Emily and Charlotte wrote fantastic Gothic novels. Anne wrote incredible social criticism and should really be much more famous that she is. I’m not going to write about Anne here, but everyone should read ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’, a properly non-gothic account of what it’s actually like being an intelligent independent woman living with a Byronic hero.
When reading ‘I Capture the Castle’ by Dodie Smith I lost patience with the narrator very early on. We’re told that when her sister exclaims: “How I wish I lived in a Jane Austen novel” I said I’d rather be Charlotte Brontë. I’m sorry, I love ‘Jane Eyre’ as much as the next reader, but people really suffer in Brontë novels; they suffer all the time. On the other hand, as a literary world to visit in my own time, I love Charlotte Brontë’s invention. I’m still not sure I’d actually like to visit ‘Wuthering Heights’, but I’d be happy to stare at its inhabitants through the bars of some kind of literary zoo.
For the purposes of this blog, I want to claim ‘Jane Eyre’ as Gothic. It can also be classified as a coming of age novel or as feminist social critique (kind of) but it’s also safely Gothic. We have madness, sexuality, isolated mansions and beleaguered innocence. Very gothic.
We also have an important transfer from strange foreign villains to home-grown Byronic heroes. Rochester is the baddy and the goody at the same time, and, despite his dark complexion, he’s clearly English to the core. I love the way Charlotte Bronte updates Gothic for the Victorian age, and forced her readers to realise how close to home all the madness really was. In the age of detectives and improved communication, hidden crime would need to adapt and Brontë gives a masterclass in presenting inner demons to strike fear into her readers.
Emily Brontë, in my reading of her anyway, had no interest in updating anything for the real world because she barely inhabited it. Her characters may as well live in a fairy-tale kingdom for all the contact they have with Victorian England – when people go to Liverpool they come back with half-wild orphan changelings for goodness’ sake. In 1847 there was the famine in Ireland, industrialisation in the north of England and a general election, but you’d never know from reading ‘Wuthering Heights’. This isn’t a criticism of the book of course, it’s just a comment on how far Gothic escapism can take you. The passion of Brontë’s writing is what carries this novel, not morality, not realism, not sensible cause and effect. The feminist in me does want to add a quick safety warning, like earlier Gothic, you are strongly recommended not to try this at home. Heathcliffs should stay in gothic literature where they belong, and they should keep their puppy-hanging tendencies with them.
For a more nuanced view of ‘Wuthering Heights’ please see my more recent blog post, written after a wonderful, more tolerant, re-read.