Sunday, April 12, 2009

A Reformed Rake Makes the Best Husband?

As announced yesterday, here's Audrey Bilger with a witty look at Heathcliff & Rochester as potential dates or mates. Without further ado:

“I have read The Corsair, mended my petticoat, and have nothing else to do.” (Jane Austen, Letter of March, 1814)

What is it about men like Heathcliff and Rochester that makes some women—and maybe some guys, too—think they’re romantic heroes? Sure, they’re strong and surly, but given what actually gets said about them—by their own creators, no less—they come with built-in warning signs.

When it comes to cautionary tales about the dangers of falling for a bad boy, and Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre are the standard-bearers. If you read these books closely—not just the Cliff’s notes version or the quick skim—there’s no way you’d want to go out on a date with their leading men. Still, these men frequently get classed as fabulously romantic figures, in spite of an abundance of evidence to the contrary.

Naturally, they come with historical baggage. They descend from Lord Byron’s womanizing hommes fatals, who stalked onto the literary stage during the Romantic period and set ladies’ hearts pounding. His poem, “The Corsair,” a pirate adventure featuring Conrad, a "man of loneliness and mystery/Scarce seen to smile, and seldom heard to sigh," sold 10,000 copies the day it was published in early 1814. “Linked with one virtue and a thousand crimes,” Conrad is a misanthropist who loves only his beautiful wife—that is, until he falls in love with a fair, but wild slave, whom he helps to free and subsequently rejects. Byron’s heroes move in and out of romantic entanglements, harboring dark secrets and deep grudges, occasionally softening in the company of a virtuous woman, but reluctant to stay and settle down. “Byronic” came to the moniker for a sort of intense, brooding, unavailable male with women swooning at his feet and lined up around the block.

In the 18th century there was a saying, “
a reformed rake makes the best husband,” in keeping with the double standard that allowed men to “sow their wild oats” while proper women were expected to wait in the wings to rescue these troubled souls and bring them into the domestic fold. The idea was that he may be wicked, cruel, with a trail of broken hearts in his wake, but you, delicate goddess, would win and tame him. You alone would see his inner goodness, and you alone could make him change his ways. And once he does change, your happy ending is set. Cue music. Angels descend to hover about your blissful love nest.

But wait
, that’s not how Emily and Charlotte saw things. They show the price that Byronic males exact from women. Heathcliff and Rochester are men who must be stopped. To get the true story on why these men are no good, it’s important to open the books and see what they’re up to.

Maybe it’s the 1939 classic film adaptation of Wuthering Heights, with Lawrence Olivier as the male lead and the lovely Merle Oberon as his object of desire that steered people toward viewing the novel as a great romance. The movie cuts out half of the book to focus on the love connection between Heathcliff and Cathy, a love that transcends death and practically anything else that might have happened after the midway point of the novel. To say that the movie puts the relationship in soft focus is an understatement. In the book, Cathy and Heathcliff are sadists. They bite, scratch, and bully everyone around them. Even accepting that Cathy and Heathcliff love each other desperately, it’s hard to read certain sections without having your blood run cold.

When the hapless Isabella falls in love with Heathcliff and reproves her sister-in-law Cathy for monopolizing his company, the latter tries to dissuade her from her foolish infatuation by describing Heathcliff’s character: “[He is] an unreclaimed creature, without refinement—without cultivation; an arid wilderness of furze and whinstone.” Cathy pulls no punches: “It’s deplorable ignorance of his character, child, and nothing else, which makes that dream enter your head. Pray don’t imagine that he conceals depths of benevolence and affection beneath a stern exterior! He’s not a rough diamond—a pearl-containing oyster of a rustic; he’s a fierce, pitiless, wolfish man.”

None of this scares Isabella. She thinks that Cathy doesn’t really understand Heathcliff and that she’s only saying these things because she’s jealous. Fair enough, but it’s hard to imagine how even the most deluded girl could misconstrue the following exchange.

Cathy: “I like her too well, my dear Heathcliff, to let you absolutely seize and devour her up.

Heathcliff: “And I like her too ill to attempt it…except in a very ghoulish fashion. You’d hear of odd things, if I lived alone with that mawkish, waxen face; the most ordinary would be painting on its white the colours of the rainbow, and turning the blue eyes black, every day or two.”

It’s not that Isabella is stupid, she just wants to believe that love conquers all. S
he must have read it in another book or heard the singing angels. She can see the goodness inside him. She will save him, etc., etc. She quickly learns that Heathcliff didn’t get that particular script. On the night he elopes with her, as a singularly odd gesture of devotion, he hangs her dog on a hook and leaves it to die (the dog is rescued—Emily was more tenderhearted than her creation). He then proceeds to batter Isabella regularly and to virtually imprison her. Later he will beat his niece, torture his stepbrother, his nephew, and his son. He is not a nice man.

So shocking w
as Heathcliff to early readers, that Charlotte Brontë wrote in a preface to the novel,”Whether it is right or advisable to create things like Heathcliff, I do not know: I scarcely think it is.” Nonetheless the idea that the book is, in reality, a great love story of epic proportions has been one of its most peculiar legacies. Readers who see it as such must be identifying closely with Cathy—the strong, sadistic character—and not with the unfortunate and abused Isabella is clear. That such readers tend to ignore the story of Cathy’s daughter Cathy who finds a companion husband-to-be at the novel’s end shows that they prefer danger and drama over genuine comfort and affection. One can only hope that they don’t try this at home.

Rochester is nowhere near the sociopath that Heathcliff is, and Jane Eyre actually does make him a better person, but their path to the altar must pass over another woman’s dead body, and his treatment of Jane along the way is less than heroic. Their courtship largely consists of taunts and bullying, with Rochester publicly going after another woman, Blanche Ingram. Since Jane is but a lowly governess she tries to resist his pull, but he keeps drawing her back in. Once he chooses Jane and asks her to marry him, she worries that he might become a tyrant and that the imbalance in their social relations only enhances his power over her. She has no idea that he has a mad wife locked up in the house and that he knows all along that a marriage to Jane will not be valid.

After Rochester’s attempted fraud is exposed, he pleads
with Jane to defy social customs and to be his mistress. His tale of how he was drawn into marrying his unfortunate first wife is somewhat affecting: he, the younger brother, no money to inherit; she, the West Indian heiress with a concealed family history of madness. Reader, he married her, what else could he have done? When she goes crazy he brings her back to England, locks her up, and then goes on a womanizing spree through Europe. (For the fictionalized version of Mrs. Rochester’s side of the story, see Jean Rhys’s 1966 Wide Sargasso Sea.)

Rochester tells Jane he was in search of a “good and intelligent woman, whom I co
uld love.” His reported actions, however, speak louder than his stated intentions. Even if one wants to believe that Jane is his true and only love, his reports of other women make his idealism suspect. He talks about past lovers as if they were fashions, to be tried on and then discarded:

For ten long
years I roved about…I sought my ideal of a woman amongst English ladies, French countesses, Italian signoras, and German gräfinen. I could not find her. Sometimes, for a fleeting moment, I thought I caught a glance, heard a tone, beheld a form, which announced the realization of my dream: but I was presently undeceived…,Disappointment made me reckless….

Yet I could not live
alone: so I tried the companionship of a mistress. The first I chose was Cèline Varens…She had two successors: an Italian, Giacinta, and a German, Clara; both considered considerably handsome. What was their beauty to me in a few weeks?

After reviewing his list of mistresses, he pauses to get a response from the woman in front of him. “But Jane,” he asks, “I see by your face you are not forming a very favourable opinion of me just now. You think me an unfeeling, loose-principled rake: don’t you?” Her reply is quite sensible. “I don’t like you quite so well as I have done sometimes, indeed, sir.”

Consider Jane’s plight. W
hat seemed like a fairy tale to her has become a gothic nightmarea mad wife in the attic and a series of female skeletons in his closet, none of whom he recalls with any affection. Critics have rightly compared him to Bluebeard. Jane’s internal commentary on Rochester’s past bears repeating: “if I were so far to forget myself and all the teaching that had ever been instilled into me, as—under any pretext—with any justification—through any temptation—to become the successor of these poor girls, he would one day regard me with the same feeling which now in his mind desecrated their memory.”

Charlotte clearly has the Byronic hero in her sights. Rochester
describes himself as “sourly disposed against all men, and especially against all womankind.” When he tells Jane about how he fell in love with her because she restored his faith in humanity, she almost succumbs and agrees to become his mistress. After all, who isn’t flattered to be told that she’s not like everybody else and that she’s the one woman who truly understands the bitter, disillusioned man?

Jane’s deliberations lead her to ask whether moral laws need be followed in extraordinary circumstances. Two questions strengthen her resol
ve: “Who in the world cares for you?” she asks herself. “Who in the world will be injured by what you do?” Her reply comes back loud and clear, “I care for myself.” Jane wants R-E-S-P-E-C-T, and she’s willing to set off on her own to avoid the likely degradation of putting herself in Rochester’s hands.

Charlotte gives new meaning to the concept of reform. Before Rochester is fit to be Jane’s husband, he has to go through more than a change of heart. He’s mai
med and blinded. His house burns to the ground. His mad wife dies. He must suffer deeply and thoroughly. When Jane returns to him, she has inherited a fortune of her own and stands on a more equal footing. All of this complicates any reading of the novel as a simple love story.

What Emily and Charlotte both make clear is that there’s nothing sexy about a bully. Heathcliff and Rochester are never offered as romantic ideals. Instead, both novels may be read as cautionary tales, warning women away from vicious men and showing that true love is more about stability and constancy, and not about biting, scratching, and clawing. Rakes may indeed reform, but that doesn’t mean that women should seek them out and take responsibility for their redemption. Real happy endings are built on honesty, fidelity, and equality. We wouldn’t admire the younger Cathy and Jane Eyre if they settled for less.

Thanks Audrey!

Pix from the top:
Illustration from The Corsair
Lord Byron
"The Orgy" from Hogarth's A Rake's Progress
Emily Brontë
Laurence Olivier & Merle Oberon as Heathcliff & Cathy in the 1939 film, Wuthering Heights
Title page to Wuthering Heights
Olivier as Heathcliff
Title page to Jane Eyre
Jean Rhys
Orson Welles as Rochester & Joan Fontaine as Jane in the 1944 Jane Eyre
Jane saves Rochester: an illustration by F. H. Townsend from the 1897 edition
Charlotte Brontë
The Brontë sisters, painted by their brother Branwell in the mid 1830s (from left to right: Anne, Emily & Charlotte; Branwell had included himself in the painting but later painted himself out
— that would have been him between Emily & Charlotte).


  1. Women may say they like a man "with a sense of humour"....However,those blokes whose knuckles scrape the pavement do seem to equally attract!

  2. Sir Larry always does such a good job. I also like the newer film version of Wuthering Heights with Fiennes and Binoche.

    Happy Easter!

  3. Hi Tony & Willow:

    Thanks for stopping by--

    Tony: hadn't heard the description of knuckles scraping the pavement!

    Willow: Haven't seen the more recent film version. The '39 version as a film is really quite remarkable.


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