Some texts reproduce themselves through time and across history: the Greek tragedies and epics, the books of Genesis and Exodus, Hamlet ... and, it seems, the Bront texts, particularly Jane Eyre. The western patriarchal myths have been joined in the past two centuries by the woman's romance myth: how to negotiate sexual and economic rights within patriarchy. Jane Eyre is the apogee of successful negotiation, Wuthering Heights its tragic, transcendent denial.
Patsy Stoneman's fascinating, information-packed book traces the fate of these two novels in several ways: how they have been reproduced in different media, what they have meant to writers as inspiration, as warning, and as structural and mythic models, and how they have been transformed in response to changing ideological pressures. The most obvious example of such pressure is the Bertha of Jane Eyre. One of the most telling quotations Stoneman gives in this connection is from Barbara T. Christian, a black Caribbean woman: "Disturbed as I was by Bront 's portrayal of Bertha, I nonetheless loved Jane Eyre and identified with plain Jane ... Jane and I shared something in common, even as the mores of her society, even as the physical geography of her world were alien to me." Bertha's transformation is given another twist in Henry James's The Turn of the Screw in which the "unmentionable relative" of Thornfield is no longer the visible madwoman in the attic but the shadowy spectres of infant sexuality and incest.
The last 70 pages of Bront Transformations gives a year-by-year list of the two novels' derivatives. Where Jane Eyre immediately began a transformational odyssey in all available media, Wuthering Heights spawned no derivatives until 1883 with Olive Schreiner's The Story of an African Farm. Wuthering Heights has been translated more often than Jane Eyre, has been given more musical settings, including opera, and has been reproduced mostly by men. For women Jane Eyre is the inspirational text just as Jane Eyre is the inspirational character. Catherine Earnshaw can offer women only hysteria, ethereality and death; she does not even get to tell her own story. At the same time, Wuthering Heights has been more susceptible to parody, most memorably in the Monty Python semaphore version in which the novel's elemental qualities are transformed into the primal gesture.
Bront Transformations is both a treasure house and a lumber room of such details. Hundreds of derivatives have been traced. Sometimes the collector's obsession is almost in danger of overwhelming the ideological concerns of the cultural critic. The argument is rescued from such fragmentation by a focus on the contextual significance of even the most ephemeral transformations, such as the 19th-century melodramas of Jane Eyre. The success of Bront Transformations lies in just this combination of strenuous argument and recondite evidence.
Marion Shaw is professor of English, Loughborough University.
Bronte Transformations: The Cultural Dissemination of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights
Author - Patsy Stoneman
ISBN - 0 13 355561 5
Publisher - Harvester Wheatsheaf
Price - £15.95
Pages - 352