I was something of a misfit that summer. Although I am a woman of average height, at ten I was suddenly taller than most of my friends, awkward and uncomfortable with my new inches and with the new protuberances on my chest. Avoiding neighborhood gatherings at the swimming pool and on our makeshift softball field, I retreated into books where I gained the invisibility I longed for, even as I resented the easy charm that allowed my younger sister, still in the fairy princess stage, to bask in the approval of the extended family and neighbors. Emily’s Nobody poem became my mantra. I gloried in the kinship that existed between me and this poet who celebrated her own invisibility and pitied the noisy, froggish Somebodies. Jane understood that nobody conundrum too. She said, “I was a discord in Gateshead Hall; I was like nobody there; I had nothing in harmony with Mrs. Reed or her children.” My parents, a hardworking pair who loved me at my most impossible, bless them, were nothing like Mrs. Reed, but they did insist on my forsaking my books occasionally for a swim or a bike ride. Clearly I was misunderstood and out of harmony with my family.
In junior high (no middle schools then) and high school, Jane saved me more than once on book report day when teachers--as lacking in harmony as my parents—refused to let me write about Emilie Loring’s chaste couples or Mazo de la Roche’s Whiteoaks of Jalna. I lacked the vocabulary then to write about the conflict between reason and passion, Rochester as Byronic hero, or Jane as feminist heroine, but I certainly understood the appeal of Rochester’s dangerous love, the pull of the life of service and sacrifice offered by St. John Rivers, the strength of a heroine who remained true to her own code, and the sigh-worthy satisfaction of the sentence “Reader, I married him.”
Jane went with me through college where I performed close readings of favorite scenes from the book and engaged in heated discussions about whether the 1943 movie starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine (with a very young Elizabeth Taylor as Helen Burns) made the story too much Rochester’s. [I must note that the Welles-Fontaine film was decades old when I saw it. I’m not that old.] A few years later when I brought Jane into the classrooms where I taught, watching a handful of girls claim the character for their own was a particular delight. In grad school, seduced by literary theory, I argued passionately for Jane’s status as a feminist heroine who rescues both herself and the hero. Later Jane frequently found a spot on my syllabi for undergraduate survey courses. One of my fondest teaching memories remains teaching Jane’s story along with Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (the story of Bertha's early life in the West Indies and her life with her sexually repressed English husband) and The Eyre Affair by Japer Fforde.
I’ve enjoyed watching Jane on the big screen and the small one over the years. However, I know her well enough by now to be certain that the actresses who have portrayed her--Fontaine, Susannah York whose Rochester was George C. Scott in 1970, Charlotte Gainsbourg in Zeffirelli’s 1996 film, Ruth Wilson in the BBC’s 2006 version, and Mia Wasikowska in the 2011 movie—are all too pretty to really be Jane Eyre. The filmmakers like to forget she is plain Jane. But I can forgive them since some of the changes they make please me very well. I ‘m happy that Jane got more than smoldering looks from Rochester (Toby Stephens) in 2006, and I rejoice that her story is too compelling to be truly distorted by screen writers.
Are you a Jane Eyre fan? What’s your favorite movie interpretation?