It's Jane's House—We Just Live in ItBrontë, feminism, and the gothic tradition

Original Illustration by Kali Ciesemier

Bitch Media is celebrating 20 years of award-winning, nonprofit, feminist response to pop culture. The original version of this article was printed in the The Noir issue of Bitch magazine, Winter 2008. It appears here with a new introduction from original author Sarah Seltzer as a part of the special 20th anniversary edition of Bitch magazine.

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The contemporary books I wrote about in “It’s Jane’s House, We Just Live In It” have mostly faded from book-world conversation (as do most recent books that don’t achieve instant-classic status), but I feel like I could rewrite this piece every year, choosing a few books from the new-releases shelf. The themes and tropes Jane Eyre combined so brilliantly—patriarchy and male control, female dopplegangers, and, of course, gothic houses—remain ever-present in literature and popular culture. Whether it’s buzzy literary titles like Helen Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching, Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger, and Patricia Park’s Re:Jane; or YA fiction like Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, echoes of Jane Eyre continue to haunt both feminist and gothic spheres.

It’s tempting to argue that even books with no nods to either Charlotte Brontë or her timeless heroine include whispers of Jane. The subject of women venturing alone into the wilderness (which, thanks to Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, has become a staple of the book industry) seem to borrow at least a bit of inspiration from Jane’s near-fatal flight over the moors—a brave, symbolic bid for independence from the control of men. I still believe that Brontë is the Shakespeare of a certain kind of protofeminst novel, the writer who distilled all the trends that came before her, and influenced those who followed after.

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“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” —Jane Eyre (1847)

When we think of Jane Eyre, we think of its darkness: the creepy mansion, the imprisoned lunatic, the brooding master, the horrible fire. But behind those gothic elements, Charlotte Brontë’s novel explores seemingly contradictory themes. It’s a feminist tome with a passionate love affair at its core, a subversion of gender norms that concludes in marriage, a terror-fest that offers hope to female readers.

Jane Eyre’s images are so memorable, and its power as a “woman’s tale” so far-reaching, that it retains a presence on today’s bestseller lists. It’s the foremother of a literary tradition in which gothic interiors and sinister doubles comment on the female experience.

From obsessive mystery Rebecca (1938) to postcolonial Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) to publishing hot property The Thirteenth Tale (2006), female authors have endlessly recycled Jane Eyre’s elements. This summer, Justine Picardie’s buzzed-about Daphne further highlighted Jane’s imprint on a sisterhood of readers and writers. The authors of these books are just some of the literary women who’ve taken up pen in response to Jane. They may question the book’s marriage wrap-up or its Victorian mores, but women writers are as drawn to Jane Eyre as Jane is drawn to her sardonic true love, Mr. Rochester.

WE ALL LIVE IN JANE’S HOUSE

The cultural clout wielded by Jane Eyre is hefty. It’s one of the few works by women in the mainstream canon, and a rite of passage for bookish girls, often one of the first “adult” novels they read. Despite the bigamy, maiming, and abuse the novel contains, Jane Eyre’s coming-of-age narrative is a natural step up from the YA classics.

Standing in the way of that narrative’s success are a series of authoritarian male figures: the head of Jane’s childhood orphanage, her employer/love interest, Mr. Rochester, her puritanical cousin St. John. Jane—a spunky oddball—does not submit willingly to any of them. As she reminds Rochester early on in their relationship, “I don’t think, sir, that you have a right to command me.”

Jane’s journey from orphan child to woman becomes a journey toward gender equality. Rather than punishing Jane for her refusal to give in to these men, Brontë targets Rochester, Jane’s soulmate, for not accepting her as an equal partner. He is literally crushed beneath the beams of Thornfield, his burning mansion, onetime seat of his authority over Jane. Without his ancestral home, and injured enough so he must depend on others, Rochester will at last be ready to accept Jane (now an heiress) as an equal.

Throughout the novel, Thornfield embodies the allure and danger of male supremacy. Sure, marrying a man of property grants a woman safety and status (see: Pride and Prejudice), but if he’s not the right kind of man, that property becomes her prison. Within Thornfield’s walls, Brontë zooms in on twinned inmates: Jane, the governess who represses indecent desire for the master, and Bertha, Rochester’s insane first bride hidden in the attic. Bound to the same man, the two represent the polarities society foists on women—angel or monster, virgin or whore.

MADWOMAN IN THE ATTIC

The godmothers of this interpretation of Jane Eyre are academic duo Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. Bertha gave them the title for their critical study of 19th century literature by women, The Madwoman in the Attic, first published in 1979. In Madwoman’s signature Jane Eyre chapter, they document how Jane’s inner chafing is echoed by Bertha’s outward rebellion. When Jane longs for escape, Bertha laughs maniacally. When Jane loathes the oppressive femininity of a veil, Bertha tears it in two. They are connected before Jane knows Bertha exists.

Gilbert and Gubar say that the elements of Jane Eyre comprise “the paradigmatic female story,” exploring “the tension between parlor and attic, the psychic split between the lady who submits to male dicta and the lunatic who rebels.” Although Brontë wasn’t the first to use gothic spaces to comment on gender roles, her haunted-house formula, with the madwoman, the governess, and the Byronic master, stuck. Thornfield is, to Gubar and Gilbert, “more metaphorically radiant than most gothic mansions.”

When Bertha burns Thornfield down, the act frees Jane to achieve a fate otherwise impossible: an egalitarian marriage. Critics see Ferndean, the small, secluded house where Jane and the crippled Rochester finally settle (post “Reader, I married him”) as a separatist commune, far enough from society to elude its rules—the anti-Thornfield.

Of course, it’s true that the anti-patriarchal parts of the novel are the least eagerly read by many, particularly Jane’s long flight from Thornfield after she discovers Bertha, and Rochester’s injuries in the fire. Brontë flouted convention by delaying her lovers’ union even though they are mutually besotted, and her choice still feels strange. Brontë, and Jane, hold out for the jackpot: love plus equality. That bold choice, that gift to Jane and to readers, has not always sat easy with women writers confronting their own subjugation.

THE DOUBLE COLONIZATION OF WIDE SARGASSO SEA

While Gilbert and Gubar have been criticized for ignoring the racial elements of Jane Eyre, Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea is an explicit retort to Brontë’s Victorian “othering” of Bertha. Brontë casually used the stereotype of a deranged New World Creole as a foil for her white English heroine. Rhys’s book rebukes Brontë by giving the madwoman a backstory and a voice. But it also shows the influence of Jane Eyre in its pages. Like Brontë, Rhys is drawn to using architectural spaces and doubling to represent the scarred, split female—and in this case, West Indian—psyche.

In Rhys’s postcolonial, modernist prequel/companion to Jane Eyre, the Caribbean mansions of Coulibri (burnt down during the narrator’s childhood) and Granbois (decaying) set the scene for the heroine’s descent into madness.

The British colonist and “wicked” stepfather of Antoinette (later Bertha), arranges her match with Rochester. Although there are moments of affection in their young marriage, Rochester cannot “read” his foreign wife, and grows suspicious of her. He privileges a lying male relative’s slander about the family he’s married into over Antoinette’s version of the truth, shattering her confidence.

Her stability is further threatened when her servant, Amélie, sleeps with Rochester, a liaison that furthers both Amélie’s scheme to improve her life and Rochester’s need to assert power over Antoinette. (Here, and in her other treatment of black characters, some argue that Rhys shows the same racist tendencies she rails against in Brontë.) Within the house of Granbois, a thin, gauzy curtain separates Amélie and Antoinette, and Rochester says the two look alike—they are doubles. Their similarities highlight the opposing paths they take. Amélie uses her sexuality to further her own ends, while Antoinette remains in thrall to her husband, with no survival instinct in a hostile environment.

When Rochester rechristens the wavering Antoinette “Bertha,” he consolidates his double colonization of her. Spirited away from her Caribbean home, the last source of her waning mental strength, she comes to Thornfield, where she sets the house on fire in the book’s final pages. She re-enacts the fire that destroyed her childhood home and sense of safety, but she also reenacts the pivotal moment readers know from Brontë’s narrative, intertwining the two novels’ symbolic critique of male oppression.

HAPPILY EVER AFTER?

If Wide Sargasso Sea recasts Jane Eyre’s beginning, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca interrogates its ending. Manderley, Rebecca’s mansion by the sea—and star of its famous first line, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”—burns down at the story’s conclusion, a deliberate echo of Thornfield’s fate.

Rebecca shares the “paradigmatic” elements of Jane Eyre: a humble narrator, a Byronic hero with a secret, the gothic mansion, and a double who haunts the protagonist. And Rebecca also tackles feminist themes, but with a more ambivalent outcome.

After a quick marriage to the enigmatic Max de Winter, our narrator becomes frightened by the specter of Rebecca, Max’s recently deceased first wife. She knows only that Rebecca was tall and wrote with sensual, curling penmanship. But these facts are enough to plague her. She’s convinced that Rebecca, unlike her, was Manderley’s real mistress. Her pathology is reinforced by the grim housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, Rebecca’s emissary in flesh.

Rebecca’s actual personality stays shrouded. In the narrator’s twisted imagination, Rebecca is the face of a relentless neurosis, the unattainable female ideal. That mental demon explains the narrator’s—and our—perverse relief when she discovers, at the novel’s climax, that instead of dying in an accident, Rebecca was murdered by Max. By committing a heinous act, he’s done what the narrator couldn’t: exorcise her inner tormentor.

Max claims that Rebecca was promiscuous and cruel, with a barren womb, more monster than woman. As told by Max, Rebecca’s new history subtly warns the second Mrs. de Winter: Transgress by taking lovers and rejecting wifely obeisance—and face violent retribution. The narrator heeds this warning. After Max’s revelation, she capitulates to his desires without a struggle. In fact, she helps this wife-killer dodge the law quite joyfully—she is that grateful to him for quieting the voice in her head.

Du Maurier has painted a portrait of the psychological havoc wreaked on women by the patriarchy and, within the confines of that patriarchal world, it would seem that we’ve reached our happy ending. At Rebecca’s conclusion, the narrator asserts that she’s banished the vivid presence of Rebecca. Manderley burns down, presumably at the hands of Mrs. Danvers. Sans Manderley and its “true mistress,” the narrator says she’s liberated. But she now knows her husband is capable of cold-blooded murder. And Rebecca’s opening sentence reminds us that the narrator “haunts” Manderley in her dreams. She is still restless, still controlled by the mansion’s power. Du Maurier’s picture of connubial bliss is far from perfect.

Rebecca has long been dismissed by critics, who compare it negatively to Jane Eyre. For an equally long time, it’s been devoured by readers. On a superficial level, du Maurier does retain the “juicy” elements of Jane Eyre without its subversive sections; gone is Jane’s self-imposed exile from Thornfield and her sojourn with her religious cousins. Gone are Rochester’s injuries.

In this sense, Rebecca explores an alternate ending for Jane Eyre, the outcome if Jane had accepted Rochester’s proposal to flee abroad after Bertha’s discovery. Living as transients, colluding to cover up the male partner’s crime, dogged by the memory of a demonic first wife—this is the life Max and the narrator now live, and also the life Jane rejected.

Rebecca’s readers initially exult in the relief of yielding to Max’s authority and banishing Rebecca’s ghost, just as they would exult if Jane eloped with Rochester and left Bertha to rot. But beneath the romantic gloss, du Maurier leaves plenty of doubt: Max seems more sinister on second glance, Rebecca seems less menacing, the narrator more susceptible to paranoia. One questions both the novel’s “happy” ending, and whether a happy ending is possible for women in du Maurier’s vision of society.

WHAT PASSES BETWEEN WOMEN

One reader who sides with du Maurier on the happy-endings question is the narrator of Daphne, Justine Picardie’s 2008 novel about du Maurier’s life. This nameless grad student admires du Maurier’s “remorseless, pitiless view of the world.”

Daphne intertwines two threads. The first is an imaginative retelling of du Maurier’s obsessive research on Branwell Brontë (Charlotte’s brother). The second follows this grad student, a woman cowed by the lingering presence of her older husband’s first wife, Rachel. Sound familiar?

As Daphne delves into du Maurier’s mind, Picardie imagines the author hearing the low laughter of her own creation, Rebecca, “behind her, or was it inside her?” Picardie’s du Maurier switches from assuming the Rebecca role to feeling like the second Mrs. de Winter, depending on her confidence level, depending on which other women are near. In Picardie’s view, Max de Winter’s two wives illustrate the way women measure themselves against each other.

Back in the present day, the unnamed protagonist and Rachel form a strange relationship based on their joint love for the Brontës and du Maurier. It’s a sisterhood of concealing their “female” literary tastes from their (shared) disapproving husband, down to a cache of hidden Brontë books. Their relationship acknowledges a uniquely female literary canon and understanding, a connection that transcends beyond romantic rivalry, or, as Rachel says to the narrator, “the things that pass between women.”

The Brontës also form a link between the women in Diane Setterfield’s literary mystery The Thirteenth Tale. Vida Winter, a reclusive author, and her biographer Margaret Lea, agree that Jane Eyre is the one book they’d each save from a fire. Later, Margaret realizes that Vida did save a page of Jane Eyre from a fire in her (gothic) mansion. That missing page provides her pivotal clue in getting Vida to unlock her past.

 

LOVE AFFAIR WITH THE AUTHOR

Classic Harold Bloom lit-theory (The Anxiety of Influence) posits that (male) authors try to displace or kill their literary predecessors. But Gilbert and Gubar argue that contrary to their male counterparts, Victorian women authors were outsiders, “actively seeking a female precursor who, far from representing a threatening force to be denied or killed, proves by example that a revolt against patriarchal literary authority is possible.”

The widespread success of women in the fiction market today means they no longer exclusively rely on what Gilbert and Gubar call a “secret sisterhood of their literary subculture” to advance their writing. But the connection forged between Daphne’s narrator and Rachel, between Vida and Margaret, as they share their love of the Brontës, shows us that a sisterhood of readers persists. This sisterhood links women and their literature, their tradition, and their novels—novels that comment on what it means to be female.

Furthermore, female readers who become writers do experience an anxiety of influence within that sacred sisterhood. In contemporary Eyre-influenced novels, the heroine is as likely to have an obsessive relationship with a female writer as with an older man. The Thirteenth Tale pairs shy Margaret with enigmatic Vida, a novelist. Daphne pairs the mousy narrator with two writers: the poet Rachel, the tortured novelist Daphne. The obsessions borders on sexual, too—a Sapphic edge to female rivalry is explored in many of these books, from Rebecca on. Rachel’s touch moves Daphne’s narrator to tears; she yearns to lean on her rival’s shoulder. Margaret Lea describes reading Vida’s work like this: “Miss Winter restored to me the virginal qualities of the novice reader, and then with her stories she ravished me.”

These literary doyennes both attract and threaten our humble narrators the way Rochester once did Jane. The Byronic hero intrigued literary women because of his potential for violence against the established order. Today, women writers need no such surrogate; they have their predecessors. The successful woman writer of yore is a rebel, a heroine, a guide out of the forest. But she is also an uneasy presence, a Rebecca whispering in the ears of her successors as they sit at their computers, daring them to replicate her feat. And that colluding and competitive relationship may be why so many women writers are drawn back to Jane’s haunted house and her wild alter ego, the dark ghosts of the female literary tradition.

 
This article was published in 20th Anniversary Issue #70 | Spring 2016
by Sarah Seltzer
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