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Bronte: Adapting the Bildungsroman


When Gilbert and Gubar wrote that “women in patriarchal societies have historically been imprisoned in male texts” they were referring not only to the stereotypes which, following the binary pattern of angel/monster “kill” women into images of themselves, but also, in the wider sense, to the female writer’s problematic struggle for artistic self-definition. This, they argued, was complicated not only by the representation of the female as Other in male texts but also by the patriarchal notion that “the male quality” as Gerald Manley Hopkins defined it, “is the creative gift”, and the assumption that, if this is so, the reverse must be true.

In light of the pervasive view that, in Gilbert and Gubar’s words, the “writer fathers his text just as God fathered the world” it is perhaps understandable that Charlotte Bronte, having, as she said, “a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice”, refused to give up her androgynous alias Currer Bell throughout her literary career.

In fact, in many ways, Charlotte Bronte typifies the woman writer’s struggle to escape from the male text, in both the negative and positive sense.

Like countless other female writers, it was probably the fear that she would be termed “a woman and not an artist” as Graham Bretton says of Vashti in Villette, which drove her to disguise her gender. However, although her metaphorical male impersonation in her first novel, The Professor may have allowed her to overcome what Gilbert and Gubar termed “anxiety of authorship”, in trying to deny her gender Bronte created an identity crisis as serious as the anxiety she was attempting to escape from, and inevitably cut herself off from what has often been described as the source of her originality and power – her own experience of life.

In her two most successful novels, Jane Eyre and Villette, Charlotte Bronte breaks away from Crimsworth, the first person male narrator in the Professor, and speaks instead through Jane and Lucy’s predecessor: Frances Henri, the woman who felt “the strong pulse of Ambition.” Subverting elements of the Gothic tradition, she adapts the prose fiction form she had used in the Professor – the Bildungsroman - to represent the power women can take for themselves.


In writing her first novel, Bronte said that she had “restrained imagination, eschewed romance, repressed excitement” and even avoided “over-bright colouring”. She had, in other words, distanced herself as much as possible from the world of Angria, with its rich, often extravagant imagination and intense emotion, in order to produce “something which should be soft, grave and true.”

This determination to abide by the subdued realism of the autobiographical novel of the time can be seen as another aspect of Bronte’s male mimicry, her “desire to appear male” as Gaskell called it. It could be said that in setting out to reproduce the Bildungsroman as she found it, she implicitly accepted that in order to write publicly – to write seriously - she had to write in the style created foor and by men, thereby also accepting the underlying patriarchal idea of creativity as a male quality.

However, cut off from the Angrian world, which, as Margaret Lane has noted, “lay very near the heart of her inspiration”, she was, not surprisingly, unable to truly express her self, and the result was that The Professor was not published until 1857, two years after her death. During her lifetime, she had to, as she said, ‘put him by and lock[ed] him up’. And with ‘him’, she seems to have locked up her futile efforts to duplicate the male autobiographical novel, at least in so far as imitating it’s style and structure were concerned, as Jane Eyre demonstrates.

In her second novel, instead of suppressing her secret world, Bronte utilized it, and even at times expressed herself through it. Angria, as Kathleen Tillotson has argued, became a positive value for the first time, as the author framed her heroine’s story with material from her fantasy world, and in doing so, personalized the Bildungsroman to fit her distinctly female narrative.

Despite her recognition of the dangers on the dream, her conviction that ‘it would not do’, her claim that she had ‘had enough of morbidly vivid realisations’, Charlotte Bronte, as her biographer Juliet Barker notes, “had never lost her childhood addiction to mystery and the magical and supernatural.” This ‘childhood addiction’ pervades her novels - the Angrian fantasy world, the sometime oppressive golden dream, combining with elements of the Gothic tradition to produce something that often seems to be poised between the sensational, or at least, the unrealistically “improbable” and what G.H Lewes described as “deep, significant reality.”

It is through this paradoxical position that Charlotte Bronte adapted the forms she makes use of in both Jane Eyre and Villette. On the one hand, by allowing herself to make use of her Angrian fantasy world, she breaks away from the tradition of realism in the Bildungsroman, on the other hand, she carefully disinfects her novel of “feverish emotion” by subverting and undermining the melodramatic Gothic conventions she uses. As Gilbert and Gubar put it, she committed herself to “an oscillation between overtly “angelic” dogma and covertly satanic fury”.

Perhaps inevitably, in her adaptation of the autobiographical form, Bronte was criticized, among other things, for “improbability.” In one sense, it is true that Jane Eyre is, a “roaring melodrama” as David Cecil called it, with it’s rescues and escapes, it’s mad wife, and the rather unlikely coincidence of Jane’s collapsing at the doorstep of her only surviving relatives, to say nothing of the much-criticized “cry” from Rochester which finally makes her decide against St John.

Even Villette, which on the surface, as the quiet chronicle of a teacher’s career, cannot be further from sensational melodrama, is “bristling with improbability”. Most of the coincidences center around the Brettons, more specifically, Graham Bretton, who appears in many different guises throughout the novel – first as Lucy’s godmother’s somewhat spoilt son, then as the unknown man who helps Lucy on her arrival to Belgium, then as Dr. John, who saves her (without recognizing her) when she faints in the streets, and finally as Graham Bretton, who rescues Polly, his other childhood friend, from the fire at the theatre. All these coincidences are, as in Jane Eyre, unconvincing to say the least, and would be unacceptable in an ordinary domestic novel. Such incidents certainly seemed to have no place in the conventional autobiographical novel of the time.

Yet the author’s choice of this form is, as Kathleen Tillotson argues, of vital importance. Not only because, as has often been noted, Bronte’s personal life was the substance of her novels and the Bildungsroman allowed her to communicate her experience while fictionalizing it, but also because, in her use of a feminine first-person narrator she was able to achieve a degree of focus which imparted not only remarkable unity, but also total identification with her heroines. In contrast to the Professor, where the narrator is a somewhat effete male (until he becomes “Master” to Frances Henri), and Shirley, where Bronte split her third person narrative between two female protagonists, in Jane Eyre and Villette the heroine narrator is always there, at the center of the novel – in Jane Eyre, we follow the heroine in a mythic mystery quest, in Villette we observe with the observer Lucy Snowe.

In Jane Eyre, the identification with the heroine is obvious – it is almost impossible not to be drawn into her life. Much of this may stem from the fact that we follow her life from childhood, as in a typical autobiography, although of course the narrative ends, famously with “Reader, I married him” and not, as in a male autobiography, with the prospect of a successful career. The story of great expectations is an exclusively male text, tracing a man’s journey through life. Charlotte Bronte could not imitate it, for she was not only telling the story of a woman, but as Gilbert and Gubar said of Lucy, a “woman without”.

It is this, perhaps, which most necessitated Bronte’s adaptations to the Bildungsroman. Lucy may be “without” in the sense of outside, society, without family, wealth, beauty, or even the degree of ‘passion’ that attracts Rochester to Jane; however, she is certainly not without imagination. Bronte, while she could not mimic the male autobiographical novel in the Professor, (because she was like Lucy “without” – on the outside, looking in) could and did successfully tell the same story from the woman’s point of view, writing not in the accepted feminine style, but from and within her own Angrian world of imagination and emotion.

If this parallels the male/female, reason/ emotion binary, then, arguably, like Martineau’s criticism that Villette’s female characters think only of love, this is precisely the point. What other way of escape is there? It has been said that the paradoxical nature of women’s existence is that it is often only on the condition of being possessed by another that they are judged to have ‘become’ their mature selves. If, as in Lucy’s case, this fails, there is only the escape of imagination left – imagination often bordering on hysteria.

Jane, on the other hand, is eventually reunited with Rochester - although the seclusion of Ferndean may suggest that it is only in this sort of physical and spiritual isolation that it is possible to escape from the confines of hierarchal society. Some have argued that ultimately, in marriage, Jane abandons her rebellious feminism, retreating finally from her the red room and Bertha, her double, the figure she sees first in the red room looking glass. Yet, on the other hand, it could be argued that Jane has undeniably emerged from her quest not only to a happy ending, but also to an independent, more empowered position. The slight ambiguity in the conventional ending here foreshadows the much greater and more deliberate ambiguity in Villette, where the reader is left to choose between the two possible fates – death or marriage.

Gilbert and Gubar note that the indecisive endings of the author’s novels suggest that she was finally “unable clearly to envision viable solutions to the problem of patriarchal oppression”, acting out “the passionate drive towards freedom” but never fully able to “define the full meaning of achieved freedom”.

In Villette, the fact that the two alternatives are juxtaposed in this fashion suggest to the reader that in their opposing ways, they are both equally dilemmas, as Bronte described them in a letter to George Smith. Ultimately, Lucy’s waiting for Paul’s return encapsulates her position of desiring escape, yet never finally achieving freedom.

However, in what is arguably her least optimistic, most despairing novel, there is the assertion that even for those “without” who have no other way of escape, the end of love is not, or at least should not, be the end of life, and with this assertion Bronte reconfigures the stereotypical scene of the heroine at home waiting for the hero’s return from the sea. Similarly, in describing Jane’s marriage, while the author does draw the novel to a conventional end, she characteristically adapts and even subverts it, from the female point of view, as the statement “I married him” demonstrates.

In contrast to Jane, who “continually, quietly, triumphantly” occupies the center, as Tillotson says, Lucy is most often in the shadows, especially in the first few chapters. Yet she is never distant, despite the fact that the reader knows so little about her early life, and may be tempted to ask, with Ginevra: “Who are you?”

The reader’s identification with Lucy despite the mystery that continually cloaks her can be seen as a result of the author’s unswerving focus, unswerving in the sense that, if Lucy is standing in the shadows, so is the reader, observing through her. Yet our impression of Lucy, as Tillotson notes, is not of a character seen ironically, a character we are “invited to understand better than it does itself.” This can be seen as another aspect of the author’s juxtaposition of narrative modes for the representation of the self. In Villette, Bronte combines the biblical tradition of stories of moral trails, with the protestant spiritual autobiography of education, and examines one of the main beliefs the Bildungsroman is based on – a belief in the knowable self. Bronte rejects this idea, remarking through Lucy: “We can never be rightly known.”

This conviction – that the knowable self isn’t, in fact, knowable – underlies the oxymoron of Lucy’s name, which suggests both brightness for a figure always in the shadows, and light, which reveals, while Snowe suggests something which conceals and buries, “a cold name for an overheated temperament” in Tim Dolbin’s phrase. This self-contradictory name captures one of the main themes of the novel – the oppositions of surface and depth, illusion and reality, emphasizing the deceptiveness of appearances, as the reader finds what seems to be full of meaning is simultaneously empty of meaning. Polly and the nun, contrasts in almost everything else, are alike in this: both seem to promise much, yet in the end, one is revealed to be “just a discarded habit”, a role-playing prop for the theatrical wooing of Ginevra, and the other, a shallow, if not frivolous, stereotype of the perfect angel of the house. Also a prop, in Bronte’s tale of “ a woman without.”

Similarly, Jane Eyre’s name summarizes her position, as Gilbert and Gubar note: she is invisible as air, heir to nothing, and “secretly choking with ire.” Jane’s repressed rebelliousness obviously parallels her repressed emotions on some levels - moral feeling subjected to the consciousness of various new impulses is after all the only ‘story’ the novel tells - however, it is her anger, rather than the “asocial sexual vibrations” of the novel, which so disturbed the early reviewers. The focal point of the narrative is not in the tension of her confrontations with Rochester, but in the horror of seeing Bertha and confronting her own repressed rage.

The “little fierce incendiary” as Margaret Olliphant called her, sets out from Gateshead on a journey full of obstacles, which only ends with the symbolic and literal death of her double, allowing the conventional ending that Bertha had forbidden. Hardly disguised in the novel’s fairy tale structure, these obstacles are “symptomatic of difficulties Everywoman in a patriarchal society must meet and overcome”. Each step in Jane’s journey takes her to another kind of imprisonment in a succession of male-owned structures, which however, are significantly ‘kept’ by women. First, she is locked into the red room by Mrs Reed, her uncle’s widow, in Lowood, Miss Temple works for Mr Brocklehurst, in Thornfield, Jane at first believes Miss Fairfax to be her employer when she is in fact ‘only’ the housekeeper, while Grace Poole guards the madwoman for Rochestor. Finally in Marsh End, Diana and Mary, allegorically symbolizing the Great Mother in her dual aspects, care for Jane while St.John analyses her character. All through the novel women are seen to be agents for men, pointing perhaps to Bronte’s recognition that women are often the first to inhibit other women from power, although they are simultaneously imprisoning themselves, as Grace Poole, in constantly guarding Bertha, is a prisoner of the attic herself. Ultimately, the women Jane encounters are all negative models, the antithesis of the values she stands for, from Adele, symbolizing society’s love of beauty, to Blanche, and the marriage market charade. Even Grace Pool, who is Bertha’s public face, is 'unfathomable': the darkness of madness. Like Bronte, Jane has no predecessors, no positive examples, to guide her on her quest.

In Villette, Lucy’s obstacles are less obvious than Jane’s, necessarily, for she, in Gilbert and Gubar’s phrase “pretends to be a woman with no story”. In contrast to Jane, she is sequestered in a series of female-owned - and managed - buildings, significant because, as Gilbert and Gubar argue, this points to the fact that Lucy’s confinement may be self-administered through her internalization of patriarchal laws. A relevant example is her more than slightly contemptuous feelings towards Polly because of the child’s clinging need for others, male others, namely her father and Graham; although Lucy herself is guilty of the same: in her voyeuristic existence she too must be defined “in terms of the other”. From Polly onwards, the women Lucy encounters not only reveal aspects of her own shadowy nature but also ultimately function like Bertha: as her doubles. As a result of this, Lucy’s identity, unlike Jane’s, fluctuates. Following the theme of deceptive appearances, her unruffled surface (I, Lucy Snowe, was calm) hides an unrest verging on disorder. Again unlike Jane however, the narrator does not take the reader into her confidence, instead hiding herself in the shadows. This is most evident in the first few chapters, the false starts which, as Tim Dolbin notes, function as prologues where she is ‘displaced’ first into a precocious child, Polly, and then into an old spinster, Miss Marchmont, who are both free to do what Lucy’s internalization of prohibitions forbids her to do: express themselves. Polly acts out the impulses Lucy represses behind her calm mask, Miss Marchmont, a symbol of nun-like self-incarceration and the female version of the Romantic buried life, represents Lucy’s willingness to “escape occasional great agonies by submitting to a whole life of privation and small pains.” Similarly, Madame Beck is “an embodiment of Lucy’s self control”, her system of spying and surveillance paralleling Lucy’s voyeurism, while Ginevra symbolizes Lucy’s self-indulgent desires and longing for freedom. Through these characters, Lucy manages to veil the conflicts in her narrative, seeming, as Gilbert and Gubar have it, “to be telling any story but her own.”

Lucy’s disguise is emphasized not only be her telling her story through her doubles but also, on another level, by her warm/cold, bright/buried name, which is paralleled by the pairing of chapters into a pattern of assertion and withdrawal – for example, her ‘taking the stage’ as Lucien is followed by her miserable vacation alone with a ‘cretin’ and her subsequent illness. It is through this “series of deprivations following…moves towards involvement” as Margaret Smith defines them, that the reader can guess, at the end, “what must inevitable follow…Eden-like happiness.”

If Villette is “a series of deprivations”, Jane Eyre could be described as ‘a series of enclosures and escapes’, escapes from oppression, confinement, starvation, madness and apathy. Both Jane Eyre and Lucy Snowe’s autobiographies are ultimately stories of entrapment – or burial – in the structure of patriarchal society. There may seem to be no place for the sort of unlikely coincidences, psychological doubles, melodramatic Gothic elements, and romantic obsessions which pervade both novels in such a subject and in such a form, however, this is precisely Bronte’s achievement: her own escape from the confinements of male conventions.

In her characterization of Lucy Snowe, the woman with no story, Bronte may well have been writing, not only the novel of the “woman without” but also, as Gilbert and Gubar note, of the “writer without”. Lucy, constantly trying to withhold her story, misleads and evades the reader because she “does not conform to the literary or social stereotypes provided by her culture”. Lucy’s doubles, representing aspects of her turbulent nature, are none of them roles she can fully adopt.

Ultimately, there is no way for her to tell her story, no way for her to fully “define or circumscribe female life.” Like Bronte, she can only simultaneously present and subvert the male devised narrative structures available.


written: 2007
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