Monthly Archives: April 2016

Jane Eyre Films: Part I

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!

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!”jane eyre 1934

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.

In Part II: The  famous Orson Welles/Joan Fontaine Jane Eyre!

1 Comment

Filed under Jane Eyre, Uncategorized

Podcast – JANE EYRE, the rebel

It’s time for more Jane! Jane Eyre, that is. As I’ve noted before, this month marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charlotte Bronte, on April 21, 1816. So I’m celebrating by doing a lot of blogging about her most famous novel, Jane Eyre (which happens to be my favorite novel).

In my most recent post, I talked about Jane Eyre as a template for romance novels. Today, I feature a short podcast on how the character of Jane is a rebel, a contrarian, a woman who, from an early age, didn’t accept the status quo, pat answers, or conventional wisdom…even rebelling, at a climactic moment, against her own deepest inner desires!

Take a listen…and let me know your thoughts!

Leave a comment

Filed under Jane Eyre, Uncategorized

Podcast — JANE EYRE: Romance novel template

As I mentioned already, this month marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charlotte Bronte, on April 21, 1816.

In celebration of this birthday anniversary, I’m posting numerous pieces about Bronte and her most famous novel, Jane Eyre. 

Today, I offer a short podcast on the topic of Jane Eyre as romance novel template. I admit to cringing a little when I use the words “romance novel” in the same breath as “Jane Eyre.” But that’s because romance novels don’t get much respect from the literary crowd.

But they should. The romance novelist works within a formula that readers know implicitly, if not explicitly. And yet, those novelists still need to keep their readers interested, keep them surprised, keep them involved.

Charlotte Bronte wasn’t writing a romance novel, in today’s sense of the phrase, of course, when she penned Jane Eyre. But the story elements she used have become the model for romance novels everywhere.

Take a listen…and tell me what you think!



Filed under Jane Eyre, Uncategorized

Two hundred years of Charlotte

Two hundred years ago this month, a famous storyteller was born. Charlotte Bronte entered the world on April 21, 1816, and her novels, particularly Jane Eyre, still entrance readers today. In fact, Jane Eyre regularly appears on “best books” and “most popular books” lists.

It is certainly my favorite novel of all time. I’ve reread it more times than I can remember. And I’ve written an homage to it, Sloane Hall, that attempts to capture its sjaneeyrepirit while telling a new tale.

To celebrate Charlotte Bronte’s 200th birthday anniversary, I’ll be blogging a lot about her and Jane Eyre this month. Coming up will be podcasts about her most famous novel, a series of posts about all the Jane Eyre film iterations (written by my talented daughter, novelist Hannah Sternberg), poetry by a Pushcart-nominated writer, and more.

But to get the party started…here are some random thoughts from social media friends in answer to two questions:

1. When did you first read JANE EYRE — how old were you?
2. What did you particularly love about the novel (assuming you loved it)?

I think I was 12 or 13. I thought the book was filled with such agony, and made me feel very fortunate that I lived in modern times! A city treasurer

I must have read it before this, but my most memorable early reading was when I was a high school senior in New York State. I had a bit of a reputation for being smart and a good writer with an extensive vocabulary. So we had to take the New York State Regent exams, and my English exam posed an essay question on Jane Eyre for which I felt well-prepared. I did my best to write an outstanding essay. I was told later that I had indeed written a good essay but for one major fault — in my attempt to be alliterative with my three-point essay (surely a trait inherited by my pastor-father’s sermons) I had indicated that Dear Jane finally worked out that “the lover the laugher and the larcen” were all the person upstairs in the attic. I was horrified that I had confused the concepts of arson and larceny and made up a nonexistent word in the process. Forty-seven years later and my ridiculous mistake still haunts me.

My favorite thing about Jane Eyre was/is: “Reader, I married him.” An interpreter for the deaf

English 101 in college. My professor was enamored with the Romantics so I had a whole semester full of Shelley, Keats, Pope, and Ms. Jane thrown in. I would have preferred death by a thousand paper cuts but it was helpful in later life when I wanted to date above my station in life. I mean, how many men did you date that knew what a Billet Doux was? A former Army Ranger

I think my first attempt was around 13 or 14? And the truth was, I wasn’t really keen on it at first, though I loved the Rochester conversations–it wasn’t until I reread it at about 18 that I really got it. What I love is Jane’s insistence on doing things her way, according to her personal moral compass, despite all the forces pressing on her. I think she gets short shrift from some modern commentators who think she was prudish for not becoming Rochester’s mistress–it wasn’t about impressing anyone else or bowing to society, it was about what SHE felt was right, and what SHE needed emotionally from the relationship. A young novelist

1. I was about 22. 2. I loved ( and still love) Charlotte’s creativity and Jane’s self-esteem Italian lecturer at a university

Okay, what are your memories of Jane? The first time you read it? What you love about it? From those who answer, I’ll hold a drawing, and choose one winner — the prize is a copy of Sloane Hall, my own retelling of the famous Bronte novel. To enter, post a response by noon, Monday, April 4, 2016 East Coast US time. Include an email address or way to contact you in order to qualify!

And check this blog throughout the month for more posts about Charlotte and her most famous character, Jane!

1 Comment

Filed under Jane Eyre, Uncategorized