“My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Healthcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.”
Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights
During the build up to the recent bicentenary of Emily Brontë in July 2018 much was said, written, and debated about her life, literature, and legacy. An accomplished poet, a brilliant novelist, and an apparently difficult woman (so what?), Emily continues to inspire and intrigue readers to this day. However there was one topic which once again rose to the surface, and one that in my opinion continues to dominate Emily’s legacy; I am of course talking about the character of Heathcliff from her masterpiece Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff remains a source of eternal fascination to readers everywhere with some loving and some hating, but all never fully understanding this complex, menacing, and tormented figure. His passion for and spiritual connection to the object of his desire, Catherine Earnshaw, polarises readers, with many yearning to find their very own Heathcliff on the moors one day, whilst other readers scratch their heads in amazement at the attraction to this violent and dangerous character.
One thing is certain; there is nobody else like Heathcliff in literary history, and nor will there ever be. While I’ve never been Team Heathcliff, I personally believe that Emily created an anti-hero rather than a villain. He is an incredibly complex character and there are moments in Wuthering Heights where he is far from being the monster he is at other times, and I have to say that I’m not a fan of the current retroactive political correctness surrounding the character. Heathcliff is a product of the nineteenth century, and readers would do well to remember that. They would also do well to remember that Catherine is no angel. She is selfish, demanding, manipulative, possessive, spiteful, and violent, and yet she doesn’t attract the same kind of criticism from scholars. Cathy’s soul really is made of whatever Heathcliff’s is. I have read many articles regarding Wuthering Heights recently, and the focus is never on Cathy’s abysmal behaviour. Could this all boil down to gender issues? Food for thought.
There are so many layers to Wuthering Heights, and there is so much more to it than Cathy and Heathcliff, but, like it or not, at its heart the novel is a love story. However, Emily isn’t the only Brontë to depict a hero who is both loathed and loved by readers; her siblings also did the same thing, but in very different ways. Below are my thoughts on various Brontë love interests, some familiar, others less so, but all unable to match the enigma that is Heatchliff. There are spoilers here so don’t read on unless you are familiar with the Brontës’ work. Why would you even be here if you weren’t though?
Meanwhile, if you want a twenty first century Heathcliff to analyse from a modern critical and political perspective, then look no further than Juliet Bell’s excellent re-telling of Emily’s novel, The Heights. You can read my review of it here.
Mr. Rochester – Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
The romantic interest of Charlotte’s masterpiece is the complex figure of Edward Fairfax Rochester, a character once much loved but in recent times criticised for his actions in the novel. A Byronic hero like Heathcliff, he polarises modern readers, with half loving him, and half loathing him. I personally am Team Rochester so, you guessed it, I’m going to defend him here. Moody, difficult, and physically unattractive, Rochester falls for a woman who is arguably exactly the same as him, for Jane can be every bit as difficult as her employer and eventual husband. Their first meeting where Rochester falls from his horse in Jane’s presence indicates that the road to love will not be easy for these two, and it certainly isn’t. Social class, fortune, and Rochester’s secret wife all stand in their way. Like most men (shock horror), Rochester has his good and bad points, strengths and weaknesses, and these combine to make him a strangely human character.
The main argument for Rochester haters is that he attempts to commit bigamy with an unknowing Jane whilst keeping his mentally ill wife, Bertha, locked in the attic. Let’s take a second to explore this. In his youth Rochester was tricked into marriage with the beautiful but mentally unstable Bertha for the sake of her family fortune. Although it is never stated exactly what Bertha’s affliction is, her condition deteriorated quickly and upon his return to England, Rochester confined her to the third floor (not the attic) of Thornfield Hall under the supervision of the servant Grace Poole. This was done to protect Bertha just as much as Rochester himself. Rochester does the kindest thing possible by confining her to Thornfield Hall rather than some kind of mental institution or asylum where patients were often treated with sickening cruelty in the 19th century. Yes, Grace Poole is negligent, but I’ll bet that very few servants would have signed up for such a job in a time when mental illness was truly feared and misunderstood. Unable to divorce his wife due to her mental illness, Rochester is trapped in a marriage with a woman he does not love, and travels abroad in the hope of forgetting about his disastrous home life. Heck, Rochester could have even killed Bertha, or had her killed, and gotten away with it (he is certainly rich enough to cover it up), but he doesn’t. He leaves her under the care of an attendant, where she comes to no harm from the outside world. In my opinion, Rochester neither abuses nor neglects his wife; yes, he rarely sees her, but he makes sure she is cared for.
Another person he makes sure is cared for is his ward, Adèle Varens, the daughter of his one time French mistress, Céline Varens. Although Rochester does not believe Adèle to be his daughter (and nor do I), he oversees her care, and despite his frostiness when discussing her, he dotes on her, bringing her presents, and paying for her comfort and education at home. Adèle believes her mother is dead, but Rochester actually reveals to Jane that she ran away and abandoned her daughter, and so Adèle’s belief may stem from Rochester’s desire to protect her from the knowledge that her mother didn’t love her.
Edward Fairfax Rochester is a kind and tormented man who believes he has lost the chance to have a happy marriage with a woman he loves. This is why he attempts to commit bigamy with Jane, because he loves her so much, and deep down, he knows she will never consent to be his mistress despite his later desperate offer. He does not inform Jane to avoid bringing her into any legal trouble if his plan is foiled. In addition to all of this though is the actual relationship between Jane and Rochester. They challenge and adore one another, as is evident by their funny, flirty, and sexy exchanges throughout the novel, and nobody else can match up to Rochester in Jane’s eyes (sorry St. John). And for Rochester, there is nobody else on earth like Jane, I mean just look at the number of pet names he has for her. My boyfriend and I have a couple for each other, but that’s it. Maybe I should make him read Jane Eyre.
Mr. Rochester comes under frequent attack these days, and I honestly believe that Jean Rhys’s depiction of Bertha in her novel Wide Sargasso Sea has a lot to do with this (for the record, it’s an amazing novel). Both critics and readers have a tendency to attribute aspects of Bertha’s story to Brontë when in fact they come from Rhys’s prequel, and consequently the two Berthas are fused into one. In Charlotte’s narrative, Bertha is a minor figure, and arguably more of a plot device whilst Mr. Rochester is complex, demanding, and difficult, but also trapped, isolated, and yearning for love. In short, he is no villain. Reader, I love him.
The Duke of Zamorna, Charlotte Brontë’s Angrian Tales
As my regular readers will know, I’m absolutely obsessed with Charlotte Brontë’s juvenilia and early fiction set in the worlds of Glass Town and Angria, so I had to include a love interest from these stories. I have chosen the Duke of Zamorna, who is more commonly known as Arthur Wellesley or the Marquis of Duoro in the earlier Glass Town tales. As the saga evolves, however, Douro morphs into the wild libertine and power hungry Zamorna. Although he also features in Branwell’s Glass Town and Angrian contributions, I have chosen to examine Charlotte’s portrayal of Zamorna. Throughout the saga, Zamorna has three wives and many mistresses, his favourite being his beautiful and devoted mistress Mina Laury. Zamorna is physically attractive, intelligent, creative (he was a poet in his younger years), and extremely powerful. Born into a wealthy and privileged family, he is a noble and good-natured youth but Charlotte’s tale Something About Arthur (1833) marks a crucial point in his development as a character, and the shift towards a more debauched lifestyle.
Despite assuming a male persona/pseudonym for her Glass Town and Angrian tales (normally Zamorna’s brother, Charles), Charlotte is also simultaneously writing as a woman very much in love with her creation, which is how I came to fall for the charms of Zamorna myself. Zamorna has in fact been described by critics as a prototype of Mr. Rochester, and I absolutely agree with this, but only towards the end of the saga. Charlotte’s final extant Angrian novelette is Caroline Vernon (1839), and I have a different interpretation of this tale than most critics. Rather than seeing Caroline as a victim of an older man, Caroline is an active and intelligent if inexperienced young woman who pursues the object of her affection, Zamorna, in order to explore her sexuality and gain the type of experience she associates with the adult world. She intially has the fire of Jane, but also the innocence of Adèle.
Charlotte’s depiction of Zamorna in this tale is also quite different. In previous tales, romantically speaking, he is quite simply a libertine who hops between his wives and mistresses. He arguably does not love them (with the exception of Mina), he is merely power mad and wishes to possess and control them, even using his third wife Mary as a political pawn in his ongoing battle with his father in law, Alexander Percy. Many critics believe Zamorna’s women to be dependent on him for identity and purpose, but I have to wonder whether Zamorna is actually dependent on them. In Charlotte Brontë’s World of Death, Robert Keefe comments that, “Take away the idol, and a blank would be left which the worshipper would not be strong enough to face.” Although discussing his mistresses, Keefe’s statement could actually refer to Zamorna himself. Zamorna depends on the love and flattery of the women around him; he is a libertine by nature, and a libertine without lovers has an empty existence. Of course, Charlotte loved her hero too much to strip him of everything that makes him Zamorna, however, we do get a tantalising glimpse of his reliance on Mina to rescue him in The Spell: An Extravaganza, a tricky little novella, the events of which rather confusingly do not actually happen. However, Mina is the one to restore a dying Zamorna to life in this tale.
In Caroline Vernon, Zamorna is seemingly battling for control of Caroline with her absent biological father (and his father in law), Alexander Percy. Caroline is Zamorna’s ward, but rather than use her as a pawn in the battle with his father in law, Zamorna cares deeply for her, and his complicated feelings for her are evident in the narrative. Just as Caroline’s feelings for Zamorna develop, so do Zamorna’s. It is evident from an early exchange with Percy that Zamorna does care for Caroline, who I see as a mix of Jane and Adèle. Although Zamorna tries to fain a coolness towards his ward in Percy’s presence, this masks the fire underneath, just as Caroline tries to conceal her own passion for Zamorna. He even warns Caroline against accepting marriage proposals from anyone suggested by her father, hinting not only at his affection for her, but also his attraction to her. He also initially nonchalantly tries to dissuade Percy from taking Caroline away from her secluded but safe home and introducing her to wider society in order to protect her from things that may corrupt or alter her. There are echoes of Rochester’s treatment of Bertha here; both characters keep people confined in order to protect them. However, if there is a Bertha figure in Caroline Vernon, then is it Caroline’s mentally unstable mother, Louisa, a former opera singer and dancer, and former mistress of Percy, who is now confined to her house under Zamorna’s orders for the protection of herself and others.
Rather unusually in this tale, Zamorna attempts to distance himself from a love interest rather than simply making his move, perhaps indicating that a conscience lurks somewhere very deep in his soul. He has provided for Caroline and overseen her life and education when her own father would not, but now that she is growing into a young woman, he cannot hide his attraction to her. It isn’t a perfect tale, and there are many aspects which do not rest easy with a modern reader (Caroline is only 15 at the start of the narrative and is his wife’s half-sister), and although there is much more to Zamorna than being the prototype of a figure in Jane Eyre, the foundations of Edward Fairfax Rochester are clearly in place as far back as 1839.
Frances Henri – The Professor by Charlotte Brontë
Frances is unique in Charlotte’s adult work, just as The Professor itself is. It is the only one of Charlotte’s published novels to have a male narrator, and although there are plenty of female love interests/rivals in her other novels (Blanche Ingram, Shirley Keeldar, Madame Beck), here Charlotte presents the male protagonist’s response to his female love interest. Frances is a character who also divides opinion; some see her as too meek, mild, and passive, and in many respects like Zamorna’s apparently passive lovers, whereas some, like myself, can see her hidden strength and determination. Whilst there is never any real doubt that Frances and her professor, William Crimsworth, will live happily ever after, she is an interesting character who echoes some of Charlotte’s Angrian women. Her occasional fiery outbursts such as her heated conversation with Hunsden do also make me think of Jane Eyre. However, her debate with William regarding a hypothesis in which she is married to a drunken, abusive husband also calls to mind Anne’s Helen Graham from The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Her comment that, “Monsieur, if a wife’s nature loathes that of the man she is wedded to, marriage must be slavery. Against slavery all right thinkers revolt, and though torture be the price of resistance, torture must be dared,” (The Professor) is not the comment of a weak and passive woman.
Frances is meek but she is also hard-working, driven, and has a sense of morality that Angrian heroines such as Mina Laury and Caroline Vernon lack. Notwithstanding her questionable morality, although Mina is often criticised for her dependence on Zamorna and statements such as “‘I’ve nothing else to exist for, I’ve no other interest in life’” (Passing Events), and “‘I will die or be with him [Zamorna]’” (Passing Events), like Frances, she is fully able to occupy herself when her lover is not around. Frances attempts to earn an honest living through lace mending or teaching, and although Mina is a kept woman, she is described by Angria’s principal narrator Charles Townshend as “Always active, always employed, it was not her custom to waste many hours dreaming” (Mina Laury). He also comments that “she displayed a most business-like sharpness & strictness” (Mina Laury), demonstrating that Mina’s mind is not always occupied by thoughts of Zamorna and that she, like Frances can function independently when she has to.
Another character similar to Frances Henri is Elizabeth Hastings, who appears in just a single Angrian story, Henry Hastings (1839). Although Elizabeth is often viewed as a prototype of Jane Eyre due to her position as a companion and teacher, and her rejection of Sir William Percy’s proposal to become his mistress (there are shades of Rochester again here), I feel she has more in common with Frances. Both women are plain, mild mannered, focused, and intelligent, and both long to serve their masters despite their intelligence and sense of independence. Elizabeth’s master however is not her potential lover Sir William, but actually her disgraced brother Henry, to whom she is eternally devoted. Frances is arguably a more fleshed out version of Elizabeth (minus the troubled brother) just like William Crimsworth is also arguably a more fully developed Sir William Percy. However, there is one crucial difference between the Williams. It is clear that Crimsworth both loves and respects Frances, whereas Sir William, single, wealthy, and free of the constraints of a Mr. Rochester, cannot give Elizabeth an honourable proposal of marriage despite his love for her. As Elizabeth slips away and leaves Sir William for the final time, the reader is left with a sense of what could have been between these two compatible but wildly different characters.
Although The Professor is not Charlotte’s masterpiece, my fondness for it has increased over the past few years as I have made my way through her juvenilia as the novel retains many characteristics of the Angrian tales I am so obsessed with. For anyone familiar with Henry Hastings and the juvenilia, The Professor can be seen as a curious mix of characters familiar and dear to Charlotte, and a re-working of some Angrian narratives which might actually contain Elizabeth and Sir William’s happy ending in the form of the marriage of Frances and William Crimsworth.
Mary Percy – The Politics of Verdopolis by Branwell Brontë
Mary Percy is the daughter of Branwell’s favourite character and pseudonym, Alexander Percy, the older half-sister of Caroline Vernon, and the third wife of Zamorna. A favourite heroine of Charlotte’s, she was furious when her brother killed off her darling character whilst she was away at school and resurrected her, altering the saga’s events in what must be a very early example of retconning so that Mary could feature in more stories. Although Mary became Charlotte’s favourite heroine in her own writing, she is actually an original creation of Branwell, first appearing in his 1833 tale, The Politics of Verdopolis. Mary becomes one of the most prominent figures in Angria, however, Charlotte’s depiction of her is remarkably different to Branwell’s original incarnation of the character. In Charlotte’s hands, Mary becomes needy and clingy, probably due to Zamorna’s frequent affairs with other women, and her father’s tendency to treat her like a spoilt child. However, let’s explore her depiction in Branwell’s early short tale.
The principal concern of the narrative is evident from its title; the bulk of the text is concerned with the dissolution of the Glass Town parliament and political elections. Mary is introduced as the beautiful, slightly haughty, but dutiful daughter of Alexander Percy a.k.a. Northangerland. She is much admired for her beauty in the text, however she has a keen mind too. Following the election, Mary awaits news of the result at her ancestral home, and although she is restricted to the domestic sphere and forced to perform the “female” duties of tea-making, her active mind, intelligence, and desire for knowledge is evident. Despite this, she is clearly meant to serve as a love interest in the story, with Percy promising her hand in marriage to two different men, firstly to the native prince Quashia who has lost the election and demands Mary’s hand to secure the future support of the native forces. Interestingly, this foreshadows Quashia’s later attempt to secure the hand of Caroline in Charlotte’s Caroline Vernon.
However, Mary is more seriously matched with a newcomer to Glass Town, Sir Robert Weever Pelham who stays at Percy Hall and develops an attachment to Mary. Although the two have a blossoming relationship and are due to be married at the end of the tale, this ultimately comes to nothing in later narratives. The relationship between Pelham and Mary feels a little forced, and it is the spark between Mary and Zamorna (still primarily known as Douro at this point in the saga) that is evident on the page; Branwell writes that, “her admiration of him was unbounded” and Douro “admired her enthusiasm, language and appearance” and invites her to a ball he is hosting the following evening. Perhaps this is exactly why just a few months later in February 1834, Mary is an established character in Charlotte’s work and weds Douro after the death of his second wife, Marian Hume.
The union of Douro and Mary is foreshadowed during the ball scene in The Politics of Verdopolis when during the gossip about the newcomers to society, it is stated that “he’s quite a lover of Miss Percy”, and an alarmed Marian believes the unnamed man in question is her husband, Douro, not Pelham. Although the tale is short and underdeveloped compared to other tales by Branwell and his sisters’ adult works, the character of Mary stands out despite being a stereotypically beautiful and virtuous love interest due to her mind, thirst for knowledge, and good nature, demonstrating that even as a teenager, Branwell could create strong female characters, possibly due to the influence of his Aunt Branwell and sisters.
Mr. Weston – Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë
Ah, Mr. Weston. Sweet, lovely, gentle Mr. Weston. I’ve saved the least complicated Brontë love interest and all round good guy until last. I have to admit that although I adored him when I first read the novel, I did find him a little dull initially, but compared to Rochester and Heathcliff who wouldn’t? However, his quiet, unassuming charm has grown on me. There is no fire in the relationship between Agnes and Mr. Weston, instead their relationship, like that of Charlotte’s Frances Henri and William Crimsworth is a slow burner, with each earning the respect of the other before love intrudes.
Agnes and Mr. Weston are kindred spirits; they are both hard-working, unassuming, and respectful of those around them. They enjoy a gentle romance rather than a burning passion, and that is a refreshing counter to the more explosive relationships of Cathy and Heathcliff, Jane and Rochester, and Zamorna and just about every woman in Angria. Brontëites cannot fail to think of the brilliant, handsome, and doomed William Weightman when reading the novel. Weightman was of course Patrick Brontë’s curate and the apparent inspiration for Mr. Weston. His compassion for the poor and sick was his undoing and he died of cholera aged just 28 on 6th September 1842. We will never know for certain whether or not there was any sort of attachment or even attraction between Anne and Weightman, but generations of readers have chosen to interpret Agnes Grey as the happy ever after that was denied to them due to Weightman’s death, and I must admit, I can’t help doing this myself.
Mr. Weston is described in the novel as “a man of strong sense, firm faith, and ardent pity, but thoughtful and stern” who has “true benevolence, and gentle, considerate kindness.” His sense is displayed when he rebukes the attentions of Rosalie Murray, his faith in both his religion and the people he serves is evident throughout the novel, as is his pity for those less fortunate than himself. And as for benevolence and considerate kindness, Mr. Weston takes the time to get to know Agnes both before and after their reunion, never rushing things and always being respectful to both Agnes and her mother. Oh, and most importantly, HE RESCUES HER DOG. Yes, that’s right, he not only acknowledges and remembers Agnes’s affection for the little puppy named Snap, but he goes out of his way to track the animal down and take care of it for Agnes’s sake before finally re-uniting them in that wonderful scene on the beach. Mr. Rochester might be fond of Pilot, but when did he rescue any dogs? And Heathcliff … well, let’s not go there.
Although there is never any real doubt that Agnes and Mr. Weston will eventually marry (although I admit my knowledge of Weightman’s fate had me worried for a while), you can’t help cheering when they do, on the final page of the novel, and in their own typically unassuming way. None of this, “Reader, I married him” business from Jane Eyre, nor the rather grim endings of Cathy and Heathcliff, but a simple statement from Agnes that, “I became the wife of Edward Weston; and never have found cause to repent it.” The relationship between Agnes and Mr. Weston is no fairy tale nor complicated web of passion, jealousy, and torment, but a refreshingly real and down to earth partnership that most of us would desire rather than those depicted by Anne’s siblings. Agnes’s confession that “We have had trials, and know that we must have them again” at the end of the novel conveys a sense of realism and normality, but her assertion that “we bear them well together” confirms to the reader that Agnes and Mr. Weston are enjoying their own, more realistic version of a happy ever after. Did I mention he rescued her dog?
All of the relationships discussed above have their good points and bad points (yes, even Cathy and Heathcliff), as do the individuals within the relationships. There are so many more Brontë love interests I could discuss from both the juvenilia, Charlotte’s adult novels Villette and Shirley, and Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, however, this post was never intended to be quite so lengthy and so someone had to make the cut somewhere. I’ve selected the love interests that resonate with me more strongly for whatever reason, but I’d love to hear your thoughts, and of course your favourites. Like I said, I think most people would prefer the more straightforward good guy, who is kind, considerate, and respectful. On the page, yes, I’m Team Rochester any day, but in real life I’m more Team Weston. Although I absolutely adore Mr. Rochester on the page, I’m not so sure I could be bothered with all the drama that exists within his relationship with Jane; it exhausts me just reading about it. And besides, I have my own real life Mr. Weston. And yes, he’d do anything for my dog.
By Nicola Friar a.k.a. The Brontë Babe.
Thanks for reading. Find me on twitter @NicolaFriar where I tweet about books, the Brontës, and animal rights. A lot.
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