Marie Mulvey Roberts states that from the eighteenth century Gothic writing was viewed in gendered terms (Mulvey Roberts, p. 53), and the Gothic Romance novel proved to become a popular subgenre of Gothic literature during the reign of Queen Victoria. Gothic Romance has been used historically as a way for women to explore and enjoy transgressive behaviour vicariously, through the exploits of the women explored in these novels (Perez Cuervo, Online). According to AH Yildirim, Jane Eyre continues to be one of ‘the most remarkable voices against the traditional Victorian gender ideology’ (Yildirim, p. 48) through its exploration of the ‘Madwoman in the Attic’, Bertha Mason. However, women appear to have been predominantly used in Gothic literature in order to display the attributes expected of a woman by directly contrasting the virtuous heroine with the mentally unstable former paramour of the male love interest. Jane’s ‘quiet autonomy’ (Palmer, p. 201) is what attracts her employer, Mr Rochester, as she is the complete opposite to his passionate, uninhibited, wild first wife.
The blog will focus on the role of women in the Gothic tradition by exploring the use of alter egos and foils in both Jane Eyre and Crimson Peak. It will investigate how leading feminine characters are represented in relation to each other while discussing the connections between the two sources in order to explain decisions made by Guillermo del Toro for his work on Crimson Peak.
The Gothic Romance
One of the important things to note is awareness of the Gothic Romance genre in Crimson Peak, as it references both Mary Shelley and Jane Austen’s work; two of the more prominent female Gothic writers in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It is clear that del Toro has intentionally chosen to mention these writers in the story as he wants to make it clear that his film is aware of both the history of the Gothic tradition and the film’s own place in the Gothic canon.
The fact that del Toro has chosen to concentrate on women Gothic writers in the conversation between Edith and Mrs McMichael is deliberate, as he has been quoted saying that Gothic Romance has long been ‘brilliantly written by women and then rendered into films by male directors who reduce the potency of the female characters’ (Dockterman, p. 98). This self-awareness when writing and producing adaptations that fall into the Gothic genre displayed by del Toro makes it clear to his targeted audience that the women are the key protagonists in his film. Even his casting choices are planned, as shown by his decision to cast Mia Wasikowska in the leading role of Edith Cushing. This high-profile role immediately draws comparisons to Wasikowska’s earlier work as the female lead in Cary Fukunaga’s adaptation of Jane Eyre (2011) and the audience can immediately see the similarities between the characters of Edith and Jane through Wasikowska’s mesmerising performances, as both female protagonists fall in love with a stereotypical Byronic hero hiding a dark past with many secrets and both overcome adversity.
Mia Wasikowska as Edith Cushing and Jane Eyre.
The Evil in the Shadows
The dark adversary to the female heroine tends to undertake their evil deeds in the shadows, just out of eyesight and earshot of the leading character. In Jane Eyre, Bertha Mason is given almost animalistic qualities when she attempts to murder her estranged spouse. Bronte uses monstrous imagery to create suspense and anticipation by asking ‘Who is there?’ before explaining that ‘something gurgled and moaned’ (Bronte, pp. 126-7). The fact that the identity of the perpetrator is left ambiguous titillates the reader, causing excitement and apprehension regarding whom could be responsible for these misfortunes, as well as allowing Bronte to foreshadow the climax of the novel. The fact that Jane is the variable between the fire earlier in the novel and the fire that finally destroys Thornfield suggests to the reader that only Jane can eradicate the devastation that Bertha has caused. It could be argued that Bronte is using fire as a form of purification; perhaps Bertha and Thornfield need to be destroyed before Jane and Mr Rochester can finally be together.
The use of obscured identities to hide the wrongdoings of the female antagonist is also utilised in Crimson Peak. It is assumed by the majority of the audience that Thomas Sharpe is the murderer of Edith’s father, due to the dress and stature of the dark figure looming over Mr Cushing prior to his demise. The surprise of realising that Lucille is the true killer of Mr Cushing provides a shock for the audience as well as allowing del Toro to reveal Lucille’s true, malevolent nature. It is interesting that the antagonist in both Jane Eyre and Crimson Peak is female, as it makes the audience question their own deep-held gender stereotypes. However, both sources do not completely diverge from the expectations of women who kill; Lucille’s preferred choice of murder weapon appears to be through poisoning which was a popular choice among female serial killers during the Victorian era (Armfield, 2014).
One interpretation of Bertha Mason, the ‘Madwoman in the Attic’.
It is interesting that del Toro chooses to explore the theme of incest in Crimson Peak, as this is a taboo subject even for Gothic. While the revelation of the Sharpe siblings’ close relationship is designed to be shocking it is not depicted as being grotesque. Indeed, Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain’s performance as these unusual siblings makes the audience almost feel sympathetic towards their twisted relationship, as it appears that they were forced into their incestuous relationship in order to experience love.
Jessica Chastain as Lucille Sharpe, just as she is about to meet her demise.
Physical Representations: Costume Choices in Adaptations
The use of costume to physically represent the nature of the leading women is important in Gothic adaptations and films. The dark and blood-coloured clothing of Chastain’s Lucille is designed to contrast the light, almost virginal colours of Wasikowska’s Edith; even their hair colours are designed to clash, with Wasikowska’s blonde heroine appearing angelic while Chastain’s villain’s hair is deliberately dark to connote images of evil. The costume choices in Crimson Peak are calculated as they draw parallels to previous adaptations of Gothic and Horror texts. For example, Edith’s cape for the ball scene connotes images of Dracula, while the sunglasses and dark clothing worn by the Sharpes in the park denote the similar costumes worn by Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter in the musical adaption of Sweeney Todd (2007).
This can equally be seen in Jane Eyre, as Edward Fairfax Rochester directly compares his fiancée and estranged wife during a fit of rage. He asks his companions to ‘compare these clear eyes with the red balls yonder – this face with that mask – this form with that bulk’ (Bronte, p. 251). The fact that he uses animalistic imagery to describe Bertha conveys her rapid transgression from her role as a wife to a woman whom is no longer deemed human. By evaluating the two women together, Mr Rochester is attempting to gain sympathy from the wedding guests, who represent society, regarding his attempt to commit bigamy. The reader automatically begins to compare the two women and their character, and thus the use of foils by Bronte is successful. It is ironic that in previous pages Jane notes that if Mrs Rochester ‘did not exist: she would not be born till to-morrow, some time after eight o’clock A.M.’ (Bronte, pp. 234-5) as it becomes apparent that Mrs Rochester has, in fact, existed for some time and is the complete opposite of the future Mrs Rochester.
An alternative viewpoint suggested is the importance of British Imperialism and racial otherness in how Bertha Mason is portrayed. It is argued that Bronte’s use of animal imagery to ‘overstate Bertha’s racial and cultural differences’ is evident in the description of her (Oztop Haner, p. 173); the fact that she is portrayed as more beastly than human suggests that, because she has cultural and ethnic differences from the pure, English Jane, she is deemed subhuman and not worthy of Mr Rochester’s affections. Furthermore, Bertha’s racial ‘otherness’ is associated with sexuality and irrationality (Oztop Haner, p. 173), as it appears that her sexuality is what drives her desires and insanity. These qualities can also be seen in Lucille’s character as while she is portrayed as a typical English aristocrat, her sexuality and incest is what drives her bloodlust, much like the vampire harem found in Dracula, as discussed in Charlotte’s blog.
A still from Crimson Peak, where Lucille discusses the death of butterflies with Edith.
Women, Love and Power
In both Jane Eyre and Crimson Peak women are portrayed as fundamental to the plot and as powerful beings once they have become financially independent. However, both Bertha and Lucille have allowed their dominance to surpass that of their significant others, which has allowed them to become consumed with hatred and evil, thus rendering them insane. Contrary to this, both Edith and Jane nurture their internal strength over time to ensure that this does not completely devour them, thus making them transgress from being feminine by nature. Indeed, too much female power is often perceived to remove any form of femininity from a character.
Jane, like Edith, does show some degree of authority occasionally, often through outbursts. Jane’s iconic words: ‘do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless?’ (Bronte, p. 216) emphasises her individuality and her comfort in who she is; however, while she has a similar degree of power to Bertha, the fact that she is able to control and limit her authority in order to survive means that she is the foil of Bertha’s brash and uncontrollable character. Indeed, it has been argued that Bronte emphasised Jane’s individuality while suppressing Bertha’s voice in order to show that authority needs to be managed; indeed, Bertha’s uncontrollable dominance means that she is reduced to a ‘voiceless character whose life and existence are determined and controlled by others’ (Oztop Haner, p. 173).
Lucille as her true form becomes clear.
To conclude, female foils are portrayed in both Jane Eyre and Crimson Peak in order to explore the positive characteristics of womanhood. It is clear that the antagonist is designed to highlight the goodness held in the female heroine, in addition to providing adversity for the female lead to overcome. The women in both examples emphasise their importance, although the variation in how they control their power differentiates them as either the protagonist or antagonist of the story.
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Burton, Tim, Sweeney Todd, DreamWorks Pictures, 2007.
del Toro, Guillermo, Crimson Peak, Universal Pictures, 2015.
Dockterman, E., 2015. ‘Guillermo Del Toro Arms the Damsel with a Knife in Crimson Peak’, Time, Vol. 186, (2015), pp. 98-99.
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Fukunaga, Cary, Jane Eyre, Universal Pictures, 2011.
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Owsley, Lauren, ‘Charlotte Bronte’s Circumvention of Patriarchy: Gender, Labour and Financial Agency in Jane Eyre’, Bronte Studies, Vol. 38, (2013), pp. 54-65.
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Yildirim, Askin Haluk, ‘The Woman Question and the Victorian Literature on Gender’, Ekev Academic Review, 16, (2012), pp. 45-54.
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Zoltan, Vanessa, ‘Bertha Mason is Sacred’, Harvard Divinity School, at: http://bulletin.hds.harvard.edu/articles/summerautumn2016/bertha-mason-sacred (Accessed 17th April 2017).
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