- Byronic Heroes in Nineteenth-Century Women's Writing and Screen Adaptation by Sarah Wootton
The Byronic hero is a notoriously slippery character. In Byronic Heroes in Nineteenth-Century Women's Writing and Screen Adaptation, Sara Wootton writes that the Byronic hero "is both inescapable in popular culture and inexplicable, a known commodity and unknowable. … instantly recognizable, endlessly reinterpreted, and enduringly elusive" (p. 12). Nineteenth-century women writers, Wootton argues, played an important role in the [End Page 203] literary afterlife of this figure, and her book aims to reinsert their contributions into the history of the Byronic hero and of Byron himself.
Wootton chooses to focus on women writers who might not be immediately associated with Byron, thus the absence of the Brontës from her study. Instead, she looks at the work of Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, and George Eliot as well as some recent film and television adaptations of their works. In writing about these adaptations, Wootton argues for the importance of "interpretation and cultural transmission" over accuracy or faithfulness (p. 25). For instance, she reads screenwriter Andrew Davies's decision to bring Mr. Darcy to the center of the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (1813)—showing him engaging in traditional "masculine" activities such as fencing, horseback riding, and swimming—not as a departure from Austen's original novel but as an intentional choice to create a hybrid Austenian-Byronic hero. She observes this pattern of interpretation throughout the adaptations, noting that this strategy helps bring the figure of the Byronic hero forward for contemporary audiences.
The opening section of the book discusses the relationship between Austen and Byron, which, Wootton notes, has been treated by a handful of critics who have sought to place Austen in the context of Romanticism. With regard to the Byronic hero, Wootton carves out a space for this connection by exploring how Austen and Byron were responding to the same cultural moment, which was marked by changing ideas of masculinity and the figure of the gentleman. She discusses the influence of the Byronic hero on five of Austen's six novels and explains that both Byron and Austen shared source material in the novels of Samuel Richardson as well as the popular gothic novels and stage melodramas of the day. She also notes interesting resonances between Byron's poetry and the language of Austen's characters, particularly in Austen's final novel Persuasion (1817), which contains several direct references to Byron within the text.
Elizabeth Gaskell may be the least likely of the writers included here, but in chapter three, Wootton makes a convincing argument for the ways in which the figure of the Byronic hero enabled Gaskell, like Byron, to use writing as "a form of social redress through which they actively sought and entertained an audience" (p. 97). Thomas Carlyle serves as one of the links between writers in this chapter with Wootton showing how Gaskell responded to Carlyle's discussion of Byron in On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841), and in doing so, participated in the same explorations of heroism and masculinity as Carlyle and Byron. Gaskell's North and South (1855) and Wives and Daughters (1864) receive the most attention in this chapter, and as with Pride and Prejudice, Wootton demonstrates how the screen adaptations underscore the Byronism of the heroes—John Thornton and Osborne Hamley, respectively. Thus, the screenwriters highlight what Wootton terms "Byronic dissonance," which [End Page 204] calls attention to the novel's engagement with Victorian social issues and "sceptical regard for conformist attitudes and beliefs" (pp. 24, 97).
In the final section on Eliot, Wootton is sensitive to the push-pull of Eliot's relationship with Byron, noting that she appeared to be both attracted to and distrusting of the Byronic hero and his creator. Wootton examines a letter in which Eliot declares that Byron and his poetry have become "more repugnant" to her by providing detailed context to show that Eliot was reacting more strongly to...