Much of my criticism of the Jane Eyre adaptations I’ve seen has focused on what elements of the two main characters’ personalities the actors choose to highlight. I suppose this is related to the way I view the book, which I can’t help but feel myself something of an authority on, not only because I’ve read it SO many freakin’ times, but because I’ve studied it in the context of Victorian culture both academically and as a personal habit. The book’s scope is large enough that it can be genre-classified in several different ways, but filmmakers tend to treat it mainly as a romance. I have never seen the book this way.
Part of why I love Jane Eyre (and why I also love Jane Austen’s work) is because it uses marriage and courtship not as the plot’s targets, but as its media. The book uses the romantic element to explore the concept of whether a woman can, in fact, have an identity based on traits and beliefs that exist a priori to and independently of not only men, but society in general and its prevailing trends and mores. Remember, Jane has not only never known any men besides Rochester, she’s barely ever known anyone at all. She knows no society: she has, by her own admission, read few books, and had almost no friends. Any self-respect she possesses has been cultivated in a near-void.
If the point of the book were merely to get Jane and Rochester together, it would be enough to make them both moderately sympathetic characters, throw a few obstacles in their way, perhaps in the form of a frustrating miscommunication that could easily be resolved with a good honest sit-down chat which of course, no one will ever have, and then wrap the whole thing up with a wedding. But no, the book is more complicated than that, and not just because Brontë gave Rochester a mad wife instead of a dopey friend who inadvertently reveals to Jane that she was a bet, just a stupid bet. Jane knows that Rochester is rash and passionate and full of secrets before she ever finds out he’s already married; the point is that, in refusing to be Rochester’s mistress, she finds her stopping point, and discovers what is important to her.
This may be why I have more tolerance than most readers for the 150 or so pages Brontë devotes to Jane’s life between the time she leaves Rochester and the time they reunite. I want them to get together as badly as anyone, but not if it’s not on Jane’s terms. I have actually always loved the St. John subplot, because in her interactions with him and her analysis of his intellectual, capable, ambitious-to-a-fault nature, Jane finds yet another boundary to her own personality. Also, hot stern intellectual clergymen are sexy.
I spend so much time analyzing how the actors interpret the characters because I have always been searching for an adaptation that treats Jane Eyre as a story of personal growth in the face of great difficulty and social constraint, instead of as a mere romance. If, for instance, Rochester is merely a lonely and misguided man who needs a (non-insane) wife, and not also an angry, bitter, arrogant, and inconsiderate man who needs to change, then what is the point of his eventual “punishment” in the form of blindness and the loss of his hand? Was it just to get rid of his wife and punish him for trying to be a bigamist? Brontë could have simply had Bertha kill herself with no further consequences to Rochester. But Rochester is not being punished for attempting bigamy; while I’m not suggesting Bronte condoned bigamy, we know that she pities Rochester and considered herself a liberal thinker for her time.
No, Rochester is being punished for assuming that, in lying to Jane, he is only offending society (“[Y]ou have neither relatives nor acquaintances whom you need fear to offend by living with me,”) without acknowledging that Jane may have objections to the situation that stem from innate moral boundaries, or integrity that exists independently of what society might thrust on her. Or rather, he pretends to assume this, since he as much as admits after the fact that he should have told her he was married and appealed to her sense of pity/justice. It’s not just that circumstances need to change for Jane and Rochester to be together; Rochester is not ready, as a person, to be a suitable partner to Jane. The fact that the movie chooses to end at the moment Jane and Rochester reunite, without any denouement, means it loses the opportunity to underscore this point.
Jane’s character must also change to be prepared for marriage. She expresses, very early in the novel, a desire for family, for people who are like her and with whom she can be herself. She stops feeling this way when she becomes friends with Rochester, because he occupies that role for her– but that’s not good enough. Jane knows she can be independent, but she needs to learn that she can build a life for herself, and find friends and family outside the romantic sphere, so that marriage becomes a matter of choice, and not vocation– revolutionary thoughts for 1847. But the film, oddly, never explicitly points out that St. John and his sisters are actually related to Jane, which I found a strange choice considering that it would have required next to no added dialogue to make this revelation.
And I realize that making these points was not the film’s goal. It is a better-than-most adaptation that is still, fundamentally, just a love story between two unconventional people. I also understand that, in many ways, I’m limited by my love for and knowledge of the book. It’s difficult for me to grasp why, out of such rich material, one would choose to make a film that plays with only its most common and obvious elements, even when it does so rather well.
For now, my favorite version remains the Toby Stephens/Ruth Wilson miniseries, though I hold out hope for some fanatic like myself to make a three-four hour-ish version with a serious budget, that shows in theaters. Till then, it at least makes me hopeful that directors and actors see enough in the book to continue trying to make something out of it, even if it isn’t exactly what I would make.