We remember the fascination of the villain from when we were children: Captain Hook, the old hag in ‘Hansel and Gretel,’ the ‘Wicked Witch of the West’. As Thomas Stearns Eliot recognized, “It is better, in a paradoxical way, to do evil than to do nothing: at least, we exist” (344).
The Romantics, those poets who always admired the view from the eyes of the child, were everywhere mesmerized by the villain, by strangeness in beauty, by the corrupt, the contaminated, the imperiled.
The Brontës held onto the richness of their childhood imaginations and from this kept treasure Rochester and Heathcliff emerge. Yet Rochester was not the first character to wrap up the contradictions of lover and enemy into one subjectivity.
The tragic hero whose main energy comes from villainous actions, self-destructive impulses, or character flaws can be traced back to Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy, and even earlier, to the Nietzschean will-to-power of Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ (1532).
Such early magnetic scoundrels range from the cursed ambitions of the ur-seeker-of-other-worldly-knowledge, Christopher Marlowe’s ‘Faustus’ (c. 1588); Promus, the just man who wrestles with his desire for Cassandra and loses in George Whetstone’s ‘Promus and Cassandra’ (1578); and Guise in Fulke Greville’s ‘Alaham’ (1590s), who displays the sublime but wasted subjectivity of the Byronic hero.
An erotics of evil develops out of these characters and their ambitious will for destruction coupled with the genius of an all-seeing eye. William Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’ (1592–94) combines a dreaded cruelty with a witty intellect and an insatiable drive. ‘Hamlet’ (1600–1601) brings into this history the important characteristic of the tragedy of impotent melancholy, a sense of a world too barren for action, for an attempt at change.
Running through Jacobean tragedy, the tormented, sympathetic reprobate appears in such characters as Vindice in Cyril Tourneur’s ‘The Revenger’s Tragedy’ (1607); the atheist, D’Amville, in ‘The Atheist’s Tragedy’ (1611); and Giovanni in John Ford’s ‘’Tis a Pity She’s a Whore’ (1633).
Lucifer in John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ (1667), the serpentine tempter of Eve, falls from grace as later dangerous lovers will. And Eve’s seduction by this demon lover, causing her own fall from grace, is repeated again and again in the erotic historical where the heroine, after her seduction by the devilish rogue, becomes outcast with him. As Gilbert and Gubar point out, this gives a new meaning to the “fall” in “to fall in love.” And this fall stands always in relation to knowledge, whether it be occult knowledge, which gives one too much power to live in the world, or a cynical knowledge that comes to know the world too well, emptying it of mystery and possibility.
Luciferian dangerous lovers always cut a devilish figure with their sneering rebellion and refusal to bow to any power but that of their own tortured subjectivity.
Considered by many to be the first romance (some even call it the first novel), Samuel Richardson’s ‘Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded’ (1740–41) places the villain as both the heroine’s worst foe and her final blessing for virtuous behaviour.
An early example of the reformed rake formula, Pamela centres around the scoundrel/suitor Mr B., who plots Pamela’s ruin by seducing her but, so impressed is he by her strict sense of the virtuous and dutiful place of a young serving maid, he marries her instead.
In Pamela, as well as in the Gothic, eroticism resides in texts — letters that Pamela keeps in her “bosom” and then are purloined by Mr. B. While these missives masquerade as virtuous tracts on how to stay away from a scheming rake, they become a nexus for erotic activity with Pamela’s flurried excitement in her letter-writing, her exhaustive recording of the minutiae of her seduction, and her bringing the texts to bed — nailing Mr. B’s sadistic letter to her bedstead as a masochistic reminder to “be good.”
The letter even becomes a substitute for sex when Mr B. reads Pamela’s letters instead of continuing his seduction. The highest point of sexual satiation is the text, and furthermore, the text that does not reach its proper destination (her letters are addressed to her parents). These dead letters represent the love that becomes, at least temporarily, a kind of dead letter: love is misunderstanding itself.
In Ann Radcliffe, the most romantic of the Gothic novelists, the virtuous heroes are quickly forgotten; in their paleness, they fall away next to the bold chiaroscuro shine of the cruel villain.
The villains in much of the Gothic create the central development and complexity of the narrative by their inexplicably meaningful actions, their deeply perturbed spirits which precipitously race toward ruin on a grand scale.
These villains and their violent machinations against the heroine’s virtue steal the show while the characterless lover is lost in the background with his transparent tenderness and adoration.
Both Schedoni in Ann Radcliffe’s ‘The Italian’ and ‘Ambrosio’ in Matthew Gregory Lewis’ ‘The Monk: A Romance’ contain the erotic complexities and fascination of a manifold and fearful enemy, while the lover, in contrast, seems easily read. Schedoni’s fallen greatness and gloomy violence disclose a hidden world of darkness and death.
His penetrating glance exposes the hidden body of the other, without itself showing anything, making the other’s interiority known. Schedoni’s melancholy self magnetically pulls the other who desires to know; he is like an emptiness which draws in a material to fill it.
In ‘The Monk: A Romance’, a Gothic bildungsroman, Ambrosio begins as the adored “Man of Holiness” but develops into a corrupted malefactor when he is seduced by a temptress disguised as a monk (herself a dangerous lover).
The Gothic enemy moves, changes, hides a riveting past and future, while the Gothic lover’s insipidity comes from his stasis as a character, his ability to be only one thing. The Brontës knew this in spades.
With the collapse of the blackguard and sweetheart into one Rochester, Brontë can begin her story with the intriguing Gothic stranger, and only later transform him into the domesticated and dependent lover.
The evil double contained in a single character is itself a Gothic mainstay, as in James Hogg’s ‘Confessions of a Justified Sinner’ (an interesting case of a homoerotic haunting by a devil-self). A variation on this theme is being haunted by a double represented in another subjectivity, as in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ and William Godwin’s ‘Things as They Are; or The Adventures of Caleb Williams’. In the post–Gothic Victorian novels, these Gothic doubles continue to proliferate, as in ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, and even ‘Jane Eyre’ with Bertha as Jane’s double.