I’ve just been re-reading Jennifer Kloester’s excellent biography of Georgette Heyer. In it, she quotes Heyer’s interesting article in Punch on the continuing appeal of Mr Rochester.
Charlotte knew, perhaps instinctively, how to create a hero who would appeal to women throughout the ages, and to her must all succeeding romantic novelists acknowledge their indebtedness.
Rochester is the rugged and dominant male, who can yet be handled by quite ordinary a woman, as it might be, oneself. He is rude, overbearing, and often a bounder, but these blemishes, however repulsive they may be in real life, can be made in the hands of a skilled novelist, extremely attractive to woman. Charlotte Bronte, immensely skilled, knew just where to draw the line.
What struck me was Georgette Heyer’s acknowledgement that Rochester is frequently a bounder and, in real life, would be an emotional disaster area. I have often wondered about various Heyer heroes in the Rochester mould, Max Ravenscar, say. Yes, a terrifically sexy hero, but as a husband? I doubt it. Give me Freddy Standen any day; not much in the way of brains but such a poppet. Or Sir Gareth Ludlow, where the slow build-up of his relationship with poor, dowdy Lady Hester allows her to open up and become herself, and him to appreciate her qualities.
Interestingly, the eminent Victorian man of letters, Sir Leslie Stephen, also had his doubts about Rochester. Writing on Jane Eyre in the Cornhill Magazine in 1877, he argues that Rochester is really a woman – with added muscles.
Jane Eyre has not had such bitter experiences as Lucy Snowe (Villette), Shirley (Shirley) is generally Jane Eyre in high spirits, and freed from harassing anxiety, and Rochester is really a spirited sister of Shirley’s, and even an unusually masculine specimen of his sex.
He is supposed to be specially simple and masculine, and yet he is as self-conscious as a young lady on her first appearance in society, and can do nothing but discourse about his feelings, and his looks, and his phrenological symptoms to his admiring hearer. Set him beside any man’s character of a man, and one feels at once that he has no solidity or validity. He has, of course, strong nerves and muscles, but they are articles which can be supplied in unlimited quantities and with little expense to the imagination.
My first reaction on reading this, was a shock of recognition, because Sir Leslie is surely right. Rochester does spend a lot of time talking about his feelings and his looks in a most un-masculine way. In fact, he talks like a woman.
When I was teaching Jane Eyre at A Level, my female students all loved Rochester. However, when I asked one of my male students what he thought of Rochester, he said, tersely, ‘I think he’s an absolute pillock!’
I rest my case. (I do, however, reserve the right to say ‘Yes’ if Damerel asks me.)