Wuthering Heights: Reverse Colonialism and the Imperial Gothic Tradition

Who knows but your father was Emperor of China, and your mother an Indian queen, each of them able to buy up, with one week’s income, Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange together?’ 
– Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights, p.40.

In Gothic fiction of the Victorian period, concepts of the racial other become inextricably linked with fin-de-siècle fears of imperial decline and subsequent degeneration. More specifically, characters that are denounced as racially distinct are often viewed as figures of abjection and fear; they are the ‘marauding, invasive other[s]’ in which ‘British culture sees its own imperial practices mirrored back in monstrous forms’.[1] This monstrosity is accentuated through a denouncement of the racial other as recidivist, linked intimately to notions of both moral and physical degeneracy. However, this degeneracy in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights not only internalises fears of Victorian England’s ‘devolution’ into a more primitive and morally degraded state of being, but more widely comes to critique and accentuate the increasing fragility of the British empire itself. This Victorian Gothic work is an example of the ‘imperial Gothic’, playing on Victorian anxieties.[2] In their respective representations of the racial Other, the texts come to highlight anxieties surrounding Victorian societies supposedly morally supreme status, presenting images of reverse imperialism to accentuate the decline of the British empire.

Anxieties surrounding colonial decline are clearly accentuated in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, a novel which Susan Meyer argues acts as ‘an extended critique of British Imperialism.’[3] Heathcliff, an orphan of ambiguous racial origin, becomes the embodiment of the racial ‘Other’; his social position and actions threaten the rigid imperialistic class structures engrained in the fabric of the rigid model of the Victorian family home, as well as the position of England as colonial superior. Throughout the novel, Heathcliff is repeatedly collocated with notions of racial inferiority; he is frequently compared to darkness and criminality, his uncertain race alluding to a supposedly corrupted underlying spirit.[4] These notions of otherness are first accentuated through Heathcliff’s introduction to the Earnshaw family. Nelly declares that:

We crowded round, and, over Miss Cathy’s head, I had a peep at a dirty, ragged, black-haired child; big enough both to walk and talk- indeed, its face looked older than Catherine’s – yet, when it was set on its feet, it only stared round, and repeated over and over again some gibberish that nobody could understand.[5]

From his very introduction, Heathcliff is displaced as a figure of ‘Otherness’ that is scarcely acknowledged to even belong to the same species as those surrounding him. His ‘black’ hair, coupled with his ‘dirty’ and ‘ragged’ appearance (p.25), places him entirely at odds with the middle-class Earnshaw children. Heathcliff’s racial ambiguity consequently becomes associated with the dirt that masks his face, contrasting starkly with the white skinned ‘purity’ of Catherine and Hindley.[6] Heathcliff’s otherness further becomes demarcated through the Earnshaw’s inability to comprehend his speech, resulting in the denouncement of Heathcliff as merely speaking ‘gibberish’ (p.25). It is in the adjective ‘gibberish’ that racial superiority is ultimately compounded; in speaking ‘gibberish’ (p.25), defined as ‘unintelligible or meaningless speech or writing; nonsense’, Heathcliff finds himself silenced through a racial prejudice that denounces his voice as unimportant ‘nonsense’. [7] In doing so the Earnshaw family, including Nelly, attempt to silence Heathcliff under the colonial gaze; the family denounce Heathcliff as racially inferior in order to affirm their own colonially superior social position.[8] As Susan Meyer observes, Heathcliff finds himself ‘pronounced upon as if he were a specimen of some strange animal species’, ‘subjected to the potent gaze of racial arrogance deriving from British imperialism.’[9] Through this gaze, Heathcliff finds himself marginalised and consigned to social and class inferiority.

However, although treated as an inferior racial other, continual interest in Heathcliff’s ambiguous racial ancestry accentuates the liminality of his position and the threat this poses to the surrounding gentrified families. Throughout the novel, Heathcliff finds himself continually collocated with countries synonymous with imperial resistance and political uncertainty.[10] These fears are clearly evoked in Nelly’s speculations; she tells Heathcliff that he is ‘fit for a prince in disguise. Who knows but your father was Emperor of China, and your mother an Indian queen, each of them able to buy up, with one week’s income, Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange together?’ (p.40). At the time of Wuthering Heights’ publication in 1847, both India and China proved to be countries fraught with colonial uncertainty. Although the British empire had almost entirely established political control in India, English rule in China had been marred by the effects of the Opium wars. The subsequent decline in trade left England with far less confidence surrounding their ability to control and assimilate countries into their once burgeoning empire.[11] Through a collocation of Heathcliff with an ancestry closely tied to notions of colonial decline and uncertainty, Nelly’s narrative essentially gives voice to ‘prospect of an alliance’ between the two countries ‘and the possibility of their joint occupation of Britain.’ [12] In the suggestion of Heathcliff’s families purported wealth, which would ultimately give him the ability to buy up both Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights for as little as ‘one weeks income’ (p.40), Brontë highlights the possibility of the conqueror becoming the conquered by countries before considered colonially inferior.

These economic fears appear to be realised on Heathcliff’s return, who subsequently subverts and monopolises the imperial gaze that once consigned him to racial inferiority. In his power over both the Linton and Earnshaw families, Heathcliff seemingly confirms Nelly’s conjectured anxieties. Revelling in his new position of economic power, Heathcliff enacts his revenge on his ‘colonisers’ and invokes a course of reverse imperialism. Through this reversal, Heathcliff’s position as racial ‘other’ provides him with the liminality to rise above and conquer those once considered his colonial superiors. This inversion is not only demonstrated through his economic ruining of Hindley and the stripping of Linton’s family home, but also in Heathcliff’s horrific oppression of Isabella Linton. Isabella, once superior to Heathcliff, finds herself subjected to a radical class inversion in the hands of her captor/husband. Isabella, who once looked from a position of social superiority on the man who looked ‘exactly like the son of the fortune-teller’ (p.34), finds herself oppressed by the same colonising gaze that she once deployed to belittle her husband. As Isabella is subjected to Heathcliff’s gaze, Brontë describes Heathcliff as looking upon her ‘as one might do at a strange repulsive animal: a centipede from the Indies, for instance’ (p.76). This results in Isabella turning ‘white and red in rapid succession’ and using ‘her nails’ to free herself from Cathy’s grip (p.77). Isabella, reduced under the imperial gaze inflicted upon her, becomes a figure collocated with animalism. She is not only colluded in the passage with both a ‘centipede’ (p.76), but is also denounced as a ‘tigress’ (p.77) by Cathy for her animalistic clawing of her arm in an attempt to escape Heathcliff’s gaze. Paralleled thus with the wildlife abundant in the West Indies Isabella finds herself, in the same way as her husband, ‘pronounced upon as if [s]he were a specimen of some strange animal species’.[13] Through this reduction, Heathcliff’s monopolisation of the imperial gaze is complete; his ability to wield this gaze, coupled with the class liminality provided to him through his ambiguous racial ancestry, subsequently allows him to enact his legal domination over the colonially superior figures that become the embodiment of the British Empire in the narrative.

As Meyer thus comes to argue, ‘the “vivid and fearful” scenes in Wuthering Heights, of which Charlotte Brontë complained, are primarily scenes in which the ugliness of starkly wielded colonial power, usually exercised in areas remote from the reach of British law or putative moral standards, is enacted through Heathcliff’s fearful reversals.’[14] It is in this way that the novel proved so horrifying to its Victorian readership; Heathcliff’s enactment of ‘fearful reversions’, as well as his meteoric rise, threaten the imperial superiority engrained in the social and moral values of the British Empire. However, Meyer further suggests that this threat is felt most sharply through the location of Heathcliff’s reversions being in England.

Featured Image
–  Illustration by Fritz Eichenberg, as taken from the 1943 Random House edition of Wuthering Heights. See Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (1847; London: Random House, 1943).

[1] Stephen D. Arata, ‘The Occidental Tourist: Dracula and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonisation’ in Dracula: Contemporary Critical Essays, ed. Glennis Byron (London: MacMillan Press Ltd, 1999), pp.119-145, p.121.

[2] The term ‘imperial Gothic’ was first introduced by Patrick Bratlinger. For more background information on the term, see Patrick Bratlinger, ‘Imperial Gothic: Atavism and the Occult in the British Adventure Novel, 1880- 1914’ in Reading Fin de Siècle Fictions, ed. Lyn Pykett (London: Longman, 1996), pp.184-210.

[3] Susan Meyer, Imperialism at Home: Race and Victorian Women’s Fiction (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996), p.100.

[4] For more information, see Max Nordau, Degeneration (New York City: D. Appleton and Company, 1895).

[5] Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (1847; Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Classics, 2000), p.25. All further references to Brontë s text are to this edition, and page numbers will be presented parenthetically.

[6] Throughout the novel, Brontë continually deploys light imagery to contrast the racial ambiguity of Heathcliff with the purity of the middle-class Earnshaw and Linton families. The use of dirt and mud is once again evoked at the start of Chapter 7 on the return of Cathy to Wuthering Heights. Cathy’s passage from ‘savage’ (p.36) to gentrified is starkly contrasted with Heathcliff, who is described as having ‘thick uncombed hair’, ‘clothes […] which had seen three months’ service in mire and dust’, and a ‘beclouded’ visage (p.37).

[7] Oxford Dictionary Online. Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/gibberish [Accessed 17/03/2018]

[8] In postcolonial theory, the imperial gaze is often defined by the observed finding themselves defined in terms of colonially superiors own set of social systems and moral values. From this perspective, the imperial gaze thus infantilizes the object of the scrutiny whilst simultaneously denouncing the observed as racially and socially inferior. This is the concept of the imperial gaze, as first introduced and subsequently developed by E. Ann Kaplan, that this blog post will focus on and expand in relation to the supposedly racial inferior monopolising this gaze to enact discourses of reverse imperialism. For more information on the imperial gaze, see E. Ann Kaplan, Looking for the Other: Feminism and the Imperial Gaze (London: Routledge, 2012).

[9] Meyer, Imperialism at Home: Race and Victorian Women’s Fiction, p.97.

[10] Not only is Heathcliff associated with India and China in the novel, but also with the American Civil War. As Lockwood conjectures of Heathcliff’s meteoric rise in fortune, did ‘he earn honours by drawing blood from his foster country [?]’ (p.67). This, as Susan Meyer contends, further places Heathcliff into a discourse of ‘successful colonial rebellion’. For more information, see Meyer, Imperialism at Home: Race and Victorian Women’s Fiction, p.114.

[11] For more information, see Ross G. Forman, China and the Victorian Imagination: Empires Entwined (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[12] Meyer, Imperialism at Home: Race and Victorian Women’s Fiction, p.114.

[13] Meyer, Imperialism at Home: Race and Victorian Women’s Fiction, p.114.

[14] Meyer, Imperialism at Home: Race and Victorian Women’s Fiction, p.118.

Written by Steph Reeves.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.

The Violating Power of the Colonizing Male Gaze in Isaac Teale’s The Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies

In Isaac Teale’s 1765 narrative poem The Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies, the black female body is persistently violated by the white European gaze. This gaze not only strips the female slave of any autonomous power she possesses over her body, but also places her on a pedestal of racial typecasting. The imperial gaze of the white conqueror entraps and oppresses the female slave through enforced negative stereotypes; this is explicitly demonstrated through the comparison of the black slave with Botticelli’s Venus.1 Under this racial trope, depictions of the black female slave become synonymous with sexual lasciviousness and promiscuity. This troubling fusion is foregrounded in the very title of Teale’s work, which instantly seeks to displace and denounce the black female body as ‘Other’. As Regulus Allen expands, ‘Whether the

Botticelli's Venus
Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, c. 1484, Tempera on Canvas, 172cm x 278cm, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.

Black Venus stands for the beautiful or the bizarre’, ‘the figure always implies a ‘black’ or racialized female subject held up to European standards of beauty’ as ‘conveyed by the classical Roman goddess, Venus.’2 If, Allen further argues, the term Sable Venus is given as a compliment to the black African slave, the term still ‘presents an oxymoron’ as, ‘if a woman were truly a Venus, she would not require the qualifier’.3 This qualifier, introduced in the title through a collusion of ‘sable’, an adjectival term used to describe ‘blackness’, and Venus, the goddess of love, continues to permeate throughout the entirety of the text.4 As Teale describes, ‘the loveliest limbs her form [the Sable Venus] compose,/ such as her sister Venus chose’. The female slave is ‘just alike’ to Venus, ‘except the white,/ no difference, no- none at night.’5 Although the former lines suggest an innocent appreciation and admiration for the female slaves beauty, it is in the latter quote that the troubling discourse of colonial oppression becomes apparent. Whilst Botticelli’s Venus is synonymous with chastity and virginal beauty, Isaac Teale’s bawdy suggestion of the female slave having no difference to Venus at ‘night’ (l.89) adds, as Allen suggests, a qualifier that compounds and denounces the female slave as a sexual ‘Other’. Her desirability becomes quantified by her abundant lack of whiteness. This becomes the agency that is used by the white coloniser to violate and penetrate the sanctity of the black female body.

In this sense, Teale clearly attempts to rationalise his desire for the black female body through an alignment of the former with European standards of female beauty. However, his persistent use of qualifiers ultimately results in the gross sexualisation of the Sable Venus figure. This gross sexualisation is perhaps most clearly foregrounded historically through the exploitation of Sarah Bartmaan. Due to her large buttocks, Bartmaan was exhibited in freak show attractions across Europe in the early nineteenth-century under the stage name ‘Hottentot Venus’.

Sarah Baartman
‘Les Curiex en Extase ou les Cordons de Souliers et La Venue Hottentote‘, French cartoon, ca. 1814.

Her exaggerated sexual features, supposed signifiers of the African woman’s sexual lasciviousness, had an unquantifiable impact on the eroticisation of the black female body by white male colonisers.6 Exhibited throughout Europe in the same decade as Thomas Stothard’s painting was first published, it is not too far to conjecture the possible influence of Sarah Baatman’s gross eroticisation on Stothard’s sexualised depiction of Teale’s Sable Venus. Stothard’s Romanesque depiction of the Sable Venus further builds on the idea of a racialised female subject, holding the female slave’s beauty up to European standards of beauty.7

In Stothard’s painting, The Sable Venus is entirely eroticised, appearing almost entirely nude with only a small strip of fabric covering her genitals.8 Unlike the Florentine Venus the Sable Venus is far removed from innocence, making no effort to cover her modesty. She is essentially presented as an object of complete desire, a figure to be used and ravished by the white man. The painting acts as a projection of white European notions of mastery over the sexually-conquerable black female. As an obedient slave, the Sable Venus is portrayed as eternally consenting to the white European master’s surrounding her. However, as Rebecca Stott declares, this consensual passivity is little more than a creation of ‘[…] the imperial gaze, the gaze that delights in the passivity of its object.’9

Stothard Sable Venus
Thomas Stothard, The Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies, c.1800, etching with engraving (as copied by William Grainger from Thomas Stothard’s 1793 painting), 20.3cm x 16.4cm, National Maritime Museum, London.

Although depicted as holding the reins in the painting, suggesting that it is she that is orchestrating her own path across the middle passage, it becomes apparent that this suggestion of the Sable Venus’s autonomous power is fraudulent. Although Jenny Sharpe argues that the figure of the Sable Venus is ‘portrayed as a conqueror of the New World, and the white men as her sexual slaves’,10 this is clearly contradicted in the choice of accessories that adorn the Stothard’s Sable Venus. The trinkets that ornament her wrists and ankles are essentially little more than a nuanced representation of shackles. Although suggested in the painting to be little more than embellishments of beauty, the Sable Venus’s supposed mastery over the surrounding white men is undermined by this blatant allusion to enslavement. The image thus becomes a master narrative, projecting white notions of superiority over the conquered African slave.

At least superficially, then, Teale’s poem appears to present the Sable Venus as a figure that holds and monopolises the male colonising gaze, as well as the devotion of the white man. However, when placed in conjunction with Stothard’s painting, this is demonstrated to be little more than a superficial attempt to mask the underlying discourse of sexual assault and rape that pervades the poem. From the ode’s very beginning, it is detailed that ‘the ladies look’d extremely shy’ whilst ‘Apollo’s smile was arch and sly’ (ll.13-14). Apollo’s smile proves particularly sinister in relation to the shy gazes of the young women. Etymologically, ‘sly’ is defined as ‘having or showing a cunning and deceitful nature’;11 therefore, although superficially portraying a consensual union between Apollo and the young women, on further analysis this is proven to be false. The term comes to be synonymous with the poem itself; Teale’s narrative acts slyly, masking through deceit a violent discourse of slave rape and violation. The language of the poem becomes as deceitful as Apollo’s smile, a notion that is further demonstrated in the description of the Sable Venus’s arrival at port. ‘When her step had touch’d the strand’, Teale describes that ‘wild rapture seiz’d the ravish’d land’ (ll.115-116). In the former quote, a clear semantic field of violence comes to the forefront. Despite Teale’s constant reassurances of the Sable Venuses ‘kind and consenting eyes’ (l.103), the archaic use of ‘ravish’d’ is suggestive of rape, as well as the act of seizing by force. 12 The men are further suggested to be driven ‘wild’ by her arrival; their desire for the sexualised Sable Venus borders on primitivity and violence. It is in these semantic choices, that the underlying discourse of sexual abuse is foregrounded. As Allen writes on the contradictory nature of Teale’s language choice, ‘the ode’s language […] conveys the idea of ecstatic joy but also denotes the acts of abduction and rape. What would seem an acknowledgement of […]the violation of the black women’ ‘is inverted into the Sable Venus’s conquest of European men’.13 In this sense, Teale attempts to mask the violation of the black female slave under subversion and deceit. By subverting notions of male domination, as demonstrated in the positioning of the Sable Venus’s superiority over the white colonizing male, Teale attempts to mask the violation of the sanctified body under a façade of female authority.


Featured Illustration: Thomas Stothard, The Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies, c.1800, etching with engraving (as copied by William Grainger from Thomas Stothard’s 1793 painting), 20.3cm x 16.4cm, National Maritime Museum, London.

1. Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, c. 1484, Tempera on Canvas, 172cm x 278cm, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.

2. Regulus Allen, ‘“The Sable Venus” and Desire for the Undesirable’, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 51 (2011), 667-691, p.670.

3. Allen, ‘The Sable Venus’ and Desire for the Undesirable’, p.670.

4. Oxford Dictionary Online. Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/sable [Accessed 14/12/2017]

5. Isaac Teale, ‘The Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies (1765)’ in The Poetry of Slavery: An Anglo-American Anthology, 1764-1865, ed. Marcus Wood (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp.30-35, (p.33), ll.85-89. All further references to Teale’s text are to this edition, and page numbers will be presented parenthetically in the body of the essay.

6. See Clifton Crais and Pamela Scully, Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).

7. Thomas Stothard, The Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies, c.1800, etching with engraving (as copied by William Grainger from Thomas Stothard’s 1793 painting), 20.3cm x 16.4cm, National Maritime Museum, London.

8. Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, c. 1484, Tempera on Canvas, 172cm x 278cm, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.

9. Rebecca Stott, The Fabrication of the Late Victorian Femme Fatale: The Kiss of Death (Macmillan Press LTD: London, 1992), p.98.

10. Jenny Sharpe, Ghosts of Slavery: A Literary Archaeology of Black Women’s Lives (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), p.49

11. Oxford Dictionary Online. Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/sly [Accessed 02/12/2017]

12. Oxford Dictionary Online. Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/ravish [Accessed 07/12/2017]

13. Allen, ‘The Sable Venus’ and Desire for the Undesirable’, pp.675-676.

Written by Steph Reeves
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Resisting Slaveowner Stereotypes in Matthew Lewis’s Journal of West India Proprietor

“I was tempted to tell him- ‘Do not say that again; say you are my negro, but do not call yourself my slave.’”
-Matthew Lewis, Journal of West India Proprietor, p. 62.

As the slave owner of two plantations, Lewis found himself in a difficult position of power at a time of political reform. His autobiographical Journal of a West India Proprietor, depicting his travels in 1818 to his two inherited Jamaican plantations, provide an account of slavery from the perspective of the slave owner. From the very beginning of his travels, it becomes apparent to the reader that Lewis’s conduct and subsequent treatment of his slaves is heavily influenced by the changing social climate; he essentially performs his own act of ‘resistance’, revolting against the norms of the typical slaveowner. Elucidating on the position of the colonial slaveowner during the nineteenth century, Carl Plasa argues that Lewis is ‘awkwardly placed’ ‘in a system increasingly contested on moral grounds whilst its importance was ceasing to exist within Britain’s changing imperial economy (p. 59).1 This awkward placing significantly influences the representation of both Lewis’s interaction with his slaves, as well as his resistance in presenting his enslaved workers as oppressed individuals. As a result of this, Lewis introduces his audience to his Cornwall plantation as place of Utopia. Throughout his account, Lewis continually seeks to affirm the happiness and ease of his slaves:

‘Whether the pleasure of the negroes was sincere may be doubted; but certainly it was the loudest I had ever witnessed: they all talked together, sang, danced, shouted.’2

Despite clearly recognizing his own hand in the oppression of his slaves, he appears to rely greatly on the delusion of his slaves being liberated human beings. Lewis frequently attempts to justify his actions and position as slave owner throughout journal, which has resulted in the text being highly controversial and heavily critiqued since its first publication. As Maureen Hankin outlines, Lewis’s journal ‘exemplifies how under pressure of contradictory impulses, the text hovers between uncertainty and aggressive self-justification as a representation of the British colonial slaveholder’ (p. 141).3 Lewis certainly epitomises the morally-torn slaveholder. He frequently seeks to justify how idyllic his ‘workplace’ plantations are through comparisons with the western world. As he remarks, ‘I believe their [the slaves] condition to be much more comfortable than that of the labourers of Great Britain’ (p. 62). These comparisons, deployed with the purpose of diminishing the concept of slave suffering, are inconceivable to the benevolent reader’s knowledge of slavery and its distressing history.

Lewis continues to resist the concept of both slavery, as well as his own part in its history, through his repeated attempts to persuade his audience of the equal rights that his slaves obtain. He frequently alludes throughout the journal to his attempts to give his slaves a ‘voice’; this is shown through a court hearing, in which Lewis states that ‘they are not obliged to believe a negro witness, but I maintain that he ought to be heard’ (p. 222). In doing so, however, Lewis presents the slaveowner as a figure of respectability and reasonableness as opposed to a gate-keeper of liberty. His delusions continue through his attempts to defend his own position of power; he states that ‘I am not conscious of having omitted any means of satisfying my negroes, and rendering them happy and secure from oppression’ (p. 203). His continual bribes of holidays, presents from England and his granting of wishes to the slaves reinforces his notion of the plantation being a stable and safe environment to its workers; this Utopic vision is in stark contrast to the legitimated place of imprisonment that Lewis continues to upkeep.

This resistance to slavery and his own personal collusion with the trade is furthered in Lewis’s censorship of the word ‘slave’. His loathing towards the term is documented in his introduction to a black servant, who remarks to Lewis ‘Massa not know me; me your slave!’; this results in Lewis feeling ‘a pang at the heart’ (p. 62). It is in this exchange that the reader begins to see how elements of the plantation life weigh heavily upon Lewis’s conscience; this results in his refusal, and subsequent denial, of the suffering inflicted by his actions upon the lives of his slaves. Lewis, humiliated by this conversation with his servant, writes that he was ‘was tempted to tell him- ‘’Do not say that again; say you are my negro, but do not call yourself my slave’ (p. 62). However, Lewis appears oblivious to the clear hypocrisy of his suggestion; despite replacing ‘slave’ with ‘negro’, he still justifies this with the qualifier ‘my’.

As the journal progresses, Lewis furthers his attempts to relieve his slaves of some of their discomforts. Further into his stay, Lewis demands that the use of the cart-whip be diminished, an instrument used as a means of punishment and control over the slaves. In this way, Lewis resists the expected conduct of the slaveowner; he states advice from one of his own slaves, remarking ‘he said that kindness was the only way to make good negroes and that, if that failed, flogging would never succeed’ (p. 165). In considering an opinion from one of his ‘inferiors’, Lewis attempts to distinguish himself from the nature of many atrocious slaveowners in history that sought to silence and oppress the people they ruled. However, despite resistance on Lewis’s part to inflict violence on his ‘workers’, this act of resistance is still fraught with contradiction. Although his refusal to inflict ‘any punishment’ on a slave ‘however great the offence might be’ (p.196) is deemed a humane gesture, it remains an inherently contradictory one as he still uses his white privilege to enslave other humans against their will.

Regardless of Lewis’s repeated attempts to resist the concept of slavery and the position of slave owner, his Utopian vision is ultimately demonstrated to be little more than a delusion built by the author in an attempt to free himself of his torment and guilt in participating in the horrific trade of human lives. Lewis’s Utopian vision is undermined throughout by his devotion in recording incidents of slave revolts. One such account details the rebellion of a ‘black servant girl’ who ‘stood by the bed to see her master drink the poison’ (p. 179). These accounts of rebellion against white oppressor figures, although only briefly mentioned in Matthew Lewis’s Journal of a West India Proprietor, clearly demonstrate the horrific sufferings of the victims at the very heart of the transatlantic slave trade.

Featured Image- Cover Image taken from HardPress Publishing’s 2012 edition of Matthew Lewis’s Journal of a West India Proprietor.

1. Carl Plasa, Slaves to Sweetness: British and Caribbean Literatures of Sugar (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2009) p. 54

2. Matthew G. Lewis, Journal of a West India Proprietor (New York: Cosimo Classics, 2008) p. 61. All further references to Lewis’s text are to this edition and will be given parenthetically.

3. Maureen Hankin, ‘Matthew Lewis’s Journal of a West India Proprietor: Surveillance and Space on the Plantation’, Nineteenth-Century Contexts, 24 (2002), 139-150 (p. 141)

Written by Ashleigh Edwards.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Resisting Metaphorical Slavery in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre

‘I should have been a careless shepherd if I had left a lamb-my pet lamb- so near a wolf’s den.’
-Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, p. 216.

In its historical entity, the term slavery often invokes images associated with the horrific atrocities committed during the transatlantic slave trade of the imperial British Empire. However, nineteenth-century literature also utilized this discourse to exemplify the oppression of the domestic female worker through both their social position and in their ideology. It is in the latter use of the term that Charlotte Brontë carefully crafts a discourse of metaphorical slavery within her highly renowned female bildungsroman Jane Eyre, using the narrative of oppression to highlight Jane’s experiences as a lower-class woman.

From the very beginning of the novel, Brontë clearly deploys a discourse of metaphorical slavery to highlight Jane’s entrapment and enslavement to her cruel aunt Mrs. Reed. Forced by her social status as penniless orphan to live at Gateshead and under the continual tyranny of her cousin John Reed, Jane suffers cruelly under the families ‘reign’; she is forced to obey orders and is subjected to both physical and psychological torment. From these early years, Jane is instilled with the notion that her lower-class social status will hinder her progression in life; she is essentially informed that her penniless state will forever leave her a metaphorical slave to the upper-classes that she must serve and rely on to keep her alive through income and position. This is exemplified in Bessie’s warning to young Jane, who tells her that ‘you ought to be aware, Miss, that you are under obligations to Mrs. Reed: she keeps you; if she were to turn you off, you would have to go to the poor-house’.1 From the beginning of her life, then, Jane is subjected to adversity and metaphorical enslavement by her own relatives.

However, Jane refuses to remain in this subservient position, instead resisting the shackles emplaced on her through her lowly social position and her reliance on Mrs. Reed’s benefaction. This resistance is first displayed in her courageous outburst of anger towards her aunt, in which she declares:

‘I am glad you are no relation of mine: I will never call you aunt again as long as I live. I will never come to see you when I am grown up; and if anyone asks me how I liked you, and how you treated me, I will say the very thought of you makes me sick, and that you treated me with miserable cruelty.’
-p. 36.

Here, this resistance to her own oppression as a young woman reinforces the powerful female character Bronte desperately wanted to portray to her Victorian audience. Through Jane’s resistance, Bronte bestows a sense of empowerment within her heroine as no longer a prisoner to her social class and gender:

‘My soul began to expand, to exult, with the strangest sense of freedom of triumph, I ever felt. It seemed as if an invisible bond had burst, and that I had struggled out into unhoped-for liberty.’
-p. 37.

Eyre’s defiance is a salient milestone within this bildungsroman; a step from girlhood to woman. The reader witnesses this act of insubordination to Mrs. Reed again during her final visit to Gateshead, as Jane tells her dying aunt: ‘Love me then, or hate me, as you will [..] you have my full and free forgiveness’ (p. 240). Through these displays of resistance to her early social enslavement, it is worth noting how Jane’s ill temper ceases to exist after her departure from the tyrannous rule of Mrs Reed at Gateshead. In her defiance of her aunt on her deathbed, Jane appears to free herself of the torment of her past life.

It is in Jane’s removal from Gateshead, and her later instatement at Thornfield Hall, that appears to at least superficially mark the beginning of Jane’s freedom from domestic enslavement. The blossoming romance between Jane and Mr. Rochester, which defies the opposing factions against the merging of distinct social classes, appears to suggest a transcendence of social constriction and cruelty. However, the once fiery and courageous personality possessed by Jane is almost immediately replaced by her sudden change into the trope of the submissive damsel; despite freeing herself from her past masters, Mrs. Reed and later the headmaster of the girl’s school she is educated in, Jane appears to replace these tyrannous figures with Rochester. Despite her position as Rochester’s love interest, Jane remains in the position of vulnerability and inferiority afforded to her by her lower-class working woman status; she remains indebted to Rochester for both her economic stability and emotional happiness. Examples of Jane’s metaphorical slavery to Thornfield are shown through an excerpt of dialogue between Rochester and Jane; as Rochester remarks to Jane that his ‘house is a mere dungeon: don’t you feel it so?’, Jane replies that ‘It seems to me a splendid mansion, sir?’ (p. 215). Here, Jane appears oblivious to her entrapment, remains entirely enchanted with Rochester’s privilege of wealth and class which ultimately leaves her unable to view her new life as little more than a different form of captivity.

Infatuated by Mr. Rochester, Jane’s perspective is ultimately hindered. She fails to recognize her hindered position within Thornfield as a domestic help, as well as her changed behaviour aligning her more to the position of slave and servant than a free and equal agent. As Bette London critiques, ‘instead of the exhilaration of freedom, the novel offers the pleasures of submission’; this essentially supports the concept that Jane’s enslavement to both her herself and Rochester hinders the notion of the novel being a progressive feminist text.2 Jane’s naivety results in her unable to recognize her enslavement even in Rochester’s most obvious comparisons. As Rochester remarks ‘I should have been a careless shepherd if I had left a lamb-my pet lamb- so near a wolf’s den’ (p. 216). In the comparison of Jane to a ‘lamb’, kept as a ‘pet’ and essentially enslaved to the tyranny of the deadly ‘wolf’s den’ (p.126), Jane is essentially depicted as feeble and vulnerable prey to Rochester’s tyranny. Rochester’s use of the possessive determiner ‘my’ further enables the reader to fathom an understanding of Jane’s submissive position to Rochester’s dominance as the ‘shepherd’, a relationship that further mimics the relationship between slave and slave owner.

It is only in Rochester’s attempts to stop her attempts to visit Mrs Reed that Jane finally begins to resist her enslaved position; she declares ‘I am a free human being with an independent will, which I now exert to leave you’ (p. 251). This speech marks the first act of resistance to her master; she exerts a liberating sense of power to define herself as a servant and not just a slave. This seed of resistance, planted in her visit to her dying aunt, evolves and spreads into her greatest act of revolt; upon discovering Rochester’s falsehood concerning his married status, Jane states that ‘I must leave Adele and Thornfield. I must part with you for my whole life: I must begin a new existence’ (p.303). This decision, which marks a considerably poignant part of the novel for the heroine, results in Jane abandoning Rochester’s love and her life at Thornfield Hall; she frees herself from the metaphorical chains of wealth and social standing, ‘Mr. Rochester, I will not be yours’ (p.316).

Featured Image- 
Illustration taken from Volume One of the 1890 edition of Charlotte Brontë’s novel, as published by Thomas Crowell in New York.

1. Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000) p. 12. All further references to Brontë’s text are to this edition and will be given parenthetically.

2. Bette London, ‘The Pleasures of Submission: Jane Eyre and the Production of the text’, English Literary History, 58 (1991), 195-213 (p. 199).

Written by Ashleigh Edwards.
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