Mr Rochester: Byron’s bad boy

Rant!’s DELECTABLE DUDES OF DISCOURSE Series

Rant! swoons unashamedly over literature’s hottest hunks – and it’s all subjective of course.

Girls always like bad boys; it’s an ironic unpleasantness that has embedded itself deep within the female psyche. The nobility and chivalry of the courtly lover is more often than not scorned by women, who would rather swoon over the delectable dude who dishes the damage; the delectable dude whose ‘unpleasantness’ induces orgasmic euphoria in adulating admirers.

All things considered what’s so wrong with a flawed fellow?

Lord Byron pondered this very question and consequently birthed a romantic anti-hero, based on the poet’s own duplicitous actuality, whose character has been replicated in art (in the broader sense) so extensively that ‘Byronic hero’ has become the familiar term used to describe a man existing in opposition to the immaculate idealism of the courtly lover. In discourse, Lord Byron’s ‘bad boy’ is implicitly described as arrogant, cunning, adaptable, cynical, disrespectful of rank and privilege, emotionally conflicted, having a distaste for social institutions and norms, having a troubled past or suffering from an unnamed crime, intelligent, perceptive, jaded, world-weary, mysterious, magnetic, charismatic, seductive, introspective, self-destructive, socially and sexually dominant, sophisticated, educated and treated as an exile or outcast. Literature has cast many characters in the role of the Byronic lover, particularly in the fiction inspired by Romantic Movement and the Gothic fiction of the early 19th century, but none so aptly fits the role of Lord Byron’s model hero than Mr Edward Rochester.

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 masterpiece, imagined one of literature’s most popular romantic characters – the dark and dubious Mr Rochester, who is a classic example of the Byronic bad boy. Mr Rochester is an oxymoron whose state of being simultaneously attracts and repels; an anomaly represented in the man’s physical appearance and best described by Jane Eyre in the following passage:

Most true is it that ‘beauty is in the eye of the gazer.’ My master’s colourless, olive face, square, massive brow, broad and jetty eyebrows, deep eyes, strong features, firm, grim mouth,- all energy, decision, will, – were not beautiful, according to rule; but they were more than beautiful to me: they were full of an interest, an influence that quite mastered me,– that took my feelings from my own power and fettered them in his. I had not intended to love him: the reader knows I had wrought hard to extirpate from my soul the germs of love there detected; and now, at the first renewed view of him, they spontaneously revived, green and strong! He made me love him without looking at me. – Jane Eyre Chapter 17, pg. 153

The reader never doubts Jane’s love for Mr Rochester, which is an unselfish love that attenuates human imperfection. But 150 years after the publication of Jane Eyre, Mr Rochester has come to have many lovers; he lives and breathes in the imagination of countless adoring female admirers.

The ultimate question for Brontë’s readers is whether Mr Rochester has captured the hearts of women worldwide because of his Byronic temperament or in spite of it. The ‘because’ suggests that swooning readers would have fallen in love with any character fitting into the ‘flawed fellow’ mould of Byron’s anti-hero criteria – for this reader Mr Rochester exists merely as a ‘bad boy’ fetish transcendent of context. The ‘in spite’ suggests a deeper, more sincere attraction – a sense that Mr Rochester is not defined by his Byronic temperament but, rather, possesses qualities that co-exist with, and even have the potential to supersede, the Byronic mould – for this reader the love for Mr Rochester exists within the context of the story.

Mr Rochester is Jane’s social and economic superior yet they are intellectual equals and Jane is shown to be his moral superior. And, in fact, by the end of the novel, because Rochester has been blinded by the fire and has lost his manor house he has become weaker while Jane has grown in strength – Jane claims that they are equals, but the marriage dynamic has actually tipped in her favour. Mr Rochester is humbled by circumstance – his new found humility and the regret he shows for his former libertinism and lustfulness suggestively exclude him from the Byronic mould. Perhaps “exclude” is incorrect; Mr Rochester’s ‘bad boy’ temperament co-exists with other character traits that emerge in certain contexts. Mr Rochester is thus shown by Brontë to be a complicated, ambiguous, contradictory human being who develops as a character when faced with life’s very hard lessons. He is more than Lord Byron’s ‘bad boy’ lover.

Although the poetry of Lord Byron revolutionised the traditional ideal of the romantic lover by making him more real, the Byronic hero has the potential to reduce a man to the state of mere ‘bad boy,’ a label which consumes and dictates said hero’s character and identity unless a skilled artist and an insightful reader are charged with describing and discerning the discourse, respectively. That said, the beauty of art is its ability to stir and evoke on a deeply personal level, and individual interpretation, although often errant, is never wrong because, by the intrinsic nature and definition of art, independent thought and feeling is not only encouraged but expected. Therefore, dear reader, own Mr Rochester as your mind and soul decree.

‘You have saved my life: I have a please in owning you so immense a debt. I cannot say more. Nothing else that has being would have been tolerable to me in the character of creditor for such an obligation: but you: it is different;-I feel your benefits no burden, Jane… I knew,’ he continued, ‘you would do me good in some way, at some time;–I saw it in your eyes when I first beheld you: their expression and smile did not… strike delight to my very inmost heart so for nothing… My cherished preserver, good night!’ – Mr. Rochester, Chapter 15, pg. 133

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