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.