Jane Eyre and Villette are notable for their respective narrative engagements with the notions of faith and female desire. Even as these novels establish a common thematic ground in Christianity, elements of the supernatural, and even of paganism, infuse both texts. The complex spiritual, political, and erotic inclinations of the female protagonists in these novels are simultaneously echoed and explored through a variety of supernatural gothic tropes; using images of phantoms, madwomen, and mysticism, both texts allow for a larger discourse surrounding the complex relationship between gender, spirituality, and the body. In both cases, mystic narrative elements underscore both the political ideals and the cultures of legend in which much of Brontë’s work is grounded; ultimately, through the supernatural elements of Jane Eyre and Villette, the Victorian Gothic enters into a conflict with Christianity that echoes the proto-feminist themes of each text.
The supernatural facets of Jane Eyre are manifested in large part by the vibrant imagination of Jane. Immediately preceding her first encounter with Rochester, Jane recalls, “In those days I was young, and all sorts of fancies bright and dark tenanted my mind…and when they recurred, maturing youth added to them a vigour and vividness beyond what childhood could give” (Brontë, JE, 132). It is not irrelevant that both in this passage and in relation to the novel as a whole, Jane’s creative energies and spiritual inclinations are emphasized and discussed in relation to the supernatural. Brontë’s attention to Jane’s vivid, complex imagination, which lends the text a distinctly feminist ethos through its uncommonly multi-dimensional representation of the psychology of a Victorian woman, draws heavily upon Jane’s fascination with the mystic elements of her world. Rochester also frames Jane as a preternatural being throughout the novel, describing her as “elfin” and “fairylike,” and drawing her self-image into conflict with the devout Christian identity that she attempts to forge over the course of the novel. The concept of motherhood within Jane Eyre occupies a similarly mystical positionality within the text, most notably through the recurring narrative presence of the moon, which recalls pagan lunar rites and a symbolic relationship with the spiritual forces of maternal power. This is particularly evident in the character of Diana, whose affectionate nature and blood relation to Jane allow her to act as a surrogate mother figure, and whose name recalls the Roman goddess of the moon—a deeply autonomous female figure who recognized no patriarch and is still worshipped within many contemporary pagan spheres. In addition to functioning as a signifier for female mysticism, however, the moon in Jane Eyre is also a deeply sensual image, and often functions as the backdrop against which Jane negotiates her romantic and erotic interactions with Rochester. In this manner, the moon embodies a relationship between paganism and female sexuality that corresponds in turn with the final and most obvious instance of the fantastic within Jane Eyre: the “madwoman in the attic.” Like the image of the moon, Bertha Rochester represents, among many other things, Jane’s repressed sexual desires. Functioning simultaneously as Jane’s double and as the deepest source of her anxieties, this supernatural trope of the insane woman (and foreigner) in Jane Eyre creates a frightening gothic embodiment of female erotic desire, bringing elements of Jane’s own identity into direct conflict with the Christological, patriarchal values of the society she lives in.
In her essay “Gothic Desire in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette,” Toni Wein proposes that, “Even more than Jane Eyre, with its madwoman in the attic, Villette is a haunted text. Bronte possesses her literary heritage by creating a surrogate Gothic” (Wein, 735). In Villette, the supernatural once again forms a conflict-ridden intersection between sexuality and the Christian female body. In Chapter XII, Lucy describes a legend that states: “that this was the portal of a vault, imprisoning deep beneath that ground, on whose surface grass grew and flowers bloomed, the bones of a girl whom a monkish conclave of the drear middle ages had here buried alive for some sin against her vow” (Brontë, V, 117-18). Like Bertha Rochester, the ghostly nun in Villette signifies the repressed sexuality of the narrator: descriptions of growing grass and blooming flowers evoke an image of fertility and sensual feminine life, while simultaneously representing a sinful female body that has been quite literally subdued beneath the earth. Even the “true” identity of the nun has connotations of sexual impropriety: Ginevra and her lover rely on this disguise to conceal their misconducts. Furthermore, the very notion of a spectral holy woman induces a specific and powerful visual joining of Christianity and the supernatural, and even though the “phantom” is revealed to be only a disguise, its image continues to haunt the text as a whole. Lucy is similar to Jane in that, despite living in a patriarchal Christian society, she operates within a complex, imaginative world wherein her erotic desires become inextricably bound to mysticism and the supernatural. With regards to Lucy’s eventual unmasking of the “ghost,” E.D.H. Johnson observes that, “Lucy is treading on more than the flimsy props of a silly hoax; she is rending the whole fabric of make-believe that has swathed her private world of fantasy” (Johnson, 335).
Of course, both Lucy Snowe and Jane Eyre are Christian characters, and are in fact quite devout in their faiths. In spite of her social othering in a predominantly Catholic community, Lucy remains staunch in her Protestant beliefs, while Jane constantly seeks the protection and guidance of God throughout her journey. Even so, the status of either woman as a moral paradigm of Christian femininity is greatly compromised by each one’s relationship to the supernatural elements of her respective world. Jane Eyre and Villette each reveal subversive and controversial truths about their female protagonists, and specifically their bodily impulses and longings for equality, through the mystic elements of the narratives and the manner in which supernatural figures function as thematic doubles. Professor Robert E. Davis explains, “Gothic traditions go on renewing themselves at the uncanny sites where culture simultaneously encounters its profoundest validation and confronts its most destabilizing uncertainties” (Davis, paragraph 5). It hardly seems coincidental then, that the presence of the supernatural in both novels echoes the feminist discourse that Brontë initiates. Occultism and paganism, with their relationship to “goddess religions” and the supernatural, occupy a unique point of destabilization within Victorian literature—they exist in theological tradition as some of the only pre- or anti-patriarchal mythologies with roots in Western culture. Although both Lucy and Jane are Christian women, the radical nature of their social and erotic desires binds them to these mystic, sensual, and anti-patriarchal elements of the occult.
Davies later goes on to explain the gothic tradition’s relation to the cultural parameters surrounding human understandings of the body, morality, power, desire and secrecy, writing: “…[the Gothic] furnishes a culture largely severed from traditional religious iconography with metaphors for the exploration of the terrors of selfhood, mortality, and the limitations of the human, using and distorting what is perceived to be contemporary culture’s only remaining source of possible transcendence: erotic love” (Davis, paragraph 5). It is therefore unsurprising that the complex and at times irreconcilable fissure between Christianity and supernaturalism within both Jane Eyre and Villette shares a common fixation upon the sensual impulses of the female body. Through their usage of the preternatural, both texts engage in feminist discourse by treating the female body as capable of experiencing both autonomous physical desire and spiritual transcendence. In this fashion, the relationship between Lucy, Jane, and supernaturalism constitutes a rejection, or at the very least a tempering, of the Christological monomyth that dominates Western literature and thought. Both Jane Eyre and Villette establish the female body as desirous of erotic fulfillment, and the female mind as desirous of spiritual ascension. Charged with the impossible task of forging religious identities that do not compromise their agency, as well as achieving positions of gendered and sexual autonomy that do not compromise their faith, Lucy and Jane each provide complex and engaging insight into the various convolutions of divinity, femininity, and supernaturalism within the Victorian Gothic; the supernatural and mystic elements of their narratives simultaneously echo and interrogate the greater political questions surrounding feminism and spirituality that permeate each text.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Ed. Stevie Davies. London: Penguin, 2006. Print.
Brontë, Charlotte. Villette. Ed. Helen M. Cooper. London: Penguin, 2004. Print.
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Johnson, E. D. H. ““Daring the Dread Glance”: Charlotte Brontë’s Treatment of the Supernatural in Villette.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 20.4 (1966): 325-36. JSTOR. Web. 22 Nov. 2015.
Lorber, Laurel, “Haunted by Passion: Supernaturalism and Feminism in Jane Eyre and Villette” (2013). Seton Hall University Dissertations and Theses (ETDs). Paper 1889.
Warhol, Robyn R. “Double Gender, Double Genre in Jane Eyre and Villette.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900. Vol. 36, No. 4, Nineteenth Century (1996): 857-75. JSTOR. Web. 21 Nov. 2015.
Wein, Toni. “Gothic Desire in Charlotte Brontë’s “Villette”” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900. Vol. 39, No. 4, The Nineteenth Century (1999): 733-46. JSTOR. Web. 23 Nov. 2015.