Jane Eyre

“Do you think because I’m poor, plain, obscure and little that I have no heart?”

Charlotte Brontë was a woman ahead of her time. Surviving arguably the most dysfunctional family in literary history, she was a writer and educator for years. Her most famous novel, Jane Eyre, has endured as one of the great love stories in English and has been widely praised for its depiction of feminism and class issues a century before they became popular topics. The story has been adapted dozens of times for film, television and radio. My favorite is the 2006 BBC version starring Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens. This review assumes that you know the basic story; so, if you don’t, beware the spoiler kitty.

The BBC, as they so often do, pulled out all the stops for this version. The screenplay was adapted by Sandy Welch who is brilliant at maintaining the feel of the original story while also making it accessible for a modern audience. The series was directed by Susanna White who, if I had my way, would direct every costume drama from now until the end of the time. The producers were almost all women as well.

This group of women took a chance in hiring Ruth Wilson. Fresh out of LAMDA, Jane Eyre was not only Wilson’s first leading role, it was her first professional role. She did a brilliant job depicting Jane, and (I mean this with all due respect to Wilson’s beauty), she allowed herself to look the part. Jane Eyre is not a beautiful woman.

Toby Stephens is a beautiful man (he is, after all, Maggie Smith’s son) and the producers didn’t even try to tone it down. In the book, Rochester is not handsome and there are long passages where Jane tells her readers that he became much better looking as she fell in love with him. No matter; it is easy to overlook this flaw when one is watching the man on screen.

The key dynamics between Jane and Rochester, however, are the age difference and the chemistry between the two. In the book, Jane is eighteen and Rochester is pushing forty. We will move on from the obvious and just accept that times were slightly different in the 1840s. Although there is an age difference between Wilson and Stephens, it is not as great so the producers were able to gloss over what could be an ick factor in the story. The chemistry between the two, however, is undeniable. From their first meeting to their happy ending, anyone with a soul is rooting for them to end up together.

Their chemistry is so good that Welch made the decision to condense much of Jane’s childhood and her stay with the Rivers to which I say, amen. These two sections of the book take up a good third of its pages, but if one is watching a love story, one wishes to watch the couple in question.

One of the great meetings in all of romantic literature is Jane causing Rochester to fall from his horse without realizing who he is. In fact, I would argue it is the first meet-cute. It is done exactly right in this version as are the subsequent conversations as Rochester and Jane get to know each other. Rochester is gruff; Jane is not intimidated, but slowly they open up to each other and we get to watch as they begin to care about the other.

Another of my favorite scenes in all of literature is the proposal scene. It is simply astonishing to read on so many levels. Jane is, in many ways, not Rochester’s equal. She is a woman in a time when women had very little value; she is poor; she is a servant in Rochester’s house. Yet, she stands up and gives him a good telling off, declaring to him and to the world that she is his equal and that she loves him. Rochester is, of course, completely enthralled and proposes. What makes this scene work so well is that Jane does not lose her independence. She refuses to believe him; accuses him of mocking her and only accepts him after quite a bit of persuading.

Every version of Jane Eyre includes this scene; Wilson’s version is the best and it was the one I pictured as a I re-read the book to write this review. She perfectly captures the heartbreak, the anger, the pride, and the love that Jane is feeling. Unfortunately, what should have been the best scene in the entire four hours is a bit marred by the single most awkward kiss in the history of BBC costume dramas. Luckily, Wilson and Stephens get better at it.

The class issues are as important in the novel as the feminism is. Throughout the book, Jane struggles with the fact that she is penniless and Rochester is so rich. One of the reasons that she is able to return at the end is that their comparative worth is on a much more equal footing than it is at the beginning of the story. We get a glimpse of this in the scene where Rochester pays her so that she can travel to visit her aunt, but it is very much downplayed through the rest of the production.

A theme that plays much more in the production than in the book is that of home. Jane has never had a home, until she arrives at Thornfield. Not only does she consider it home, but the others in the household consider her an integral part as well. In the third hour, when Jane returns from visiting her aunt, she tells the coachman that she is “almost home;” Rochester tells Eshton that his swallow has “returned home,” and later talks about “our guests;” Mrs. Fairfax and Adèle greet her like family with hugs and kisses. Throughout, Jane cannot stop smiling and it all comes to a head when she includes her favorite book in the Rochester library. When you start mixing your books, you know you’re really living together.

The coda reinforces the idea of home. Although she had been excluded from the Reed portrait as a child, Jane is now the central figure in another. Surrounded by her husband, her children, her cousins, their husbands, and all the servants we have come to know, Jane has established a home and is blissfully happy.

The novel was incredibly sexual for its time. Rochester talks to Jane openly on the subject, admitting that he married Bertha to sleep with her and telling her about the mistresses he has had since he moved his wife to Thornfield. There is a fair amount of touching and kissing between Jane and Rochester, which would have been shocking to a early Victorian audience.

This production maintains that stance, ramping up the scenes so that a modern audience gets the idea. Once they are engaged, Jane and Rochester are always touching and kissing each other. The night before she leaves Thornfield, the conversation they have doesn’t take place in the parlor with them sitting on chairs; it takes place while they are making out in bed.

The best example of this is the final scene in the show. In the book, it is hinted that one of the reasons Jane stays and marries Rochester is to take care of him. Welch turns this on its head and has Rochester tell Jane that he wants a wife, someone with whom he can have sex on fairly regular basis. It is only when he says this that Jane smiles, climbs on top of him and begins to kiss him passionately. I like to think that they finally consummate their relationship on the bank of that river.

I get crazy when adaptations try to re-write a classic story. What makes this one work so well is that it remains faithful to the plot, while ramping up the parts of the story that everyone, finally, wants to see. I have loved this version since it originally aired in the UK and have watched it too many times to count. A wonderful way to spend a rainy afternoon.

Four out of four dragonflies with emerald wings.

ChrisB is a freelance writer who spends more time than she ought in front of a television screen or with a book in her hand.


CrazyCris said...

Excellent review!

I'm not sure if I've seen this version, I'll have to look it up...

I know I've seen a couple different ones as well as read the book several times. Which is a bit strange considering it's not a particular favourite of mine... But at one time I was really interested in the Brontë sisters and found almost all their novels in the library and read them all! :p

sunbunny said...

My goodness is it warm in here? Oh, yeah, actually, it is.

I haven't seen this version, but it sounds a lot more palatable than other versions. Jane Eyre is not my favorite thing in the world. I'm just not a Brontë fan. I've seen a few versions of Jane Eyre, but my favorite is the one with baby Sookie. Because, you know, baby Sookie.

Added to my queue. :)

Billie Doux said...

I just realized I haven't seen this version! It's going on the list! I'm a bit partial to the Timothy Dalton version, even though the actress who plays Jane isn't quite as strong as he is.

Josie Kafka said...

I've never seen an adaptation of Jane Eyre, unless five accidental minutes of the little Sookie version counts. But this sounds good!

I almost did a double-take when I read your description of this story as a love story, Chris. Obviously, it is. And obviously, Rochester is a sexy man. But I always think of this as a story of a young woman coming into her own. An extended bildungsroman rather than a love story, per se.

However, Jane Eyre is one of those books that changes each time I read it, so I reserve the right to post here in a few years explaining why I'm wrong. :-)

Mark Greig said...

I have seen this version and was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it.

Juliette said...

I'm so relieved to see I'm not the only person who isn't all that wild about Jane Eyre!

It probably didn't help that I read the wedding scene first, in an English Lit textbook. then heard the vague outline of the story. Decided Rochester sounded creepy!

This was the first version I saw properly from beginning to end, and I liked it a lot. I think I'll always be more of an Austen person (I like her deconstruction of the romantic meet-cute in Sense and Sensibility, though P&P is much better for pure romance) but I enjoyed this, and finally started to see why other people love Jane Eyre so much!

sunbunny said...

Juliette - Rochester IS creepy. Keeping one's wife locked in an attic is just not something non-creepy people do. I don't care how crazy she is.

ChrisB said...

Although I agree that keeping one's wife locked in an attic is creepy, the alternative at the time (an asylum) was arguably much worse. At least in the attic, Bertha was fed and cared for by Grace. At the asylum, she wouldn't have had that much care.

In many later versions of the story, this one included, Rochester's choice is framed this way to make him appear sympathetic.

The aspect I struggle with is how all the other people in the house would have remained ignorant of what was really going on for so long. I mean, what did Mrs. Fairfax think Grace was there for?

Juliette said...

I must admit, I tend to be unsympathetic to keeping her locked in the attic. I understand not wanting to send her to an asylum, and even that she has to be locked up - but the secrecy part, and the fact she's NEVER allowed outside is creepy. He could just tell people she was bedridden and didn't want to see anyone. And proposing to Jane without telling her is inexcusable.

Billie Doux said...

I always had a lot of sympathy for Rochester. He made a stupid mistake when he was young, and was stuck with the horrendous consequences forever. He doesn't tell Jane before he proposes because he doesn't think she'll ever find out and the technicality of bigamy is a lot less important to him than their happiness. He confesses what he did wrong as soon as it is discovered, too. He could have dumped Bertha in an asylum, but instead paid someone to look after her, even though she was dangerous. And of course, he ran into Thornfield to save her, too.

The age difference never bothers me because of when the novel was written. It always comes across to me as a coming of age story about Jane, who is so intelligent and principled, and who finds such a fascinating man to love.

ChrisB said...

In the book, during the conversation the two have the night after their almost wedding, Rochester tells Jane that he had every intention of finding a woman, telling her the truth, and living happily ever after.

He tells Jane that he didn't want to tell her because he was so afraid he would lose her. He does admit that it was a horrible mistake and he begs her to forgive him; which, by the way, she does immediately.

She still leaves the house the next day because she knows that being around him will be too tempting for them both.

sunbunny said...

*about the book, not this version*

Obviously, no judgment from me, but I really just don't get Jane and Rochester as a couple. I have a pretty high threshold for creepy in my fictional relationships, but Rochester exceeds it.

Like Juliette, I understand him keeping Bertha at home, but why not just tell people she was ill or something? I suppose his actions are semi understandable from a 'people are generally selfish and make mistakes' perspective, but he just doesn't make for a likable leading man, the guy you really want the girl to fall for.

Anonymous said...

Re Bertha being locked up..it's not just for her safety..she's violent and dangerous. She set fire to Rochester's bed and burned down Thornfield Hall..she also hurt her brother badly. And she might pose a danger to Adele who is a child.
Ah well..this is a neat version. You might give "The tenant of wildfell Hall" a shot..it's both a good novel and a good BBC series with Tara Fitzgerald. Anne Bronte gets overshadowed by her sisters-but she was a good writer also. Tenant is for its time fairly feminist..What does a woman do in that time when she's trapped in a marriage with a violent man? That question does get answered.