Though they lived in the Victorian Age and published their novels in those years, the three Bronte sisters share a great deal with the Romantic Age in their works: themes, literary devices and features, wild nature and tormented souls. For example, Charlotte’s Mr Rochester or Emily’s Heathcliff embody the typical Byronic hero: moody, restless, wild in manners, tormented but so attractive. The heroes and the heroines in their novels tend to be atypical, anti-conformist, unable to simply accept their duties. They are often led by feelings and passions. And all of that is not typically Victorian. The reading audience was shocked by Emily’s Wuthering Heights (1847). (I still am sometimes re-reading it: she was so brave at writing and publishing such a novel at that time)

A literary taste the three writers share is that for Gothic elements. And this is what I want to point out in this post I prepared for The All About the Brontes Challenge.

Gothic novels were very popular at the end of the 18th century (the first one was published 1764 by Horace Walpole and was titled The Castle of Otranto) and their popularity went on through the Romantic Age. Lord Byron and his friends, among whom P.B. and Mary Shelley , spent their nights together reading and discussing gothic tales and they even proved themselves at writing one , but only Mary Shelley wrote something as worthy to be remembered as her Frankenstein (1818).

Gothic novels were based on frightening characters and events and had risen thanks to Edmund Burke ’s new conception of the sublime as “horrible beauty” whose main source was fear. What is Gothic then in our beloved novels by Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte?

1. In Charlotte’s JANE EYRE (1847) we can recognize many  Gothic features
 Jane’s childhood terrors in Lowood school
 Thornfield mysterious nocturnal incidents
 A sense of supernatural
 The gloomy atmosphere
 Bertha’s madness
 Jane’s (apparently) unrequited love

2. The same can be said for Emily’s WUTHERING HEIGHTS (1847): Gothic features are prevailing respect to Victorian themes

 the atmosphere of the setting ( that is sinister and sublime because of the stormy, windy weather on the moors )
 Catherine’s ghost
 the dreams
 the superstitions
 the graves
 the macabre details
 the themes of death and revenge
 Heathcliff as the villain who persecutes the naive heroine (Isabella Linton, Cathy Jr)

3. To recognize Gothic features in Anne’s THE TENANT OF WILDFELL HALL (1848) is less immediate.
I read this novel quite recently, not yet a year ago. Last summer in fact. I was impressed by young Anne courage at dealing with the theme of women’s equality. Her Helen is not a silent victim, what the society of the time would have expected from her since conventions dictated submissiveness. This is why this novel is often considered the first feminist novel.
But we have to focus on Gothic details . In The Tenant there are not so many.

Certainly its wonderfully Gothic title owes a debt to the Gothic tradition. Wildfell Hall is a desolate residence in an isolated place. And this is already a typical Gothic setting. Then, Helen is surrounded by mystery in the first part. Nodoby knows much about her and her past and her being self-possessedrather secluded and surrounded by secrecy makes her the victim of local slander.
In the second part, while we read Helen’s diary with Gilbert Markham, the mystery of her past is revealed and we are plunged in a different atmosphere which is still Gothic: Helen and her son become the victims of dissolute Arthur Huntington, respectively her husband and his father. Their lives were spoilt and exposed to many risks: Arthur lost control and became a brute, especially when drunk.

This character is said to be inspired to Branwell Bronte, the Bronte family’s spoilt son, but can well recall – in some moments and only in the central part , not in his sad end - the villain in the Gothic novels who abducted, threatened, raped naive girls.
So, we can conclude saying that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is Gothic particularly in its sense of mystery and in its portrayals of an aristocratic life of decadence and emotional brutality

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Meredith said...

Very informative post, Maria! Thank you for sharing it with us. It is interesting that Brontes have such a penchant for Gothic literature when it was already so old. You would think they would favor something like Regency writing since it was closer to their time period, right?


Thank you, Meredith.
Well, the Gothic Taste was quite forgotten in that period when realistic fiction was prevailing. Think only of Dickens or Gaskell, for instance. But , towards the end of the Victorian Age, in a new period of transition, we find it again in works like R.L. Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886 ), Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) Bram Stoker's Dracula ( 1897 ) .
The Bronte and Regency, meaning Jane Austen? I can see hints to Austen's irony and wit in Anne's Agnes Grey (though young Anne was so bitter respect to her predecessor) but for the rest the Brontes are so distant from Regency style. The moors influenced their lives, maybe?

Traxy said...

Very interesting post. :) I was going to take a course in gothic fiction this spring, but I couldn't register on it and so never started it, but I got one of the textbooks for it, and when in London, picked up Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray", Shelley's "Frankenstein" and Stoker's "Dracula". :)

With "Jane Eyre", it's interesting to see/hear how much the different versions have played on the gothic themes. Some have really gone out of their way to turn it more into a ghost story!


Really? I've read your latest reviews of the oldest adaptations of JE. You are so brave to watch them. I couldn't bear so much black and white old -style stuff. Which is the most gothic of the adaptations you saw?

JaneGS said...

I really enjoyed this post, Maria--I have got to reread Tenant of Wildfell Hall one of these days. I raced through it and didn't really enjoy it, other than to gain respect for Anne for writing it. It seemed like a cathartic exercise to me--Branwell really was a mess, wasn't he? Certainly as tortured as any hero the Bronte sisters invented, but pathetic as well.

I think, in a way, Tenant is more modern than WH or JE in that Anne identifies the source of Arthur's problem and doesn't bury it in supernatural stuff.


The Tenant is one of my favourite Victorian novels. As you correctly stated, more modern than Wuthering Heights ore Jane Eyre. I find that young Ann was really brave at writing and publishing this novel. Emily shocked the Victorian prudish audience with her story of forbidden passion and revenge full of macabre and Gothic details but Anne disturbed them even more with her realistic dealing with the story of a woman who refused to be a silent victim of a violent husband.

Connoisseur said...

I do see what you mean by the whole gothic elements, and I could recognise it too. I can't say I enjoy them though? Something like Mr. Rochester calling out to Jane and her hearing so far away...I'm too pragmatic to think of it as true love obliterating time. Even though I know Bronte would have put it in for some purpose, it seems much more like a crummy plot joiner.
Also, I HATED Wuthering Heights. Everything in it was just plain dark. Call me naive, but I don't believe such concentrated, unalleviated darkness, despair, revenge, hatred, anger, malice and torture existed in one group of people. The relationship between Catherine and Heathcliff may be passionate, but it was all WRONG. And it results in such unhappiness, abuse, violence...all the stuff Heathcliff does is horrible. I read novels for emjoyment, to go into a different, fascinating, not always pleasant place, and I didn't want to venture into the world of Wuthering Heights anymore so I never finished the book. It is unadulterated darkness.