THE INFLUENCE OF BYRONISM UNTIL WORLD WAR II
1. Introduction (by Paola Enguix)
2. Influence of Byronism until World War II
2.1. Byron’s influence on Victorian writer Charlotte Bronte (by Mª José Jorquera)
Byronic phenomenon spreads throughout the world and the history since its birth, influencing literary figures as we will see. First we will stop at the Victorian age, which presents us exceptional writers such as the one we will study: Charlotte Bronte. Her novel Jane Eyre has provided a great deal of examples so that we come to think it has a lot on influence from Byronism. We will try to analyse these examples paying attention to its two main characters: Mr. Rochester and Jane Eyre, and will try to relate situations occurred in the story to Byronism.
2.1.1. Charlotte Bronte's
Bronte's literary character of
In Chapter 11 of Jane Eyre, Jane asks of Mrs. Fairfax, "What, in short, is his character?" To this Mrs. Fairfax replies, "He is rather peculiar, perhaps: he has travelled a great deal, and seen a great deal of the world, I should think. I dare say he is clever" (136). This account by Mrs. Fairfax of her master establishes Rochester as a sort of wanderer. Similarly, there is the account of Rochester's promiscuous travel throughout Europe before his marriage to Bertha, where he has an affair with Celine Varens. Several times throughout the novel Rochester mysteriously arrives at and departs from Thornfield Hall, and frequently the residents of Thornfield must wonder at his return, as does Jane at the opening of Chapter 17:
A week passed, and no news arrived of Mr. Rochester: ten days; and still he did not come. Mrs. Fairfax said she should not be surprised if he were to go straight from the Leas to London, and thence to the Continent, and not show his face again Thornfield for a year to come: he had not unfrequently quitted it in a manner quite abrupt and unexpected. (192)
Rochester is also moody -- Jane notes this upon her first few encounters with him at Thornfield Hall. At first he is abrupt with and almost unkind to Jane; this is seen in his response to her entrance, and her thoughts on his response, during the initial encounter in the drawing room at Thornfield:
"Let Miss Eyre be seated," he said: and there was something in the forced stiff bow, in the impatient yet formal tone, which seemed further to express, "What the deuce is it to me whether Miss Eyre be there or not? At this moment I am not disposed to accost her." (152, ch.13)
At times he is congenial and attentive, while at other times he is cold and aloof: here he is the latter. But subsequent to this encounter, Rochester warms to Jane after she has saved his life from the fire in his room: "You have saved my life: I have a pleasure in owing you so immense a debt . . . . Nothing else that has being would have been tolerable to me in the character of creditor for such an obligation: but you: it is different" (182, ch.15).
Certainly Rochester is passionate about Jane - another Byronic characteristic - and this is demonstrated in this passage where Rochester is speaking to Jane: he contrasts her (and his love for her) with his lawful wife, Bertha:
Then you are mistaken, and you know nothing about me, and nothing about the sort of love of which I am capable. Every atom of your flesh is as dear to me as my own: in pain and in sickness it would still be dear. Your mind is my treasure, and if it were broken, it would be my treasure still: if you raved, my arms should confine you, and not a straight waistcoat . . . . I should not shrink from you with disgust as I did from her. (329, ch.27)
There are two effects of this passage, however, which are diametrically opposed. While this passage provides evidence of his passion and his acute sense of self-awareness about his own emotions (both characteristic of a Byronic hero), it is also indicative of the conventionalities of his character. He requires human companionship, and he ultimately dislikes isolation: at one point Rochester exclaims, "Solitude! solitude! … You [Jane] are to share my solitude" (329, ch.27). Also, Rochester desires a conventional marriage with Jane; at least, he has convinced himself that it would be a conventional marriage.
Rochester's bigamy -- or near-bigamy, as the case may be -- provides an excellent illustration of the "Byronic" side of his character. He refuses to acknowledge the legal and moral code of the society in which he lives by refusing to acknowledge his marriage to Bertha Mason, and this simultaneously makes him unrepentant -- both are qualities of a Byronic hero. He views Bertha as his ward, someone who must be taken care of, and not as his wife. He pursues Jane while still married to Bertha, because he has convinced himself that his marriage to Bertha is unrecognizable as such. Since bigamy is legally criminal (in the context here, also considered a sexual crime), Rochester also carries the burden of the guilt associated with it -- another characteristic of a Byronic hero. This is shown by the secrecy maintained about his attempted marriage to Jane, and it is also exhibited in his early conduct with Jane shortly after she arrives at Thornfield Hall. Jane questions Mrs. Fairfax about his behavior in Chapter 13 when she first comments:
"[H]e is very changeful and abrupt."
"True: no doubt, he may appear so to a stranger, but I am so accustomed to his manner, I never think of it; and then, if he has peculiarities of temper, allowance should be made," [Mrs. Fairfax replies].
"Partly because it is his nature-and we can none of us help our nature; and, partly, he has painful thoughts, no doubt, to harass him, and make his spirits unequal." (158-59, ch.13)
This conversation between Jane and Mrs. Fairfax indicates that it is noticeable to others that Rochester carries guilt, the "painful thoughts", about something in his past: Bertha, of course, and his marriage to her and his treatment of her.
Although there are striking examples of how Rochester's character is that of a Byronic hero, there are perhaps as many examples of him as a conventional man. In a letter to W. S. Williams in 1848, Bronte describes how she intended to portray the character of Rochester. Bronte writes:
Mr. Rochester has a thoughtful nature and a very feeling heart; he is neither selfish nor self-indulgent; he is ill-educated, misguided; errs, when he does err, through rashness and inexperience: he lives for a time as too many other men live, but being radically better than most men, he does not like that degraded life, and is never happy in it. He is taught the severe lessons of experience and has sense to learn wisdom from them. Years improve him; the effervescence of youth foamed away, what is really good in him still remains. (Bloom 3)
Even Bronte's own description of him sends a mixed message. Perhaps most importantly, she specifically says he is "ill-educated," has a good nature and a "feeling heart," and is not selfish or self-indulgent -- all of these characteristics seem to be at odds with that of a Byronic hero. Yet she also describes him as "radically better than most men," and through this description, that Rochester learns from his experience, she implies that he possesses self-awareness - a characteristic that is consistent with those of a Byronic hero.
The most convincing evidence of Rochester's conventionality, which Bronte provides for the reader, is Rochester's own descriptions of himself. In Chapter 18, when Rochester and Blanche Ingram are bantering back and forth about the charade they have just performed, Rochester asks her, "You would like a hero of the road then?" To this Blanche replies, "An English hero of the road would be the next best thing to an Italian bandit; and that could only be surpasses by a Levantine pirate" (214). By "English hero of the road" Blanche clearly means a Byronic hero, for it was the most notable hero in English literary history (Thorslev 189), and here Blanche implies that she views Rochester as such a character. The response that Bronte provides Rochester with, however, provides evidence that he is not so convincingly defined. He responds, "Well, whatever I am, remember you are my wife; we were married an hour since, in the presence of all these witnesses" (214, ch.18). When Rochester says, "Well, whatever I am…," he discretely rejects what she has implied: Blanche misunderstands Rochester's character. With his (now legal) marriage to Jane at the end of the novel and their residence at the Manor House of Ferndean, Bronte indicates that Rochester is less Byronic than he at first may appear to the reader.
2.1.2. Jane Eyre: A Byronic Heroine?
In the introduction to a compilation of essays
on the Bronte sisters, Harold Bloom notes that
It seems not to have been primarily the coarseness and sexuality of Jane Eyre which shocked Victorian reviewers . . . but . . . its "anti-Christian" refusal to accept the forms, customs, and standards of society -- in short, its rebellious feminism. They were disturbed not so much by the proud Byronic sexual energy of Rochester as by the Byronic pride and passion of Jane herself. (Bloom 3)
The contemporary reactions to Jane Eyre, however, may be more accurately viewed as an expression indicative of a so-called "Victorian prudery" (Winnifrith 76), for Jane's character, like Rochester's, lies closer to the conventional than the Byronic on a continuum of possible characterizations.
While Jane can be seen as primarily conventional, there are three characteristics which provide the strongest examples of Jane Eyre as a Byronic heroine: her refusal to repent, her intellectual and emotional superiority, and her rejection of value systems and moral codes. Throughout her childhood at Gateshead Hall and later at Lowood, appeals are constantly made to Jane to repent. The earliest appeal also appears in Chapter Two; the order is given by Miss Abbot as Jane is locked in the "red room": "Say your prayers, Miss Eyre, when you are by yourself; for if you don't repent, something bad might be permitted to come down the chimney, and fetch you away" (45). Of course, following this appeal, there is no mention by the narrative Jane of her repentance. In a conversation with Rochester, however, Jane's response to Rochester contradicts this:
"When fate wronged me, I had not the wisdom to remain cool: I turned desperate; then I degenerated. Now, when any vicious simpleton excites my disgust by his paltry ribaldry, I cannot flatter myself that I am better than he . . . . I wish I had stood firm-God knows I do! Dread remorse when you are tempted to err, Miss Eyre: remorse is the poison of life."
"Repentance is said to be its cure, sir." (167, ch.14)
While it is done so hesitatingly ("Repentance is said to be its cure," she emphasizes), Jane's reply indicates that she accepts what she has said to Rochester as true.
An equally important characteristic of a Byronic hero is that of superior intellectual and emotional capacity. Millicent Bell points out that Jane is "threateningly intelligent, forthright to the point of bluntness, submitting herself mentally to no one, not even when she finally does improbably win a man's love. Her unsubmissiveness, her independence is her social fault" (263). Yet Jane is at the same time submissive, and she desires to be so. Rochester asks her, "And will you stay with me?" To this, she replies:
Certainly-unless you object. I will be your neighbor, your nurse, your housekeeper. I find you lonely: I will be your companion-to read to you, to walk with you, to sit with you, to wait on you, to be eyes and hands to you. Cease to look so melancholy, my dear master; you shall not be left desolate, so long as I live. (460, ch.37)
Her willingness to serve the deserving Rochester, which is clearly indicated in this passage, is not slavish, but instead it indicates Jane's compassionate nature; she is not at all the characteristically dark, brooding, and mysterious Byronic heroine.
In some ways, Jane does exhibit Byronic qualities to a greater extent than Rochester. She constantly questions authority and established value systems, which she essentially rejects. Jane is also painfully self-conscious, even at a very young age. The opening paragraph to Chapter Two (after Jane has been banished to the "red room" by Mrs. Reed) provides an example of both:
I resisted all the way: a new thing for me, and a circumstance which greatly strengthened the bad opinion Bessie and Miss Abbot were disposed to entertain of me. The fact is, I was conscious that a moment's mutiny had already rendered me liable to strange penalties, and like any other rebel slave, I felt resolved, in my desperation, to go all lengths. (44)
But despite the weak appearance of a Byronic heroine, Jane's character ultimately does not escape the conventional. Jane is most happy when she is serving others.
Winter 2005. University of Michigan-Dearborn
Instructor: Jonathan Smith
Editorial Assistance: Lisa Denney, Elizabeth Bellalouna, and Lauren Russette
2.2. The 20th Century
2.2.1. The first decades of the 20th Century (by Josué Álvarez)
2.2.2. The Thirties (by Manuela Elisa Blanes & Julia Fernández)
3. Conclusion (by Aina García & Mª Llanos García)