Friday, April 1, 2011

As much soul as you

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (First published in 1847) 477 pages

In a writing course that I once took the instructor advised us: every writer has an agenda or a moral that they want to impart in their fiction. Bronte, it seemed, dared to suggest that you can be plain, little, vilified and scorned by many and still triumph as the heroine of the narrative.

Jane’s trials and tribulations rend the heart particularly as she falls into well-loved (and well-worn) tropes: Orphaned child. Woman in Jeopardy. Woman of Independence. Dutiful wife.

Jane, The Orphan
Jane is brave, resilient, and has a strong morale code. She is, by her own admission, plain and little and we love her all the more for it. When we first meet Jane she is living as the ward of a despised aunt, a Mrs. Reed, the wife of her mother’s brother at Gateshead. Her parents, both dead of an illness when she was an infant, leave Jane orphaned and under the care of her uncle Mr. Reed. When her uncle dies, Jane is at the mercy of an unfeeling and vicious aunt who despises Jane for her poverty and what the aunt perceives as her lack of admirable attributes: beauty, obedience, a docile nature - a Victorian ideal of the female child.

For make no mistake, Jane is not docile, nor beautiful, nor obedient. She is physically attacked, in the opening chapter, by her cousin John, and strikes back, blow for blow, for which she is punished severely by being locked in the dreaded Red Room where her uncle both died and where his corpse was laid out. This is particularly horrific for the ten year old as she and the rest of the household have a superstitious dread of the room fed by the tales of the supernatural by servants (a familiar occurrence in the Bronte household where Charlotte grew up - which contained both future authors Emily (Wuthering Heights) and Anne (Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall).

Her fright is so severe that she suffers a sort of fit and falls into unconsciousness. A kindly doctor summoned to nurse her quickly ascertains that Jane is unwelcome in the house and deeply unhappy so it is suggested that she be enrolled at the Lowood Institution for orphaned and destitute girls.

Here is a new sort of hero. Plucky Jane, defiant to the last, unnerves her aunt by proclaiming before she leaves that she will tell all how she was treated by her aunt and will never ever profess to be grateful to her.

Lowood proves, in different ways, as harsh and challenging as the Reed household. Poor and inadequate amounts of food, strict enforcement of rules of self-abnegation, clumsily made clothes and inadequate shoes in harsh, inclement weather ... the girls are forced to trudge back and forth long distances through bad winter weather to church for services. Here Bronte attacks the forces of Evangelicalism which swept through England and condemned the poor to unhappy and unhealthy circumstances for the sake of their souls. These elements vanquish many of the girls.

Joan Fontaine - perhaps long in the tooth
for the role, at 27, but capturing the 
essenceof our heroine in the 1944 classic
Jane connects with only two people at Lowood: Miss Temple, the superintendent, and fellow student Helen Burns, whom the preface tells us closely resembles Charlotte’s sister Maria Bronte who died in a similar institution. Miss Temple is genteel, kind, trying to administer some charity to the girls against the more malevolent forces which run the school. Helen is devout, ridiculously self-suffering and submissive. Jane venerates both, particularly the gentle Helen whom it appears that we are to admire as a sort of feminine ideal. But perhaps Bronte’s true, passionate nature slips through for it is the gentle Helen who is overcome and dies in the arms of Jane after a brief and painful illness. It is Helen who is conquered by their severe circumstances. Jane, stronger, more stubborn of spirit, survives.

Jane remains at LowoodThornfield estate where she meets her destiny in the person of Mr. Rochester. 

Jane, The Woman in Jeopardy
Jane is hired to tutor a young student from France – the result of Rochester's brief liaison in France? He denies that Adele Varens is his child. For many months, Jane does not meet the mysterious Mr. Rochester who owns the estate. But she is troubled by a mysterious laugh she hears from the upper reaches of the mansion. She is told by the kindly housekeeper Mrs. Alice Fairfax that it is only Grace Poole, a surly-faced servant who only interacts intermittently with the rest of the staff. But the tone is set. Jane feels unnerved by the ominous laugh and cannot reconcile it with the servant's grim countenance when she encounters her.

Samantha Morton in a 1996 TV version with Ciarán Hinds
A series of frightening events ensue...someone (Jane presumes it is the ominous servant Grace Poole) starts a fire in Rochester's room. She saves Rochester from burning to death in his own bed and Rochester insists on concealing the information from the rest of the household. Overnight, Richard Mason, a guest at the house, is attacked, his arm and flesh appear to be torn apart by teeth and he has been stabbed. He is nursed by Jane and whisked out of the house before the other guests can determine what has happened. Jane begins to feel that she is trapped in the house with a volatile, violent creature who has the forbearance of her master and she can't understand why this should be so.

Rochester courts a local beauty, a Blanche Ingram, bringing her to the house with a gay party of the very rich and distinguished. She is on the lookout for a rich husband and does her best to entice Rochester. Jane particularly dislikes her particularly because of the demeaning manner in which she treats both Jane and Adele.

The courtship of Miss Ingram is interrupted by news that Jane must attend to her Aunt Reed who is dying and has requested Jane's presence at Gateshead. Before she leaves she extracts a promise from Rochester that when he marries Miss Ingram Jane will be placed in a position close to Thornfield, close to him.
Charlotte Gainsborough as Jane in Zeffirelli's 1996 version ...
The aunt, as supercilious and as disdainful in her death as she was in life, informs Jane that she has withheld an important secret from her. Three years prior, Jane's uncle John Eyre, her father's brother, had contacted the Reeds to inquire as to Jane's whereabouts. Mrs. Reed confesses that she told the uncle that Jane had died of typhus at Lowood because she did not want Jane to inherit her uncle's wealth.

Jane encounters her old enemies, her Reed cousins - Georgiana, the dissipated beauty, and her sister Eliza, the mean spirited, acid tongued religious zealot - who loath both Jane and each other and are determined to separate once their mother has died (they do - one to glittering London to marry well and the other to a nunnery in France). They seem to represent two unpleasant extremes - the vacant society beauty who cares for no one and nothing but herself and the bitter, unsociable "old maid" who wraps herself in the garb of a devout Christian the better with which to spew disdain on other mere mortals.

Jane returns to Thornfield Hall in a daze with the news that she is likely to inherit her rich uncle's estate in Madeira. She daily anticipates news of Mr. Rochester's engagement. She hears none. She is then informed by Rochester that he wishes her to relocate once he is married, to Ireland, to serve as a governess to five children. This prevarication is more than she can bear.

Toby Stephens as Rochester and Ruth
Wilson as Jane in the 2006 film version
She struggles with the bitter news that Rochester intends to marry but then to be separated from him by such a great distance! When Jane reluctantly agrees to the necessity of her leaving Thornfield, Rochester baits her a bit with the question as to why she must leave. This elicits one of Jane's greatest speeches and catapults her into the category of one of 19th c. English literature's greatest heroines:    
Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you?...Do you think because I am poor, obscure, plain and little, I am soulless and heartless? - You think wrong - I have as much soul as you, - and full as much heart! And if God gifted me with some beauty, and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. 
Bronte was absolutely determined to prove that a plain, unassuming girl with no fortune could be as captivating on the page as greater, more flamboyant beauties. She succeeds beautifully.

It is then that Rochester reveals his true intentions: the presence of Miss Ingram was but a ruse to incite Jane's jealousy. Rochester wants to marry Jane, soon, within a month. But Jane's ominous dreams of trying to comfort a wailing child offer a premonition of the events to come. This is also accompanied by visions of Thornfield in ruins. But the dream doesn't end there...a presence enters Jane's room the night before the wedding, takes her wedding veil, surveys herself in it in the mirror and tears it apart and flings it to the ground.

The next day, the "madwoman in the attic" is revealed to all and suffice it to say that the marriage does not take place. Rochester's secret is revealed - in one of those melodramatic, impossible coincidences that mar this work. Aside from the element of horror introduced here with the appearance of Bertha, the lunatic, feral wife who resides in the attic, there are the sad circumstances of her family history. There is a suggestion that part of it might be attributed to her Creole background. This could easily necessitate a whole other essay on its own. The vitriol that Rochester hurls at Bertha and her family withers away the esteem I have for the character of Rochester. This of course is not Bronte's intention. His anguished explanation to Jane is meant to explain his futile attempt to conceal his first marriage and absolve him of being perceived as an evil, conniving philanderer. Still the ugliness of his response makes one flinch.

Jane, The Woman of Independence
Jane flees, after an interminable length of time in which Rochester attempts to justify his bigamist intentions and vilifies his mentally ill wife. Foolishly and inexplicably, Jane leaves with very little money - even though we know that she has just become aware of a rich relation who means to leave her money and could very likely fund her escape from Thornfield in a more hospitable manner.

Here, three quarters into the book, the plot falters for me. Jane ends up destitute, starving, thoroughly rain-soaked on the doorstep of, lo and behold, her paternal cousins - St. John, Diana and Mary Rivers. But they do not learn of this connection for many months. When it is discovered that Jane has inherited a great deal of money from their mutual relative (the three cousins have been excluded from the will), Jane generously shares this with her cousins. But her cousin St. John has other plans for Jane.

He wishes to marry her but not out of love - so that she may accompany him to India to work as a missionary. This she refuses but not because she does not wish to be a missionary. She refuses because it would be a loveless marriage with a cold, unforgiving man whom she feels would destroy her emotionally.

Jane is determined to spend a peaceful life with her female cousins in their cozy cottage, now that all have sufficient means to live. But she is haunted by a fitful dream in which she hears Rochester's voice calling her name and offering a foreboding sense that all is not well at Thornfield.

She makes her trip back to Thornfield and as she approaches the Hall hears a story which justifies all her anxieties about Rochester's fate. Bertha has burnt down Thornfield Hall, totally demolishing the mansion. Rochester, whilst trying to save the residents of the Hall, was both blinded and had his hand crushed which subsequently had to be amputated. He is to be found in a little cottage near the Hall living with only two servants. Bertha has flung herself to her death.

Jane, The Dutiful Wife
Jane's appearance strikes Rochester as an apparition - much like the ones where he has imagined her return many times before. Reader, yes, she has made her decision, she will stay and marry Rochester whom she likens to a blinded lion - to love and sustain Rochester in his now diminished state, despite his flaws, despite his frailties. She may leave if she wants to - she is rich, she is independent. She may remove herself from what may prove to be a difficult relationship. But she does not. And that's why we love Jane so.

The latest incarnation of Jane, Mia Wasikowska, in the 2011 film...
Some of the many faces of Jane Eyre:
Film (2011) with Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender
TV Mini-series (2006) with Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens
TV (1997) with Samantha Morton and Ciaran Hinds
Film (1996) with Charlotte Gainsbourg and William Hurt
BBC Mini-Series (1983) with Zelah Clark and Timothy Dalton
TV (1973) with Sorcha Cusack and Michael Jayston
Film (1970) with Susannah York and George C. Scott
TV Series (1956) with Daphne Slater and Stanley Baker
Film (1944) - the gold standard - with Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles
There are film versions going back to 1910. 

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