Thoughts on “Jane Eyre”
I began my acquaintance with this story at around the age of ten in the unlikely form of the Classics Illustrated comic book. I read the novel fairly soon thereafter, before I became a teenager, for in those days I tore through books like wildfire. It was the first story that I encountered that described adult emotion, and for better or worse it probably affected all of my subsequent relationships to some degree.
Those who have never read it or who have seen only the TV or film versions might consider it merely a silly romantic tale about a poor and unattractive governess who falls in love with her scowling employer. A search of Google’s images for “Jane Eyre” show countless poses from TV and film versions that strongly resemble scenes from the covers of bad romance novels, complete with looping italic letters (why do romance novels invariably have italics on their covers?); but the story is not at all a conventional romance. It’s not about love at first sight, to begin with; and it’s not about two attractive characters who become carried away by mutual passion. Instead it’s about an independent young woman’s strength and independence and her resolve to do the right thing; it’s about gradually falling in love with someone NOT based on the way they look or behave, but based on mutual affinity. It’s actually a far more realistic depiction of affection between two individuals than is found in most conventional bodice-ripper romances.
It’s unfortunate that so many of the early film versions mishandled the story either by bad writing or bad casting. Stripping the story of its first-person narrator’s voice in order to convert it to film seems to sap much of its impact, the same way that all the old movie attempts at “Huckleberry Finn” failed egregiously. Many of the film versions appeared to be made by people who did not care for the story or were operating, zombie-like, under a Hollywood mindset. Orson Welle’s attempt to portray the male lead was appalling, more like Heathcliff than Rochester, and Joan Fontaine was far too beautiful for the role. (The unbeautiful but striking Elsa Lanchester might have done a much better job had she been given the opportunity.) Later on, George C. Scott was completely wrong, and Timothy Dalton was all wrong too. The relatively recent BBC version was fairly faithful; I have been afraid to watch the Mia Wasikowska version after seeing the preview, which seemed to be completely crazed with dark and stormy Gothic ambiance. For all I know the movie was nothing like that, but still, I developed a bias against it on account of the excess of sturm und drang. Despite the lightning bolt that splits the tree in the garden, there are countless days in the story in which nothing particularly Gothic occurs.
Over the years the story of Jane and Mr. Rochester has become as familiar to me as my own home. The novel itself far outshines the film versions, and there’s great piquancy in the tale of two lonely people who discover each other under unlikely circumstances.