26 October 2014

The Byronic Hero

My next column for The Sunday Guardian.

I warned you, in the last two fortnights, against the Darcys and Rochesters of the world, the menacing Heathcliffs, the brooding Gatsbys, the embittered Snapes, the loners, all dark, cynical, sinister men who cannot abide by authority and who are dangerously, bewilderingly attractive. They struggle with personal integrity (think Don Draper), have tortured pasts (think Heathcliff) and are dominant characters (think … er … Christian Grey), carved in Byron’s own shadow, because, of course, all girls just want bad boys. Byron himself described these heroes perfectly in The Corsair: 'That man of loneliness and mystery, / Scarce seen to smile, and seldom heard to sigh […] Lone, wild, and strange, he stood alike exempt / From all affection and from all contempt.'

James Bond will never commit to you, but his past is so mysterious and sexy, so that must be why. Dr Gregory House will be cold and ruthless and awful to you, but really, he’s a wounded tiger lashing out at the world. Don Draper will cheat on you every day of the week, but that’s only because he’s so terribly anguished by his past. Captain Ahab is really just hiding all the hurt inside his crusty exterior. Jay Gatsby is a loathsome criminal, but at least that’s because he loves you so. Severus Snape is petty, cruel and entirely lacking in compassion, but he had a crush on your mom, so that explains everything. Edward Cullen wants to suck your blood out and kill you, but don’t worry, that’s just his bloodthirsty instinct, he can totally control it. Hamlet treats you like dirt, but he’s so cute when he delivers his suicidal monologues.

They treat you badly because they love you: that’s the message of the Byronic hero. They’re flawed, but they’re beautiful; they’re violent because they’re damaged, and that makes it all okay; they’re the bad boys who can be fixed, the rogues who need to be loved, the villains who are capable of being heroes.

Byron almost undoubtedly modelled his protagonists after himself – roguish, lonely, complicated, gorgeous, deeply flawed, tortured, brooding, broken, outwardly sociopathic but capable of intense passion. He was, in fact, the original vampire, Edward Cullen before Edward Cullen, rich, lordly, weighed down by unspeakable fervour and severe dissatisfaction: John Polidori modelled his villainous vampire – that sexy, aristocratic creature with a troubled heart – on Byron, whose personal physician he was. Byron himself was described by Lady Caroline Lamb – a former lover – as ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’. She wrote a bizarre gothic novel based on her affair with Byron (he called it a ‘fuck-and-publish’ – as in, kiss-and-tell). There too was a Byronic hero carved in Byron’s mould.

But first, before, before Polidori’s The Vampyre and Caroline Lamb’s Glenarvon, there was Byron’s own Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage in which Byron created an antihero described by Macaulay as ‘a man proud, moody, cynical, with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection.’ It is that final part of the description – that sense that a man so flawed can love more deeply and more intensely than a less flawed, more reliable man can – that makes the Byronic hero so delectable. This is the inexplicable appeal of the bad boy, a bizarre and worrying tendency that people, often women, have to romanticize cruelty.  

In many dark and frightening ways, it sows the seeds of abuse and domestic violence – the psychology behind, ‘Yes, he hurts me, but he doesn’t mean to, it’s his way of loving me.’ The Byronic hero – and the romanticization of the prototype – perpetuates dangerous standards of abuse, frequently mistaking violence for romance, spreading the mythology that women wish to be hurt, normalizing the very idea of male power and female subordination. The exploitation of female vulnerability is celebrated through Byronic heroes, rather than seen as morally abhorrent or reprehensible. It translates, even more terrifyingly, into physical exploitation (back to Christian Grey), gathering all of its fiery, intense momentum into a sexual axis of pain seen as pleasure, of captivity seen as romance. This just cannot be good news for anyone.

Byronic heroes are devilishly handsome and alarmingly seductive, they tease, they woo, they charm. Ultimately, though, they are the sweetest of poisons: delectable but dangerous, tantalizing but terrifying.

22 October 2014

Don't Marry Rochester

My next column for The Sunday Guardian.

He’s violent, demanding, moody and cynical. He blows hot, blows cold with Jane: he’s kind to her, then he ignores her; he flirts with her, then he tells her he is engaged to Blanche Ingram. He’s often frightening; his attraction to Jane is clear through their early exchanges and there is an air of the sinister in the way he perpetually toys with her. He teases her enough to make her cry and exults in making her jealous and miserable. And lest we forget, his biggest skeleton in the closet is a wife in the attic.

The power dynamic between Jane Eyre and Edward Fairfax Rochester feels like a constant struggle. Jane, who is far more intensely concerned with economic independence than anything else, than even love, refuses to be submissive to what is clearly Rochester’s dominant nature. If this sounds like a Fifty Shades of Grey analogy, it certainly isn’t meant to be – although E.L. James based Anastasia and Christian on Bella and Edward from Twilight, who Stephanie Meyers based on Jane and Rochester themselves, so it’s all just one big loop, really. But what is clear – whether in Edward Rochester, Edward Cullen or Christian Grey – is the tendency to rule, to lord over the women they have chosen to love, as though obeisance were a form of reciprocity of that love.

‘I am my own mistress,’ says Jane, a sentiment she echoes frequently and which can be interpreted in two ways: she neither wishes to be Rochester’s mistress, a kept woman, nor does she wish to be ruled by anyone else, a master or anyone perceived to be her superior. She is reluctant to be equated in any way to Rochester’s past mistresses – Clara, Giacinta and Celine – all three of whom were discarded swiftly by Rochester. Even when Rochester repents the time he spent with the three women, it is a self-serving, disdainful sort of repentance: ‘It was a grovelling fashion of existence: I should never like to return to it. Hiring a mistress is the next worse thing to buying a slave: both are often by nature, and always by position, inferior: and to live familiarly with inferiors is degrading. I now hate the recollection of the time I passed with Celine, Giacinta, and Clara.’

Jane’s salaried position as governess to Adele Varens – the daughter of one of Rochester’s discarded mistresses and perhaps of Rochester himself – is of utmost importance to Jane, so much so that she is determined to continue to be in Rochester’s employ even after marrying him. This is the same Jane who, after the marriage has been pre-empted and the ‘madwoman’ has been discovered, refuses to live on in Thornfield as Rochester’s lover because she has no intention of being his mistress, of being enmeshed in an economic transaction in which her contribution is to be sexual (as mistress) and not academic (as governess). She asks herself: ‘is it better, I ask, to be a slave in a fool's paradise [...] or to be a village-schoolmistress, free and honest?’ Her usage of the word ‘mistress’ cannot be a coincidence: she sees herself not as a mistress, as in a kept woman, but as a mistress, as in a female head. With Rochester, the latter seems impossible while the former seems imminent.

Jane’s autonomy speaks volumes of her fortitude and self-reliance; Rochester’s duplicity offends her sensibilities and makes her realise that, beyond the basic legal problem of her being unable to marry Rochester, he is not a man to be trusted. Jane, being devastated by the revelation, does not even go into the wider picture, which we, as readers, are able to see: we see that Bertha Mason is almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. She is gas-lighted into thinking she is mad and she is locked up in an attic, and that, in fact, is what does drive her mad. We see that Rochester despises female autonomy and he imprisons Bertha Mason, who is this fierce, mad, bold, brilliant creature – possibly bought as a slave from the Caribbean, originally – and is likely to do the same to Jane, who too resists ownership at every instance. Bertha is almost a parallel to Jane – that little girl version of Jane that everyone found wild and uncontainable and, therefore, locked up in the red room – and we already know how Rochester responds to women who resist him.

And all the men carved in his likeness – the Edward Cullens, the Christian Greys – are, invariably, just as vicious, just as dark and cold and imperious, just as controlling. And the women in their lives, who could truly be extraordinary, find their personal integrity trampled on, their independence destroyed, their lives just a shadow of the lives of these men.