The consensus, such as there was, was in favor of Jane Eyre, for the latter questions. Yet, as my friend Jeanne well and truly commented on my post, Jane Austen's work makes a brighter choice for young girls to read, because "Those Bronte sisters were some dark bitches." I want now to think through that darkness. (Note: I reread Jane Eyre about once every two years, and Wuthering Heights only about every 8 years or so, so my recollection of WH may be off, or may change substantially the next time I read it.)
My own feeling is that Jane Eyre is, by far, the darker of the two novels, and partially for reasons having to do with the relatability of the heroine. She is a shy, brainy, spunky heroine with impeccable self-esteem who speaks fluent French, who is loved for her soul rather than her looks. She is everything I wanted to be when I was 10 and 20. (When I was 30, I wanted to be Céline Varens, who had a lot more fun; when I was 38 I realized I'd somehow turned into Georgiana Reed.) I thought a lot about Jane's desire for independence, equality, and so forth, and all of that still holds true; those qualities invite a young reader to identify. But now that I am 38 (Rochester's age!) and writing to you from my nunnery in Lisle, I see a lot in the book that I didn't see when I had an unpolluted memory and little experience with the petty dissipations of the world.
I maintain that Wuthering Heights is nicer, which is to say, more vanilla. Safer. It contains a lot of overt violence, but, I think, draws clear lines between coercion and choice. Cathy does the things she does by exerting her own will. Even if your own terrible choices put you in a situation in which you (i.e., Isabella) are utterly physically and emotionally trapped, you have the freedom to hate and despise the consequences of your entrapment (hatred is a form of resistance); young Catherine has the freedom to make a bad choice (Linton), to hate her imprisonment at Wuthering Heights, and the freedom to choose to fall in love with Hareton and transform both their lives. Liberty and freedom of choice, even if you have only the freedom to die, aren't just absolute requisites for happiness; they're the basic stuff of existence. And, as such, have something to do, I think, with the distance from the characters that some readers feel: the novel deals in such absolutes, such a thirst for liberty (sometimes for the liberty to be a monster, or to choose to die to spite each other), and such dire consequences in its absence.
Above: not the 2011 version.
Jane Eyre, on the other hand, is about an all-too-common relationship with a manipulative, deceitful, and abusive man (your married boss!) who is also, to put it bluntly, your would-be rapist. When I was 10 and even 20 (!), I didn't get that being "forced to be his mistress" wasn't just a social degradation; she was talking about sexual coercion. (Rochester promises to install her in a villa and not touch her. "Bullshit," says Jane. Or, rather, "sophistical!") That's not the insidious and dark thing; the insidious and dark thing is the identification of the would-be rapist as one's soul mate, and the act of measured, spirited submission an erotic act, in response not only to love but also to potential violation. The drowning and somnolence metaphors, and those moments in the explanation scene where Rochester nearly throttles Jane to make her submit, and she is alternately exhausted and thrilled by the assertion and the submission of her own powers, are not for nothing.
The book seethes with sexual violence and both consensual and non-consensual domination. And love. And the assertion of equality. These things are not separate in Jane Eyre. The romantic themes include the threat of being raped, and liking it. It is a big can of uncomfortable worms. It is the kind of theme that took years and years for feminist criticism to begin to grapple with. (If I hadn't read Dorothy Allison in the '90s, I might not have come to these conclusions.) Charlotte Brontë made it clear that she was talking about sex that can degrade you and muddy the lines between coercion and choice, that can destroy your integrity (not just moral but bodily and emotional integrity) and yet feel really good, and, in part, make you deliriously, luxuriantly happy (in the south of France, no less). Jane has to run away not just from her fear of being forced to be his mistress, but also from (and with) her fear that this is precisely what she wants. The agony of making a different choice, and not being able to obey his will and negate her own, is part of what nearly kills her on the moors (besides starving for three days).
|Heh. She said "slave."|
I think that Charlotte's depiction of desire, choice, and power was far more complicated than Emily's. And this is what makes Jane Eyre a much more insidious read, because the dynamics of power and self-preservation--which is to say, consent--are that much harder to untangle. When I was 10, I saw romance. When I was 20, I saw her shielding herself against Rochester's violence, which became apparent to me in a feminist context. Now I see that Jane positioned herself, and her independence and self-reliance, within a dynamic of regulated erotic submission: love and violence are not mutually exclusive. That is part of what makes it a work of transgressive, shattering genius--and also makes it such a treacherous read for preteen and teenage girls.
Charlotte Brontë was not a teenage girl when she wrote this novel; she was an older woman who thought long and hard about how her heroine could learn to understand herself and her own limits, to determine how she could exist safely within this kind of relationship, and when it was time to exit for her own protection. She wrote a masterpiece how-to manual for women who want to be submissive to learn how to do it safely. But the mainstreaming of Jane Eyre as a vanilla romance, or even as an exploration of a woman's pure, uncompromising, and uncomplicated (and religious! and feminist!) integrity, says all kinds of things about our inability to speak honestly about violence and sex. (Same with the ongoing reputation of Wuthering Heights--in which consent and freedom are paramount--as a darker novel.) We all know people who would reject the idea that they were dominated by their partners, who nevertheless receive all kinds of abuse that a real submissive--that Jane herself--would say Hells No to. If we see Jane Eyre as a pure romance that is safe for young girls, and not a taut and provocative novel about highly mediated sexual violence and love, then we tacitly assent to a world in which girls*** don't understand the difference, nor learn how to choose what they want, be their choice sexually normative or not. I don't think that they shouldn't read Jane Eyre, but I think that like a lot of dark material, it ought not to be read without conversation and context. A girl should learn that it is, in fact, all right for her to enjoy it when a physically powerful and older man puts his hands on her body and grapples her half to death, but only if she truly wants it--if the terms of equality are explicitly set and honored--and there's a safe word. It should make her feel that "The crisis was perilous; but not without its charm: such as the Indian, perhaps, feels when he slips over the rapid in his canoe." Without the safeguards, she might end up dead.
*I don't think it's an accident that her moments of spirited resistance and provocation are set in terms of not going "too far": "beyond the verge of provocation I never ventured."
**Actually, it's in Marseilles. But "whitewashed sex villa in Marseilles" doesn't have the same ring. Maybe the rents were lower there?
***Same goes for young boys who are exploring relationships in which they're at a disadvantage. Only I've never known a young boy who read Jane Eyre for love advice.