chapter  6
14 Pages

The not-so new Gothic: Charlotte Brontë’s juvenilia and the Gothic tradition


The Brontë sisters began their literary careers when a set of wooden soldiers was shared with them by their brother Branwell, who was himself keen to have his siblings join him in a round of literary mythmaking. Branwell and Charlotte and then Emily and Anne eventually formed two co-authoring teams that composed the plays and stories. Heather Glen explains that they used miniscule script because “the earliest Glass Town volumes were designed to be ‘read’ by wooden soldiers only twelve inches high” (Glen, Charlotte Brontë: The Imagination 10). The early writings that resulted from this imaginative play – specifically Charlotte Brontë’s “An Interesting Passage” (1830), “Visits in Verreopolis, vols. I and II” (1830), The Green Dwarf: A Tale of the Present Perfect, with its interpolated vignette “Napoleon and the Spectre” (1833), and The Spell: An Extravaganza (1834) – reveal how thoroughly immersed Charlotte Brontë was in the Gothic literary tradition that had saturated Great Britain and Europe for the past fifty years.1 Although literary historians routinely point to the influence of the Arabian Nights, Sir Walter Scott, George Gordon, Lord Byron, the Lady’s Magazine, Fraser’s Magazine, Forget Me Not, and Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine stories in particular on the imaginations of the Brontë sisters,2 a major overlooked source for a number of their works is the Gothic novel and, more specifically, the down-market garish works typified by authors such as Elizabeth Carver, Thomas Isaac Horsley Curties, Charlotte Dacre, George Walker, and William-Henry Ireland. I make this claim because many of the tropes in Charlotte Brontë’s juvenilia seem to echo (very uncannily) the plots, characters, and representations in the novels of these authors.3 While Robert Heilman has claimed that the Gothic that we see in the mature works of Charlotte Brontë is a sort of “new” Gothic, more clearly psychological and focused on the effects of the internalization of the hackneyed tropes of the traditional Gothic,4 in fact, such a claim is only accurate if we ignore the juvenilia, which are highly derivative and not “new” at all. This essay is an attempt to ask what difference does the juvenilia make when critics make claims about Charlotte Brontë’s literary career based only on the mature novels? I hope here to correct Heilman’s thesis by expanding our consideration of Charlotte Brontë’s texts and by including a discussion of her juvenilia as what I would call the not-so-new Gothic.