chapter  10
14 Pages

From Angria to Thornfield: Charlotte Brontë’s cross-period development of the Byronic hero


Shortly after the October 1847 publication of Jane Eyre, numerous press reviews appeared, alternately praising the novel for its passion and psychological truth while fixating on the novel’s “coarse” elements and whether Currer Bell was in fact a man or a woman – or even a man and woman, in the case of one confused American reviewer (Whipple 98). Two other strains are notable in the early critical commentary. First, many reviews discuss Mr. Rochester’s character, with the anonymous mixed review in the Christian Remembrancer noting his “shade of Byronic gloom and appetizing mystery” and identifying the figure as “a true embodiment of the visions of a female imagination” (90). The radical writer A. W. Fonblanque is characteristic in remarking on Mr. Rochester’s less than heroic attributes: “The hero, if so he may be called, is (or becomes) middle-aged, mutilated, blind, stern, and wilful” (77). Many critics picked up on the ways Charlotte Brontë had embraced and then subverted the figure of the Byronic hero, making him both an attractive and ambivalent hero for the domestic novel. Second, some critics make a point of commenting on Jane Eyre’s originality and differentiate it from the novels of the 1820s and 30s. The reviewer for the Era takes this position: “We have no high life glorified, caricatured, or libelled; nor low life elevated to an enviable state of bliss; neither have we vice made charming. The story is therefore unlike all that we have read, with very few exceptions” (79).1 The anonymous writer sets Jane Eyre apart from the popular genres of the 1820s and 30s, now little studied and seldom read: the silver fork or fashionable novels of Edward Bulwer, Benjamin Disraeli, Lady Blessington and Catherine Gore, and the Newgate novels which glorified criminality, such as Bulwer’s Eugene Aram (1832) and William Harrison Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard (1839). Versions of the Byronic hero were lifted from Romantic poetry to appear in the role of the passionately agonizing criminal, the urbane dandy and the morbid melancholic in these novels. Unbeknownst to her reviewers (and most present-day readers), Charlotte Brontë had in her early writings become adept at depicting the Byronic hero in various guises within these very genres. Mr. Rochester is a Byronic hero in all his ambivalent attractiveness and is significant because he is the most fully developed and final iteration in Charlotte Brontë’s manipulation of this trope. He is the result of conscious experimentation within existing, popular literary genres and evolves

he is the writes another fully Byronic hero. Charlotte Brontë’s use of the Byronic hero throughout her development as a

writer should make critics reconsider the commonplace identification of the Brontë sisters as Victorian writers. After all, Charlotte Brontë began writing the Glass Town tales in 1829 at the age of thirteen. The adolescent Brontës – including Branwell Brontë, who collaborated closely with Charlotte Brontë – were intensely interested in the politics, figures and issues of the early nineteenth century, well-acquainted with Catholic Emancipation, the Duke of Wellington and early exploration of west-central Africa by Mungo Park. Their early writing, running from 1829 to about 1839 in Charlotte Brontë’s case, drew inspiration from the writers of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine and Fraser’s Magazine, as well as Romantic authors, including Sir Walter Scott, William Wordsworth and Lord Byron, among others. Charlotte Brontë’s career as a writer has its roots in Romantic culture, even if she only achieved publication as a Victorian. This essay considers what happens when we track Charlotte Brontë’s use of

the Byronic hero over the course of her writing life. How does this figure develop? What are the causes for these shifts? Can they be traced back to Charlotte Brontë’s growing maturity and confidence as a writer of fiction? Or do these changes keep step with literary trends? What did the Byronic hero mean to Charlotte Brontë? Did she use the figure in the same way as her brother Branwell Brontë, or did she chart her own path? In this piece, I draw on Andrew Elfenbein’s study of Byron’s influence on the Victorians, particularly his chapter on Emily Brontë in Byron and the Victorians (1995). I have also been influenced by the approach taken by Christine Alexander’s article “Charlotte Brontë, Autobiography, and the Image of the Hero”, which discusses Charlotte Brontë’s use of Wellington in her early and mature writings. Both Elfenbein and Alexander address the degree to which a writer’s use of such a figure may conform to or subvert literary trends in representation. Alexander also addresses the self-fashioning aspects such literary imitation or hero-worship can have, thus making the literary into personal matter.2 I also hope to extend Heather Glen’s consideration of Brontë’s use of silver fork novel conventions in her later Angrian novelettes. Charlotte Brontë had read Byron widely by 4 July 1834, when she recommended

his poetry to her friend Ellen Nussey, with the exceptions of Don Juan (18191824) and possibly Cain (1821), which Charlotte Brontë nevertheless identified as “a magnificent poem” (Letters I:130). In tempering her recommendation, Charlotte Brontë reproduced the guidance offered by periodical reviewers of Byron to women readers, though she ignored it herself, as is evident in the many textual echoes of Don Juan in Charlotte Brontë’s early work (Elfenbein 72).3

Charlotte Brontë even reproduces Byron: for example, High Life in Verdopolis begins with an epigraph lifted from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812-18), but is modified to fit the Angrian setting (EEW II:ii 3n).4 Elfenbein suggests that