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Thoughts on “Jane Eyre”

August 19, 2011

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.

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5 Comments
  1. I loved Jane Eyre, but I’ve never seen any of the film adaptations. I was never really interested, though. And you’re so right that it’s a much more realistically romantic story than all the “bodice-rippers” (love that!) that you see today.

    I’ve been seeing a lot of Jane Eyre posts lately and it makes me want to read it again!! I hope I have it in my new apartment, I’ll be so sad if it’s 300 miles away at home with my parents…

    • Thanks for writing, Bridget! I very much enjoyed looking at your blog and reading your reviews. Unlike “The Castle of Otronto”, “Jane Eyre” is a story that one would be willing to re-read and enjoy in years to come. (I suspect that the only reason the silly “Castle” is still in print is so that comp-lit classes can dissect it as the forerunner of the Gothic genre.)

      I hope your new apartment will be very soon filled with wonderful books! Thank you for commenting.
      CK

  2. I love “Jane Eyre!” It is one of my favorite novels. I agree with you on the Orson Welles version was terrible, but I did love Timothy Dalton as Mr. Rochester. I have not seen the latest movie version, although I want to more out of curiosity than anything. Did you read Jean Rhys “Wide Sargasso Sea” prequel?

    If you’re looking for a good beach read, and if you can stomach someone changing “Jane Eyre,” check out the zombie mashup “Jane Slayre.” It was better than I expected, although somewhat far fetched.

  3. Jane Eyre is wonderful. Films can never really do justice to Jane’s inner life that is brought to life in the novel. A lot of the story’s power is Jane’s struggle to find her place in the world, to make the right ethical and moral choices and to find happiness and you can’t do justice to this in 90 minutes via a predominantly visual medium IMNSHO 🙂

    • Thank you very much for writing, Melinda! You are quite right; it’s not possible to compress a person’s inner evolution into ninety minutes. I was recently skimming through the novel again, and I came across the passage describing Jane’s wintertime walk to Hay to post a letter, just before she encounters Mr. Rochester for the first time. It’s beautiful writing, describing the stillness of the air as late afternoon turns into evening, the chill, the lane where the flowers bloomed in summer, the way the little birds in the bushes look like russet leaves that have not yet dropped. It’s a beautiful passage and it probably mirrors Jane’s inner self (changeless, strong at core, plain yet piquant)….but it can’t possibly be translated to film. Filmmakers inevitably throw out descriptive passages like this and are then left with nothing but the Gothic elements. To film it is to lose much of it.

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