Sunday, October 2, 2011

Jane Eyre – What’s it all about then?

A couple of weekends ago I went to see the latest film version of ‘Jane Eyre’ with the blonde, I quite enjoyed it, she fell asleep. Twice. Which was a shame because she could have translated the French bits that I couldn’t quite decipher because the captions on the screen (and this was a specifically captioned for the hard of hearing showing – our presence there was coincidental) where actually below the screen with only the tops of the letters visible. Nobody complained which is shame on us really because I’m sure we could have found a cheaper venue in which to nap and be confused in.

I’ve read Jane Eyre a couple of times, first as an abridged version when I was really quite young, and the full version maybe ten years ago. In-between there have been countless film versions and TV adaptations which have made another re read unattractive. I struggle a bit to be truly enthusiastic about any of the Brontë’s ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ annoyed me when I read it (I was 17, it may be that I’d have more empathy for the heroine now), ‘Wuthering Heights’ was a good read whilst reading but Heathcliff is hardly the ideal romantic hero for a modern woman. ‘Jane Eyre’ was also a good read whilst I read it but it’s easy to feel you know the plot to well what with all the aforementioned adaptations and critical gubbins about the book, and there ends my Brontë reading.

Part of my Brontë problem, and this is especially the case with ’Jane Eyre’ are the critical evaluations I’ve read about it. On the whole I try and avoid works of literary criticism as experience has taught that they reduce me to indignant dribbling incoherence – which would be okay in itself, but I also feel the need to share my anger with all sorts of people regardless of whether they share my passion for the topic or not. So it was when I read Elaine Showalter’s assessment of Jane full of feminist and Freudian interpretations. I’m not convinced that it’s fair to assess a pre Freud writer by post Freudian standards. All well and good to make what you will of Charlotte through her writing but another thing altogether to assume that she meant her words to be interpreted in such a way.

Post film and during a half hearted tidy I picked up John Sutherland’s ‘Can Jane Eyre Be Happy’ and read the title essay again. I was indignant first time (of course she could be happy) and still indignant now but this time because I can’t see Rochester as a Bluebeard character, if there has to be a comparison with a fairy tale I see Jane Eyre as the story of Beauty and the Beast. It seems to me that if Rochester had wanted to dispose of Bertha there would have been a couple of easy ways out – incarceration in a foreign asylum under a false name (which is Lady Audley’s fate) or a discreet ‘accident’ which should be simple enough to arrange given her predilection for roof tops and fire setting. Because of this I believe that his motives are kind enough. The same with Adele – apart from having to have a child in the house to need a governess without whom the plot would be nowhere, it also suggests that on some level he wants the family life that his wife’s malady prevents.

I also think too much is made of Bertha’s madness in a feminist kind of way. Nothing else would quite fit but mental illness still carries quite a stigma, nothing to what it would have done when Charlotte wrote her book – it’s the only thing I can think of that makes Rochester’s proposed bigamy at all sympathetic. I can forgive the madwoman in the attic (we all come with baggage) I find the dressing up as a gypsy woman and the whole Blanche Ingram episode rather harder to understand (the gypsy bit was wisely dropped from the film in favour of some strenuous gardening which certainly made Rochester look more attractive.) I can’t help but feel that it’s this rather than Bertha that Rochester has to be punished for.

Happily the introduction to my ‘Jane Eyre’ - written by Michael Mason seems remarkably sensible, if a little opaque at times, it’s a definite relief to read something I can agree with even if it doesn’t make me think as deeply as the ones I believe are wrong do.  


  1. Great to have some fresh thoughts on JE -- thanks! I haven't seen the film yet though I'd love to.

  2. I LOVE the idea of Rochester being punished for dressing up as a gipsy! It's so long since I read Jane Eyre I didn't remember that he did that. And I absolutely agree with you re it being closer to Beauty and the Beast than Bluebeard, although I think there are some Bluebeardish hints there too.

    But why do people think that Heathcliff is supposed to be a romantic hero? Did I miss something? (Yes, probably, I usually do.) He is an out-and-out git and I always felt Emily B showed him to be one.

    If you are feeling Bronteish do read Villette, it's brilliant and no romantic heroes in sight.

  3. Harriet - I can't imagine there are any fresh thoughts to have Jane Eyre, but I'm always happy to get mine of my chest anyway. I liked the film but am still not convinced the world needed another version. It is however very pretty to look at more thought provoking than most the things I watched this summer.

    I only read Wuthering Heights once and as it hasn't been filmed quite as often as Jane has I'm not so familiar with it. I know we're meant to go for bad boys but Heathcliff takes the biscuit. I don't know why or how he's become a romantic hero but he makes Rochester look like a paragon in comparison.

    From the little reading around Jane Eyre I've done I think people get to hung up on Bertha's madness. The brilliance of the book (for me) is that I feel sympathy for Rochester despite his rotten behaviour and I feel it because he's saddled with a mad wife who keeps him as much a prisoner as he does her.

  4. I enjoyed the film and have now gone to read the book, having never read it before.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts,as I will certainly approach the book differently especially after seeing many version of the film, etc.

    I have also always felt sorry for Rochester, to me and that is just from the films, he seemed to just be trying to do the right thing. And not getting it right all the time. But then are we not all doing that.

  5. Jo, we are indeed, and it's not like he was the last man to forget to mention he had a wife. (Though I don't actually condone that sort of thing) Would love to know what you think of the book compared to the films so please let me know when your done...