The Romantic literary movement was characterized by beautifully dramatic works, coming from places of deep strife and pain. Many of the prominent Romantic authors had incredibly difficult lives, dealing with issues like mental illness, physical illness, and addiction, just to name a few. Often these themes became present in their works, portrayed in a more romanticized way. For example, the symptoms of horrifying illnesses like tuberculosis made their way into the beauty standards of the time and were used for dramatic effect in countless works of fiction.
To many, Romanticism as a movement seems to be a way for writers and readers of the time to process the cruelties of the world around them. By making their suffering into something beautiful, it would give the pain a purpose, beyond the senseless and blind hurt that the universe will randomly bestow. Authors like Charlotte and Emily Bronte portrayed suffering and unstable male protagonists in a way that seemed not only normal, but as something artistic and Romantic. The allure of tragedy has always been present in fiction, from early mythology, to Shakespeare, and through to modern-day dramas that seem like one catastrophe after another.
The turbulent relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights seems almost romantic (not only in a literary sense, but in a love sense as well). It’s not abuse and mental illness, it’s passion. Though Jane Eyre’s Mr. Rochester is unstable, often cruel, and locks his ex-wife in a freaking attic, he is still the main love interest, once again portrayed as a handsome suitor, as opposed to a predatory creep with control issues.
Criticisms come to stories like this, as they’re seen to be romanticizing abusive and unstable relationships. The line between representation and romanticization is very blurry, and countless debates have sprung up over where this line should be drawn. People in one camp will say that an author should write whatever they want, and looking at an issue through rose-colored glasses is a way for them to cope. Those in the other camp will say that the portrayals make painful issues seem like something aspirational, that young people will strive to meet someone like Heathcliff or Mr. Rochester.
The Bronte sisters lived incredibly troubled lives. The few romantic relationships experienced by any of the sisters were mostly short-lived, turbulent, and with heavy power imbalances. They had numerous deaths in their family, leading to Charlotte outliving all of her siblings before her own untimely death. Their brother struggled with addiction and his failing career, and though the Bronte sibling’s father had a stable job (he was a minister), they were still on the lower end of the middle class, which left them with few options in both career and marriage choices. Their lives were short and filled with the kind of trauma and pain that was plentiful enough to fill multiple novels. Which it did.
I believe that romanticization is almost like a survival tool, especially for artists. However, this view of painful events and circumstances as being something that creates “good art” permeates through many creative circles. It can lead people to stay in damaging mental states to create something that they deem as “art.”
When the style of your work is inextricably tied to the pain that was suffered while writing it, you end up building your own gilded prison. The arts are one of the few professions that are tied so closely to one’s personal life. For many writers and musicians, being a “sad girl” is a hallmark of their brand. Singers Pheobe Bridgers and Mitski are modern examples of this trend, having been preceded by other famous “sad girl” authors, like Sylvia Plath, Dorothy Parker, and yes, I’m adding the Bronte sisters to this list as well. Basing your whole artistic image and themes on your struggles is cathartic to a degree, and helps other people feel less alone. But it starts this sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. When you run out of pain, you either recover and run the risk of alienating an audience, or you have to find a new source of suffering to keep everyone entertained.
is a young writer from Ottawa, Canada. When he isn’t in school, he enjoys reading, writing, crochet, and playing with his two cats. Their favorite genres are horror and fantasy, and they enjoy all things strange. You can find him on Instagram at @nate_fahmi
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