I must have seen the 1943 Hollywood film of Jane Eyre at a very impressionable age. Because when I re-read the book recently, for the first time in many, many years, it was Orson Welle’s booming baritone I heard in every line Mr. Rochester uttered. It was Joan Fontaine’s sweet, imploring face I saw, her beautiful eyes that looked out at me.
But remembering the film made me realize that Hollywood (and London, since they’ve done several Janes as well) has gotten the book terribly, terribly wrong. The tagline for the movie I remember so well is, in the hilariously overwrought tradition of great old movies, “A love story every woman would die a thousand deaths to live!” ! indeed.
But the book isn’t a love story. It’s a bildungsroman, a coming of age story. Wikipedia says, “A Bildungsroman tells about the growing up or coming of age of a sensitive person who is looking for answers and experience.” If that isn’t Jane’s story, nothing is. The book was originally entitled, Jane Eyre: An Autobiography, published in 1847 under Charlotte Bronte’s pen name, Currer Bell. It’s written in the first person, as we follow Jane from her tragic, orphaned childhood, through her schooling, her work, and her quest for independence and love.
Jane is plain—she tells us so repeatedly—plain and small and Quaker-like. But she is also passionate, and intelligent, and has a measure of self-respect that allows her to maintain her strength despite the cruel treatment of those around her, starting in childhood when she is forced to live with her cold, unkind Aunt Reed and spoiled cousins.
Through all of Jane’s adventures, she is searching for a moral code and an independent life. The thing that makes the story so gripping is that Jane is not a weak, fluttery female. She is a true proto-feminist. Listen as she expresses her discontent with her quiet life and her passion for experience:
“It is vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth. Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.”
Substitute “making dinner and doing the wash” for the puddings and stockings and you’ve got The Feminine Mystique one entire century earlier.
No, Jane is no weakling. When she is abused, she objects. When she sees wrong, she speaks up for right. When action must be taken, she moves. She does not meekly assert her unworthiness, her smallness, her uselessness. When it appears that Mr. Rochester, who she admits (she is also honest) to love, is courting the wealthy and beautiful Miss Ingram, she doesn’t, like you’d think a clichéd Victorian heroine would, insist that of course a powerful, rich man like Rochester would want a beautiful, rich wife. No, she compares herself to Miss Ingram, and it is the wealthy beauty who comes up short:
“I was not jealous: or very rarely; the nature of the pain I suffered could not be explained by that word. Miss Ingram was a mark beneath jealousy: she was too inferior to excite the feeling. Pardon the seeming paradox; I mean what I say. She was very showy, but she was not genuine: she had a fine person, many brilliant attainments; but her mind was poor, her heart barren by nature: nothing bloomed spontaneously on that soil; no unforced natural fruit delighted by its freshness. She was not good; she was not original: she used to repeat sounding phrases from books: she never offered, nor had, an opinion of her own. She advocated a high tone of sentiment; but she did not know the sensations of sympathy and pity; tenderness and truth were not in her.”
This is not a spurned and catty woman talking. This is an honest appraisal of a woman who knows her own capabilities and qualities and compares them to another woman she has intelligently studied. For a delightful change, it is the other woman who is lacking. Bridget Jones should have read Jane Eyre.
Jane is a marvelous heroine, and I was more than contented to spend many hours in her company. Now all we need is a movie version that does her proud. I think I’ll check in on the 2011 version with Mia Wasikowska as Jane and Michael Fassbender (sigh) as Rochester and the 1996 one with Charlotte Gainsbourg and William Hurt (sigh again) as Rochester (and Anna Pacquin as young Jane). Although I doubt anyone can replace my first love, Orson Welles (sigh and sigh some more). Viva Jane!
Orson Welles as Mr. Rochester in the 1943 film.
William Hurt as Mr. Rochester in the 1996 film.
Michael Fassbender as Mr. Rochester in the 2011 film.
Look, James Bond (Timothy Dalton) as Mr. Rochester in the BBC version!