's disgust, then delineates how such generosity inaugurates an increasingly selfish reaction.

The ambiguity of Lewis's position could arise from his attempt to analyze the way Ambrosio's entrapment in this situation, like his incarceration in the monastery, teaches him progressively to devalue other lives. Lewis shows how such induration causes Ambrosio to split Matilda in two. When Ambrosio mentally divorces Matilda from her body, emotionally discarding all but her physical shell which he refers to as "it," Lewis brilliantly conveys the magnitude of such objectification of the feminine (p. 241). Offended, Lewis's censors made him substitute the conventional pronoun "she" in the fourth and fifth editions for the blatant disregard suggested by the indefinite pronoun. But their tiny sentimentalizing gesture seems impotent against the onslaught of Ambrosio's dehumanization of Antonia. Ambrosio may at first think that he loves Antonia chastely, but appreciation of her beauty rapidly transforms itself into appetite (p. 243): "Grown used to her modesty, it no longer commanded the same respect and awe: he still admired it, but it only made him more anxious to deprive her of that quality which formed her principal charm" (p. 255). When Ambrosio finally captures Antonia in the charnel vaults of the monastery, even his gaze can no longer hold her in a fixed image. Instead, her identity migrates, mingling first with the corrupt bodies surrounding her, then dissolving into that of her dead mother, killed by Ambrosio (p. 364).

However, Lewis's delight in describing these scenes supplements and cancels the analysis of danger. Although Ambrosio's desire for Antonia vanishes with her rape, he still cannot let her go free; he imagines keeping her a prisoner of his new desire for an endless succession of penitent nights (p. 371). Only Matilda's arrival, and the warning that they are surrounded by archers come to rescue Antonia, breaks the spell of irresolution in which Ambrosio seeks to hold Antonia. He takes her in the same position in which he had earlier raped her, both times prostrate with supplicating prayers, now using his poniard as the weapon of penetration.

Beyond the pornographic violence of the scene lies a still more pernicious implication, one that mitigates his seeming sympathy with Matilda and Antonia's plight. Women are trapped in a double bind. As vestal females, they are vulnerable to appropriation. But Lewis also implies that sexual desire in women unleashes in them a potential masculinity that provokes Ambrosio's distaste: "Now [Matilda] assumed a sort of courage and manliness in her manners and discourse, but ill calculated to please him. She spoke no longer to insinuate, but command … Pity is a sentiment so natural, so appropriate to the female character, that it is scarcely a merit for a woman to possess it, but to be without it is a grievous crime" (pp. 233-4, my emphasis). The final words of the passage collapse the values of the omniscient narrator with those of Ambrosio. So, too, does the portrait of Beatrice, who like Matilda momentarily rises above her gendered fate and receives in consequence a narrative punishment all the more severe.

Only women who mask their masculine intelligence with feminine modesty receive approba-tion. The reward to women for such complicitous compliance is to become commodified and hence substitutable. With Antonia conveniently dead, it does not take Lorenzo long to substitute Virginia. Once again, the narrator foreshadows his approval of Lorenzo's decision, placing "not unwisely" into the mouth of Lorenzo's uncle the maxim that "'men have died, and worms have ate them, but not for love!'"—a proverb that failed to disturb the censors (p. 381). This unacknowledged quotation from William Shakespeare's As You Like It also disguises the potential feminism of its original utterance. Rosalind speaks those words to Orlando while playing Ganymede playing Rosalind, in order to cure Orlando of his idealism and to incite his appreciation for her self, rather than for some Petrarchan fiction. By surreptitiously relocating those words into the mouth of the duke, Lewis makes the maxim part of the "old boy" network of truth, which is further validated by the authority of the omniscient narrator who boldly declares his status as M.P. in the third edition. In contrast to the protean authority of the men, the women are unidimensional clichés, fixated in their affections and transfixed accordingly by their circumstances.

If Lewis's novel collapses the authorial and characterological perspectives, its message also merges with that articulated by Brontë's father and Robert Southey. They warned her that women had no right to possess a literary career. Later in life, Charlotte wrote that her father had always instilled in her the view of writing and literary desires as a rebellion from her female duties.25 She heard the same strictures from Southey, whom she wrote for advice about how to become a professional poet. Despite his protestation of impropriety, Southey must certainly have known how many women had successfully made literature the "business" of their lives at that juncture.

Brontë's novel, then, is "new Gothic" insofar as it makes women's authorization of substitution, demonic in Lewis, heroic.26 Each of the women in Villette—Madames Beck and Walravens, Mrs. Bretton, Ginevra, Lucy, and Polly—survives by a strategy of substitution. Ginevra stands as the most obvious entry here. Madame Beck fails to obtain a youthful lover, but she gains voyeuristic satisfaction from her role as surveillante. Mrs. Bretton lives in John (Brontë, p. 267); Madame Walravens becomes a death-like ringer for her granddaughter, stealing in the process the house, affection, and jewels that might otherwise have been Justine-Marie's.27

Perhaps the most astute pupil of substitution is little Polly, who early learns to corral her desire precisely by displacing it. The first example of her mastery of this technique, which she will employ to such great effect with John, occurs when she is merely seven. Knowing she is about to leave the household and return to her papa, Polly longs to rush to Graham and tell him the news, hoping that his despair will match her own. Instead, she fondles Lucy Snowe: "In the evening, at the moment Graham's entrance was heard below, I found her at my side. She began to arrange a locket-ribbon around my neck, she displaced and replaced the comb in my hair; while thus busied, Graham entered" (p. 40). Polly then gets Lucy to deliver the news, freeing herself to observe Graham's reaction.

In fact, alone of all the women in Villette, Lucy at first seems to be innately passive. Peter Brooks may see desire as the very spark necessary for all narrative, but Lucy seems curiously devoid of passion or need at the start of hers.28 But, of course, the novel reveals that calm to be fictive, the result of a momentary translation, a fact that the mature Lucy knows and signals to the reader by prefacing her momentary poise in language that underscores its artificiality: "In the autumn of the year ______, I was staying at Bretton; my godmother having come in person to claim me of the kinsfolk with whom was at that time fixed my permanent residence" (p. 6). The unnamed "kinsfolk" from whom Lucy so strenuously distances herself can be none other than the parents she loses. Although we never learn what happens, the shadow of those events and the subsequent vagrancy of Lucy's life cast doubt on the "fixity" and "permanence" of all existence, as does the passive construction of her temporary placement there. What Lucy learns in the course of her life is to seize control of her translations. Without that lesson, her fate would have resembled that of Miss Marchmont, frozen into place by events. And it is through Polly that Lucy will first learn to activate her desires.

Lucy feels compelled to intervene in Polly's actions, to exercise vicarious restraint over the child's emotions (p. 13); Polly's emotions, however, seem to exercise more power over Lucy than the reverse. Stoic Lucy, "guiltless" of the "curse" of "an overheated and discursive imagination," nonetheless imagines rooms to be "haunted" by Polly's presence (p. 15). Polly's proposed absence causes Lucy to break through her normal reserve. She invites Polly into her bed "wishing, yet scarcely hoping, she would comply"; when Polly comes, "gliding like a small ghost over the carpet," she is "warmed … soothed … tranquillized and cherished" in Lucy's arms (p. 44).

Moreover, as far as we know, Polly is the only person ever to share Lucy's bed. Gilbert and Gubar are right to follow Leavis in seeing Polly as Lucy's other self. But they miss the fact that, from the beginning, Polly is described in imagery that connects her to the full-grown nuns Lucy will later encounter. If Polly is a "demure little person in a mourning frock and white chemisette," a frock that Lucy pointedly tells us is black three pages earlier, her costume merges with her actions to turn her into a type of the bleeding nun (p. 20): doggedly hemming a handkerchief for her father, the needle "almost a skewer, pricking herself ever and anon, marking the cambric with a track of minute red dots; occasionally starting when the perverse weapon—swerving from her control—inflicted a deeper stab than usual; but still silent, diligent, womanly, absorbed" (p. 20). Far from representing a type that must be feared or renounced, the nun in Villette represents Lucy Snowe's embrace of her provisional status.29 The nun blends into Lucy's persona so that she, too, becomes a "silence artist," defying mystery by adopting it (pp. 680-2).30 How fitting, then, that Ginevra bequeaths the costume of the nun to Lucy.

Once so metaphorically habited, the swelled presence of desire takes on a religious cast.31 For both Lucy and Polly, the handwritten word of John supplants the word of God and becomes a physical revelation (pp. 254, 326-7, 342-3). Each performs a similar ritual of dilation, going so far as to pray before she revels in the letter. But Paul's letters do more than refresh or sustain (p. 713); they enable Lucy to incorporate her lover, so that his absence marks the summit of their love: "I thought I loved him when he went away; I love him now in another degree; he is more my own" (p. 714). Paul's fate when clasped to Lucy's heart must mirror Lucy's when cradled in the "bosom of my kindred": both types of love can be safely possessed only in the reflection of memory, while the actual bodies must endure the clammy embrace of the engulfing sea. Immured in the convent of knowledge Paul had created for her, Lucy's life becomes one of singular, not serial, devotion. Her conventual existence appears most strongly in the collapse of her narrative into the histories of the three Catholics who had seemed her nemeses, in a final act of substitution (p. 715). She may not count her beads in a Carmelite convent, but she does tell her story, her metaphorical habit of black and white a fitting emblem of the printed page.

The unspoken fact of Paul's fate signals how heretical Brontë's narrator and narrative truly are.32 Charlotte had originally planned to end the book with a clear announcement of Paul's death. Her father objected strenuously, declaring his dislike for books that "left a melancholy impression on the mind."33 Unable or unwilling to defer completely to his wish for a "happy ending," Charlotte left her story open, thus resigning it to the pornographic imagination that her father, Patrick Brontë, had always identified with the novelistic. In his book, The Cottage in the Wood, he had written: "The sensual novelist and his admirer, are beings of depraved appetites and sickly imaginations, who having learnt the art of self-tormenting, are diligently and zealously employed in creating an imaginary world, which they can never inhabit, only to make the real world, with which they must necessarily be conversant, gloomy and insupportable."34 Literary endeavor becomes masturbation in Patrick's barely-coded epithet of "self-tormenting"; the hothouse secrecy surrounding such employment accounts for its resultant depravity and sickliness.

Southey had warned her of such danger: "The day dreams in which you habitually indulge are likely to induce a distempered state of mind; and, in proportion as all the ordinary uses of the world seem to you flat and unprofitable, you will be unfitted for them without becoming fitted for anything else. Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life, and it ought not to be."35 Southey's reference to Charlotte's "habitual indulgence" also characterizes her ambition as a "distempered," diseased fixation for which the only prescription is healthy, self-abnegating work. The patronizing chauvinism of his attitude resonates through the uncredited allusion to Shakespeare. Here Southey, a male poet wielding masculine privilege through the words of another male poet, simultaneously implies that Charlotte has fallen into Hamlet's state, and invokes Hamlet's injunctions to Ophelia to "get thee [to] a nunn'ry."36Villette demonstrates Brontë's acceptance of Southey's implicit advice, as well as the perverse spin she put on it.

While the pseudonymical "Currer Bell" occupied a high niche in literary opinion, her reviews harp on her "depravities" even as they praise her "Passion and Power."37 The Christian Remembrancer admits that Brontë has tempered "the outrages on decorum, the moral perversity, the toleration of, nay, indifference to vice" which had "deform[ed]" her Jane Eyre, but it joins numerous other critics of Lucy who decry her for her willingness to fall in love and her ability to be in love with two men at the same time or for her "masculine" style.38 Even reviewers who found Villette "pleasant" criticized Lucy Snowe's morbidity and her "tormenting self-regard."39 While all uniformly praised the abundance of well-drawn characters, they nonetheless bemoaned the lack of "breathless suspense, more thrilling incidents, and a more moving story."40 Conversely, the story is said to move too much: the narrative jumps and the focus wavers.41 Reviewers' desires seem to be piqued and frustrated at the same time.42 Their complaints ironically vindicate the triumph with which Charlotte Brontë pursued her anomalous path. Eschewing simultaneously the need for closure and for the embodiment of desire in a female body, a containment that in Lewis enforces female powerlessness, Brontë frees the hallmark of the pornographic, the desire for desire,43 into the space of literary contingency, as generations of readers and critics who have been teased by Lucy Snowe can testify.


1. Clement Shorter, The Brontës: Life and Letters, 2 vols. (New York: Haskell House Publishers, 1969), 2:362.

2. Nicholls had to find a substitute curate for Patrick Brontë's congregation and a priest to preside at the wedding. On the marriage day, Patrick Brontë suddenly refused to attend, and Nicholls had to find a substitute to give Charlotte away. Her friend, Miss Wooler, performed that function. On Charlotte Brontë's arrogation of fact to fancy in Villette, see Juliet Barker, The Brontës (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995), pp. 668, 704-5, 708, 713, 715. Cf. Claudia Klaver, "Homely Aesthetics: Villette's Canny Narrator," Genre 26, 4 (Winter 1993): 409-29.

3. A brief listing would include Robyn R. Warhol, "Double Gender, Double Genre in Jane Eyre and Villette." SEL 36, 4 (Autumn 1996): 857-75; Patricia E. Johnson, "'This Heretic Narrative': The Strategy of the Split Narrative in Charlotte Brontë's Villette," SEL 30, 4 (Autumn 1990): 617-31; John Kucich, Repression in Victorian Fiction: Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Charles Dickens (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: Univ. of California Press, 1987); Nina Auerbach, Woman and the Demon: The Life of a Victorian Myth (Cambridge MA and London: Harvard Univ. Press, 1982), pp. 127-8; Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1979); Eve Sedgwick, The Coherence of Gothic Conventions (New York: Arno Press, 1980), especially chap. 3, "Immediacy, Doubleness, and the Unspeakable: Wuthering Heights and Villette," pp. 104-53.

4. On the importance of length, see Shorter, 1:382, and Herbert Rosengarten and Margaret Smith, introduction to Villette by Brontë, ed. Rosengarten and Smith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), pp. xi-xlix, xv.

5. Qtd. in Rosengarten and Smith, p. xv.

6. Rosengarten and Smith, p. xviii. Brontë's claim that "she was unwilling to release her work for publication before it had been completed" flies in the face of other evidence. According to Elizabeth Gaskell, Brontë contemplated "tales which might be published in numbers" (The Life of Charlotte Brontë, ed. Alan Shelstone [New York: Penguin, 1975], p. 293). I owe this information to Catherine A. Judd's "Male Pseudonyms and Female Authority in Victorian England," in Literature in the Marketplace: Nineteenth-Century British Publishing and Reading Practices, ed. John O. Jordan and Robert L. Pattern (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1995), pp. 250-68, 264-5 n. 20. Barker records in The Brontës that Brontë had originally planned "three distinct and unconnected tales which may be published either together as a work of three volumes of the ordinary novel-size, or separately as single volumes" (p. 499).

7. Judd forms one recent exception, drawing on the healthy precedent of Gaskell's treatment of Charlotte Brontë in The Life.

8. Luce Irigaray, "Any Theory of the 'Subject' Has Always Been Appropriated by the 'Masculine,'" in Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. Gillian C. Gill (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1985), pp. 133-46, 143.

9. See Ellen Moers, Literary Women (New York: Doubleday, 1976); Tamar Heller, "Jane Eyre, Bertha, and the Female Gothic," in Approaches to Teaching Brontë's "Jane Eyre," ed. Diane Long Hoeveler and Beth Lau (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1993), pp. 49-55. Klaver aligns the Gothic elements, especially the nun, with "typically Radcliffean devices to create suspense and speculation in her narrative, but then [Lucy], also like [Ann] Radcliffe, dismisses them all with the most banal of rational explanations" (p. 418). On the distinction between male and female Gothic, from which I wish to distance myself, see Robert Miles, Gothic Writing, 1750–1820: A Genealogy (London and New York: Routledge, 1993), especially pp. 88, 98, 103-4; and Anne Williams, Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic (Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1995), pp. 18-24. She calls The Monk a pornographic narrative because sexuality is shown as the "prime motive" of all action (p. 116). Yet to her, Ambrosio's carnality lines him up with the feminine.

10. By comparison, Bretton Hall and La Terrasse seem almost the only nonconfining spaces.

11. See Barker, pp. 160-1, 191, 500.

12. Linda K. Hughes and Michael Lund, "Textual/sexual pleasure and serial publication," in Jordan and Patten, pp. 143-64, 143.

13. A position shared by Warhol, p. 858.

14. Rather than being suffocated by the present's contradictory attitude to female authorship, Charlotte cleared space for herself by preserving the male pseudonym and simultaneously creating a very private female persona as the source for her literary output. See Judd's very persuasive discussion, especially pp. 252-3, 257-8.

15. This essay both draws on and modulates the work of Kucich. I find Kucich's discussion extremely attractive, especially his attention to the place of desire in Brontë's work, but he defines her desire as repressed (pp. 38-9); see p. 30 for his definition of repression. Cf. Steven Marcus, The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England (New York: Basic Books, 1964), especially p. 195. Marcus's attention to the pornographic fantasy of endless seminal fluid finds an interesting counterpart in Brontë's text, which increasingly spews out water imagery inextricably intertwined with eruptions of desire, whether frustrated or realized. For a small sample, see pp. 6, 152, 218-9, 221, 223, 258, 420-1 of Villette. The "lecture pieuse" of Catholic martyrs incites the same pornographic response: "it made me so burning hot, and my temples and my heart and my wrist throbbed so fast, and my sleep afterwards was so broken with excitement, that I could sit no longer" (p. 162).

Obviously, The Monk fixed much of its pornographic gaze on the explicit sexuality of religious figures. Perhaps another telling resemblance between the two novels lies in The Monk's greatest provocation to scandal: its censure of the Bible as pornographic. Though considerations of length prevent me from detailing Brontë's biblical allusions, she heretically rewrites the Bible as much as she piously cites it. Cf. Susan VanZanten Gallagher, "Jane Eyre and Christianity," in Hoeveler and Lau, pp. 62-8; and Keith A. Jenkins, "Jane Eyre: Charlotte Brontë's New Bible," in Hoeveler and Lau, pp. 69-75. Many of Villette's citations are perverse applications of water, fountain, and thirst imagery originally found in the two books of "Johns"—the Gospel according to John and Revelation; see John 4:13-5, 6:35, and 7:37 and Rev. 7:16, 14:7, and 22:17. I would suggest that, in this imbricated relationship, we find Brontë's greatest heresy, her incorporation of and twist on the pornographic imagination.

16. Gilbert and Gubar, p. 425.

17. Christina Crosby, "Charlotte Brontë's Haunted Text," SEL 24, 4 (Autumn 1984): 701-15. LuAnn McCracken Fletcher articulates a similar position when she claims the nun emphasizes the fictionality of identity ("Manufactured Marvels, Heretic Narratives, and the Process of Interpretation in Villette," SEL 32, 4 [Autumn 1992]: 723-46).

18. See Robert Heilman, "Charlotte Brontë, Reason, and the Moon," in Critical Essays on Charlotte Brontë, ed. Barbara Timm Gates (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990), pp. 34-49, 36; and Harriet Martineau, "Review of Villette by Currer Bell," in Gates, pp. 253-6, 255. Janice Carlisle considers the nun a figure of repressed desire in "The Face in the Mirror: Villette and the Conventions of Autobiography," in Gates, pp. 264-87, 282-3, while E. D. H. Johnson sees her as equal to the unreason Lucy must renounce ("'Daring the Dread Glance': Charlotte Brontë's Treatment of the Supernatural in Villette," NCF 20, 4 [March 1966]: 325-36).

19. Q. D. Leavis, introduction to Villette (New York: Harper Colophon, 1972), p. xxiii, cited by Gilbert and Gubar, p. 683 n. 13. Review of Villette in The Literary Gazette (5 February 1853), rprt. in The Brontës: The Critical Heritage, ed. Miriam Allott (London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974), pp. 178-81, 180.

20. Matthew Lewis, The Monk, ed. Louis Peck (New York: Grove Press, 1952), p. 148. Citations will come from this edition and henceforth will be cited parenthetically.

21. See Max Byrd, "The Madhouse, the Whorehouse, and the Convent," PR 44, 2 (Summer 1977): 268-78.

22. Brontë, Villette, ed. Rosengarten and Smith, p. 423. All references to Villette will be to this edition and henceforth will be cited parenthetically in the text.

23. Cf. the descriptions of Baroness Lindenburg and Madame Beck in character (Brontë, pp. 95, 98, 100-2, 695-7; Lewis, pp. 123, 145); in habits of spying (Brontë, pp. 100, 421-2, 647; Lewis, p. 155); and in a taste for young men (Brontë, pp. 140-5; Lewis, pp. 147-50). Paul's history after the death of Justine-Marie reads like Raymond's fate had he not been freed from the Bleeding Nun. More importantly, when Lucy describes Paul as monitor of mores and the human heart, he suddenly resembles Satan (Brontë, pp. 486-7; Lewis, pp. 416-7).

24. As the Gothic novel reaches the end of its first phase with Charles Robert Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer, the structural logic of substitution dominates the sexual logic.

25. Barker, p. 243. Thus, Carol Christ sees Brontë steeling herself to prefer a realist aesthetic, especially in Villette, as a means of subduing this mutinous attraction ("Imaginative Constraint, Feminine Duty, and the Form of Charlotte Brontë's Fiction," WS 6, 3 [1979]: 287-96).

26. The phrase is Heilman's; see his "Charlotte Brontë's 'New' Gothic," in From Jane Austen to Joseph Conrad: Essays Collected in Memory of James T. Hillhouse, ed. Robert Rathburn and Martin Steinmann Jr. (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1958), pp. 118-32. I interpret her "newness" very differently.

27. When the old woman emerges from the stone walls of the Rue des Mages, behind the portrait of her granddaughter, "the portrait seemed to give way" (Brontë, p. 562).

28. Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984). Brooks's strictly male notion of desire and its accompaniments deforms his definition of women's plots as resistance and endurance: "a waiting (and suffering) until the woman's desire can be a permitted response to the expression of male desire" (p. 330).

29. Lucy is not unique among Brontë's women in this respect: Eliza Reed in Jane Eyre and Sylvie in The Professor both enter convents. See Kucich, p. 92. Kate Millett has Lucy trying on and rejecting all of the alternative female role models (Sexual Politics [New York: Doubleday, 1970], pp. 140-7, rprt. in Gates, pp. 256-64). Joseph P. Boone calls the nun the "false mirror of [Lucy's] sexuality" ("Depolicing Villette: Surveillance, Invisibility, and the Female Erotics of 'Heretic Narrative,'" [Novel 26. 1 (Fall 1992)]: 20-42).

30. On Lucy as a "silence artist," see Sedgwick, pp. 130-1. Ultimately Sedgwick sees the nun as corresponding to the letters. Cf. Gilbert and Gubar's suggestion that "Lucy is the nun who is immobilized by this internal conflict" (p. 412, my emphasis).

31. Cf. Kucich, p. 109.

32. Anne Mozley's unsigned review for the Christian Remembrancer (April 1853) shows that the narratorial and characterological heresy fused in the public's mind (rprt. in Allott, pp. 202-8, 202).

33. Barker, p. 723.

34. Qtd. in Barker, p. 243.

35. Barker, p. 262.

36. William Shakespeare. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. in The Riverside Shakespeare, 2d edn., ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), pp. 1183-1245, III.i.120.

37. G. H. Lewes in the Leader (12 February 1853), rprt. in Allott, pp. 184-6, 184.

38. Mozley, p. 203. See esp. William Makepeace Thackeray's letters of March and April 1853, rprt. in Allott, pp. 197-8.

39. Review of Villette in The Spectator (12 February 1853), rprt. in Allott, pp. 181-4, 181.

40. Lewes, p. 184.

41. Mozley, p. 204; review of Villette in the Athenaeum (12 February 1853), rprt. in Allott, pp. 187-90, 188; and review of Villette in Revue Des Deux Mondes (15 March 1853), rprt. in Allott, p. 199-200, 199.

42. Review of Villette in Putnam's Monthly Magazine (May 1853), rprt. in Allott, pp. 212-5, 214.

43. On the link between the specularized female body and female powerlessness, see Elaine Scarry. The Body in Pain (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1992), pp. 207, 361 n. 20. Susan Faludie's article on the Hollywood porn industry shows male porn stars in suffering acknowledgment that the "desire for desire" rules pornographic producers and consumers alike ("The Money Shot," New Yorker [30 October 1995]. pp. 64-87).

Principal Works

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Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell [as Currer Bell, with Ellis and Acton Bell (pseudonyms of Emily and Anne Brontë)] (poems) 1846
Jane Eyre. An Autobiography [as Currer Bell] (novel) 1847
Shirley: A Tale [as Currer Bell] (novel) 1849
Villette [as Currer Bell] (novel) 1853
The Professor: A Tale [as Currer Bell] 1857
Emma (unfinished novel) 1860
The Brontës' Life and Letters (letters) 1908
Legends of Angria (juvenilia) 1933
Five Novelettes: Passing Events, Julia, Mina Laury, Henry Hastings, Caroline Vernon (novellas) 1971

∗ This work includes letters written by Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë.

Primary Sources

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SOURCE: Brontë, Charlotte. "Napoleon and the Spectre." In Great Ghost Stories: 34 Classic Tales of the Supernatural, compiled by Robin Brockman, pp. 415-20. New York: Gramercy Books, 2002.

The following short story originally appeared in a manuscript titled "The Green Dwarf" (dated 10 July 1833–2 September 1833) and was first published in 1919.

Well, as I was saying, the Emperor got into bed.

'Chevalier,' says he to his valet, 'let down those window-curtains, and shut the casement before you leave the room.'

Chevalier did as he was told, and then, taking up his candlestick, departed.

In a few minutes the Emperor felt his pillow becoming rather hard, and he got up to shake it. As he did so a slight rushing noise was heard near the bed-head. His Majesty listened, but all was silent as he lay down again.

Scarcely had he settled into a peaceful attitude of repose, when he was disturbed by a sensation of thirst. Lifting himself on his elbow, he took a glass of lemonade from the small stand which was placed beside him. He refreshed himself by a deep draught. As he returned the goblet to its station a deep groan burst from a kind of closet in one corner of the apartment.

'Who's there?' cried the Emperor, seizing his pistols. 'Speak, or I'll blow your brains out.'

This threat produced no other effect than a short, sharp laugh, and a dead silence followed.

The Emperor started from his couch, and, hastily throwing on a robe-de-chambre which hung over the back of a chair, stepped courageously to the haunted closet. As he opened the door something rustled. He sprang forward sword in hand. No soul or even substance appeared, and the rustling, it was evident, proceeded from the falling of a cloak, which had been suspended by a peg from the door.

Half ashamed of himself he returned to bed.

Just as he was about once more to close his eyes, the light of the three wax tapers, which burned in a silver branch over the mantelpiece, was suddenly darkened. He looked up. A black, opaque shadow obscured it. Sweating with terror, the Emperor put out his hand to seize the bell-rope, but some invisible being snatched it rudely from his grasp, and at the same instant the ominous shade vanished.

'Pooh!' exclaimed Napoleon, 'it was but an ocular delusion.'

'Was it?' whispered a hollow voice, in deep mysterious tones, close to his ear. Was it a delusion, Emperor of France? No! all thou hast heard and seen is sad forewarning reality. Rise, lifter of the Eagle Standard! Awake, slayer of the Lily Sceptre! Follow me, Napoleon, and thou shalt see more.'

As the voice ceased, a form dawned on his astonished sight. It was that of a tall, thin man, dressed in a blue surtout edged with gold lace. It wore a black cravat very tightly round its neck, and confined by two little sticks placed behind each ear. The countenance was livid; the tongue protruded from between the teeth, and the eyes all glazed and bloodshot started with frightful prominence from their sockets.

'Mon Dieu!' exclaimed the Emperor, 'what do I see? Spectre, whence cometh thou?'

The apparition spoke not, but gliding forward beckoned Napoleon with uplifted finger to follow.

Controlled by a mysterious influence, which deprived him of the capability of either thinking or acting for himself, he obeyed in silence.

The solid wall of the apartment fell open as they approached, and, when both had passed through, it closed behind them with a noise like thunder.

They would now have been in total darkness had it not been for a dim light which shone round the ghost and revealed the damp walls of a long, vaulted passage. Down this they proceeded with mute rapidity. Ere long a cool, refreshing breeze, which rushed wailing up the vault and caused the Emperor to wrap his loose nightdress closer round, announced their approach to the open air.

This they soon reached, and Nap found himself in one of the principal streets of Paris.

'Worthy Spirit,' said he, shivering in the chill night air, 'permit me to return and put on some additional clothing. I will be with you again presently.'

'Forward,' replied his companion sternly.

He felt compelled, in spite of the rising indignation which almost choked him, to obey.

On they went through the deserted streets till they arrived at a lofty house built on the banks of the Seine. Here the Spectre stopped, the gates rolled back to receive them, and they entered a large marble hall which was part concealed by a curtain drawn across, through the half transparent folds of which a bright light might be seen burning with dazzling lustre. A row of fine female figures, richly attired, stood before this screen. They wore on their heads garlands of the most beautiful flowers, but their faces were concealed by ghastly masks representing death's-heads.

'What is all this mummery?' cried the Emperor, making an effort to shake off the mental shackles by which he was so unwillingly restrained, 'Where am I, and why have I been brought here?'

'Silence,' said the guide, lolling out still further his black and bloody tongue. 'Silence, if thou wouldst escape instant death.'

The Emperor would have replied, his natural courage overcoming the temporary awe to which he had at first been subjected, but just then a strain of wild, supernatural music swelled behind the huge curtain, which waved to and fro, and bellied slowly out as if agitated by some internal commotion or battle of waving winds. At the same moment an overpowering mixture of the scents of moral corruption, blent with the richest Eastern odours, stole through the haunted hall.

A murmur of many voices was now heard at a distance, and something grasped his arm eagerly from behind.

He turned hastily round. His eyes met the well-known countenance of Marie Louise.

'What! are you in this infernal place, too?' said he. 'What has brought you here?'

'Will your Majesty permit me to ask the same question of yourself?' said the Empress, smiling.

He made no reply; astonishment prevented him.

No curtain now intervened between him and the light. It had been removed as if by magic, and a splendid chandelier appeared suspended over his head. Throngs of ladies, richly dressed, but without death's-head masks, stood round, and a due proportion of gay cavaliers was mingled with them. Music was still sounding, but it was seen to proceed from a band of mortal musicians stationed in an orchestra near at hand. The air was yet redolent of incense, but it was incense unblended with stench.

'Mon Dieu!' cried the Emperor, 'how is all this come about? Where in the world is Piche?'

'Piche?' replied the Empress. 'What does your Majesty mean? Had you not better leave the apartment and retire to rest?'

'Leave the apartment? Why, where am I?'

'In my private drawing-room, surrounded by a few particular persons of the Court whom I had invited this evening to a ball. You entered a few minutes since in your nightdress with your eyes fixed and wide open. I suppose from the astonishment you now testify that you were walking in your sleep.'

The Emperor immediately fell into a fit of catalepsy, in which he continued during the whole of that night and the greater part of the next day.

General Commentary

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SOURCE: Heilman, Robert B. "Charlotte Brontë's 'New' Gothic." In From Jane Austen to Joseph Conrad: Essays Collected in Memory of James T. Hillhouse, edited by R. C. Rathburn and Martin Steinman, pp. 118-32. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1958.

In the following essay, Heilman illustrates how Brontë added depth and complexity to the Gothic heroines of her works.

In that characteristic flight from cliché that may plunge him into the recherché the critic might well start from The Professor and discover in it much more than is implied by the usual dismissal of it as Charlotte Brontë's poorest work. He might speculate about Charlotte's singular choice of a male narrator—the value of it, or even the need of it, for her. For through William Crimsworth she lives in Héger, making love to herself as Frances Henri: in this there is a kind of ravenousness, inturning, splitting, and doubling back of feeling. Through Crimsworth she experiences a sudden, vivid, often graceless mastery. But these notes on the possible psychology of the author are critically useful only as a way into the strange tremors of feeling that are present in a formally defective story. Pelet identifies "a fathomless spring of sensibility in thy breast, Crimsworth." If Crimsworth is not a successful character, he is the channel of emotional surges that splash over a conventional tale of love: the author's disquieting presence in the character lends a nervous, offcenter vitality. The pathos of liberty is all but excessive (as it is later in Shirley Keeldar and Lucy Snowe): Crimsworth sneers, "… I sprang from my bed with other slaves," and rejoices, "Liberty I clasped in my arms … her smile and embrace revived my life." The Puritan sentiment (to be exploited partially in Jane Eyre and heavily in Lucy Snowe) becomes tense, rhetorical, fiercely censorious; the self-righteousness punitive and even faintly paranoid. Through the frenetically Protestant Crimsworth and his flair for rebuke Charlotte notes the little sensualities of girl students ("parting her lips, as full as those of a hot-blooded Maroon") and the coquettish yet urgent sexuality of Zoraide Reuter perversely responding to Crimsworth's ostensible yet not total unresponsiveness to her: "When she stole about me with the soft step of a slave, I felt at once barbarous and sensual as a pasha."

Charlotte looks beyond familiar surfaces. In Yorke Hunsden she notes the "incompatibilities of the 'physique' with the 'morale.'" The explosive Byronic castigator has lineaments "small, and even feminine" and "now the mien of a morose bull, and anon that of an arch and mischievous girl." In this version of the popular archetype, "rough exterior but heart of gold," Charlotte brilliantly finds a paradoxical union of love and hate; she sees generosity of spirit sometimes appearing directly but most often translated into antithetical terms that also accommodate opposite motives—into god-like self-indulgence in truth-telling; almost Mephistophelian cynicism; sadism and even murderousness in words.

Charlotte's story is conventional; formally she is for "reason" and "real life"; but her characters keep escaping to glorify "feeling" and "Imagination." Feeling is there in the story—evading repression, in author or in character; ranging from nervous excitement to emotional absorption; often tense and peremptory; sexuality, hate, irrational impulse, grasped, given life, not merely named and pigeonholed. This is Charlotte's version of Gothic: in her later novels an extraordinary thing. In that incredibly eccentric history, The Gothic Quest, Montague Summers asserts that the "Gothic novel of sensibility … draws its emotionalism and psychology … from the work of Samuel Richardson." When this line of descent continues in the Brontës, the vital feeling moves toward an intensity, a freedom, and even an abandon virtually non-existent in historical Gothic and rarely approached in Richardson. From Angria on, Charlotte's women vibrate with passions that the fictional conventions only partly constrict or gloss over—in the center an almost violent devotedness that has in it at once a fire of independence, a spiritual energy, a vivid sexual responsiveness, and, along with this, self-righteousness, a sense of power, sometimes self-pity and envious competitiveness. To an extent the heroines are "unheroined," unsweetened. Into them there has come a new sense of the dark side of feeling and personality.

The Professor ventures a little into the psychic darkness on which Villette draws heavily. One night Crimsworth, a victim of hypochondria, hears a voice saying, "In the midst of life we are in death," and he feels "a horror of great darkness." In his boyhood this same "sorceress" drew him "to the very brink of a black, sullen river" and managed to "lure me to her vaulted home of horrors." Charlotte draws on sex images that recall the note of sexuality subtly present in other episodes: "… I had entertained her at bed and board … she lay with me,… taking me entirely to her death-cold bosom, and holding me with arms of bone." The climax is: "I repulsed her as one would a dreaded and ghastly concubine coming to embitter a husband's heart toward his young bride;…" This is Gothic, yet there is an integrity of feeling that greatly deepens the convention.

From childhood terrors to all those mysteriously threatening sights, sounds, and injurious acts that reveal the presence of some malevolent force and that anticipate the holocaust at Thornfield, the traditional Gothic in Jane Eyre has often been noted, and as often disparaged. It need not be argued that Charlotte Brontë did not reach the heights while using hand-me-down devices, though a tendency to work through the conventions of fictional art was a strong element in her make-up. This is true of all her novels, but it is no more true than her counter-tendency to modify, most interestingly, these conventions. In both Villette and Jane Eyre Gothic is used but characteristically is undercut.

Jane Eyre hears a "tragic … preternatural … laugh," but this is at "high noon" and there is "no circumstance of ghostliness"; Grace Poole, the supposed laugher, is a plain person, than whom no "apparition less romantic or less ghostly could … be conceived"; Charlotte apologizes ironically to the "romantic reader" for telling "the plain truth" that Grace generally bears a "pot of porter." Charlotte almost habitually revises "old Gothic," the relatively crude mechanisms of fear, with an infusion of the anti-Gothic. When Mrs. Rochester first tried to destroy Rochester by fire, Jane "baptized" Rochester's bed and heard Rochester "fulminating strange anathemas at finding himself lying in a pool of water." The introduction of comedy as a palliative of straight Gothic occurs on a large scale when almost seventy-five pages are given to the visit of the Ingram-Eshton party to mysterious Thornfield; here Charlotte, as often in her novels, falls into the manner of the Jane Austen whom she despised. When Mrs. Rochester breaks loose again and attacks Mason, the presence of guests lets Charlotte play the nocturnal alarum for at least a touch of comedy: Rochester orders the frantic women not to "pull me down or strangle me"; and "the two dowagers, in vast white wrappers, were bearing down on him like ships in full sail."

The symbolic also modifies the Gothic, for it demands of the reader a more mature and complicated response than the relatively simple thrill or momentary intensity of feeling sought by primitive Gothic. When mad Mrs. Rochester, seen only as "the foul German spectre—the Vampyre," spreads terror at night, that is one thing; when, with the malicious insight that is the paradox of her madness, she tears the wedding veil in two and thus symbolically destroys the planned marriage, that is another thing, far less elementary as art. The midnight blaze that ruins Thornfield becomes more than a shock when it is seen also as the fire of purgation; the grim, almost roadless forest surrounding Ferndean is more than a harrowing stage-set when it is also felt as a symbol of Rochester's closed-in life.

The point is that in various ways Charlotte manages to make the patently Gothic more than a stereotype. But more important is that she instinctively finds new ways to achieve the ends served by old Gothic—the discovery and release of new patterns of feeling, the intensification of feeling. Though only partly unconventional, Jane is nevertheless so portrayed as to evoke new feelings rather than merely exercise old ones. As a girl she is lonely, "passionate," "strange," "like nobody there"; she feels superior, rejects poverty, talks back precociously, tells truths bluntly, enjoys "the strangest sense of freedom," tastes "vengeance"; she experiences a nervous shock which is said to have a lifelong effect, and the doctor says "nerves not in a good state"; she can be "reckless and feverish," "bitter and truculent"; at Thornfield she is restless, given to "bright visions," letting "imagination" picture an existence full of "life, fire, feeling." Thus Charlotte leads away from standardized characterization toward new levels of human reality, and hence from stock responses toward a new kind of passionate engagement.

Charlotte moves toward depth in various ways that have an immediate impact like that of Gothic. Jane's strange, fearful symbolic dreams are not mere thrillers but reflect the tensions of the engagement period, the stress of the wedding-day debate with Rochester, and the longing for Rochester after she has left him. The final Thornfield dream, with its vivid image of a hand coming through a cloud in place of the expected moon, is in the surrealistic vein that appears most sharply in the extraordinary pictures that Jane draws at Thornfield: here Charlotte is plumbing the psyche, not inventing a weird décor. Likewise in the telepathy scene, which Charlotte, unlike Defoe in dealing with a similar episode, does her utmost to actualize: "The feeling was not like an electric shock; but it was quite as sharp, as strange, as startling: … that inward sensation … with all its unspeakable strangeness … like an inspiration … wondrous shock of feeling…." In her flair for the surreal, in her plunging into feeling that is without status in the ordinary world of the novel, Charlotte discovers a new dimension of Gothic.

She does this most thoroughly in her portrayal of characters and of the relations between them. If in Rochester we see only an Angrian-Byronic hero and a Charlotte wish-fulfillment figure (the two identifications which to some readers seem entirely to place him), we miss what is more significant, the exploration of personality that opens up new areas of feeling in intersexual relationships. Beyond the "grim," the "harsh," the eccentric, the almost histrionically cynical that superficially distinguish Rochester from conventional heroes, there is something almost Lawrentian: Rochester is "neither tall nor graceful"; his eyes can be "dark, irate, and piercing"; his strong features "took my feelings from my own power and fettered them in his." Without using the vocabulary common to us, Charlotte is presenting maleness and physicality, to which Jane responds directly. She is "assimilated" to him by "something in my brain and heart, in my blood and nerves"; she "must love" and "could not unlove" him; the thought of parting from him is "agony." Rochester's oblique amatory maneuvers become almost punitive in the Walter-to-Griselda style and once reduce her to sobbing "convulsively"; at times the love-game borders on a power-game. Jane, who prefers "rudeness" to "flattery," is an instinctive evoker of passion: she learns "the pleasure of vexing and soothing him by turns" and pursues a "system" of working him up "to considerable irritation" and coolly leaving him; when, as a result, his caresses become grimaces, pinches, and tweaks, she records that, sometimes at least, she "decidedly preferred these fierce favors." She reports, "I crushed his hand … red with the passionate pressure"; she "could not … see God for his creature," and in her devotion Rochester senses "an earnest, religious energy."

Charlotte's remolding of stock feeling reaches a height when she sympathetically portrays Rochester's efforts to make Jane his mistress; here the stereotyped seducer becomes a kind of lost nobleman of passion, and of specifically physical passion: "Every atom of your flesh is as dear to me as my own…." The intensity of the pressure which he puts upon her is matched, not by the fear and revulsion of the popular heroine, but by a responsiveness which she barely masters: "The crisis was perilous; but not without its charm …" She is "tortured by a sense of remorse at thus hurting his feelings"; at the moment of decision "a hand of fiery iron grasped my vitals … blackness, burning!… my intolerable duty"; she leaves in "despair"; and after she has left, "I longed to be his; I panted to return …"—and for the victory of principle "I abhorred myself … I was hateful in my own eyes." This extraordinary openness to feeling, this escape from the bondage of the trite, continues in the Rivers relationship, which is a structural parallel to the Rochester affair: as in Rochester the old sex villain is seen in a new perspective, so in Rivers the clerical hero is radically refashioned; and Jane's almost accepting a would-be husband is given the aesthetic status of a regrettable yielding to a seducer. Without a remarkable liberation from conventional feeling Charlotte could not fathom the complexity of Rivers—the earnest and dutiful clergyman distraught by a profound inner turmoil of conflicting "drives": sexuality, restlessness, hardness, pride, ambition ("fever in his vitals," "inexorable as death"); the hypnotic, almost inhuman potency of his influence on Jane, who feels "a freezing spell," "an awful charm," an "iron shroud"; the relentlessness, almost the unscrupulousness, of his wooing, the resultant fierce struggle (like that with Rochester), Jane's brilliantly perceptive accusation, "… you almost hate me … you would kill me. You are killing me now"; and yet her mysterious near-surrender: "I was tempted to cease struggling with him—to rush down the torrent of his will into the gulf of his existence, and there lose my own."

Aside from partial sterilization of banal Gothic by dry factuality and humor, Charlotte goes on to make a much more important—indeed, a radical—revision of the mode: in Jane Eyre and in the other novels, as we shall see, that discovery of passion, that rehabilitation of the extra-rational, which is the historical office of Gothic, is no longer oriented in marvelous circumstance but moves deeply into the lesser known realities of human life. This change I describe as the change from "old Gothic" to "new Gothic." The kind of appeal is the same; the fictional method is utterly different.

When Charlotte went on from Jane Eyre to Shirley, she produced a book that for the student of the Gothic theme is interesting precisely because on the face of things it would be expected to be a barren field. It is the result of Charlotte's one deliberate venture from private intensities into public extensities: Orders in Council, the Luddites, technological unemployment in 1811 and 1812, a social portraiture which develops Charlotte's largest cast of characters. Yet Charlotte cannot keep it a social novel. Unlike Warren, who in the somewhat similar Night Rider chose to reflect the historical economic crisis in the private crisis of the hero, Miss Brontë loses interest in the public and slides over into the private.

The formal irregularities of Shirley—the stop-and-start, zig-zag movement, plunging periodically into different perspectives—light up the divergent impulses in Charlotte herself: the desire to make a story from observed outer life, and the inability to escape from inner urgencies that with centrifugal force unwind outward into story almost autonomously. Passion alters plan: the story of industrial crisis is repeatedly swarmed over by the love stories. But the ultimate complication is that Charlotte's duality of impulse is reflected not only in the narrative material but in two different ways of telling each part of the story. On the one hand she tells a rather conventional, open, predictable tale; on the other she lets go with a highly charged private sentiency that may subvert the former or at least surround it with an atmosphere of unfamiliarity or positive strangeness: the Gothic impulse.

For Charlotte it is typically the "pattern" versus the "strange." She describes "two pattern young ladies, in pattern attire, with pattern deportment"—a "respectable society" in which "Shirley had the air of a black swan, or a white crow…." When, in singing, Shirley "poured round the passion, force," the young ladies thought this "strange" and concluded: "What was strange must be wrong;…" True, Charlotte's characters live within the established "patterns" of life; but their impulse is to vitalize forms with unpatterned feeling, and Charlotte's to give play to unpatterned feeling in all its forms. She detects the warrior in the Reverend Matthew Helstone; reports that Malone the curate "had energy enough in hate"; describes Shirley weeping without apparent reason; recounts Mrs. Yorke's paranoid "brooding, eternal, immitigable suspicion of all men, things, creeds, and parties"; portrays Hiram Yorke as scornful, stubborn, intolerant of superiors, independent, truculent, benevolent toward inferiors, his virtues surrounding an aggressive amour propre.

Shirley is given a vehement, sweeping, uninhibited criticalness of mind; in her highly articulate formulations of incisive thought is released a furious rush of emotional energy. Within the framework of moral principles her ideas and feelings are untrammeled. She vigorously debunks clichés against charity, but against the mob she will defend her property "like a tigress"; to Yorke's face she does a corrosive analysis of his personality; she attacks Milton in a fiery sweeping paean to Eve, the "mother" of "Titans"; in an almost explosive defense of love she attacks ignorant, chilly, refined, embarrassed people who "blaspheme living fire, seraph-brought from a divine altar"; when she insists that she must "love" before she marries, her "worldly" Uncle Sympson retorts, "Preposterous stuff!—indecorous—unwomanly!"

Beside the adults who in ways are precocious are the precocious children—the Yorkes who have their parents' free-swinging, uninhibited style of talk; Henry Sympson, having for his older cousin Shirley an attachment that borders on sexual feeling; and most of all Martin Yorke, aged fifteen, to whose excited pursuit of Caroline, almost irrelevant to plot or theme, Charlotte devotes two and a half zestful chapters. Martin is willing to help Caroline see Robert Moore, "her confounded sweetheart," to be near her himself, and he plans to claim a reward "displeasing to Moore"; he thinks of her physical beauties. Once he gets between Robert and Caroline at goodbye time; "he half carried Caroline down the stairs," "wrapped her shawl round her," and wanted to claim a kiss. At the same time he feels "power over her," he wants her to coax him, and he would like "to put her in a passion—to make her cry." Charlotte subtly conveys the sexuality of his quest—a rare feat in the nineteenth-century novel.

In Robert Moore, the unpopular mill-owner, Charlotte finds less social rightness or wrongness than his strength, his masculine appeal; her sympathy, so to speak, is for the underside of his personality. It "agreed with Moore's temperament … to be generally hated"; "he liked a silent, sombre, unsafe solitude"; against the vandals his "hate is still running in such a strong current" that he has none left for other objects; he shows "a terrible half" of himself in pursuing rioters with "indefatigable,… relentless assiduity"; this "excitement" pleases him; sadistically he likes to "force" magistrates to "betray a certain fear." He is the great lover of the story; he almost breaks Caroline's heart before he marries her, and he even has a subtle impact on Shirley, teasingly communicated, though officially denied, by Charlotte. What Caroline yields to is his "secret power," which affects her "like a spell." Here again Charlotte records, as directly as she can, simple sexual attractiveness. From the problem novel she veers off into "new Gothic"; in old Gothic, her hero would have been a villain.

True to convention, the love stories end happily. But special feelings, a new pathos of love, come through. Louis Moore demands in a woman something "to endure,… to reprimand"; love must involve "prickly peril," "a sting now and then"; for him the "young lioness or leopardess" is better than the lamb. There is that peculiarly tense vivacity of talk between lovers (the Jane-Rochester style), who discover a heightened, at times stagey, yet highly communicative rhetoric, drawing now on fantasy, now on moral conviction, verging now on titillating revelation, now on battle; a crafty game of love, flirting with an undefined risk, betraying a withheld avowal, savoring the approach to consummation, as if the erotic energy which in another social order might find a physical outlet were forcing itself into an electric language that is decorous but intimately exploratory. Between Louis Moore, who has "a thirst for freedom," and Shirley, to whom finding love is the Quest for the Bridle (for "a master [whom it is] impossible not to love, and very possible to fear"), there is an almost disturbingly taut struggle, a fierce intensification of the duel between Mirabel and Millamant, complex feelings translated into wit, sheer debate, abusiveness of manner, and a variety of skirmishings; Louis, the lover, adopting the stance of power and consciously playing to fright; the pursuit of an elusive prey ending in a virtual parody of "one calling, Child! / And I replied, My Lord"; over all of this a singular air of strained excitement, of the working of underlying emotional forces that at the climax leads to a new frenetic intensification of style in Louis's notebook:

"Will you let me breathe, and not bewilder me? You must not smile at present. The world swims and changes round me. The sun is a dizzying scarlet blaze, the sky a violet vortex whirling over me."

I am a strong man, but I staggered as I spoke. All creation was exaggerated: colour grew more vivid: motion more rapid; life itself more vital. I hardly saw her for a moment; but I heard her voice—pitilessly sweet…. Blent with torment, I experienced rapture.

Nor does Charlotte's flair for "unpatterned feeling" stop here: Shirley, the forceful leader who has already been called "a gentleman" and "captain," languishes under the found bridle of the masterful lover, whom she treats chillily and subjects to "exquisitely provoking" postponements of marriage; he calls her a "pantheress" who "gnaws her chain"; she tells him, "I don't know myself," as if engagement had opened to her eyes a previously undetected facet of her nature. Though "these freaks" continue, she is "fettered" at last; but not before the reader is radically stirred by the felt mysteries of personality. Before Charlotte, no love story tapped such strange depths, no consummation was so like a defeat.

Here Charlotte is probing psychic disturbance and is on the edge of psychosomatic illness. The theme draws her repeatedly. When Caroline thinks Robert doesn't love her, she suffers a long physical decline, described with painful fullness. She "wasted," had a "broken spirit," suffered "intolerable despair," felt the "utter sickness of longing and disappointment," at night found "my mind darker than my hiding-place," had "melancholy dreams," became "what is called nervous," had "fears I never used to have," "an inexpressible weight on my mind," and "strange sufferings," believed at times "that God had turned His face from her" and sank "into the gulf of religious despair." Charlotte divines this: "People never die of love or grief alone; though some die of inherent maladies which the tortures of those passions prematurely force into destructive action." Caroline lingers in illness, has fancies "inscrutable to ordinary attendants," has a hallucination of talking to Robert in the garden. Shirley, having been bitten by a dog which she believes to be mad, becomes seriously ill; psychosomatic illness springs directly from Charlotte's special sensitivity to the neurotic potential in human nature. A complementary awareness, that of the impact of the physical on the psychic, appears when she observes the "terrible depression," the "inexpressible—dark, barren, impotent" state of mind of Robert when he is recovering from a gunshot wound.

To give so much space to a lesser work is justifiable only because some of its contents are of high historico-critical significance. Though Shirley is not pulled together formally as well as Jane Eyre or even the more sprawling Villette, and though the characters are as wholes less fully realized, still it accommodates the widest ranging of an extraordinarily free sensibility. Constantly, in many different directions, it is in flight from the ordinary rational surface of things against which old Gothic was the first rebel in fiction; it abundantly contains and evokes, to adapt Charlotte's own metaphor, "unpatterned feeling." It turns up unexpected elements in personality: resentfulness, malice, love of power; precocities and perversities of response; the multiple tensions of love between highly individualized lovers; psychic disturbances. And in accepting a dark magnetic energy as a central virtue in personality, Charlotte simply reverses the status of men who were the villains in the sentimental and old Gothic modes.

Of the four novels, Villette is most heavily saturated with Gothic—with certain of its traditional manifestations (old Gothic), with the undercutting of these that is for Charlotte no less instinctive than the use of them (anti-Gothic), and with an original, intense exploration of feeling that increases the range and depth of fiction (new Gothic).

As in Jane Eyre, Charlotte can be skillful in anti-Gothic. When Madame Beck, pussyfooting in espionage, "materializes" in shocking suddenness, Lucy is made matter-of-fact or indignant rather than thrilled with fright. "No ghost stood beside me …" is her characteristic response to a Beck surprise. Once the spy, having "stolen" upon her victims, betrays her unseen presence by a sneeze: Gothic yields to farce. Technically more complex is Charlotte's use of the legend of the nun supposedly buried alive and of the appearances of a visitant taken to be the ghost of the nun: Charlotte coolly distances herself from this by having Lucy dismiss the legend as "romantic rubbish" and by explaining the apparitions as the playful inventions of a giddy lover. True, she keeps the secret long enough to get a few old Gothic thrills from the "ghost," but what she is really up to is using the apparitions in an entirely new way; that is, for responses that lie beyond the simplicities of terror.

First, the apparitions are explained as a product of Lucy's own psychic state, the product, Dr. John suggests, of "long-continued mental conflict." In the history of Gothic this is an important spot, for here we first see the shift from stock explanations and responses to the inner human reality: fiction is slowly discovering the psychic depths known to drama for centuries.

Then, when Lucy next sees the nun, she responds in a way that lies entirely outside fictional convention: "I neither fled nor shrieked … I spoke … I stretched out my hand, for I meant to touch her." Not that Lucy is not afraid, but that she is testing herself—an immense change from the expectable elementary response: the frisson disappears before the complexer action that betokens a maturing of personality.

Finally, Paul and Lucy both see the spectre and are thus brought closer together: they have had what they call "impressions," and through sharing the ghost they assume a shared sensibility. Paul says, "I was conscious of rapport between you and myself." The rapport is real, though the proof of it is false; the irony of this is a subtle sophistication of Gothic.

The responsiveness, the sensitivity, is the thing; many passages place "feeling" above "seeing" as an avenue of knowledge. Reason must be respected, for it is "vindictive," but at times imagination must be yielded to, like a sexual passion at once feared and desired. There is the summer night when the sedative given by Madame Beck has a strange effect:

Imagination was roused from her rest, and she came forth impetuous and venturous. With scorn she looked on Matter, her mate—

"Rise!" she said; "Sluggard! this night I will have my will; nor shalt thou prevail."

"Look forth and view the night!" was her cry; and when I lifted the heavy blind from the casement close at hand—with her own royal gesture, she showed me a moon supreme, in an element deep and splendid.

… She lured me to leave this den and follow her forth into dew, coolness, and glory.

There follows the most magnificent of all Charlotte's nocturnes: that vision of the "moonlit, midnight park," the brilliance of the fete, the strange charm of places and people, recounted in a rhythmical, enchanted style (the "Kubla Khan" mode) which at first reading gives the air of a dream mistaken for reality to what is in fact reality made like a dream. This is a surrealistic, trance-like episode which makes available to fiction a vast new territory and idiom. The surrealistic is, despite Montague Summers, one of the new phases of Gothic, which in its role of liberator of feeling characteristically explores the non-naturalistic: to come up, as here, with a profounder nature, or a nature freshly, even disturbingly, seen.

The surrealism of Lucy's evening is possible only to a special sensitivity, and it is really the creation of this sensitivity, in part pathological, that is at the apex of Charlotte's Gothic. In The Professor the tensions in the author's contemplation of her own experience come into play; in Shirley various undercurrents of personality push up into the social surfaces of life; in Jane Eyre moral feeling is subjected to the remolding pressures of a newly vivid consciousness of the diverse impulses of sexuality; and in Villette the feeling responses to existence are pursued into sufferings that edge over into disorder. The psychology of rejection and alienation, first applied to Polly, becomes the key to Lucy, who, finding no catharsis for a sense of desolation, generates a serious inner turmoil. She suffers from "a terrible oppression" and then from "anxiety lying in wait on enjoyment, like a tiger crouched in a jungle … his fierce heart panted close against mine;… I knew he waited only for sun-down to bound ravenous from his ambush." Depression is fed by the conflict between a loveless routine of life and her longings, which she tried to put down like "Jael to Sisera, driving a nail through their temples"; but this only "transiently stunned" them and "at intervals [they] would turn on the nail with a rebellious wrench: then did the temples bleed, and the brain thrill to its core."

These strains prepare us for the high point in Charlotte's new Gothic—the study of Lucy's emotional collapse and near breakdown when vacation comes and she is left alone at the school with "a poor deformed and imbecile pupil." "My heart almost died within me;… My spirits had long been gradually sinking; now that the prop of employment was withdrawn, they went down fast." After three weeks, storms bring on "a deadlier paralysis"; and "my nervous system could hardly support" the daily strain. She wanders in the street: "A goad thrust me on, a fever forbade me to rest;…" She observes a "growing illusion" and says, "… my nerves are getting overstretched;…" She feels that "a malady is growing upon" her mind, and she asks herself, "How shall I keep well?" Then come "a peculiarly agonizing depression"; a nine-days storm: "a strange fever of the nerves and blood"; continuing insomnia, broken only by a terrifying nightmare of alienation. She flees the house, and then comes the climactic event of her going to a church and despite the intensity of her Protestant spirit entering the confessional to find relief.

From now on, overtly or implicitly, hypochondria and anxiety keep coming into the story—the enemies from whose grip Lucy must gradually free herself. At a concert she spotted the King as a fellow-victim of "that strangest spectre, Hypochondria," for on his face she saw its marks, whose meaning, "if I did not know, at least I felt,…" When, after her return to Beck's on a rainy night, things are not going well, a letter from Dr. John is "the ransom from my terror," and its loss drives her almost to frenzy. She describes night as "an unkindly time" when she has strange fancies, doubts, the "horror of calamity." She is aware of her "easily-deranged temperament." Beyond this area of her own self-understanding we see conflicts finding dramatic expression in her almost wild acceptance of Rachel's passionate acting of Phèdre ("a spectacle low, horrible, immoral"), which counterbalances her vehement condemnation of a fleshy nude by Rubens (one of the "materialists"). Paul identifies her, in a figure whose innocence for him is betrayed by the deep, if not wholly conscious, understanding that leads Charlotte to write it: "a young she wild creature, new caught, untamed, viewing with a mixture of fire and fear the first entrance of the breaker in."

There is not room to trace Lucy's recovery, especially in the important phase, the love affair with Paul which is related to our theme by compelling, as do the Jane-Rochester and Louis Moore-Shirley relationships in quite different ways, a radical revision of the feelings exacted by stereotyped romance. What is finally noteworthy is that Charlotte, having chosen in Lucy a heroine with the least durable emotional equipment, with the most conspicuous neurotic element in her temperament, goes on through the history of Lucy's emotional maturing to surmount the need for romantic fulfillment and to develop the aesthetic courage for a final disaster—the only one in her four novels.

Some years ago Edmund Wilson complained of writers of Gothic who "fail to lay hold on the terrors that lie deep in the human soul and that cause man to fear himself" and proposed an anthology of horror stories that probe "psychological caverns" and find "disquieting obsessions." This is precisely the direction in which Charlotte Brontë moved, especially in Lucy Snowe and somewhat also in Caroline Helstone and Shirley Keeldar; this was one aspect of her following human emotions where they took her, into many depths and intensities that as yet hardly had a place in the novel. This was the finest achievement of Gothic.

Gothic is variously defined. In a recent book review Leslie Fiedler implies that Gothic is shoddy mystery-mongering, whereas F. Cudworth Flint defines the Gothic tradition, which he considers "nearly central in American literature," as "a literary exploration of the avenues to death." For Montague Summers, on the other hand, Gothic was the essence of romanticism, and romanticism was the literary expression of supernaturalism. Both these latter definitions, though they are impractically inclusive, have suggestive value. For originally Gothic was one of a number of aesthetic developments which served to breach the "classical" and "rational" order of life and to make possible a kind of response, and a response to a kind of thing, that among the knowing had long been taboo. In the novel it was the function of Gothic to open horizons beyond social patterns, rational decisions, and institutionally approved emotions; in a word, to enlarge the sense of reality and its impact on the human being. It became then a great liberator of feeling. It acknowledged the nonrational—in the world of things and events, occasionally in the realm of the transcendental, ultimately and most persistently in the depths of the human being. (Richardson might have started this, but his sense of inner forces was so overlaid by the moralistic that his followers all ran after him only when he ran the wrong way.) The first Gothic writers took the easy way: the excitement of mysterious scene and happening, which I call old Gothic. Of this Charlotte Brontë made some direct use, while at the same time tending toward humorous modifications (anti-Gothic); but what really counts is its indirect usefulness to her: it released her from the patterns of the novel of society and therefore permitted the flowering of her real talent—the talent for finding and giving dramatic form to impulses and feelings which, because of their depth or mysteriousness or intensity or ambiguity, or of their ignoring or transcending everyday norms of propriety or reason, increase wonderfully the sense of reality in the novel. To note the emergence of this "new Gothic" in Charlotte Brontë is not, I think, to pursue an old mode into dusty corners but rather to identify historically the distinguishing, and distinguished, element in her work.

Further Reading

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Crump, Rebecca W. Charlotte and Emily Brontë: A Reference Guide. 3 vols. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982–1986, 194 p.

Provides an annotated compilation of secondary sources from 1846 to 1983.

Passel, Anne. Charlotte and Emily Brontë: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland Publishing, 1979, 359 p.

Organizes criticism by text.


Gaskell, Elizabeth. The Life of Charlotte Brontë. London: E. P. Dutton, 1908, 411 p.

Offers a biography by one of Brontë's contemporaries; includes large extracts from Brontë's correspondence.

Gérin, Winifred. Charlotte Brontë: The Evolution of Genius. London: Oxford University Press, 1967, 617 p.

Biography focusing on Charlotte Brontë's development as an author.

Gordon, Lyndall. Charlotte Brontë: A Passionate Life. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996, 418 p.

Provides revisionist insights into Brontë's life.

Miller, Lucasta. The Brontë Myth. New York: Knopf, 2004, 351 p.

Offers a biography that retraces myth surrounding the Brontë sisters, particularly Charlotte.


Alexander, Christine. "'That Kingdom of Gloom': Charlotte Brontë, the Annuals, and the Gothic." Nineteenth-Century Literature 47, no. 4 (March 1993): 409-36.

Examines the influence on Brontë's writings of the Gothic tales included in popular nineteenth-century periodicals and annuals, gift books containing poetry, prose fiction, and illustrations.

Avery, Simon. "'Some Strange and Spectral Dream': The Brontës' Manipulation of the Gothic Mode." Brontë Society Transactions 23, no. 2 (October 1998): 120-35.

Explores the ways in which the Brontës each utilized and modified the traditional Gothic.

Cecil, David. "Charlotte Brontë." In Early Victorian Novelists: Essays in Revaluation, pp. 119-54. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1935.

Delineates Brontë's flaws as a novelist while at the same time averring that she is a creative genius and that even her weakest passages are "pulsing with her intensity, fresh with her charm."

Chen, Chih-Ping. "'Am I a Monster?': Jane Eyre among the Shadows of Freaks." Studies in the Novel 34, no. 4 (winter 2002): 367-84.

Relates Brontë's presentation of Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre to the freak shows popular during the nineteenth century, suggesting parallels between Bertha's "enfreakment" and Jane's search for her own identity.

Chesterton, G. K. "Charlotte Brontë as a Romantic." In Charlotte Brontë, 1816–1916: A Centenary Memorial, pp. 49-54. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1917.

Discusses the coexistence of romance and realism in the novels of Charlotte Brontë.

Crosby, Christina. "Charlotte Brontë's Haunted Text." SEL: Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 24, no. 4 (autumn 1984): 701-15.

A feminist interpretation that examines the impact of Gothic elements on Villette, a work often categorized as a realist novel.

DeLamotte, Eugenia C. "Gothic Romance and Women's Reality in Jane Eyre." In Perils of the Night: A Feminist Study of Nineteenth-Century Gothic, pp. 193-228. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Explores the combination of Gothic elements and realism in Jane Eyre and the impact of that combination on Jane's quest for her identity.

Gubar, Susan. "The Buried Life of Lucy Snowe: Villette." In The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan M. Gubar, pp. 399-440. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979.

Suggests that Villette, with a protagonist cut off from society, family, money, and confidence, "is perhaps the most moving and terrifying account of female deprivation ever written."

Martin, Robert Bernard. "Jane Eyre." In Accents of Persuasion: Charlotte Brontë's Novels, pp. 57-108. London: Faber & Faber, 1966.

An interpretation of Jane Eyre as a novel that seeks a balance between reason and passion.

Milbank, Alison. "'Handling the Veil': Charlotte Brontë." In Daughters of the House: Modes of the Gothic in Victorian Fiction, pp. 140-57. New York: St. Martin's, 1992.

Delineates Brontë's expansion of the traditional women's role in Gothic literature.

Nicoll, W. Robertson. "Charlotte Brontë and One of Her Critics." The Bookman 10 (January 1900): 441-43.

Presents a review of Villette from the Christian Remembrancer and a response by Brontë in which she protests the reviewer's judgments of her character.

Rai, Amit S. "The Black Spectre of Sympathy: The 'Occult' Relation in Jane Eyre." Lit: Literature Interpretation Theory 14, no. 3 (July-September 2003): 243-68.

Asserts the importance of sympathy in Jane Eyre as a "paradoxical mode of power."

Rigby, Elizabeth. "Vanity Fair—and Jane Eyre." The London Quarterly Review, no. 167 (December 1948): 82-99.

An unsigned review attributed to Rigby. Describes Jane Eyre as a "remarkable" work, but criticizes the author for a combination of "total ignorance of the habits of society, a great coarseness of taste, and a heathenish doctrine of religion."

Woolf, Virginia. "Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights." In her Collected Essays, pp. 185-90. London: The Hogarth Press, 1966.

Compares Jane Eyre with Wuthering Heights, praising the former as a vivid, absorbing, passionate, and poetic novel.


Additional coverage of Brontë's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 17; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 2; British Writers, Vol. 5; British Writers: The Classics, Vol. 2; British Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 1; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1832–1890; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 21, 159, 199; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Novels; Feminism in Literature: A Gale Critical Companion; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 2; Literature Resource Center; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 3, 8, 33, 58, 105, 155; Novels for Students, Vol. 4; Twayne's English Authors; World Literature and Its Times, Vol. 4; and World Literature Criticism.


Brontë, Charlotte