Monthly Archives: April 2016

In communion with Jane’s first readers

This month, I’ve featured many posts about Charlotte Bronte and her most famous novel, Jane Eyre, in celebration of the 200th anniversary of Bronte’s birth (April 21, 1816). You can find a round-up of those posts here.

Not only was Charlotte Bronte an inspiration to me as a woman writer. Jane Eyre inspired me to write an homage to this well-known tale, a book titled Sloane Hall.

Yesterday, I was thrilled to receive the news that Sloane Hall was one of only 14 Bronte/Eyre-related books featured at “Off the Shelf,” a sight where Simon & Schuster employees highlight favorite backlist books, regardless of publisher (Sloane Hall was first released by Five Star/Cengage, a publisher that produces quality hardcovers for the library trade). You can find the “Off the Shelf” post here — I’m excited to be in the company of such well-known, esteemed authors!

I’ve written before about Sloane Hall and its inspiration, but I wanted to explore a little more the reason I enjoy retellings of familiar stories.

As I said in my previous post about Sloane Hall, imaginative, well-done retellings of well-known stories achieve two goals: they let you see afresh the story you know so well; and, they bring you into communion, for brief moments, with the first audiences for those stories.

Think of the movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? It’s an imperfect re-imagining of the Odyssey, yes, but it makes the story come alive as you root for Ulysses McGill to find his way home, as you see how the Sirens’ song seduced his fellow travelers to linger, as you watch him overcome mishaps and bad deeds to find the hero within himself. Somewhere along the line, in the midst of this storytelling, it hits you: I’m experiencing this story with the same sense of wonder and excitement that its original readers might have felt! Even though I know the major plot points, I don’t know how it will unfold here in this new version, and I’m eager to find out…just as those first readers and listeners were probably eager to see what happened to Odysseus next.

51LJWn26G5LThat was the effect I was after with Sloane Hall. The plot points of Jane Eyre are so familiar now, even to those who’ve not read the book, thanks to its many film adaptations. And although I knew fans of the original might enjoy anticipating the high and low points of the familiar story even as they made their way through my reconstruction, I wanted to give them more than that. I wanted to give them that “communion” with readers of the original tale, that sense of coming upon climactic moments with an inner gasp shared in the 1800s, as if they hadn’t known what would take place, despite their knowledge of the story.

This was a challenge, and, as I’ve pointed out, I decided one of the best ways to help readers experience the story, as if they’d never read Jane Eyre, was to reverse the genders. The poor and obscure role in Sloane Hall is given to a young man, John, with a tortured past. The larger-than-life part of thundering Mr. Rochester is now played by a woman, not too much older than John, who towers over John in celebrity — she’s a silent film star about to make her first “talkie.” (As an aside, what fun it was to delve into this part of film history–I hope readers come away from the novel with a deeper understanding of that industry’s turmoil during a technological turning point.)

And the lunatic spouse in the attic of Jane Eyre? Not what you might expect, in Sloane Hall, but a secret that still should evoke the feelings of horror, shock, and even sympathy for both characters that the unveiling of Rochester’s first wife, Bertha Mason, might have ignited in the original readers of Jane Eyre.

As I thought about that scene and secret, in fact, I first pondered those reader reactions. What must the first readers of Jane have felt upon the revelation that Rochester was married? Probably overwhelming sympathy for Jane and disgust at Rochester. But then when it was revealed he was shackled to a madwoman? Perhaps some of their sympathy might have turned to him, as well. I tried to use those emotions–of the readers–to construct my own revelation.

When Sloane Hall was released, I knew it wouldn’t be everyone’s cuppa. But I was thrilled when two Bronte-devoted outlets praised it, recognizing the new story it tells and completely comprehending the effects I was after as I told my own tale. Both the Bronte Blog and the Bronte Studies journal gave Sloane Hall glowing reviews. Here are some snippets, along with one from the site Fresh Fiction:

“Libby Sternberg’s intelligent and intriguing Jane Eyre reimagining has achieved two of the most difficult goals in a novel: being a page turner and paying a worthy tribute to Charlotte Brontë’s immortal story.” —The Bronte Blog (A link to the review is here.)

“An original story with complex character development…(Sternberg) knows how to tell a story and she does it well….a refreshing tale.” Carolyne Van Der Meer, Bronte Studies journal, September 2011

“Sternberg never loses sight of the story she’s re-telling, but this novel is definitely her own. Readers have things to figure out and look forward to. Her prose flows beautifully with vivid descriptions of people and places, bringing to life a Los Angeles of times gone by. Fans of historical fiction and Jane Eyre in particular will relish this novel, and readers who enjoy a love story should definitely pick this one up.”—Katherine Peterson, Fresh Fiction

Sloane Hall is now available in trade paperback and digitally. I hope fans of Jane Eyre will enjoy experiencing the communion with its original readers I wanted to accomplish, and new readers will become engrossed in this fresh story.

You can find the book at Amazon here.

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Happy Birthday, Charlotte

Two hundred years ago, a novelist was born. She was, by many descriptions, as “plain, poor, and little” as her most famous fictional character, Jane Eyre. But unlike her, she would never be “obscure.” Her imagination and writing skill propelled her into literary stardom.

CBRichmondHer most famous novel, Jane Eyre, keeps her name alive for countless people who’ve never even read the book. Film and TV adaptations appear like clockwork, it seems, introducing new audiences to the honest-to-a-fault contrarian Jane, her rags to riches story, her sweeping Gothic romance with Mr. Rochester.

So, happy birthday, Charlotte Bronte! And thank you, for inspiring many “authoresses” to try to humbly follow in your footsteps.

For those who want to know more about her life, I highly recommend Claire Harman’s recent biography of Charlotte Bronte.

In honor of Bronte’s birthday, I’m including below a round-up of the articles I’ve posted about her and Jane Eyre over the past month:

Two Hundred Years of Charlotte

Podcast – Jane Eyre, Romance Novel Template

Podcast – Jane Eyre, the Rebel

Jane Eyre Films, Part I

Jane Eyre Films, Part II – Citizen Jane

Jane Eyre Films, Part III – Jane on TV

Jane Eyre Films, Part IV – Zeffirelli, the BBC, Conclusions

Jane Eyre Poems by Rita Maria Martinez

Podcast – Charlotte Bronte, Feminist Author

Tomorrow…a postscript, how Jane Eyre inspired me to write my own retelling of that tale.

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Podcast: Charlotte Bronte, Feminist Author

In just one day, it will be the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Bronte’s birth — April 21, 1816.

Throughout this month, I’ve been featuring posts about Bronte and her most famous novel, Jane Eyre.

Today, I offer a final podcast about Charlotte Bronte, the feminist author. I know that, to some, anything with “feminist” in the title can be a turn-off, an indicator it’s meant for one audience alone. But I urge you to give this short podcast a listen. If you’re an author, you’ll see how much you might have in common with Bronte. If you’re interested in history, you’ll see how she struggled with the idea that women weren’t allowed to “be all they could be” because of their gender. And you’ll learn why she, along with her sisters, wrote under male pseudonyms, a history many women writers can still appreciate today.

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Jane Eyre Poems by Rita Maria Martinez

Today, as we near the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Bronte’s birth (April 21, 1816), I’m featuring an exciting post about a book of poems by  Cuban-American writer Rita Maria Martinez. Published by Aldrich Press in January 2016, Martinez’s The Jane and Bertha in Me is a collection of poems, all in homage to Bronte’s most famous novel, Jane Eyre. One of the book’s poems, “St. John Rivers Pops the Question,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. The poem “Reading Jane Eyre II” received an honorable mention in AWP’s Intro Journals Project. The book was a semifinalist for the Word Works Washington Prize and a finalist for the Andrews Montoya Poetry Prize. Read and enjoy this write-up from the publisher: MARTINEZ FRONT COVER JAN 4


The Jane and Bertha in Me, a new poetry collection by Rita Maria Martinez

“Each poem is a smartly annotated, hauntingly revisionist homage to Jane Eyre. Martinez’s astounding poems are literary, conversational, personal, fun, as she confidently transports her Janes from the moors to Macy’s, from Thornfield Hall to the world of tattoos.” —Denise Duhamel, author of Blowout

Through wildly inventive, beautifully crafted persona poems, Martinez re-imagines Jane Eyre’s cast of characters in contemporary contexts, from Jane as an Avon saleslady to Bertha as a Stepford wife. These lively, fun, poignant poems prove that Jane Eyre’s fictional universe is just as relevant today as it was so many years ago. The Jane and Bertha in Me is a must-read for any lover of Brontë’s work.

Rita Maria Martinez is a Cuban-American poet from Miami, Florida. Her writing has been published in journals including the Notre Dame Review, Ploughshares, MiPOesias, and 2River View. She authored the chapbook Jane-in-the-Box, published by March Street Press in 2008. Her poetry also appears in the textbook Three Genres: The Writing of Fiction/ Literary Nonfiction, Poetry and Drama, published by Prentice Hall; and in the anthology Burnt Sugar, Caña Quemada: Contemporary Cuban Poetry in English and Spanish, published by Simon & Schuster.

Martinez has been a featured author at the Miami Book Fair International; at the Society of the Four Arts in Palm Beach, Florida; and at the Palabra Pura reading series sponsored by the Guild Literary Complex in Chicago. She earned her Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing from Florida International University.

“There is some kind of serious magic at work in this wonderful book. Reading it, I feel as if I am waking up in another world where the Gothic sensibility of Jane Eyre joins the surreal of contemporary American culture. The experience is nothing short of intoxicating. I can’t wait to read more of Rita Maria Martinez’s work.” —Nin Andrews, author of Why God is a Woman

The Jane and Bertha in Me gives an unusual twist to the well-known characters from Jane Eyre. These personal poems give us greater insight into the minds of madwoman and governess alike, with beautiful, lush language and empathetic vision. Even casual fans of Brontë’s great book will enjoy this lively re-imagining.” —Jeannine Hall Gailey, author of The Robot Scientist’s Daughter

A Conversation with Poet Rita Maria Martinez

Q: You first became interested in Jane Eyre as a teenager. Can you talk a bit more about why Jane appealed to you at that young age?

A: As a teen, I wanted to live in another era. I used to sing oldies by my high school’s reflection pond on mornings before the bell rang. Reading Jane Eyre felt like I was immersed in an exciting and unique atmosphere, which, for me, was a welcome relief from the grunge culture of the 1990s. I liked the mystery, the lush language, and the romance in the novel. As for Jane’s character, she is an underdog with a lot spunk, a heroine who stands up for herself. I thought leaving Lowood and entering Thornfield, a new environment, was courageous—as was leaving Thornfield. Jane also manages to have strong moral convictions while also being a sexual creature—one who refuses to settle for a passionless marriage.

Q: Bertha gets a good deal of screen-time in this collection. What about Bertha speaks to you as a writer and reader?

A: Bertha is a displaced person, an outsider. I think many readers and writers have felt like outsiders at some point. In my early twenties, I started experiencing debilitating daily headaches and migraines. I went through several physicians. Some thought I was crazy. Some were sexist. Others thought my complaints were imaginary. These attitudes rob patients of their dignity—especially those who battle neurological conditions which are “invisible.” Eventually, I was diagnosed with chronic daily headaches (CDH), a genetic disorder that affects about four percent of the population and is often misunderstood and misdiagnosed. At onset, my head hurt nonstop for over two months—that kind of constant pain is enough to test anyone’s sanity. Migraines drive one to seek darkness, silence, and isolation; as a result, I started reflecting on Bertha’s plight. Her daily life at Thornfield was one of isolation accompanied by periods of great suffering—as was Charlotte Brontë’s at times. Brontë mentions her migraines and health concerns in correspondence. Edward Rochester—who is far from being a one-dimensional character—also undergoes a great deal of anguish. He’s certainly not a saint, but, in some aspects is a casualty of the conventions of his society.

Q: Aside from Brontë herself, what other influences are at work in this collection?

A: There are so many! Some include Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s groundbreaking feminist text The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination (1979); the amazing three-volume set of The Letters of Charlotte Brontë edited by Margaret Smith; Jean Rhys’s postcolonial novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966); Virginia Woolf ’s expanded essays on the female writer’s life in A Room of One’s Own; and Rita Dove’s Mother Love. I’m also a pop culture junkie who watches way too much television—especially the Turner Classic Movie Channel.

Q: What do you hope that readers will take away from the experience of this book?

A: I hope readers will become more empathetic and open-minded toward those in their communities who experience disability or illness of any kind—realizing that neither constitutes moral weakness or failure. I especially hope that all types of patients realize that they deserve to be treated with dignity—that a good physician will take one’s concerns to heart. I hope poems like “The Literature of Prescription” help readers become more vocal about their expectations during doctor visits—and will prompt them to become active, assertive, and informed patients. Most importantly, I experienced a great deal of joy writing many of these poems, and I hope readers will laugh out loud now and then. I hope the poems will spur them to reread or discover Jane Eyre and to encounter other Brontë works and biographies. April will mark the bicentennial of the birth of Charlotte Brontë, a wonderful reason to celebrate the work and life of such an influential author.

The Jane and Bertha in Me by Rita Maria Martinez: January 2016 Aldrich Press, an imprint of Kelsay Books; 89 pp., Paperback, $17.00 ISBN-13: 978-0692543412 Signed copies available at:

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Jane Eyre Films Part IV: Zeffirelli, the BBC, Conclusions

Today, the final installment in an essay on Jane Eyre films is posted below. This exploration of screen adaptations of Jane was written by novelist Hannah Sternberg before the Mia Wasikowska/Michael Fassbender version aired, so it takes readers up to the last film iteration before that 2011 film appeared. Feel free to add your thoughts on that version in the comments!

The previous parts of this essay appear here (links also provided at the end):

Jane Eyre Films Part I

Jane Eyre Films Part II: Citizen Jane

Jane Eyre Films Part III: Jane on TV


Jane in the Land of the Midnight Sun

from the longer essay, “The Many Faces of Jane”

by Hannah Sternberg

On the other end of the artistic spectrum (from television versions previously discussed) is Italian director Franco Zeffirelli and his meticulously photographed 1996 feature Jane Eyre, starring Charlotte Gainsbourg and William Hurt, and supported by a sparkling cast: Anna Paquin as young Jane, Joan Plowright as Mrs. Fairfax, Fiona Shaw as Aunt “Petunia” Reed, Geraldine Chaplin as Mrs. Scatcherd, and British period drama regulars Amanda Root and Samuel West as Miss Temple and St. John Rivers. And then there’s Australian supermodel Elle Macpherson as Blanche Ingram: she doesn’t really need Rochester’s money, she can just launch her own line of Victorian lingerie.

Unlike the five-and-a-half-hour-long 1983 mini that took the viewer by the hand and walked her through the story, Zeffirelli’s version unfolds quietly, with the expectation that the viewer will follow tacitly down dark and sometimes unexplained corridors – the film opens with Jane being propelled forcefully into the Red Room, though the reasons for the punishment or her fear of it are not revealed.

Subtlety and quietness guide the script; that is, until the delicacy is shattered by an unexpectedly contrived moment – as when Jane reminds Adele at her sketchpad that “the shadows are as important as the light,” just as she chases after a conversation with Rochester. At other moments, the simplicity of the dialog is spot-on in establishing both mystery and eventual double-meaning, as when Fairfax (the housekeeper) pointedly chides Grace Poole (Bertha’s caretaker), “Remember instructions” – the uninitiated viewer, and Jane, interpret this as a warning to the servant to keep quiet, when in fact Fairfax alludes to Rochester’s edict to keep the maniac in the attic hidden.

While the earliest adaptations sought melodrama and omitted Rochester’s unappealing moral confusion, Zeffirelli’s film trims out coincidence, religion and the supernatural. The result is a story that is physically believable, and possibly more appealing to the crowd that easily tires of romantic stretches of the imagination. Instead of wandering the moors for three days, lost and hungry, Jane returns to Gateshead when she escapes Thornfield, and she takes the coach. The structure is similar to the circular construction generated in the 1944 adaptation, telescoping several scattered plot events into a short but logical sequence. The melodramatic flair is still echoed in her fainting spell and fever once she arrives, in this case apparently caused by her failure to pack snacks for the trip.

The acting, too, is understated – there are few passionate rages and even fewer rains of tears. Gainsbourg is a plain, inexperienced, intelligent-looking Jane, who expresses much in silence. But while her inquisitive face promises internal intricacy, her external restraint renders her aloof not only from other characters, but from the audience itself. Likewise, Hurt’s Rochester is bitter and depressed, but he lacks the spark and charisma that animates that passionate character. If every individual actor must select a handful of features to represent his character, Hurt seems to have chosen the supporting rather than the defining moods of Rochester.

Child Oscar-winner Anna Paquin is far more passionate and engaging as young Jane. Her fiery temper and acts of rebellion raise her above the level of the pity-grabbing abused child, and her affection for Helen Burns, her only friend, is sincere and tender. Unfortunately, Paquin’s portrayal has little reflection in the mature Jane played by Gainsbourg – though Lowood has supposedly tamed the rebellion out of her, it’s hard to believe that the strict school would have obliterated her personality so completely.

The lighting and cinematography in this film are brilliantly, chillingly beautiful – light often has a cold, hard quality that complements the crisp details of Jane’s least happy settings: the mathematical rigidity of doors and staircases at Gateshead, which seem to actively exclude and repel her, and the harsh, unforgiving bareness of Lowood. Like the 1971 film version, this feature also excels at establishing a sense of place, successfully connecting spaces within a single building, and giving them a convincing scale.

2107b42e68d818d2a13c1c34065f1076Because the shots are so carefully composed and lighted, it’s a surprise that one of the most noticeable flaws is the banishment of darkness. While each shot within itself is painstakingly executed, the continuity between them regarding the time of day and quality of light is spastic. Many night scenes are flooded with light that is far too pervasive and bright to represent the moon or a grated fire. But worse still are scenes that alternate between the appropriate darkness of night and this eerie brightness, like the sequence in which Jane and Rochester tend to the wounded Mr. Mason.

Mason arrives with dusk and is shown to his room – then a shot showing the pitch darkness outside is followed by the drunken Grace Poole stumbling away from the attic and down a hall across which the windows cast cold, clear and bright squares of light. Then there’s an exterior shot showing Thornfield Hall from a distance, indicating evening. This cuts to Jane, dozing at her dressing table and still in her daily clothes; in story-time, it is deep in the night, after all the guests have finally gone to bed. Jane hears a scream and runs first to Adele’s room, which is bathed in piercing light. Rochester rushes to find Jane in the corridor, and they hustle past barely dimmed windows to the attic, where it is bright enough for Mason’s blood to appear a vibrant orange-red. However, outside where the carriage is being readied, the courtyard is cloaked in thick darkness, highlighted by the bright circle cast by a lantern. Mason is ushered from his morning-bright room into the nighttime courtyard and rides away to seek a land where time makes sense.

Incongruity such as this may break the temporary suspension of reality that viewers expect from a costume romance, but it doesn’t entirely disqualify the film from merit. Like a difficult book, Zeffirelli’s Jane Eyre takes a couple readings and some thought to become clear, but the visual satisfaction and uniquely non-melodramatic approach to the story are worth the effort, focusing on the story’s aspects of quiet melancholy and nuance of character.

Hunk a’ Hunk a’ Burning Bed
Jane made a return to the small screen in the BBC’s 2006 Jane Eyre, featuring a script, penned by Sandy Welch, that is highly evolved from that network’s previous example 23 years earlier.

Sandy Welch is essentially God’s gift to Brit-actor fangirls, the breed that appreciates waistcoats and thinks tights can be manly. Welch already has a reputation with the army of squealers for actor Richard Armitage, star of the 2004 miniseries North and South (an industrial revolution-inspired romance, not to be confused with the American mini about the Civil War). In her adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1854 novel of the same name, Welch displayed an ability to fearlessly undo what an era famous for prudishness had left as its legacy. This distinction doesn’t necessarily rank highest on the list of many reasons that qualify Welch to take on Jane Eyre, but it’s the most memorable.

Joining screenwriter Welch in her Jane Eyre adaptation is BAFTA-winning director of Bleak House, Susanna White. This 2006 Jane Eyre marks the third attempt on the story by the BBC, and displays an interesting contrast in attitude from the previous two. Director Susanna White takes Welch’s already vivid and fast-paced script (blink and you’ll miss Jane’s childhood) and enhances it with cinematic technique and photography designed for the small screen, always with an eye for what makes historical drama click: intimacy, escapism, intensity, and sympathy. This increased attention to technical and artistic detail can be seen in other historical TV miniseries in the last ten years, including Granada/ITV’s 2002 The Forsyte Saga, A&E/United Television’s 1999 Horatio Hornblower series, and, as mentioned, BBC’s 2004 North and South. At last, British television period drama is no longer exclusively the realm of visibly meager budgets and photographic carelessness (though, like an annoying cousin, they do still tend to pop up, especially around holidays).

The new cast is packed with Masterpiece Theater vets in the many crucial minor roles, giving the parts of servants, nobility and provincial churchgoers realism and personality without verging too far down the chasm of Twee. In a Bronte reunion, three members of the cast of Anne Bronte’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1996) appear again in Eyre: Tara Fitzgerald, the reserved heroine of Tenant, is the aunt-of-reserved-heroine, Mrs. Reed, character actress extraordinaire Pam Ferris, Markham’s fussy mother in Tenant, is the slightly more frightening Grace Poole; and Toby Stephens, who played the kind and love-struck Gilbert Markham in Tenant takes on the stern (and lovestruck) Rochester here.

Stephens is no James Bond, but he was his nemesis in Die Another Day, which was close enough for this time around. On the Aspects of Rochester continuum, Stephens checks in at charming with extra points for tortured and abrupt. He’s a little easier for a modern audience to admire than his book counterpart – his deep frown and dismissive brusqueness in his first formal interview with Jane hint at a proud temper, but he never verges on the less appealing, more manipulative side of Rochester’s need to control. 50762047-0651-466e-ae8f-827b7c7586ba

At the same time, Stephens makes it believable that, even when Rochester plays cruel games on Jane, she will forgive and continue to love him. It’s less believable when he calls himself ugly or old, as the fangirls will be the first to admit – in real life Stephens is, in fact, nearly Rochester’s age, but he doesn’t look it. After his second close encounter with fire, he’s hardly more “ghastly” than Gerard Butler’s Phantom of the Opera, another film in which a pretty guy is cast in a role supposedly defined by a certain amount of unforgiving unattractiveness. Stephens plays an excellent Rochester; he just isn’t allowed to look like one.

Most impressive is newcomer Ruth Wilson as the mature Jane Eyre, who, with courageously ordinary looks and expressive, thoughtful eyes, manages to combine the book’s conflicting descriptions of ethereal charm and unfashionable plainness. At moments, her pale face and dark, sad eyes do seem fairylike; but she also suffers from blushes that dye her face a fierce red, and when she cries, her face twitches and distends in a distinctly unHollywood way. If the 1944 version was Rochester’s story, this adaptation most definitely belongs to Ruth Wilson’s movingly real Jane.

There is no first-person voice-over that allows Jane to describe her complex inner states – it all shines through Wilson’s eyes, the awkward clasping of her hands, the occasional and brief mischievous smile. She is believably Rochester’s intellectual and spiritual equal; and she’s also believably in love with him without the frozen closetedness of Charlotte Gainsbourg or the oozy puppy eyes of Joan Fontaine.

Wilson and Stephens have the natural, comfortable chemistry that makes the book’s knotty, endless dialogs feel like witty banter rather than enacted speeches. Welch reorders, slims down, and rewrites much of these famous interviews without losing a sense of their original interplay of power and vulnerability, swerving from teasing to confession. Verbal exposition (especially Rochester’s) is replaced with visual storytelling cleverly woven in by White’s direction.

The best example of this is when Rochester describes Adele’s origins. The story begins with his description to Jane of his sumptuous Parisian lifestyle, and while he speaks to her the camera cuts to a lushly decorated hotel room, wandering over its features like the actor of Jane’s imagination. Then, as the narrative becomes more intense, Rochester’s voice suddenly asks, “Are you still with me, Jane?” and without cutting away from the image of the flashback, Jane’s voice answers, “I’m here, sir.” Rochester continues to narrate, but the images complement rather than repeat what he says, so that only in combination does the full story become apparent. Rochester vaguely relates that jealousy had gripped him, and as he speaks his mistress enters with her other lover. Rochester stops narrating and the viewer overhears, as he did, their scornful discussion of him. Then the image and sound cut back to Rochester and Jane at Thornfield, as Rochester dryly sums up the pair’s fate and his acquisition of Adele.

In other moments, however, there are visual blunders just as bad as Zeffirelli’s midnight sunshine. When Jane and Rochester approach each other unknowingly for the first time on a foggy road, shots of each are intercut with gentle, innocent music on Jane and thundering music on Rochester, with a result more like Jaws than a Gothic fairy tale.

Similarly overdone is the scene near the end, where Jane hears Rochester’s voice supernaturally broadcast across the moors. The sound quality is beautifully real, but in an original flourish (there’s no imagery to this effect in the book) Jane’s rising passion and purpose is illustrated through quick cuts on shots of a rushing brook. I understand the metaphor, but the presentation is just as bad as any of 1983’s expository speeches – the only way to make it more painfully obvious would be to have Charlotte Bronte walk onscreen and start riffing, ala her sister in 1992’s Wuthering Heights.

These moments, and other small sell-outs – the attractiveness of Rochester, the softening of the story and characters’ harsher edges – aren’t as disappointing when considered in context. That’s because the 2006 Jane Eyre isn’t pretending to be anything more or less than it really is: corset-busting escapism. Its complexity is in emotion and not intellectual theme; it conforms to the current demands of its intelligent but melodrama-hungry audience, and in this way it’s the most tightly and purposefully constructed adaptation since 1944.

In fact, its exploitation of the sexual tension undercurrent in the original material resulted in a sometimes-hilarious conflict between new viewers and book-huggers when the series first aired. On one hand, outraged Bronteites ranted against the making out, hand-holding and embracing, as if Jane had never been “kissed repeatedly” or otherwise handled by Rochester in the original; but their opponents, a newly-founded league of Toby Stephens devotees, supported the embellished PDA a little too…hotly.

The truth is, Welch does take it a little too far. Just as her North and South, though elegantly adapted, probably owed its place in many fangirls’ hearts in part for Richard Armitage’s non-Victorian kissing demonstration, her Jane Eyre occasionally drops the façade of tasteful allusion and goes straight for sexual appeal. The unwritten caresses that generations of heated imaginations have placed at crucial moments are not forgotten here, although sometimes the rest of the crucial moment is.

Jane and Rochester’s spectacularly complex parting scene is reduced to heavy macking on Jane’s bed in this version. She doesn’t look like she’s going anywhere, but maybe that’s why Rochester is so surprised the next morning. This takes the dramatic rise and fall out of their dialog, but it also allows the scene to be broken up and seeded as flashbacks during Jane’s sojourn at Moor House, keeping the drama alive in that otherwise dry stretch of the story – the third episode ends with Jane removing her wedding gown, and the fourth opens with her wandering the moors, interjections of memory unraveling the mystery of what happened in between. In this case, clever presentation is cheapened by the over-simplified, obviously anachronistic material it contains, making this adaptation a good example of both what is satisfying and disappointing in the latest trends in bringing literature to film.

“Enchantment in the Very Hour”

“And where is the speaker? Is it only a voice? Oh! I cannot see, but I must feel, or my heart will stop and my brain burst. Whatever, whoever you are, be perceptible to the touch, or I cannot live!”

He groped; I arrested his wandering hand, and prisoned it in both mine.

“Her very fingers!” he cried; “her small, slight fingers! If so, there must be more of her.”

The muscular hand broke from my custody; my arm was seized, my shoulder, neck, waist – I was entwined and gathered to him.

“Is it Jane? What is it? This is her shape – this is her size –”

“And this is her voice,” I added. “She is all here.” Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre

Avid readers see with their minds. The sensory experience of a novel is purely imaginative, the reader’s blind groping for perception answered by the author’s careful guidance. Film is also largely dependent on the viewer’s imagination, although the physical reality of visual and aural stimulation may lead some to believe it replaces the role of individual imagination in the experience of a story. That belief is intensely incorrect.

If film is the most physical way for devoted readers to plunge into Jane Eyre, they will be disappointed if they expect to find her “all here.” Film, like literature, is not just a medium for telling stories, but for inviting the viewer to experience those stories individually and imaginatively. It’s up to the viewer whether, like Rochester, he prefers the presence of Jane to the return of complete physical sensation.

I’ve been asked, while I conducted research on this article, whether I got sick of watching the same story over and over again. I never have, because none of these films creates the same experience. They aren’t copies of the same entity, but its offspring. This also means that none of them are capable of re-creating the exact tone of the original. Since the world of the novel exists slightly differently in the mind of each reader, film adaptation instead strives to communicate one such a world to a crowd of fresh minds, an enchanted few hours in which one person’s dreams blend slightly with reality to cross into the viewer’s imagination.

It’s just as easy to pick and choose which improvements would make Zelah Clarke, Joan Fontaine or Ruth Wilson into the ultimate Jane Eyre as it is to look in the mirror and rattle off the alterations one would make upon oneself to achieve physical perfection. The effectiveness of the exercise is about the same.

Jane Eyre, so firmly established in the imaginations of readers long before the invention of cinema, refuses to part from her original medium complete, revealing herself only piece by piece as she does to blind Rochester. And, like the best book, a good film will simultaneously lift a viewer out of herself, and plunge her more deeply into the world of imagination, the only place where Jane can be found complete.

Hannah Sternberg

For previous parts of this essay, go to:

Jane Eyre films Part I

Jane Eyre films Part II: Citizen Jane

Jane Eyre films Part III: Jane on TV


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Jane Eyre films, Part III: Jane on TV

The birthday celebration continues! Charlotte Bronte’s birthday, that is. She was born 200 years ago on April 21, 1816. So I’ve been focusing on her and her most famous novel, Jane Eyre, on my blog for most of this month.

Today, I feature more of the exploration of the many, many films made of Jane Eyre, in an essay written by talented novelist Hannah Sternberg. In this part, she looks at the 1971 made-for-TV Jane with George C. Scott and Susannah York. I actually remember watching this when it first aired on NBC. And she discusses a BBC miniseries that demonstrates why ultra-faithful adaptations don’t always capture the mood and power of their original sources.

If you missed the first parts of this film discussion, they are here (links are also provided at the end):

Jane Eyre films, Part I

Jane Eyre films, Part II

General Rochester, Sir and Attack of the Clones

by Hannah Sternberg

(from the longer essay, “The Many Faces of Jane”)

After 1944’s benchmark production of Jane Eyre, there were several relatively short made-for-TV stagings of the story in the ’50s and ’60s. The next widely recognized (and watchable) adaptation stars George C. Scott and Susannah York, and aired on NBC on March 24, 1971. It was shot on 35mm at 1.33:1 aspect ratio (television full screen) and screened theatrically in Europe and Asia, though it aired only as a television movie in the States. In 1972, it won an Emmy for Best Achievement in Music Composition with a score by the upcoming composer John Williams. Both stars were also nominated that year for their leading roles.

Despite the deterioration of age on many current copies available on DVD, this film’s beautiful sun-drenched landscapes and sweeping, melancholy shots across the moors bring the novel’s setting and imagery to life in a way rarely seen in the adaptations that were to follow it on TV in the next couple decades.

The late ’60s/early ’70s flavor of some details in costume and hair design are jarring, but don’t exceed by much the usual superimposition of current fashion onto historical dress apparent in many period films, made more noticeable by its removal from current style. Lapses in period detail are unfortunately hobbling to this otherwise carefully styled adaptation, though moderate enough to be ignored with some effort – Susannah York may be haunted by the ghost of blue eyeshadow, but “Low Rider” doesn’t haunt the soundtrack.

Filmed at Ripley Castle in Yorkshire and in London’s Pinewood Studios, the movie displays a coherent use of space that provides context for the story. Not only are the sets decorated to period satisfaction, but the editing and cinematography combine to create a sense of the castle’s layout that is consistent and realistic. The interplay of setting and editing allow the viewer to follow Jane through a realistic manor home, discovering its hidden secrets. The use of location shooting in this film is also a sign of that rising trend in filmmaking, a departure from 1944’s soundstage production.

Both Scott and York are old for their roles. In the book, Jane is 18 and Rochester is recently in his 40s, but York is 30 and Scott is a very weathered 44 – by his looks he could have easily been in his mid 50s. Instead of playing young, they use their not-unreasonable ages to their advantage, creating a much quieter and more mature dynamic between Rochester and Jane that reconciles the stormy passion of their courtship with their eventual peaceful end.

Scott’s accent is sometimes a little stretched, which is at least better than being grotesque, and his brusqueness only highlights a masculine tenderness: in one of the most moving scenes, after Jane slips away from Rochester and his mad wife in disgust, he slides down the wall and talks to Bertha in eerily calm tones: “What shall we do tonight? Shall I play for you, and sing? Will you sit with me and tell me the story of your day? Shall you hold my head on your breast whilst I sleep?”

This is an entirely fabricated piece of dialog, but it supplies the same emotional justification for Rochester’s crime that later omitted portions of their parting scene would have made clear, and it does so in an original and chilling way. In the parting dialog as it exists in this adaptation, when Scott roars, “Everything that’s mine is yours!” the sentiment is vulnerable, but the delivery is powerful, again filling verbal gaps with emotional intensity and meaning, which York’s silent acting complements just as potently. JaneEyre

The deliberate, quiet tone sets this adaptation up for the most natural and understated movie ending of the story. Other adaptations, like the 1944 film, maintain a tone just as passionate and thundery as the rest of the story for the final reunion, usually accompanied by a voice-over describing the couple’s happy marriage, a summary of the book’s final chapter. Rochester grasps Jane passionately into his arms, and cries out in angst-laden tones; the music swells; metaphorical language is deployed mercilessly.

Like the rest of the 1971 film, this ending is without voice-over, but the soothing unity of Rochester and Jane’s embrace says everything the viewer needs to know about their future. There is no storm of tears, though Jane quietly lets a few drops roll, and instead of a roaring, tempestuous confirmation of love there is a gently humorous exchange as Rochester attempts to discover whether Jane will still marry him, without bluntly asking her the question. This does in fact resemble facets of the book’s final chapters, but its interpretation on the screen is gentler and subtler, a refreshing way to end this adaptation – by remaining faithful to the established tone of the retelling rather than single-mindedly pursuing precision to the book.

Attack of the Clones

In the same decade, the BBC made its first miniseries adaptation of the novel, followed ten years later by its second attempt, both of which have inspired the lasting devotion of raging book fanatics. That’s their problem. The BBC Eyre attempts of the ’70s and ’80s prove why bringing the book, word-for-word, to the screen can be the least successful way to adapt a classic novel.

JaneEyre1983_180PyxurzVictorian and other pre-film literature have a distinctly different flavor from modern writing trends, not just in the language and moral themes, but in the pacing and structure of the story. Even films of modern literature require alteration to ease the transition between mediums. Lifting a book’s plot and characters into a two-hour feature or a six-hour miniseries is often a thematically reductive process, and it takes courage to ruthlessly hack apart what fans for decades have known and loved. The confidence to do this springs from a thorough understanding of what made the original captivating, a dissection of the dramatically necessary, the currently relevant, and the visually promising elements from the verbal tissue that holds it together.

Just as a feature-length adaptation can crash by trimming too close, a miniseries adaptation can fail at capturing a book’s spirit by becoming mired in a scrupulous recreation of every detail of the original’s plot. This technique appeals to Brontephiles who only want to reread the book on the screen rather than see it sullied by another writer’s interpretation, but the resulting mimicry of “real” Victorian speech and etiquette is about as twee as the local Renaissance Faire, and bears as much resemblance to historical truth. This disturbing trend is evident in the book-fan-popular 1983 BBC Jane Eyre starring Timothy Dalton (for those who like their Rochester shaken, not stirred) and Zelah Clarke.

The 1983 adaptation (I use the term loosely here) is one of probably hundreds of ripped-from-the-book dramatizations produced by the BBC; those of the ’70s and ’80s are notable for their scrupulous faithfulness. “Faithfulness” might not be a strong enough word. These DVDs are SparkNotes desperate ninth graders can watch.

In this Jane Eyre, entire dialogs are lifted nearly word-for-word from the text, while the story’s progression is left so rigidly intact that episodes frequently end at awkward moments with neither a clearly suspenseful cliffhanger nor a fulfilling closure marking the end of an act. This method is surprisingly insensitive both to the subtlety of the original novel’s longer and more methodical story structure, and to the requirements of episodic television storytelling.

Another defining quality of the BBC-produced historical dramas of the ’70s and ’80s is their blissful freedom from any kind of redeeming production value. Mysterious thumps and creaks abound even at Gateshead scenes, where there is no crazy attic-dweller to provide an excuse for poor sound engineering. Outdoor shots have colder, paler color balance, which appears to be the unintentional result of mixing light sources. Sets and costumes are designed with a theatrical sumptuousness which may hold up well from a distance but appear clumsy and artificial when presented in the more intimate window of the small screen.

The camera itself is more passive than a proscenium. Shots are regularly anchored by safely symmetrical framing, following characters with short pans or spastic zooms to maintain the centrality of the subject. Depth is collapsed by consistently eye-level, horizontal camera angles, and the result is almost entirely two-dimensional, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere which obliterates any sense of scale, and for all the audience knows could be hiding an actor’s lack of pants.

The occasional use of extreme upward or downward angles, such as in the first interview between young Jane and Brocklehurst, results only in appearing cartoonish by contrast, and the angle is not maintained consistently in subsequent shots, creating a stranded, confused feeling of spatial relation between the characters. This confusion is increased by an agonizing monotony of shot-reverse-shot close-ups that strand characters with no sense of relative location.

To make composition an invisible part of the cinematography can be as acceptable an artistic choice as any other when well-executed, but in this case, rather than deliberate invisibility, the careless clumsiness of the composition appears only to be an the result of carelessness and lack of skill. It’s as if these adaptors tried to ignore cinematography as an intellectual tool for storytelling, as if trying to write wholly without adjectives because they distract from the verbs and nouns.

This, in my mind, is its most fatal flaw. The 1983 BBC Jane Eyre is not a deliberately cinematic work; it’s a life-sized puppet act caught on tape. Fans of its faithfulness tend to brush off its “dated” or “theatrical” feel as a minor drawback, as if the sole determinants for any quality adaptation must be the writing and acting. But the form (cinematography) becomes a part of the content in the same way that an author’s specific use of language contributes the distinctive tone of a book. Claiming that bad production technique is irrelevant in a miniseries like Jane Eyre is like saying a translator’s bad grammar is excusable if the material he’s working from is already a classic.

This miniseries is comfort food for the Cultivated Mind – not too artistically refined or that healthy in large doses, but a fun entertainment treat akin to reading a romance novel. Its fatal flaw is also its redeeming quality: it’s a treat for those who simply want to see their favorite scenes enacted, any way and any how. The 1983 miniseries features scenes nearly every other adaptation leaves out, such as the gypsy fortune-teller scene, and contains the most complete enactment of Jane and Rochester’s parting dialog that I’ve seen in an adaptation yet. Though like every other adaptation, it carefully leaves out Rochester’s account of the abandonment of his previous mistresses before Adele’s mother. No one’s that perfect.

In 1983, the BBC produced a Jane Eyre the viewer can sit back and absorb with little effort – every development is dropped in the viewer’s lap with a thorough explanation. This means, oddly, that one of the most accurate adaptations of this novel is possibly also one of the most dumbed-down (though it’s hard to beat 1934 for sheer, brain-imploding vapidity). But somehow, Bronte’s Jane eludes this scrupulous attempt at re-creation.

Next: Franco Zeffirelli’s Jane, the BBC tries again, and conclusions.

For Part I of Jane Eyre films, go here.

For Part II of Jane Eyre films, “Citizen Jane,” go here.

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Jane Eyre Films: Part II, Citizen Jane

To celebrate the 200th birthday anniversary of author Charlotte Bronte (born April 21, 1816), I’m posting many pieces about her most famous novel, Jane Eyre.

Today I continue with an exploration of the many film iterations of Jane, an essay written by the very talented novelist Hannah Sternberg (who happens to be my daughter). In this part, she explores perhaps the most famous film version of the book — the Orson Welles/Joan Fontaine dramatization.

This essay is chock full of interesting tidbits, from a minor role played by a young actress who’d go on to be a dark-haired cinema bombshell, a director who would coax great  performances from child actors in a later Disney classic, and music by a composer whose most well-known snippet is associated with a horror-filled Hitchcock scene.

If you missed the first part, which dealt with silent screen iterations of Jane and the first sound version, you can read it here.

Citizen Jane

by Hannah Sternberg

(from the longer essay “The Many Faces of Jane”)

The first artistically accomplished sound film of the Jane Eyre story appeared in 1944, when Robert Stevenson directed a feature adaptation starring Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles, and boasting a screenplay by John Houseman and novelist Aldous Huxley under the story editorship of Val Lewton.

Bernard Herrmann, composer for Welles’s most acclaimed films, Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, and creator of the iconic music for Psycho, contributes a classically sweeping score. The product is an atmospheric and sophisticated Gothic fantasy reminiscent of the 1940 romantic literary thriller Rebecca, a comparison encouraged by producers with the employment of the two films’ common star, Fontaine.jane-eyre-6006_4

Both adaptations also capitalize on the narrative shock value of their sources while painting the emotional conflicts that result with comfortingly broad strokes – these stories are meant ultimately to confirm the viewer’s fantasies about stormy passion, rather than to challenge them. Another film that inevitably draws comparison is 1939’s Oscar-winning Wuthering Heights, starring Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier, in which Heathcliff joins Cathy in death before his status as a romantic hero is degraded by his antagonistic treatment of the second generation of their twisted family tree, as witnessed in the original novel.

Relatively still one of the earlier adaptations (as only the second sound film), 1944’s Jane Eyre remains today one of the most accomplished, narratively and artistically. Black and white photography is used expressively, with instances of the dramatic camera angles, deep focus and pervasive chiaroscuro characteristic of Welles’s work – Welles admitted to Peter Bogdanovich, “Oh, I invented some of the shots.” Shots such as that of Lowood’s gate and sign, in which a canted camera peers up at the strong vertical bars of the fence in seething fog, are strongly reminiscent of compositions in Welles’s most well-known works, and capture the foreboding, Gothic atmosphere of the novel.

Welles was, in fact, the producer of the film, but explained, “I don’t think an actor should be a producer unless he directs, so I didn’t use the credit…And I don’t want to take credit away from [director Robert Stevenson], all of which he deserves.”

Welles certainly took control of his own role, filling it with the moodiness, cynical pride and physical power required of Rochester – but for some reason he failed to feign a convincing British accent, instead affecting a privileged drawl that nearly obliterates some of his lines. Corsets and dieting also played a part in facilitating Welles in his only role as a classic Hollywood romantic leading man. His blazing, dark eyes, however, are the most captivating participants in his performance, and with them he created an undeniably brooding and gravitational presence. This was the role he had intended to launch his Hollywood acting career, upon which he would depend to fund his many ill-fated independent projects.

The early segments covering Jane’s childhood are surprisingly moving and well-played, featuring Peggy Ann Garner as young Jane and Elizabeth Taylor in the uncredited role of Helen Burns. Garner has sufficient power on the screen for an actor her age, but it’s Taylor’s already mesmerizing presence that drives their scenes together. This era of Jane’s life is the portion of the book most often passed over in film, along with her long sojourn at Moor House (the home of her long-lost cousins), as dead weights on either end of the main plot involving Rochester. Condensation and insubstantial child acting sometimes rob these segments of their emotional strength, but Stevenson (who went on to direct Mary Poppins) eases a solid performance out of even his youngest thespians.

Jane’s adult life, however, gears down into classic ’40s Hollywood melodrama, with Joan Fontaine’s radiance once again conflicting with the book’s requirements of a small and plain girl, and her portrayal of suppressed passion reduced to shining puppy eyes. In the book, Jane’s modesty isn’t to be confused with meekness, but Fontaine’s heroine more frequently looks up to Rochester with awe than observant intelligence. The film’s tagline sums up its attitude toward translating the original’s thematic depth into popular appeal: it’s “a love story every woman would die a thousand deaths to live!”

Huxley and Houseman’s adaptation is intelligent and elegant, however. Unlike 1934’s illogical mess, Huxley and Houseman’s telescoping of events has a clever symmetry: for example, eliminating Moor House in favor of a second return to Gateshead after Jane’s escape. This adaptation repeats the device of highlighting “excerpts” from the novel onscreen to broach time transitions; this time, accompanied by Joan Fontaine’s first-person voice-over.

This adaptation maintains a strong and straightforward melodramatic tone that is a delight for those willing to escape into it, and represents an immense leap forward for visual and narrative style. Its foggy soundstages and painted castles are among some of the best of its time, and remain thoroughly entertaining today. However, with Orson Welles’s commanding presence in front of and behind the camera, ultimately this film is more Rochester’s story than Jane’s.

Next: General Rochester, Sir! and Attack of the Clones: Jane on TV 

To read Part I of this essay on Jane Eyre films, go here.



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