‘Reader, I married him’ – such a splendid and triumphant remark from Jane Eyre.
She was marrying a creep of course, but that is by modern standards. In Charlotte Bronte the heroes are generally bossy, arrogant, and sadistic if not actually wicked. Women had such a hard time of it then, it’s hardly surprising they turned a blind eye to men’s defects – or actually found them sensually attractive.
A letter written by Charlotte Bronte to a friend sheds some light on how women probably coped: ‘Man is indeed an amazing piece of mechanism when you see, so to speak, the full weakness of what he calls his strength. There is not a female child above the age of eight but might rebuke him for spoilt petulance of his wilful nonsense’.
But Charlotte Bronte’s heroes are at least memorable, both in themselves and the passionate love they inspire in the women who fall for them. Think of Lucy Snowe’s feelings for Paul Emmanuel in Villette: ‘Once – unknown and unloved, I held him harsh and strange; the low stature, the wiry make, the angles, the darkness, the manner displeased me. Now, penetrated with his influence, and living by his affection, having his worth by intellect, and his goodness by heart – I preferred him before all humanity.’
Paul Emmanuel is very far from perfect, and certainly not handsome, but he is a substantial three-dimensional character who dominates the novel. Where are the comparable heroes in modern fiction?
Our celebrated tradition of complex and magnetic heroines who forever linger in the mind continues, but I can’t immediately think of any particularly admirable men in novels published recently. Are we, in an age of equality, really happy to be reduced to the likes of ridiculous Christian Grey who might be said to follow in a direct line from Mr Rochester, that would-be bigamous seducer with a habit of buying women?