Charlotte Brontë’s Visions of Paradise Lost: Ire and Passion Encapsulated

Charlotte Brontë’s reading not only of Milton’s Paradise Lost but also of criticisms and readings of the work that preceded her lifetime—especially those readings by Dr. Samuel Johnson and the Romantics—dramatically influenced her work. The Brontë family, as a whole, were prolific readers of Milton as Reverend Brontë considered Milton essential. For the Brontë siblings, the ready availability of Milton meant they read his work often alongside other masters of poetry and prose. Jots of Milton infuse the writings from when Charlotte, Anne, Emily and Branwell were children and give their juvenilia an air of epic intent. Branwell[1] was often borrowing heavily from Milton for his writing, and the Brontë siblings were known to scribble on their books—their marginalia are well known (Barker, 185).[2] Charlotte and her siblings’ reading habits are well documented, thanks to their love of writing a variety of materials, marking and translating text, and the letters they wrote to others. Charlotte’s close friend Ellen Nussey[3] was the one who received a veritable reading list in a letter dated 4 July 1834:

You ask me to recommend some books for your perusal… If you like poetry let it be first rate, Milton, Shakespeare, Thomson, Goldsmith, Pope (if you will though I don’t admire him) Scott, Byron, Camp[b]ell, Wordsworth and Southey…

Naturally, Milton is on the list. In Brontë’s personal letters and correspondences, she frequently alludes to Milton’s works, and often refers his works to her dearest companions. Charlotte’s personal copy of Paradise Lost has some light marginalia in it.[4] She doesn’t make many notes, but does underline certain passages that she finds of note. Intriguingly, the first such passage is Book I, lines 169-170: “But see the angry victor hath recalled/ His ministers of vengeance and pursuit”. Most of Brontë’s notes are corrections—her personal copy has several spelling and wording errors, as though she has a correct copy (borrowed, obviously) that she is comparing side by side. This leads one to infer Brontë used her copy of Paradise Lost often enough to necessitate its correctness. The second passage that she has marked off is in Book XII, toward the end at lines 621 through 623, the final words of Eve: “I carry hence; though all by me is lost,/ Such favour I unworthy am vouchsafed,/ By me the promised seed shall all restore.” Brontë seems to bookend the work with the two selections that best complement the tensions in her work.

Shirley comes after Charlotte Brontë’s success with Jane Eyre, and is a decidedly different novel from its predecessor. Set in the era of the Napoleonic Wars, the primary conflict comes from one man’s attempt to bring modern machinery to his mill in a small Yorkshire town. The man, Robert Moore, sees marrying young Shirley Keeldar as a way of financing his ambitions– despite her refusal to have him, his regard for Caroline Helstone (which is mutual), and Shirley’s obvious attraction to her former tutor. Shirley is passionate and headstrong, hallmarks displayed in her sudden speech on the topic of Eve.

“Milton tried to see the first woman; but… he saw her not,” Shirley laments to Caroline.   Shirley’s insistence that Milton could not see Eve is based in an insistence that he somehow missed out on the sublime nature of Eve, that all he saw was “his cook”. But then, Shirley’s vision turns dramatic, envisioning a “woman-Titan”. Caroline complains that Shirley has “such a hash of Scripture and mythology into [her] head that there is no making sense of [her]” (270). Caroline brushes off her reading, as best she can, and once Shirley descends into her own imagination comes to imagine a “gentle human form—the form she ascribed to her own mother; unknown, unloved, but not unlonged-for” (271). It appears that this mother-Eve is really what Brontë pictures, for a few reasons. First, Charlotte told Gaskell that she based Shirley on “a portrayal of Emily [Brontë] as she might have been had she been placed in health and prosperity” (Barker, 612), which indicates the wild flight of fancy Shirley has is more a reflection of remembered sentiments about her recently deceased sister.[5] Second, Shirley’s descriptions of her Eve border on the ridiculous, amalgamating multiple sublime images into the flight of fancy. Third, the fantasy altogether evokes more of the imagery of the Romantic poets than anything else.[6] The fixation on Eve as Nature could be more to align the novel with the era in which it is set—the height of the Romantic period.

Travelling a bit deeper into the chapter of Shirley’s presentation of Eve as preternatural Titan, there is an exchange with the character Joe Scott about his beliefs about the place of woman—specifically in regard to Eve. “’Adam was not deceived; but the woman, being deceived was in the transgression,’” Joe informs Shirley and Caroline, expressing the age-old justification for male supremacy—the ultimate transgression against God was a woman’s transgression, so she bears the blame for Original Sin (277). This exchange is an echo of Adam’s Fall in Book IX of Paradise Lost, where Adam is “not deceived,/ But fondly overcome by female charm” (IX.998-9). We are to understand Joe Scott’s parroting of Scripture and religious doctrine as a comment on the role of women in a religious context—and Milton is implicated by being the source of Joe Scott’s argument. However, the vitriol of his argument does not contain the pure love and bind between Adam and Eve in Milton’s work. Shirley’s problem isn’t really with Milton or his Eve. It is rather with the patriarchal powers that interpret the Bible and Paradise Lost similarly to Joe Scott. Consider Dr. Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the English Poets and its section on John Milton:

His family consisted of women; and there appears in his books something like a Turkish contempt of females, as subordinate and inferior beings. That his own daughters might not break the ranks, he suffered them to be depressed by a mean and penurious education. He thought woman made only for obedience, and man only for rebellion. (157).

Johnson’s biographical work was and still is at the Brontë Parsonage in Haworth as a part of the family’s collection of books. Considering the voracious reading appetites of the Brontë children, Charlotte must have read the work and its implications about Milton’s character. The edition is a 1797 edition, indicating the book was constantly in the home through Charlotte’s life, and in fact “among the books mentioned in the Brontë’s juvenile writings [is]… Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets” (Barker, 148). Johnson’s “Life of John Milton” shaped how all readers approached the work, and this effect seems to have quite sharply resounded in Charlotte Brontë’s mind, much as it did for Mary Wollstonecraft half a century earlier. Each of Johnson’s charges can be heard in Shirley’s accusations. “Milton was great; but was he good?” Shirley laments, echoing the overall sentiment of Dr. Johnson’s biography. When she reads Eve as a domestic “cook”, she is encapsulating Johnson’s proclamation that Milton “thought woman made only for obedience”, with a “contempt of females”.

It seems that rather than an independent reading of Milton; Brontë is relying on the readings of Dr. Johnson and William Blake in Shirley’s position. “He saw Heaven: he looked down on Hell. He saw Satan, and Sin his daughter, and Death their horrible offspring” Shirley proclaims on page 269, aligning herself with Blake’s famous claim “Milton was of the devil’s party without knowing it”. Though a frequent reader of Paradise Lost, as evidenced by her multiple allusions and use of it in all of her works, Brontë can’t divorce her line of thinking from the criticism that precedes her. This creates a misreading for her character.[7] Shirley’s Eve could not have existed without Blake and Johnson, and Brontë’s relationship with other people’s thinking about Milton becomes more and more entangled as evidenced by her earlier work in Jane Eyre.

Jane Eyre was Charlotte Brontë’s greatest success. It became what her other novels would be measured by in terms of creativity and story. Jane Eyre does not talk specifically about Paradise Lost, but the language and imagery is clearly Miltonic in origin. Some of the most interesting use of imagery from Paradise Lost is found in Chapter Thirteen, when Rochester surveys and questions Jane about her three paintings. The images are intriguing, and it is easy to have the same astonishment as Rochester about their origin. The first painting has a cormorant present, “dark and large, with wings flecked with foam” (107). In Paradise Lost, Satan is described thusly:

Thence up he flew, and on the tree of life,

The middle tree and highest there that grew,

Sat like a cormorant…

(4.194-6)

It is in this position that Satan first witnesses Adam and Eve, and surveys Eden in all of its glory. Brontë’s choice to evoke such an image is uncanny. It lends an air of disquiet, a hint that perhaps the Eden of Thornfield Hall has a Satan figure looming over it. This image is an indication of the danger in Thornfield Hall, as though Jane subconsciously has detected the approaching spiritual turbulence.

In the third painting is a more direct alignment to Paradise Lost:

… Above the temples, amidst wreathed turban folds of black drapery, vague in its character and consistency as cloud, gleamed a ring of white flame, gemmed with sparkles of a more lurid tinge. This pale crescent was “the likeness of a kingly crown;” what it diademed was “the shape which shape had none.” (107)

The echo to Paradise Lost is to lines 667 through 673 in Book II—the description of Hell (the italics are mine, for emphasis):

…The other shape,

If shape it might be call’d that shape had none

Distinguishable in member, joynt, or limb,

Or substance might be call’d that shadow seem’d,

For each seem’d either; black it stood as Night,

Fierce as ten Furies, terrible as Hell,

And shook a dreadful Dart; what seem’d his head

The likeness of a Kingly Crown had on.

To describe Death as Satan encountered him is a fascinating choice—earlier in Jane Eyre, Jane has an exchange with the Reverend Brocklehurst when she is a child and is about to enter the Lowood School. He inquires whether she knows what Hell is, and she answers that it is “A pit full of fire”. Brocklehurst refers to the possibility of Jane’s damnation, and she responds that she “must keep in good health and not die” (27). Could this exchange have set Jane’s mind onto such topics and thoughts? Much has been said of Jane’s propensity to be aligned with fire and burning, and there’s a seeming inversion of Paradise Lost’s dynamics—as though Jane and Rochester are Eve and Adam undoing the Fall. They seem to be moving from Hell to Eden by the end of the novel, into an egalitarian marriage with virtue and love.

Romantic poets such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote some of the most memorable Milton criticism in the nineteenth century, and the latter was quick to adhere to Blake’s reading of Paradise Lost. The ideas that a young Charlotte would have encountered in her favourite publication, Blackwood’s Magazine, would have been infused with Romantic ideologies about the state of Pandemonium. Coleridge compared Napoleon[8] to Satan in his “Table Talk” of September 4, 1833, and Shelley venerated the grace with which Milton handled Satan in his essay from circa 1819 entitled “On the Devil, and Devils”. “The Devil owes everything to Milton… Milton divested him of a sting, hoof, and horns, and clothed him with the sublime grandeur of a graceful but tremendous spirit,” Shelley wrote on the topic.[9] These readings would have impacted the way Paradise Lost was read by those who encountered the critical materials. Given the increasingly patriarchal society as the Victorian era commenced, Charlotte Brontë would have been witness to a great shift in how the epic was read—and would have been interacting with those movements as a reader of Milton herself.

Why place these pictures in the text? Brontë evokes dark images of Satan and Hell, rather than of Heaven and Eden. The images create a sense of spiritual danger for Jane and Rochester. It is no coincidence that Rochester is drawn to these images—later in the narrative, he becomes a temptation to Jane, one she must escape from to preserve her soul. But most intriguingly, these paintings show that Brontë may well be guilty of also seeing Hell far better than Heaven. Her heroine paints images of Hell, and Rochester resembles Satan far more than Adam. Rochester is persuasive, dark, and aligned with Satanic imagery. Brontë is being influenced not only by Milton’s writing, but also by his critical heritage, embodying the Romantic and dark visions of Paradise Lost.

Works Cited

Blake, William. “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” The William Blake Archive. Library of Congress. Web. 2 Jul 2013. <http://www.blakearchive.org/exist/blake/archive/copy.xq?copyid=mhh.b&java=no&gt;.

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2004.

Brontë, Charlotte. Shirley. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2007.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Barker, Juliet. The Brontës. 1st ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Table Talk.” Ed. Timothy C. Miller. The Critical Response to John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997. 158.

Johnson, Samuel. Lives of the English Poets. I. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1905. 84-200.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “On the Devil, and Devils.” Ed. Timothy C. Miller. The Critical Response to John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997. 148-9.

[1] Branwell was a profound influence on Charlotte specifically, as their worlds of Glasstown and Angria were a co-writing exercise between the two.

[2] Charlotte’s personal copy of Paradise Lost resides in Haworth, complete with her marginalia.

[3] Ellen was no stranger to directives from Charlotte. Charlotte often involved her friend in intellectual feats, such as corresponding in French or recommending she read or do particular things.

[4] I am indebted to the Bronte Parsonage Museum in Haworth, who were able to send me copies of Charlotte Brontë’s notes via mail.

[5] Emily died in 1848, and Shirley was published in 1849.

[6] Considering Charlotte’s love of Lord Byron, it would be unsurprising for her to be drawn to other Romantic writers.

[7] This misreading is confusing, because it becomes hard to separate how much of the argument belongs to Charlotte, Emily, or just the character of Shirley.

[8] The Napoleonic Wars were a point of great interest to the Brontë siblings, so such an analysis would only have excited Charlotte’s mind.

[9] Shelley’s reading of Paradise Lost can be a little confusing, as he admits to know nothing of Milton’s life, and seems to not care about the lack of knowledge. However, the sentiments are there, and are fascinating.

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