Last night, I went with a couple of friends to see the latest adaptation of Jane Eyre, directed by Cary Fukunaga. I hadn't been yearning to see it, the way I sometimes yearn to see a new film by a favorite director. No, though I was impressed by Fukunaga's Sin Nombre, I went to see Jane Eyre with something less than eagerness, almost with a sense of obligation. First, there's the professional curiosity--I am an English teacher, after all--shared by my companions, another teacher and an ex-student finishing degrees in English and Creative Writing. Second, there's the importance to my personal mythology of the novel, and, indeed, of Jane herself, perhaps my truest fictional companion these many years. My relationship with both the novel and the character made it a certainty that I would eventually see this film.
I've seen other versions, though not all. The Robert Stevenson version, starring Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles. The Zefferelli version, starring Charlotte Gainsbourg and William Hurt. Television versions starring Susannah York and George C. Scott, Zelah Clarke and Timothy Dalton, Samantha Morton and Ciaran Hinds, and Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens respectively. All of these have something to recommend (Timothy Dalton makes a good Rochester, and the landscapes in Fukunaga's version are a beauty to behold) and something, many things, to condemn (Susannah York, plain? William Hurt, forceful?). All in all, they've all disappointed.
And why is that? Well, there are two reasons: on the one hand, they let the novel down; on the other, they let me down.
As to the first reason, there is initially the question of balance. Jane Eyre is a curious blend of plots and styles. It contains three stories. That of the orphaned girl discarded and discredited by those in power, who finds her way and her strength, despite the petty tyranny waged against the vulnerable, particularly girls without beauty or wealth. That of the plain young woman with the heart of flame who loves and suffers for love, and rejects the compromise that suffering seems to demand. That of the placeless, loveless survivor who resists the call to sacrifice issued by the ambitious man who would be her savior. In all three, Jane Eyre claims a prominent place in the pantheon of heroines tossed upon the seas of fortune and social expectation. Many films--Robert Stephens' version comes to mind--neglect the latter plot entirely, likely in the interest of time and as a sop to the narrative conventions of film, which always prefers a straight line to a collage of imagery. This is a grave error, for this portion of the novel, about a third of its length, gives us a Jane seasoned by experience and offers a crucial variation on one of its major themes: that one must, one MUST, preserve the still small voice amid the loudest exhortations from without. Jane's resistance in the face of St. John Rivers' moral persuasion is fundamental to what Bronte has to say about the struggle to be good and still to pledge allegiance to the self. This has been Jane's battle throughout, and here, where she knows loss in its fullest measure, her struggle is most acute, for she has only herself to lose, and to that further loss, she says no.
Of course, like many novels of its time, Jane Eyre is intensely dialogic. That is, its people talk. And talk. The relationship between Rochester and Jane in particular is based on conversation. This presents an obvious challenge to a filmmaker, for long and intricate conversations do not lend themselves to filmic representation. The novel is not dialogic, however, in the Bhaktinian sense. Indeed, it is severly monologic, and not just in the way that the fiction of George Eliot and Thomas Hardy is monologic. Bronte is a master (a mistress?) of the single inner voice, delving into first-person narrative in a way that few of her major colleagues, if we may call them that, did. This is, for me, one of the great draws of Bronte's fiction--it is intensely personal, and she will not for a second allow the reader to wander into the minds of her other characters, except insofar as they can represent themselves in conversation. Jane Eyre is the ultimate "I," and by giving voice to "poor, obscure, plain, and little" Jane, Bronte strikes a most powerful blow against classism and patriarchy. Giving the narrative to Jane is one of Bronte's most political moves. Whenever we give a voice to those who typically have no voice, we assail power at its most fundamental. And for women writing romance, even failed romance, in the nineteenth century, but, perhaps, even beyond, that move continues to be political. It is their way of crying out "when you find you have no voice at the world's tribunals, and that no one will speak for you," as Anita Brookner, one of Bronte's many inheritors, has put it.
Beyond their unwillingness to offer us Jane Eyre in its entirety, most adaptations of Bronte's novel fail, somehow, in their representation of Jane herself. They do not do this intentionally, of course. They do it because they take her to be less than she is. They take her to be made by love, and unmade by it, when this is not so. They mistake the situation for the character, and this is, to me, an unforgivable mistake. After all, even Rochester, in all his arrogance, does not make this mistake. And as much as one can accuse Bronte of romanticizing male power and female vulnerability--indeed she does--it shocks me that no filmmaker has yet had the insight to understand the core of Jane Eyre, a most uncompromising woman in a novel full of characters who define themselves by their compromises.
Which brings me to . . . me. Jane Eyre and me.
I was an adolescent when I first read the novel, and it imprinted itself upon me like no other novel had. Its very beginning--"There was no possibility of taking a walk that day"--spoke to my restlessness, my feeling of capture. And though Jane goes on to talk of her relief at not having to brave the drear weather, the sense of enclosure and threat of violence so aptly rendered in its opening chapter, which ends with Jane being conveyed all unwilling to the dreaded red room, spoke to my soul. I have been a voracious reader of fiction for many years, and yet few scenes are so clearly visible to my inward eye as those scenes of Jane's early struggle to be heard. Jane in the red room, Jane in the long shadow of Mr. Brocklehurst, Jane in the carriage that bears her to Lowood school, Jane eating burnt porridge and still hungry, Jane upon a chair, the label of deceiver unfairly hung upon her. I trembled at the injustice; I pined for understanding; I knew the loneliness of the plain and passionate Jane.
For I was Jane. No matter that where she tied a bonnet I pulled on a pair of 1970s culottes. We were one. Or were we? Jane spoke out, and suffered for it. I, on the other hand, rarely spoke at all, was deemed incapable of speech, though the words piled up in me like dandelions filled the prairie lawns of my neighbourhood. I was all soul and no voice, and Jane spoke for me. No one listened, or, if they did, they listened with scorn. I took heed, and kept my words to myself. But Rochester listened, and this is why the novel is, I think, so powerful for so many women. However gothically self-pitying and domineering Rochester might have been, he took Jane seriously. And that was what she wanted. And that is what I wanted too.
Everything about her was indivisible from my own self. I was lonely beyond all reckoning, yet I found some solace in the limited friendship of other girls. Jane Eyre is about, among other things, the potential comfort of female compatriots. Helen, doomed Helen, presages Mrs. Fairfax and Mary and Diana Rivers, the sisters-under-the-skin who offer Jane the sweet beauty of friendship. And, indeed, the reason Rochester wins out over St. John Rivers is that he knows without questioning that friendship is the very core of love. And passion. Jane is a passionate woman, and Rochester promises to draw close to the furnace of her passion and feed it further. But how can she presume to such passion, plain as she is?
For a girl, like me, plain to the point of homeliness, Jane was a powerful precursor. She was there to remind me that my raging soul was not an embarrassment but a fire to be nurtured down the long, dark pathways of humiliation and rejection, that my mind, burning like a candle in an abandoned mine, was not an unwelcome intrusion but a light to see by. When Jane cried out against the eradication of her personality, my heart swelled with hope. I was no Blanche Ingram, and the world was full of them, but I was something.
The truth is, of course, that Jane Eyre both confirmed my humility and promised me that it would pay off, that my ugliness would be undone by love. In this way, the novel has been a negative script for me, leaving me waiting for a Mr. Rochester to see me for what I was, to grasp me. This is the destructive plot that has served as a prototype for many a romance narrative, wherein the plain girl blossoms only under the eyes of the powerful male viewer. But in another sense, Jane was my warrior guide through a world that would repeatedly dismiss my lesser beauty and miss entirely my great intelligence, through a world that still valued women primarily for their shape and their ability to reflect the vanity of men. Rochester knew Jane for what she was--brave, competent, and true. Jane cried out against the world that would put all that aside because she had neither the beauty nor the position to use her gifts. Because of her, I knew that I must "keep in good health and not die" until I had achieved what I meant to achieve. Love was part of it, but not all of it.
I have read Jane Eyre several times since that first time. I more easily see now its gender cliches and its implausibilities, but its heroine continues to spark my imagination and win my respect. The book has become, I suppose, something of a talisman, accompanying me as I try to become myself. Though the novel ends with a nod to conventionality in Jane's happily married state, her long isolation and her strength of character in the face of it somehow blot out that ending or, at least, invite me to imagine Jane burning fiercely right up to the end of her life, fighting all the while to remain herself. For a husband might be an obstacle to self-assertion as well as the prize for it; one must remain dedicated to oneself.
It stands to reason that no one has made a film of Jane Eyre that satisfies me. Every version I've seen doesn't really listen to Jane, compromises, in fact, the Janeness of Jane. And, though it's a lesson that I must relearn time and again, Jane taught me not to compromise and not to accept compromises in others.