Who was Jane Eyre?
On the surface what we have here is the classic Cinderella story: poor, plain girl meets ugly rich man with a secret wife hidden in the attic of his old dark house and their grand romance is thwarted by the revelation of “the madwoman in the attic.” Charlotte Brontë’s classic Gothic novel, Jane Eyre, is usually thought of as a romantic story of a man and a woman, who are soul mates, mysteriously connected by the heartstrings. But to understand Jane Eyre as a love story is to entirely miss the point. The latest rendition, starring Mia Wasikowska as “Jane” and Michael Fassbender as the brooding “Mr. Rochester,” is a good movie, better than some of the earlier versions, but it will never surpass the original 1943 film with Orson Wells as the best “Rochester” ever. If you have never seen the classic black and white original then by all means, go see this film by Cary Fukunage. This new Jane Eyre is certainly the best version since 1943…and it’s in color. But why is Jane Eyre still being made and remade seventy years later?
The screenwriter, Moira Buffini wrote this film as pure romance, passing over its obvious political themes quite lightly, and playing to the audience’s expectations. From the time of its publication in 1847, Jane Eyre was understood as a “Gothic” novel, a tale of mystery typical of the Romantic era. Easily reduced to tropes, the novel and its characters have been copied, remixed, and mashed up, but the essential ingredients remained the same: the gloomy mansion, the master of the manor who has a dark secret and the plucky young woman who pokes around the house, intent upon solving the mystery. The warnings are the same: “Pay no attention to the noises in the attic.” “Don’t go in the locked room.” The “meet cute” when the master’s horse falls, tossing Rochester at the feet of Jane Eyre has been done and redone—remember how Jane Fonda met Jon Voigt in Coming Home? The first version of Jane Eyre could be Bluebeard and his many wives, a cautionary tale for unwary women, suggesting, not that she should be careful of the man she marries but that she should mind her own business.
Indeed, Charlotte Brontë’s novel was directed to a female audience. Denied entrance to any intellectually satisfying and fulfilling fields, middle class women were avid readers of novels, especially those written by women about women. Men disapproved of women reading women and especially of women writing and being published. This communication among women was dangerous, but writing was one of the few areas of professional behavior that could not be totally closed to women. Long before women managed to become successful visual and musical and theatrical artists, women such as Jane Austen, managed to write and were widely read. Even so, due to the disapproval of male publishers, Jane Austen published all but one book, Pride and Prejudice, on her own. We are the ones who appreciate the Nineteenth Century novels of these women, Austen and the Brontë sisters, and we are the ones who have told and retold their stories.
Men were correct to be wary of women writing, for many of these novels are critical of male privileges and unchecked male power. Women began to become novelists literally on the heels of two political revolutions, one in America and one in France, both of which had utterly excluded women. The first and the greatest Gothic novel ever written came from a very young woman, Mary Shelly, the daughter of a famous feminist. Frankenstein is a warning to those (men) who would think that, through technology, they had become God. The “Frankenstein” theme comes up again and again, from Metropolis to Blade Runner: don’t attempt to manipulate nature. All of Jane Austen’s novels are social commentaries on the social plight of women who are not allowed to have access to money. Although Austen could be criticized for ignoring lower class women, but without money such women were not impacted by a loss of money the way upper income women could be. All of Austen’s books are on the same theme: how can women reconcile economic dependency and the necessity of marriage with their desire for “romantic” love? The social messages in novels by women are inescapable, especially today when we are alert for such things.
“Romantic Love” was an invention of the Nineteenth Century, in order, I believe, to compensate women for their loss of political freedom and to reconcile them to their economic dependence. “Romantic Love” in all its improbably glory is the engine of Jane Eyre. One of the best analyses of Jane Eyre was made thirty years ago by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Imagination. The title comes from the character of “Bertha,” Mr. Rochester’s Caribbean wife, imprisoned in the attic. The literary professors, Gilbert and Gubar, suggested that “Bertha” is a metaphor for all the rage and discontent felt by women in the Nineteenth Century. Women at that time were not allowed to express their feelings or complain about their social condition and when they did they were often declared “mad” and punished in some way. “Bertha” is more than a character in a novel; she is the key that explains the lives of women who are shut up in lives that allow them no freedom. “Bertha” is the counterpoint of “Jane” who has learned to restrain herself and to be careful about what she said. “Bertha” is all the unexpressed pain of women locked up in the “attic’” of the subconscious, rattling and banging about, starting fires and screaming in the night. “Jane” has retained her sanity, even after an abusive childhood, because she wanted to survive and has learned to move and to act with humility, eyes downcast.
Jane Eyre is a feminist novel and film if only because it was told from the point of view of a woman. Like all the protagonists in Austen’s novels, Jane is adrift in patriarchal world, run by men for the benefit of men. From the beginning of their meeting, “Rochester” makes it clear that she must exist for his benefit, act in accordance to his need and wants. Today, most women would steer clear of such an egoist, but for centuries this kind of character was presented to female readers in countless Romance Novels, the kind with lavender covers, as the Broken Man who needed only the Love of a Good Woman to be fixed. One can only assume that, in Brontë’s time, “Rochester” was probably typical of wealthy and powerful men in a time when such men had nearly unchecked privileges. Indeed, he almost gets away with a bigamist marriage to Jane. Jane is warned by “Mrs. Fairfax,” played by Judy Dench, that men like Mr. Rochester didn’t marry governesses but she is too naïve to understand what the older woman is telling her: something is very wrong.
The novel never fully explains why Rochester attempts to marry Jane and offers only love as an explanation for his courtship. One suspects that the romantic reason, a Prince Charming falling in love with a Cinderella, is a fantasy solution devised by Brontë to nurture the flicker of hope in her female readers. Austen also devised romantic solutions in her novels: no matter how isolated the marriageable young women were, suitable young men (usually rich) somehow came into “the neighborhood” and the pairing off ensues. But Austen’s ladies are always the social equals of her gentlemen. The strange dialogue about gender equality that passes between Rochester and Jane underscores the improbability of the romance between them. In the novel, Jane is eighteen years old and Rochester is about double her age, she is poor and he is rich and it’s the Nineteenth Century—they can never be equals. In “real life,” he would not have known of her existence, but the novel uses the myth of “love” to force this unlikely pair together. But there is another approach to Jane Eyre.
Jane Eyre is, in it’s own way, a spiritual coming of age story. The novel is also a religious pilgrimage, for both Jane and Rochester. Both must do penance, Rochester for being “deceitful” and Jane for believing in miracles. For the couple to be together, Jane must complete what Gilbert and Gubar called a “pilgrim’s progress,” which began at “Gateshead” and ends at “Ferndean,” the couple’s forest retreat. Only when the novel is read as a religious allegory does the story begin to make sense. The story is about “Jane Eyre” whose very name indicates spirituality and her ability to float away from her adversaries. “Rochester” is not so much a real character as he is an obstacle in her journey towards fulfillment—he is something that Jane cannot have, not until she completes her tasks. Jane travels from the prison of the Red Room to imprisonment in the school for girls who have been thrown away, Lowood, to the trap of Thornfield whose name alone would enough to make any self-respecting girl to run for her life.
The last station of Jane’s journey is a resting place with the aptly named Moor House, a lonely house in the middle of the English version of a desert, the moors. Like Mary Magdalene, she goes into exile to grieve. On the run from Rochester, Jane is rescued by “St. John Rivers” (Jamie Bell). It is in this bleak and sanctimonious place of crossing that she recovers her sense of self; but, perhaps to satisfy the reader’s need for a happy ending, the author sends Jane back to Rochester. She rejects the offer of marriage from “Rivers,” because she has been rewarded with a large inheritance, and because she mysteriously hears the voice of Rochester calling her back. In modern terms we would call this device of one lover hearing the pain of the other as a voice on the wind an example of a “plot creaking” under the weight of contrivance, but in the 1840s, it’s that new-fangled “Romantic Love” asserting itself.
It is incomprehensible that in any reality Jane could love such a man, someone who had lied to her, betrayed his wife, deceived his friends and then claimed victimhood to explain his behavior. Jane Austen, an austerely Classical novelist who distrusted Romantic fantasies, would have profoundly disapproved of Jane’s actions. Over and over Austen punished such men and wrote them into miserable lives. Even Brontë had to smite Rochester to make him acceptable to her readers. Rochester is an unsympathetic character but in her own way Jane is as weak and as flawed as he and gives in to temptation—running back to a married man. When she returns, Thornfield is rightly burned down by the vengeful Bertha who had had enough of her prison. Rochester lost his sight and the use of one of his hands, but, far from being impotent, he gains Jane Eyre, who has inherited a fortune from an uncle she never met. One assumes, incorrectly, that this was her money, but as soon as she married Rochester, every penny went to him and his control. They disappear into “happily ever after” in a quick ending that concludes Jane’s journey to her destiny: a caretaker of a broken and disgraced man.
Gilbert and Gubar assume that the couple, a blind and physically challenged man and a woman with enough money to make her acceptable to society, are now equal. If Jane Eyre is a feminist novel, it is because it is a more or less accurate account of the lives of women, particularly of surplus and dependent women and their very real sufferings, but few of them had a benevolent uncle. But there is allegorical truth in the novel. “Bertha Mason” is the expression of the oppressed woman and “Jane Eyre” is the portrait of a suppressed woman. They are mirror images of one another: both imprisoned and both unable to escape. “Bertha” is the far more interesting character, so much so that she inspired Jean Rhys to write Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966. Rhys imagined the Jamaican prequel to Jane Eyre. The novel is full of foreshadowings for the Brontë novel and suggests that Rochester was at first sexually enchanted with Bertha then, overwhelmed with sexual guilt, was repulsed by her and by the alien culture of the Caribbean. As if in revenge, Bertha went slowly mad over her husband’s rejection. Rather than abandon her on the island, Rochester took Bertha to a lifetime of confinement in the attic of his English home.
Rhys stripped the Rochester character of his romantic trappings and explained why he was the sort of man who would be repulsed by “Blanche Ingram’s” self-assurance—too much like his wife—and comforted by Jane’s submissiveness and her virginity and inexperience. She is everything his wife was not, controllable and ignorant of all things sexual. Wide Sargasso Sea makes Jane Eyre more understandable because it focuses on Rochester and makes his character comprehensible. So who is Jane Eyre? Ultimately this character and her motivations remain obscure, despite the fact that the novel is told in her voice. One wonders if she is not typical of women of her time. Self-knowledge would have been hard to come by in a time when men wrote about women and told them what they were and who they had to be. Jane becomes understandable only if one assumes that she internalized the myth of “Romantic Love” and the myth of women’s inferiority overlaid with a veneer of self-possession.
Jane Eyre is an abused woman who identified with her abuser, Mr. Rochester, and did not have the vocabulary to understand co-dependence. Only a woman of the nineteenth century would force a female character through such trials and subjected her to such sufferings with so little payoff. Charlotte Brontë was a woman of little experience and much imagination and a great deal of insight for someone who lived such a limited and isolated life. Her life resembled Jane’s to a certain extent in that she, too, had been sent away to a pitiless school for girls after her mother died. She too had taught at a girls’ school, Roe Wood, and she was tethered to a difficult alcoholic brother, Bramwell, who was undoubtedly the model for “Rochester.” The siblings and their father lived in the moors of Yorkshire where Charlotte wrote Jane Eyre, published under a male pseudonym, “Currier Bell.” For a brief time, she enjoyed some acclaim in London literary circles, she even married, but whatever happiness Brontë had was brief. She died in 1855 of “exhaustion.” Jane Eyre was the only notable book she wrote. A long journey for not very much…for her, but for us, two centuries of Jane Eyre. She speaks to us still.
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette
The Arts Blogger