Jane Eyre

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I am something of a Jane Eyre aficionado, which is ironic, since I have a love-hate relationship with the story and its many movie adaptations. This 1847 gothic romance, full of shadowy, candle-lit halls, eerie noises, wind-swept moors, and haunted love both thrills and chills.

As I child, I remember seeing the 1944 Orson Welles-Joan Fontaine version, and its sepia spookiness fed my developing passion for period pieces, long skirts, and castles. When I moved to Germany as a sixth grader, I lived in the little village of Landstuhl, shadowed by the stony ruin of a medieval burg, complete with dungeons, worn stairs, and ivy covered battlements. My joy at walking on stone steps carved by history knew no bounds. Moving back to the States as a teen was a painful culture shock–Tacoma was simply 500 years too young.

A lover of fantasy, Jane Eyre was the first book I remember reading outside of the fantasy genre. The language stunned me with its beauty and when I found a free on-line audio version last year, read in a lovely Oxbridge accent, I cooked, cleaned, sewed, and drank tea for weeks getting lost in the rhythms of Charlotte Brontë’s English. I don’t listen to audiobooks. Ever. But considering the eerie pull of the story on my imagination, it’s not surprising that this new way of encountering the text drew me in.

Today I finally watched the newest interpretation of the story, the 2011 movie with Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender. While my favorite movie remains the 1996 version with William Hurt and Charlotte Gainsbourg, the new movie sumptuously paints gothic landscapes and alcoves in nearly every scene, and captures the starkness of Jane’s life more believably. Dario Marianelli’s music (composer of the elegantly sweeping 2005 Pride and Prejudice soundtrack, now playing as you read this) fits the mood perfectly and if I take one thing away, it will be his haunting melodies for stormy, candle-lit evenings curled up in front of my fireplace. Marianelli’s Pride and Prejudice marries self-reflective insight, conflict, and hope together in heart-swelling pieces. Listening to his music, I can believe that Lizzie Bennett lived and fought happily ever after with Mr Darcy. In contrast, Marianelli’s music for Jane Eyre communicates sorrow, strength of will, and the bitter-sweetness of love gained in the shadow of death, both literal and figurative. There is a hopeful note, returned to repeatedly, but Marianelli doesn’t shy away from the undertones of torment and grief. It’s lovely, but in small doses only.

Wasikowska’s Jane is understated, steely, and intense. For the first time in a movie version, I caught some of the anguished, fiery strength which makes Jane a more fitting partner for Mr Rochester’s near madness, rather than simply a young school-girl deceived by a worldly older man. Watching this movie, you can’t help but know they’re both tormented by their pasts. Fassbender’s Mr Rochester is a man whose indulgences have slowly entangled him in a life-sucking acedia–restless, bored, numb, irritable, world-weary–who roughly grasps at Jane (or at least his idea of her) as his last chance at life and joy.

Still, as much as I applaud Jane’s  strong stand for self-respect and not wanting to destroy their love by letting desire trump covenant, she still returns. One could argue that she returns on a more equal footing than before: with money, new-found family, and the power born of a new sense of self-determination.  But even though the story allows them to be together, Mr Rochester’s years of acedic flight from life, his bitterness brought on by his responsibilities (to both wife and daughter), and his willingness to deceive, will not simply disappear with Jane’s return and their freedom to marry. Jane cannot be his salvation–and every movie, including this one, depicts her as exactly this, more or less. Only in the Hurt-Gainsbourg adaptation does some of Brontë‘s own portrayal of Mr Rochester’s gradual transformation make it on to the silver screen.

What is missing from this movie is a reason why I would want Jane and Mr Rochester to be together.  He is not a likable character, even in the book. This is haunted love at its best. Without a nod to Brontë‘s epilogue, where Jane reflects on their loving marriage, I have to ask: Does this movie depict love or just thwarted passion?  At the end, I simply wanted better for Jane–a life free from haunting and anguish,  free from being Mr Rochester’s salvation, and free from him being hers.


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  • I love Jane Eyre, the novel. It’s on my Top 20 novels list (maybe even my top ten). The last time I read it (two years ago), I learned 11 or 12 new words. Charlotte Bronte rules!

    I’ve not seen many movie versions of it. I saw the William Hurt/Charlotte Gainsborough version shortly after it came out, and remember loving Gainsborough’s Jane. I thought your critique was fascinating, how most movie versions make Jane’s role salvific. It seems we do that a lot with romantic love, make it seem like once you’ve found “the one,” life will be heavenly. Only it isn’t and then what do you do? It’s too much weight for a relationship–or a person–to bear.

    Now I have to go reread the last chapter of Jane Eyre…