Friday, October 7, 2011

Jane and I: One Reader’s Journey with Jane Eyre

On October 6, 1847, Charlotte Bronte’s first novel was introduced under the name Currer Bell. It was an immediate success, although it was not without controversy. One early critic suggested Jane Eyre “violated every code human and divine.” But Jane survived such attacks. She turned 164 yesterday, and she looked great in this year’s Cary Fukunaga movie. We should all age so well. I met Jane the summer I turned ten, the same summer I first encountered the Bennett sisters and Emily Dickinson. All of them became lifelong companions. But as much as I loved Elizabeth Bennett, my connection with Jane and Emily was more visceral.

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.

Alison Owen, producer of the 2011 Jane Eyre, said “The reason so many people love ‘Jane Eyre’ is that they can identify with her. She’s not beautiful. She’s small and plain, and yet she finds romantic happiness. It’s a fairy tale for the insecure and unconfident — the ordinary woman.” I’m confident that Jane will be around for another 164 years, still offering a fairy tale for ordinary and extraordinary women, still winning the affection of new generations of readers, still showcasing the journey of a female protagonist, and still proving that romance can be canonical.

Are you a Jane Eyre fan? What’s your favorite movie interpretation?


MsHellion said...

Yes, I am. I remember reading it (for the first time) in a Women's Studies class my first semester in college and thinking, "Wow, it's not that bad." (Remember, I'm not a fan of reading Jane Austen or most classic books.) But it's very readable. And relatable.

I really love the movie that came out this year. The sexual tension was so thick I could have buttered biscuits with it. Crazy hot. *LOL* Esp for a book where a kiss is barely exchanged. *LOL*

irisheyes said...

I'm a huge Jane Eyre fan. It was the book I most remember reading in high school. I can't remember whether I picked it or it was assigned. I'm guessing it was assigned. It was my earliest reading memory, besides The Pokey Little Puppy, when I was five or so. LOL

It was basically my introduction to romance. I, too, had a really hard adolescence. I was not like all the other girls my age. I wasn't social and active in all the school activities. I was a loner and very melancholy. I felt like a child with my nose pushed up against the glass watching everyone else have exciting, fun-filled, angst free teen years (probably not all that accurate but my perception just the same). Jane gave me that thread of hope that as strange as I was I might still yet find my HEA!

It also took me out of my own narrow little world and introduced me to a whole new era, culture, country, etc. It helped me escape when I had no other means to do so but for a book!

One of my favorite adaptations is the one with Zelah Clark and Timothy Dalton. I was a huge Timothy Dalton fan and was ecstatic when I heard he would play Rochester. May not be the best version but the first one I remember falling in love with.

Janga said...

Hellie, I remember that you aren't a fan of literary fiction, but I didn't realize you included Austen in the classics for which you have a distaste. I do agree that Jane Eyre is "readable" and "relatable." I also found it wonderfully teachable, although I was always surprised when some of my male students identified strongly with St. John Rivers.

I like the 2011 movie a lot too. I particularly like that Mia Wasikowska is about the age that Jane was and that the age gap between Jane and Rochester (Michael Fassbender) holds true.

Janga said...

It also took me out of my own narrow little world and introduced me to a whole new era, culture, country, etc. It helped me escape when I had no other means to do so but for a book!

Irish, I think your experience is something that links most booklovers, both in offering an escape and in enlarging our worlds. My sister and I were talking just this week about how remarkably free our mother was of the prejudices that were part of the baggage common to her generation and region, and we decided that it was her reading that made the difference. The world she inhabited mentally and spiritually was much larger than the one in which she actually lived.

I'm fond of the Zelah Clark/ Timothy Dalton movie too because it's the truest to the book. But I have a strong sentimental attachment to the Fontaine/ Welles version because it was the one I watched repeatedly when I was young, and I do enjoy the sexual tension of the BBC series with Toby Stephens and the recent Fukunaga film, which also, I think, has a killer opening.

quantum said...

I visited the Bronte's house at Haworth in Yorkshire only last summer. Haven't read any of the books but did see a film of Jane Eyre a long time ago, so long I can't clearly remember!

Janga, thanks for sharing your interesting thoughts and 'journey'. Mrs Q also likes Jane Eyre, which is why we were visiting the house. I would never consider any woman plain though, there are always features to delight the eye!

It's clearly time I read a few more English classics! *smile*

Janga said...

Q, you are such a chivalrous gentleman!

The Fukanaga movie was released last month in the UK. I bet Mrs. Q will love it. I suspect you will enjoy it too. It emphasizes the Gothic elements of the novel, and you will appreciate the settings, Chatsworth and Haddon Hall among them.

MsHellion said...

I know. I should have my romance reader card revoked. I've read 1 1/2 Austen novels. (P&P once; S&S 1/2 way through before I gave up. It was good but a slow read for me. I prefer to read at a faster pace.)

I haven't read any Georgette Heyer novels, and I think I have a couple of them. So that's almost a bigger crime.

I've come closer to reading Elizabeth Gaskell's stuff. I find her very readable for some reason.

I wonder why the men find St. John so relatable? Is it because he's much more pragmatic and not really romantic (sensible)? I think a lot of guys prefer that. I mean Rochester rather comes off as an emotional beast--and I don't think men (mostly) want to be controlled by their emotions like that.

Whereas I think women want men to be more like us--to feel emotions like Rochester did, but also have a pragmatic, sensible side as well. We love you with all our heart and soul and want to show it, but we also know the everyday stuff needs to happen too.

We're women: we want it all. :)

Janga said...

Hellie, have you ever tried Persuasion? It's my favorite Austen for many reasons. Anne and Wentworth are older, theirs is a reunion story, and there are so many scenes that live in my imagination. I requested to substitute it for Emma on my doctoral exams. I don't care for the latter.

And, of course, you should try Heyer. I know some romance readers don't like her, but it's hard for me to imagine.

MsHellion said...

I do have Persuasion!! I bought it a couple years ago, with intentions to read it for a book club or something. I should dig it out. I do love the movie.