A multi-part look at film iterations of Charlotte Bronte’s most famous novel, Jane Eyre. If you enjoy this series, check out the works of its very talented author, Hannah Sternberg!
“MY LIVING JANE?”
by Hannah E. Sternberg
“And there is enchantment in the very hour I am now spending with you. Who can tell what a dark, dreary, hopeless life I have dragged on for months past? Doing nothing, expecting nothing; merging night in day…and then a ceaseless sorrow, and, at times, a very delirium of desire to behold my Jane again.”
These are Edward Rochester’s words to Jane Eyre when she returns to him after a year’s unexplained absence, during much of which he was afflicted with blindness. Readers can echo his sentiments; Rochester’s longing for and rediscovery of Jane is a stormier version of a common longing among book lovers: to experience their beloved stories and characters beyond the realm of mental reflection, and to actually participate in the world created by a beloved book. This is externalized in Jasper Fforde’s 2001 novel, The Eyre Affair, in which an oddball invention enables detective Thursday Next to jump into the pages of Jane Eyre, in an effort to prevent archvillain Acheron Hades from kidnapping Jane and ruining the enduring story.
Film adaptation is the closest that readers in the real world can come to Thursday Next’s adventure inside Jane Eyre, and films like 2008’s Bronte biopic are another proof that, by using history to mimic fiction, readers continue to seek to plunge into the world those authors have created. The success of The Eyre Affair is one of many testaments to the enduring popularity of Charlotte Bronte’s original novel. While Jane Eyre is a major work critically and thematically, it also remains a popular favorite due to the escapist quality of its gothic romance, making it equally captivating on the intellectual and emotional levels.
Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre renders a different impression on every reader, and a new sensation on each successive reading; therefore there can be no definitive adaptation. However, the book’s popularity and sheer entertainment value have prompted a staggering volume of attempts. At least one eponymous English-language film or television adaptation of Jane Eyre has appeared every ten years since 1910.
Added to those are dozens of spin-offs, retellings, foreign language productions, and moments of genre-mixing genius, like the 1943 horror film based on the story, I Walked with a Zombie, in which characters will explain to you their romantic/gothic roots, in case you didn’t notice the frying pan hitting you on the face the first time: “Ah yes, our Paul, strong and silent and very sad – quite the Byronic character,” one supporting character says of the romantic lead. Also among the more unusual, there’s a Hindu twist in the 1954 Bollywood retelling, Sangdil, and the recent second film adaptation of Jean Rhyse’s 1966 prequel to the story, Wide Sargasso Sea.
Jane’s many incarnations have represented shifting values in film and television production, social expectations, and even fashion. It has been sexed up and toned down, condensed and sometimes so completely altered that it’s almost unrecognizable. And despite the contributions of some of the best creative talents of the last century (Orson Welles, John Williams, and Franco Zeffirelli, to name a few), each attempt to crack the barrier between film and fiction has only succeeded at realizing a small handful of the many aspects of this moving and complex story, inviting further directors, writers and actors to try endless new approaches.
For those who’ve never read it, here’s a snapshot of the story — the orphaned Jane Eyre has a childhood made to inspire years of consecutive Lifetime movies. Alternately abused and neglected, she is reared in her Aunt Reed’s unloving home, Gateshead, and then sent to the brutal Lowood Institution at the age of ten to be educated, where her only childhood friend, Helen Burns, dies of untreated consumption.
After eight years at Lowood, Jane becomes a governess at Thornfield Hall, tutoring Adele Varens, ward of her Byronic master, Edward Rochester. Naturally drawn together by their passionate natures and unpretentious habits, Rochester and Jane fall in love. Meanwhile, sinister things at Thornfield go bump in the night, the work of Rochester’s mad wife Bertha Mason, whom he keeps hidden in the attic under the care of a servant. Jane learns of Bertha when she and Rochester are at the wedding altar; heartbroken, Jane then flees across the moors, is taken in by long-lost relatives, and nearly accepts an offer of marriage from one of them. However, following her instinct and a mysterious voice that calls to her across the moors, she returns to Thornfield to discover Bertha Mason has burned it to the ground before committing suicide, leaving Rochester a chastened (and crippled) widower. Jane marries him legitimately this time, and somehow they manage to live happily ever after without the aid of a therapist.
Jane Eyre is a Gothic fairytale with proto-feminist undertones and enticing escapist qualities. (Though its political forwardness is lessened, in the eyes of some feminists, by the prominence of marriage in Jane’s happy ending.) It offers a wealth of genre possibilities: castles, moors, agonizing love, and violent crazies. But to this stew Bronte adds piercing emotional clarity and strength; and what screenwriters and directors choose to include or leave out reflects not only the story’s capacity for romantic fun, but its emotional resonance for different personalities and generations. Are these filmmakers trying to capture the perfect Jane for their time, or for all time? And is it possible for anyone to kidnap her, complete, from the pages of her book?
Silent Picture Shows and FrankenEyre
Jane Eyre was published in 1847, when female protagonists rarely supported themselves economically or cultivated their own morals without male guidance. While it was shocking in its own time, it’s hard to believe that later, more jaded and less sheltered generations would find the same discomfort with its less compromising details. Nonetheless, the earliest sound film attempts replaced darker emotional contention with escapist romantic fantasy, and presented an unsexed Jane and Rochester, making their attraction more sentimental than passionate. The previous silent adaptations, limited by lack of dialog, presumably also greatly simplified the tale, if the only surviving one of these eight films is representative.
The story went through eight silent picture iterations and its first talkie adaptation (in 1934, starring Virginia Bruce and Colin “Dr. Frankenstein” Clive) before a team of writers took the risk of intimating that Rochester’s ward Adele Varens was the product of an illicit affair, a detail made clear in Bronte’s original novel. In these first nine film adaptations, Adele is sometimes portrayed as Rochester’s niece, sometimes his legitimate daughter by his first marriage, or sometimes simply his legal ward of unexplained origins. Bronte’s original (and unflattering) tale of Rochester’s wild days with Adele’s mother, Celine, a French dancer, is carefully passed over.
Likewise, in many of the early versions, Rochester’s desperate attempt at bigamy – his aborted wedding to Jane – is “fixed” to present a more heroic image. In a 1918 silent version, Woman and Wife, Rochester actually believes his first wife to be dead, and it is her brother who has been caring for her in secret; the brother attempts to blackmail Rochester before his second wedding, and it is this scheme which reveals the truth to Jane, who flees. Too bad they didn’t reuse this plot for the ’34 version; it would have been the perfect opportunity for Clive to resurrect the most memorable line of his career: “IT’S ALIVE!”
In the 1934 Bruce/Clive talkie, Rochester is in the process of obtaining an annulment when he falls in love with Jane, though he continues to hide Bertha from Jane anyway. Jane discovers the secret when Bertha drifts into the parlor where wedding preparations are underway, and announces herself with a vapid grin, addressing Rochester and the audience: “Edward, my husband, I’ve come such a long way! I’ve been searching for you everywhere. Oh, are we going to be married again?”
Jane runs despite Rochester’s explanations, but since she’s already in possession of her inheritance in this adaptation, she has enough cash for a safe ride and a nice place to stay for the night. At least one must assume this is what carried her to the next scene, where she is calmly and happily dishing out soup in a local mission. Why then did she seek employment as a governess in the first place? Probably because she’d heard it was a good way to meet people.
A quagmire of sartorial and narrative confusion, 1934’s Jane Eyre is a typically anachronistic and sugarcoated costume drama. One year earlier, in 1933, The Private Life of Henry VIII had brought the period drama back to the cinema, where it had been mostly absent since the advent of sound. The genre’s popularity at this time depended in large part on glamorization, so it’s no surprise that Virginia Bruce is a far cry from the “poor, obscure, plain and little” Jane of Bronte’s novel, or that Colin Clive is neither “stern” nor “past youth.”
This adaptation also enters the fine tradition of an opening shot on a portion of the “first page” of the novel, without actually reproducing the original’s first lines. The motif of the book’s pages returns again to complete the transition between Jane’s childhood and adulthood, rather than a first-person voice over. The transition is a welcome one, since Jean Darling painfully struggles to get her mouth around young Jane’s lines, though adult Virginia Bruce’s ever-present smile decimates the illusion of character equally well.
Thornfield is a merry place indeed, where the inhabitants are uniformly playful and attractive and content, and the occasional sourceless shriek won’t spoil their antics – it’s probably just the house settling anyway. Rochester’s “niece” Adele sets about filling her role as comic relief with all the frenetic aimlessness of a crack addict, getting stuck in trees and vases at the most convenient moments to provide everyone with a laugh and allow a tender, confidential glance between the hero and heroine.
After viewing the 1934 Jane Eyre, it is possible to conclude that the wealth of subsequent adaptations have all been part of a collective effort to forget that this one had ever happened. Fortunately, its successor was a more flattering testament to the standards of its own time.