This essay is Part I of the author's "Painting with Words: Natural and Spiritual Landscapes in Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea."
any critics have compared Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre to Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea in terms of their complicity with or critique of imperialism, their representations of subalterity, or their feminist agendas. These important political, racial, and social analyses are surely essential to a study of Rhys's adaptation of Brontë's story of the madwoman in the attic. However, it is possible to foreground other significant features of the novels, specifically the ways in which both authors punctuate their bildungsromans with narrative landscapes, or passages depicting scenes of nature using various painterly techniques. Rhoda L. Flaxman's notion of Victorian word-painting, or "visually oriented descriptions whose techniques emulate pictorial methods," lends itself well to this analysis (9). As Flaxman suggests, close readings of these descriptive passages and their effect on the protagonists reveal more than stylistic similarities in the word-paintings of Victorian and Modernist novels. There is in fact a close correlation between the natural and spiritual landscapes in Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea. Moreover, when their landscapes are set in dialogue with one another, these two novels' disparate notions of humanity, morality, and spirituality become quite clear. Rhys self-consciously interrogates and manipulates literary conventions as a means of intervening artistically and politically into received notions of reality. In Wide Sargasso Sea, she uses a modernist aesthetic to seriously question Brontë's portrayal of Bertha Mason, the mad, white Creole in the attic of Rochester's Thornfield Hall. Rhys illustrates her often ambiguous anti-colonialism through Antoinette/Bertha and Rochester's experiential immersion in the West Indian jungle. Her use of this particular motif draws upon Brontë, who likewise maps out Jane's spiritual development through her panoramic views of sublime landscapes. Upon comparing the features and functions of natural formations in Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea, we find that whereas natural landscapes serve as moral and spiritual touchstone for Jane, reminding her of a higher power in times of terror or destitution, nature for Antoinette is ultimately a mirror of her own fragmented consciousness, reminding her of her ambiguous role in a now crumbling colonial regime.
Before looking closely at narratives of landscapes in Jane Eyre, it will be useful to review some of Brontë's literary and visual influences. Growing up in the early nineteenth century, Brontë would have been exposed to the many monthly magazines featuring some of the best artistic and literary talent of her day. One monthly in particular, Lady's Magazine, was published between 1791 and 1812 and printed Gothic romances in serialized form. The Brontë's were known to be avid readers of these stories, feeding their imaginations with familiar Gothic tropes of old castles, chapels, vaults, and abductions. Inspired in part by the monthlies, the Annuals were nineteenth-century gift books containing poetry, prose fiction and engravings. Swiss engraver Rudolph Ackerman first introduced the Annuals to the English market during the Christmas holiday of 1822. While they provided publishing opportunities to esteemed writers such as Coleridge, Byron, Wordsworth, and Shelley, the Annual's emphasis on visual arts attracted other famed portrait painters and engravers including Turner, Westall, and Finden (Alexander 412).
The Annuals of particular interest to the Brontë household included Forget Me Not, The Literary Souvenir, and Friendship's Offering. The gift books' influence on narrative and descriptive technique in the Brontës' novels is unmistakable. As Christine Alexander notes, "the appeal of the Annuals was both visual and verbal. The artistic "embellishments" were to be read as a crucial part of the text. In fact, the text was usually commissioned to accompany the illustration" (Alexander 411). Engravers and other artists frequently depicted sublime landscapes, or images of extravagant and panoramic scenes of the natural world. The Brontë family actually owned four large engravings of famed engraver ---Martin, whose seascapes appear to have influenced many of Brontë's descriptive passages in Jane Eyre as well as Jane's own water-color paintings of the "low and livid [clouds] rolling over a swollen sea" (Jane Eyre 107). Jane's artistic work, like Brontë's, also draws upon Thomas Bewick's History of British Birds (the 1804 edition), which contain ornithological plates and vignettes. Jane Stedman observes that Brontë incorporates analogous narrative vignettes throughout Jane Eyre in the form of "conventional pictures of ribbons, foliage, nests, sea and beach, ruins and churchyards, and supernatural" (429). In the first chapter, for instance, Jane endures a rainy winter afternoon at Gateshead by opening Bewick's History and admiring the pictures.
I returned to my book — Bewick's "History of British Birds": the letterpress thereof I cared little for, generally speaking; and yet there were certain introductory pages that, child as I was, I could not pass quite as a blank. They were those which treat of the haunts of sea-fowl; of "the solitary rocks and promontories' by them only inhabited" of the coast of Norway, studded with isles from its southern extremity, the Lindeness, or Naze, to the North Cape. 
Significantly, Jane goes on to describe the relationship between the narrative and the pictures and the emotional response it elicits:
Of these death-white realms I formed an idea of my own: shadowy, like all the half-comprehended notions that float dim through children's brains, but strangely impressive. The words in these introductory pages connected themselves with the succeeding vignettes, and gave significance to the rock standing up alone in a sear of billow and spray; to the broken boat stranded on a desolate coast; to the cold and ghastly moon glancing through bars of cloud at a wreck just sinking. 
Through Jane's close reading of the engraving, Brontë indicates that her protagonist is visually oriented and prone to associate emotional states with natural formations. In a sense, Brontë is also telling the reader that she will give similar space and attention to carefully wrought landscapes in her novel and that they will feature largely in her protagonist's psychological development. Literary scholar Peter Bellis adds that Brontë's "imaginative process was intensely visual: she wrote with her eyes shut, transcribing her visions without seeing them in verbal form, as if she wished to bypass or suppress the self-conscious process of writing" (Bellis 641). Like the seascapes of a Martin engraving or the orthinological plates in Bewick's History, Charlotte Brontë invests a great deal of attention to the composition of her landscapes. The engravings in the Annuals and Bewick serve as a kind of template for many of the sublime landscapes in Brontë's novel, indicating to us the important links between what Rhoda L. Flaxman calls "narrative landscapes," character development, and themes in the novel.
In Victorian Word-Painting and Narrative: Toward the Blending of Genres, Flaxman analyzes the techniques used by several Victorian novelists and poets to describe natural landscapes. She observes that, similar to Dickens and Hardy, Charlotte Brontë employed "visually oriented descriptions" in her novels, thus situating Jane Eyre within this narrative tradition. Echoing Jane's account of her psychological response to Bewick's engravings, Flaxman observes, "[f]or eighteenth-century describers of nature, the pictorial analogy was never distant. The cult of the picturesque dictated a schematic overlay through which the phenomenological world was seen often as ordered and domesticated" (Flaxman 12). Borrowing a term first used by Ruskin, Flaxman characterizes the visual descriptions in novels like Jane Eyre as "word-paintings," or "extended passages of visually oriented descriptions whose techniques emulate pictorial methods" (9). Like an engraving or illustrated landscape, these word-paintings feature detailed compositional structures comprising contrasts of light, dark, color volume, and mass. Authors like Brontë used recurring motifs throughout their novels to impose metaphoric unity and to emphasize the viewpoint of a particular spectator.
It is precisely this issue of spectatorship, or the relation of the individual to the panoramic view, that is of interest here. For, as Flaxman argues, word-painting far surpasses any static catalogue of visual data in terms of its effect on the viewer. Brontë does not simply enumerate individual objects in nature without relating them to her protagonist. She consistently interpellates Jane into carefully constructed scenes that illicit specific emotional states, depending on events in the plot and Jane's psychological and spiritual development. We can in fact trace Jane's metaphoric journey of the self through her experiences with the provocative landscapes that punctuate the main narrative. After she has passed her first winter in Lowood, for instance, Jane contemplates the view of the surrounding hills and streams from the school grounds. The cinematic movement of her gaze from the towering summits to the woods below, as well as her descriptions of the animated river, renders the landscape sublime.
I discovered, too, that a great pleasure, an enjoyment which the horizon only bounded, lay all outside the high and spike-guarded walls of our garden: this pleasure consisted in the prospect of noble summits girdling a great hill-hollow, rich in verdure and shadow; in a bright beck, full of dark stones and sparkling eddies. How different had this scene looked when I viewed it laid out beneath the iron sky of winter, stiffened in front, shrouded in snow! — when mists as chill as death wandered to the impulse of east winds along those purples peaks, and rolled down "ing" and holm till they blended with the frozen fog of the beck. That beck itself was then a torrent, turbid and curbless: it tore asunder the wood, and sent a raving sound through the air, often thickened with wild rain or whirling sleet; and for the forest on its banks, that showed only ranks of skeletons. 
In this scene, the "brightness" of the beck contrasts with the "darkness" of the stones, and the "noble summit" towers above the hill "rich in verdure and shadow." Brontë's use of an array of tones and colors — from verdure to sparkles to purple — lends additional texture to the word-painting. Through her vivid descriptions of natural formations, Brontë animates the scenery around Lowood while simultaneously relying upon painterly devices to compose a static panorama. The reader inhabits Jane's gaze as it sweeps down from the "noble summits" to the "bright beck," creating an effect not unlike that of a cinematic rush across a vast landscape. Natural formations are also dynamic and moving, so that the mists "wander" to the "impulse of east winds" and the beck tears asunder the wood. This is what Flaxman would call "kinesis within stasis," or a blending together of the movement associated with poetry and the stasis associated with painting (125). A salient feature of this narrative landscape is the way in which Jane situates herself in it. She is a detached observer who ironically seems to engage more in the scene as she hides herself within it. After describing the bursts of springtime vegetation, Jane admits to us, "[a]ll this I enjoyed often and fully, free, unwatched, and almost alone" (64). Jane is an observer-participant who finds comfort in her isolation from the oppressive Lowood School. Her psychic engagement with the heights and depths of her external environment moves her to strive for internal balance and moderation. The word-painting here depicts the sublime as a stable reference point and, as discussed below, a marker for Jane's psychological and spiritual state.
In keeping with the tradition of the sublime, Jane has an "aesthetic appreciation of natural forms and forces in all their terror and beauty" and often experiences "the heights and depths in nature" (Milbank 145; Alexander 417). She reads landscapes just as she might read a vignette from Bewick's History, acknowledging the transportation she feels from their visual and metaphoric power. For instance, after her first months at Thornfield Hall she divulges to us, "[e]xternals have a great effect on the young: I thought that a fairer era of life was beginning for me, one that was to have its flowers and pleasures, as well as its thorns and toils. My faculties, roused by the change of scene, the new field offered to hope, seemed all astir. I cannot precisely define what they expected, but it was something pleasant: not perhaps that day or that month, but at an indefinite future period" (83). Beyond the comfort she finds in nature's metaphoric "pleasures" and "toils," Jane finds her faculties elevated and her senses heightened through her engagement with the external world. Yet Jane's self-revelations are dependent upon a landscape that is not only exalting and sublime but also often gloomy and mysterious. For instance, just after leaving Lowood and striking out as an independent woman, Jane is filled with excitement and apprehension. Change, it seems, is inevitable for Jane, and her sense of impending transformation registers in her observations of the scenery near Thornfield Hall. Jane contemplates the picturesque night sky just after her strange encounter with Mr. Rochester, noting the contrast between the gloomy house that will soon be her residence and the awesome nightscape that is a constant reminder of a higher power.
. . . and both my eyes and spirit seemed drawn from the gloomy house — from the grey hollow filled with rayless cells, as it appeared to me — to that sky expanded before me,--a blue sea absolved from taint of cloud; the moon ascending it in solemn march; her orb seeming to look up as she left the hilltops, aspired to the zenith, midnight-dark in its fathomless depth and measureless distance: and for those trembling, my veins glow when I viewed them. Little things recall us to earth: the clock struck in the hall; that sufficed; I turned from moon and stars, opened a side door, and went in. 
In contrast to her panoramic view of the mountains and forest near Lowood, Jane's contemplation of expansive night sky is haunted by a Gothic gloominess. Her spirit is carried upwards to the celestial zenith only to be called back to earth by the solemn sounds of the clock striking the hour. Her "veins glow" from the exalting journey to the moon, yet she must turn into the "gloomy house" to embark on an uncertain path. Much of what we might call the Gothic romance that frames Jane Eyre draws upon the sublime landscapes for such surges of emotion. The mystery of Thornfield Hall, Rochester's dark past, and the supernatural laughter heard in the dead of night are all common enough tropes in the Gothic tradition that elicit both fear and exhilaration, both terror and awe. However, Brontë's bildungsroman, her story of Jane's emotional, social, and spiritual maturation, is dependent upon more than a "Gothic mood" for its progress and culmination. Writing much of the story within the genre of Gothic romance, Brontë weaves a mixture of competing spiritualities through the novel, including the supernatural as well as various strands of Christian discourse. Her landscapes are frequently the metaphoric nexus of these multiple spiritualities, thus serving as poignant markers of Jane's psychological state.
Brontë's mixture of the Gothic, supernatural, and Christian has troubled critics of her novel for some time. J. Jeffrey Franklin argues that "Jane Eyre is in some way a faithful (pun intended) representation of the hybrid religious discourse of rural England in the middle part of the nineteenth century (and so perhaps retains the resulting air of authenticity)" (Franklin 470). Citing James Obelkevich's Religion and Rural Society: South Lindsey, 1825-1875, Franklin notes that the supernatural was part of "popular religion," and rural residents freely mixed Christian with supernatural discourse, often incorporating pagan rituals into their Evangelical practices. The question for Brontë, then, is not so much why she includes these competing spiritual discourses but rather, if they are competing, which will ultimately serve as Jane's moral yardstick?
Soon after Jane assists Rochester with Mr. Mason's wounds from Bertha, the dialectic of the Gothic supernatural and Christian discourses is clearly signified through the natural world. Many critics like Franklin have characterized Bertha as Jane's "dark double," noting that Bertha "becomes an emblem of Jane's own, trapped child-self and the doppleganger whom Jane must confront, heal, or, failing that, escape from" (474). Others like Helen Moglen see Bertha as "the monstrous embodiment of psychosexual conflicts which are intrinsic to the romantic predicament — paralleled and unconscious in both Jane and Rochester. . . . She is the menacing form of Jane's resistance to male authority, her fear of that sexual surrender which will seal her complete dependence in passion" (124-26). If we are to combine Franklin's notion of the "dark other" with Moglen's idea of "psychosexual conflict," we should also recall Bertha's origins in the West Indies. As the mad, barbaric, subhuman, "other" to the civil and Christian Jane, Bertha is revealing of Brontë's uncritical endorsement of the civilizing mission. Brontë accordingly contrasts Bertha's "hellishness" with Jane's righteousness through images of the external environment. For instance, after Bertha viciously attacks Mr. Mason, Rochester and Jane find themselves stumbling into the garden outside gloomy Thornfield Hall, searching for reassuring signs of a higher, benevolent power. As they walk into the yard and out of this night of terror, Jane notes the
apple trees, pear trees, and cherry trees on one side, and border on the other, full of all sorts of old-fashioned flowers, stocks, sweet-williams, primroses, pansies, mingles with southern-wood, sweet-briar, and various fragrant herbs. They were fresh now as a succession of April showers and gleams, followed by a lovely spring morning, could make them: the sun was just entering the dappled east, and his light illumined the wreathed and dewy orchard trees and shone down the quiet walks under them. 
The dome of the cloudless sky transports Jane to a sense of renewal, while the numerous plants and trees below steady her flight of emotion. The herbs, pansies, and primroses are fresh and gleaming in the spring morning, restoring order to the wildness of the night before. This scene is significant not only for the promise of renewal signified in the illuminating sunrise, but because it distinguishes the "slime" and "cobwebs" of Rochester's tainted colonial past from the sweet purity of Jane. When Jane beholds this stunning sunrise, we are aware that Rochester's burden, the "hellish fiend" Bertha, yet lurks within the gloomy mansion. As Franklin argues, Jane must rid herself of this dark twin and Gothic other before she can unite in Christian union with Rochester; she must rid herself of the "sulphur-steams" of the "fiery West Indies" and seek out "the sweet wind from Europe" (Jane Eyre 262-263). Brontë's word-painting up until this point in the novel contains few direct references to a Christian God, even though it is always implied. The instant Jane flees after learning of Rochester's existing marriage to Bertha, she finds herself in the care of benevolent nature wherein her faculties are transported to a deeper faith in God.
Night was come, and her planets were risen: a safe, still night; too serene for the companionship of fear. We know that God is everywhere; but certainly we feel His presence most when His works are on the grandest scale spread before us, and it is in the unclouded night-sky, where His worlds wheel their silent course, that we read clearest His infinitude, His omnipotence, His omnipresence. I had risen to my knees to pray for Mr. Rochester. Looking up, I, with tear-dimmed eyes, saw the mighty Milky Way. Remembering what it was — what countless systems there swept space like a soft trace of light — I felt the might and strength of God. Sure was I of His efficiency to save what He had made: convinced I grew that neither earth should perish nor one of the souls it treasured. 
As she locates the Milky Way high up in the night sky, Jane's faith in God and the moral order of the novel is restored. Each sublime landscape she previously described suddenly falls in line as the grand work of an infinite, omnipotent, and benevolent God. Another turning point for Jane, her nights in the wilderness lead her to the home of St. John Rivers and his sisters, whose Evangelical Christianity introduces a new religious discourse. At this point in the novel, it becomes clear that Brontë is deliberately contrasting St. John's missionary rhetoric, the harsh Evangelical faith of Mr. Brocklehurst, and the self-sacrificing benevolence of Helen Burns. Parama Roy aptly notes that "the Brocklehurstian valorization of self-flagellation and suppression of the instinctual life finds its most sincere votary in Helen Burns" (716). Roy goes so far as to suggest that Helen
is always "looking to the end," and the experience of the novel suggests that those people (like Eliza Reed, who immures herself in a convent, and St. John, who is martyr to the unspeakable abominations of Inida) who look too closely to the end may reach that end all too soon. However — and this is typical of the text's ideological confusions and evasions — Helen's influence remains powerful after her death, compelling Jane (as we shall see) to genuflect before the values that she embodies. 
Thus, not only does Brontë interweave the competing discourses of the supernatural and Christian, but she articulates competing discourses within Christianity itself. Franklin notes that Charlotte Brontë "grew up during the heyday of Evangelical controversies in Britain, controversies that saw increased fragmentation and dissention among and between Wesleyan Methodists, Primitive Methodists, Calvinists, Arminians, and various "high" and "low" Tractarian and Evangelical Anglicans" (459). Jane must not only navigate the gloomy terrain of the supernatural, but she must also settle on a Christian faith that will enable her to leave St. John and coexist with Rochester. One important way in which Brontë illustrates St. John's rigid asceticism is through word-paintings of the landscape around his home. Jane's characterization of the terrain as "wild" and bearing "the hardiest of species" echoes the unforgiving chill and disease-ridden forest at Lowood. Brontë seems to be suggesting that although Jane learns about righteous ways of living from both of these natural and moral terrains, she must forge her own path if she is to live a happy and spiritually-fulfilled life with Rochester.
Offering no easy conclusion for her protagonist, Brontë intertwines Gothic and sublime elements in her word-paintings until the very end of the novel. When Jane reunites with the half blind and world-weary Rochester, she realizes that her faith in God has been restored without recourse to the philanthropic self-sacrifice of St. John's Christian faith. Yet before she finds Rochester she must weave her way through a gloomy forest, along paths that appear to lead her only deeper into the dense foliage.
I found myself at once in the twilight of close-ranked trees. There was a grass-grown track descending the forest aisle, between hoar and knotty shafts and under branched archesI though I had taken a wrong direction and lost my way. The darkness of natural as well as sylvan dusk gathered over me. I looked round in search of another road. There was none: all was interwoven stem, columnar trunk, dense, summer foliage — no opening anywhere. 
Rather than surveying the land from atop a roof or hill, Jane is very much immersed in the "close-ranked trees" and "sylvan dusk" of the forest. She must temporarily lose perspective and enter the depths of emotion before her exalting reunion with Rochester. In the penultimate chapter, Jane describes herself leading Rochester through an open field, a scene of light and growth that contrasts the encroaching gloom of the forest. "Most of the morning was spent in the open air. I led him out of the wet and wild wood into some cheerful fields: I described to him how brilliantly green they were; how the flowers and hedges looked refreshed; how sparklingly blue was the sky" (374). Although the heights of emotion here seem to balance the gloom of the forest, this intimate landscape of blue sky and rejuvenated verdure could not be more different from the sweeping, sublime panoramas found earlier in the novel. Here, Brontë's characters are immersed in the land and her word-painting is likewise woven seamlessly into the main narrative. No longer does the cinematic arrest Jane's attention, freezing time as her gaze sweeps from the highest of summits to the lowliest of bubbling becks. Moderation has been restored, and Jane's faith in a higher power is secured because she has found communion with fellow spirit. We are reminded that her first panoramic view from the roof of Thornfield had stimulated a desire for "more of practical experience than I possessed; more of intercourse with my kind, of acquaintance with variety of character, than was here within my reach" (93). By the end of the novel Jane has acquired a "power of vision" through her union with Rochester, and accordingly she has come back down to earth to live a quiet, happy life unthreatened by Gothic gloom and terror.
Yet, lest we forget, Jane's reunion with Rochester, her restored psychic stability and Christian morality, are predicated upon the destruction of one minor but integral character: Bertha Mason. It is, after all, the fire at Thornfield and Bertha's leap to her death that liberate Rochester from his commitment to his mad, Creole wife and dark colonial past. Laurence Lerner identifies three schools of Bertha-criticism that are helpful not only in teasing apart scholarly responses to Jane Eyre but also in foregrounding the central themes of its most famous literary response, Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea. Lerner explains that critics have generally focused their critiques on "Bertha as representing Jane's repressed sexual desire, Bertha as representing Jane's suppressed anger, and now Bertha-Antoinette as representing the colonial subject" (279).
- Painting with Words: Natural and Spiritual Landscapes in Wide Sargasso Sea (Part II)
- Jane Eyre and Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea: An Introduction
- The Fated Modernist Heroine: Female Protagonists in Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea
- The Experience of Womanhood in Jane Eyre and Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea
Alexander, Christine. "That Kingdom of Gloom": Charlotte Brontë, the Annuals, and the Gothic." Nineteenth-Century Literature. 47.4 (1993): pp. 409-436.
Beattie, Valerie. "The Mystery at Thornfield: Representations of Madness in Jane Eyre. Studies in the Novel, 28.4 (1996): pp.493-505.
Bellis, Peter J. "In the Window-Seat: Vision and Power in Jane Eyre." ELH. 54.3 (1987): pp. 639-652.
Bender, Todd K. Literary Impressionism in Jean Rhys, Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad, and Charlotte Brontë. New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc. 1997.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York and London: W.W. Norton and Co., Inc., 2001.
Franklin, J. Jeffrey. "The Merging of Spiritualities: Jane Eyre as Missionary of Love." Nineteenth-Century Literature. 49.4 (1995): pp. 456-482.
Lerner, Lawrence. "Bertha and the Critics." Nineteenth-Century Literature. 44.3 (1989): pp. 273-300.
Milbank, Alison. Daughters of the House: Mode of the Gothic in Victorian Fiction. New York: St Martin's Press, 1992.
Roy, Parama. "Unaccommodated Woman and the Poetics of Property in Jane Eyre." Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900. 29.4 (1989): pp. 713-727.
Stedman, Jane W. "Charlotte Brontë and Bewick's 'British Birds.'" Brontë Society Transactions. 15 (1966): pp. 36-40.
Last updated 23 May 2004