The Gothic anti-hero began, perhaps, with Lucifer in the Bible as an unsubtle fusion of sexuality and evil. Shakespeare, Lord Byron, and novels that focused on the corruption of the Roman Catholic clergy (from the viewpoint of prejudice) shaped and evolved this figure. Yet the Gothic “hero” began making his way out of his own genre with Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. The heroine who was at once attracted to and repulsed by dark sexuality could now have her cake and eat it too; Jane marries a defanged-fanged Rochester at the conclusion, and all ends happily. Henry James, in reaction to the many Rochesters that had made their way into fiction, doubts that all would end happily in such a dark marriage. His Portrait of a Lady contains the sinister Gilbert Osmond, who is perhaps less sensational than Rochester. Though their similarities are many, James differs at many points in order to bring the Gothic hero out of a Romantic tradition and into a Realist (and perhaps an early Modernist) one. Rochester and Gilbert Osmond form bookends in the evolution of the Gothic hero.
Mr. Rochester’s entrance in Jane Eyre is disruptive. Jane is taking a “pleasant winter afternoon walk” (Bronte 112) when a “rude noise broke on these fine ripplings and whisperings” (Bronte 113). The noise frightens Jane, who imagines that perhaps a ghost has come to frighten her. Rochester’s dog then appears, whose appearance Jane compares to a “North-of-England spirit” (Bronte 114). The sight of Rochester on horseback proves to Miss Eyre that a specter is not visiting her. The supernatural gloom shatters when man and horse tumble to the ground. However foreboding Rochester may be, he needs Jane’s help. Rochester exudes a dark, Gothic appeal, and yet also becomes a man Jane can love.
On page 259 in The Portrait of a Lady, Gilbert Osmond also makes a very Gothic entrance. He appears on the scene exactly at the moment the “Pope’s singers” stop their worship (James). It appears that Osmond has a disruptive effect on the house of God, much like a vampire would have. Dracula might also have greeted his victim as Osmond greets Isabel: “I didn’t come here for the others” (James 260). He has been reintroduced earlier to the reader in a curious way: “…she found herself confronted with Gilbert Osmond” (James 259). The verb to confront has few positive connotations, and suggests aggression. Osmond’s presence causes Isabel to “turn away” and blush; both actions that are classic physical symptoms of shame. (James 260). Her cousin, Ralph, also exhibits a negative reaction to Osmond’s presence: “Ralph Touchett exhibited symptoms of surprise which might not have seemed flattering to Mr. Osmond” (James 260). Her friend, Henrietta Stackpole , who “had met the newcomer in Florence” (James 260) is no friend of Mr. Osmond’s, either. The response to Osmond’s entrance, combined with the “coincidental” ending of the St. Peters music upon his arrival, casts sinister shadows.
Rochester’s first intimate interview with Jane and Isabel’s first visit to Osmond’s house both concern artwork. Rochester looks at Jane Eyre’s portfolio with a very critical eye; he damns her with faint praise. He uses the word “peculiar” as a would-be complement. (Bronte 128). Osmond, of course, shows his own artwork to a flattering Isabel. (His narcissism would probably preclude his interest in Isabel’s own efforts, if she had produced art). Osmond does make the effort to critique Isabel’s ideas, on page 252. Not only are there “too many of them”; they are also “very bad ones” (James). Rochester only disdains Jane’s lack of skill, while Osmond rejects Isabel’s very thoughts, in effect, rejecting all that makes her Isabel. Rochester’s judgments are authoritarian, but Osmond’s are totalitarian.
The Portrait of a Lady can be read as a response to Jane Eyre in which the question, “What if Rochester and Jane had married (with Bertha still undiscovered in the attic)?” is answered. Jane Eyre would have been more cruelly devastated, as Isabel becomes. It is interesting to compare the two “other” women of the novels who have such an impact on the heroines: Bertha Rochester and Madame Merle. While Bertha does not speak, Madame Merle will not be quiet. Madame Merle, for all her talk, keeps secrets. While Bertha lustfully attempts to do harm in her insanity, Merle’s treachery seems all the more horrible for its passionless accuracy. These two women are essential appendages to Rochester and Osmond’s Gothic status; they are both parts of the secrets and the deceptions these men hide. No good man would have a lunatic in the attic as Rochester has; no good man would possess such a satanic mistress as Osmond has.
Perhaps the secret is sex, as Sandra M. Gilbert theorizes: “Rochester has ‘guilty’ sexual knowledge…symbolized both by his doll-like daughter, Adele and by the locked doors of the third story behind which mad Bertha crouches like an animal” (168). The metaphor of mad Bertha does have a peculiar emotional resonance. The Gothic hero certainly must certainly have (sexual) skeletons in his closet. He must have more experience than his heroine.
Bertha’s imprisonment also symbolizes Rochester’s absolute authority in his household. He makes an allusion to Bertha early in the novel, when he informs Jane that “I cannot alter my customary habits for one new inmate” (Bronte 126). Jane has unknowingly become another inmate; she is already under Rochester’s command. In The Portrait of a Lady, Isabel Archer’s marriage will become a stifling prison, both physically and spiritually. Rochester and Osmond have wielded secrets to subjugate these women.
Both Jane Eyre and Isabel Archer are virginal; these novels deal with feminine, sexual awakenings. The specter of the masculine sex haunts both Jane and Isabel. However, the smoldering passion of Jane and Rochester contrasts with the curiously asexual relationship between Isabel and Osmond. The difference comments on the repression and artificiality of the 1880’s when compared to the lusty Romanticism of Jane Eyre. Osmond’s sexless-ness seems rather creepy, somehow not normal. His passive courtship of Isabel is the main evidence. He does almost nothing without Merle’s counsel. “The girl is not disagreeable” represents the pinnacle of his romantic sentiments. (James 251). Even given the fact that he does not fall in love with Isabel, his lackluster reaction to a beautiful woman is odd. Great men have laid themselves down at her door, and Osmond can summon no more zeal for her than he can for a truly stunning divan. When he did choose to be sexual, he chose an illicit union with a married woman. Although his sexuality is less sensational than that of many Gothic heroes, it is abnormal in feeling, and usually directed in sinister channels. Osmond classically blends sexuality with evil.
Along with sex, these novels also deal with the machinations of courtship. Both Madame Merle and Bertha Mason “trick” someone into marriage through withholding information. Merle neglects to inform Isabel Archer that she mothered Pansy (biologically), while Bertha Mason neglected to inform Rochester during their courtship about her family’s significant, almost universal, history of insanity. Of course, we must take Rochester’s word on this fact, as we never hear from Bertha. The function of this trickery in Jane Eyre negates the sanctity of Rochester’s union. He isn’t “really” married; she tricked him; of course he belongs with Jane. However, his attempt to trick Jane into a bigamous marriage adds hypocrisy to this occasion; he is guilty of the same sin as Bertha was. He admits frankly to his machinations: “I meant, however, to be a bigamist: but fate has out-manoeuvred me” (Bronte 296). The concern with trickery in regards to marriage in these novels is feminist. A nineteenth century woman would surrender nearly all rights and property on the event of her wedding. How legal can the marriage vow be when borne of trickery? Marriage under such conditions can only be tyranny. Jane Eyre largely escapes this issue; she marries Rochester only under the proper circumstances. For Isabel Archer, the question becomes central to her existence.
Another resemblance between these two Gothic heroes is the fact of their daughters. Adele and Pansy are extremely submissive, clever at pretty skills, and docile. They are confirmation, in the flesh, of the ungodly sex drives of their fathers, living attachments to the other woman. Yet they are models of decorum themselves. Isabel Archer reflects on Pansy’s character: “How well she had been taught…how prettily she had been directed and fashioned; and yet how simple, how natural, how innocent she had been kept!” (James, 276). Of course it is Osmond who has done the teaching, directing, and fashioning. This seems less like fathering and more like sinister puppetry.
The education of both girls has distinct European elements- Adele’s French lessons and Pansy’s Italian convent training. France and Italy have a continental mystique that appeals to Gothic heroes. Both countries are primarily Roman Catholic. Often, in Protestant fiction of the last few centuries, the Catholic “Other” is villainous. It can be read as nearly profane to a Protestant reader that Osmond rears his daughter strictly in the Catholicism, especially when he scarcely seems to practice the religion. Osmond’s remarks about St. Peters during the Roman sojourn of The Portrait of a Lady do not paint him as a lover of religion. He complains that its large edifice “makes one feel like an atom.” (James 260) This seems flippant in regards to a Cathedral that inspires many with awe and reverence. Isabel, too, does not appear to have much religious reverence. She declares Osmond “ought indeed to be a pope!” and Osmond only remarks, “I would have enjoyed that!” (James 260). To a devout Catholic, the casual dialogue about Osmond’s becoming a pope border on blasphemy. This dialogue affirms not only Osmond’s irreverence, but also his focus on position and power. He probably does not like the idea of God because He represents a higher authority. Osmond’s pride is satanic in nature. He does not want to be in church because it makes him feel small; he envies what is God’s.
Gilbert Osmond is a Gothic hero, but he is a Gothic hero within the confines of a determinedly realist novel. He is on James’ leash; he cannot really swagger, as a vampire should. He must operate behind the scenes; his influence gains realism by cover of darkness. His actions are most often talked about rather than shown happening in the text, as when Madame Merle confronts Isabel: “He doesn’t like your having spoken to Pansy. Ah he doesn’t like it all” (James 327). Osmond threatens Isabel, but through Madame Merle. His tyranny is odiously civilized and disguised as something prettier. His manipulative power is ironic because Isabel was once certain she was marrying a “nonentity.” (James 288) His deceptive courtship in Rome was perfectly triumphant. It is more accurate to say that she becomes a nonentity through marriage to Osmond. She stands at the end of the novel with much of her freedom, hope, and, tragically, her curiosity diminished. Osmond has successively caused her submission to his paternal tyranny.
Henry James speeds the evolution of the Gothic hero in The Portrait of a Lady. Charlotte Bronte had begun to move him into the mainstream with Jane Eyre; James then transports him into realism. Rochester and Osmond share many startling similarities: illicit pasts, submissive daughters, smoldering secrets, and young, vulnerable heroines who are in love with them. Osmond is a more covert, subordinate figure than Rochester; probably so that James can blend the Gothic aspects of the character more effectively into the framework of an Isabel-centered novel. In a horror novel, the kind of foreshadowing that James executes in regard to the character of Osmond might seem heavy-handed. Usually in those stories characters who are hostile to religion and the church later become antagonists in the story because of the good vs. evil dynamic prevalent in the genre. The realist reader, however, is probably not immediately aware of James’ use of the Gothic. Osmond is a monster of the modern age. Instead of supernatural authority, he utilizes and abuses paternal authority to work his will on earth. Osmond does not, and will probably never reform, as a chastened Rochester does. When Jane Eyre informs us, “Reader, I married him.” (Bronte, 257), we rejoice. Osmond’s marriage only fills us with foreboding when the possibility presents itself, and loathing after the deed. James tears the veil off of the myth of happy paternalism presented at the conclusion of Jane Eyre. Pansy and Isabel serve their master, but all is not right with the world.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York: Signet Classic, 1997.
Gilbert, Sandra M. “Plain Jane’s Progress.” Critical Essays on Charlotte Bronte. Ed. Barbara Timm Gates. New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1990.
James, Henry. The Portrait of Lady. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 2001.