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Would the Bronte Sisters Heroes have been Jane Austen’s Villains?

It is true that Jane Austen wrote her works long before any of the Bronte sisters ever set quill to parchment. And it is well-established that the Bronte sisters read, and in some cases, disparaged the works of Austen. But did the Bronte sisters seek to create original, fallible characters or were they merely trying to twist their stories to produce a little spice and intrigue?

               Mr. Rochester, the main male character in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre

               Jane Eyre comes to love Mr. Rochester by degrees. Throughout their early interactions, it is evident he is intrigued by her, because she speaks her mind, but for Jane, her affections build more slowly. She is drawn to Mr. Rochester because he is her employer, and he insists occasionally that she sit with him. But it is shortly after she tells him she does not find him attractive that she comes to think of him as the most handsome man in existence.

               Once their love blooms and grows, she is inclined to accept his marriage proposal, and all seems well. But on the day of their wedding, it is revealed that Mr. Rochester already has a wife.  She has been locked away all this time in the attic because she suffers from fits of madness. Devastated, Jane runs away from Thornfield Hall and Mr. Rochester, but in the end, she returns to his side to nurse and care for him.

               How would Austen have handled such a character? Would she have allowed Mr. Rochester and Jane to find one another again? Would they have such happy times together before the conclusion of the story?

               One can only imagine that Austen would have painted Rochester as a villain and rogue, rather than the hero. Not only did he hurt Jane abominably through his deceptions, but when the time came for him to make a grand gesture in bringing her home, it fell to Jane to make the journey back to Thornfield Hall by herself. Yes, Rochester suffered in Jane’s absence, but he did very little to prove he was worthy of her love.

There were several characters in Austen’s works who misled young ladies, encouraging them to believe one thing while harboring secrets aplenty. There was Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility, who hurt Mary Anne greatly with his misdeeds. And there was Wickham, who toyed with the hearts and minds of many a young lady in Pride and Prejudice. But each of those men got their comeuppance. Willoughby spent the rest of his days married to a woman he did not love, and Wickham suffered nearly a same fate because he found himself tied to Lydia, a lady who he used to fulfill momentary needs and nothing more.

St. John Rivers, a gentleman who proposes to the lead character in Jane Eyre.

St. John comes to know Jane when she seeks solace in his home. He begins to treat her with sisterly affection and is pleased when they all learn she is truly a relative who does belong with their family. He gives Jane a job as a governess and visits with her when he may. But it is when St. John makes an offer of marriage that the reader may choose to see him as something a little less than a good man. He wishes to marry Jane, not because he loves her, but because he wants her to join him as a missionary. They will go aboard and minister the good word of the Lord. When she rejects his offer of marriage, St. John is cross with her, and this injures Jane greatly. She knows there is no more than familial affection between them, and she does not wish to travel to a land where she is certain she will not thrive. St. John eventually makes up with her and she continues to correspond with him, even after they have left each other’s sight, and so, when the story concludes, Jane sees St. John as a good man, a respectable person.

But if this character were in the hands of Jane Austen…perhaps he would be read differently. The speech he makes when he proposes to Jane lacks sentiment. It is quite reminiscent of the way Mr. Collins addressed Elizabeth Bennet in that he was more concerned with his own needs and wants rather than attempting to woo his future bride. In Pride and Prejudice, when Mr. Collins makes an offer of marriage to Elizabeth, she promptly refuses him. She looks upon him as being an insensible man, one who is oblivious to the reactions and feelings of those around him. She is stunned when he manages to secure the good opinion of her friend, Charlotte Lucas, and when Elizabeth ventures to meet with Mr. Collins again in the future, she is always pleasant, but curt and unable to bear his presence for very long.

Mr. Heathcliff, the main male character in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights

He is said to be fiendish and hard-hearted from the very beginning. The original storyteller, Mr. Lockwood, finds Mr. Heathcliff’s address to be gruff and surly and he wonders at the lack of cordiality and hospitality. But after engaging with Nelly Dean, a servant who has known the family her whole life, he learns that Mr. Heathcliff resents everyone and everything because he has suffered greatly.

Most heroes have some bit of tragedy shading their past. This trauma is what gives them life and color. But in the case of Mr. Heathcliff, he seeks to punish everyone…all the time. Throughout the entire story, neither Nelly or Mr. Lockwood can come up with one good thing to say about the man and so the reader is left to try and see something positive about him through his actions or deeds. But that is challenging.

Austen wrote characters who were foul and cruel. There were ladies like Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey who got what was coming to her when her friends abandoned her and nary a man in sight wished to wed her. Likewise, the sharp-tongued Miss Bingley had to watch as her brother tied himself to Jane Bennet and the man she fancied, Mr. Darcy, wed Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice. But those women were meddlesome, and their punishment was proportionate to their crimes. They were calculating and cold, so their company was shunned by others. In the case of Mr. Heathcliff, he was the worst sort of manipulative person and yet…it is not until after his death that the occupants at Wuthering Heights are able to thrive. Even then, just before he expires, it seems he is gifted with his own sense of happiness because he rejoices in thinking of when he will be reunited with Catherine.

Concluding Thoughts

Some might conjecture the Bronte sisters had a hand in making the role of the antihero what it is today, for how many people are sympathetic to Mr. Rochester’s situation? Yes, he lied to Jane, but what of his sufferings? Did Charlotte not make the reader want to see Mr. Rochester as a slightly misguided, but good man? And what about Heathcliff? Is he fully beyond redemption because of his devilish ways or does the reader feel his pain because his childhood was less than desirable?

So often, Jane Austen’s works and the Bronte sisters novels are lumped together, because there are similarities, but were the differences intentional? Did the Bronte sisters create characters with authentic, sometimes cruel characteristics because that was the sort of man they thought to be a true reflection of reality? Or were they seeking to forge a new path and craft a different sort of male character, one who would challenge the reader, making it impossible to love or respect him and yet…compel one and all to feel sympathy for even the devil himself.

For readers who wish to explore these concepts more fully, do join the Jane Austen Summer Program as Sarah and Na-dayah cover several chapters of Jane Eyre weekly and converse in a vlog format.

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