Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre (2011)


I first read “Jane Eyre” while living at the Florence Court Apartments during my days at the University of Minnesota in the mid-1980s. It was an assigned text for 19th Century British Literature. The copy I bought, at a used bookstore in Dinkytown, included black-and-white sketches, possibly by F.H. Townsend, which may or may not have spurred me to begin reading it early, but I did, before the class had even begun, one night while my roommate, Dean, was out partying or visiting family. I was alone, in other words, when I first read about the strange happenings at Thornfield Hall: the night-time fires, and the strange visitation of a ghost, or a vampyre, with its long straggly hair and discolored, savage face (“the lips were swelled and dark; the brow furrowed: the black eyebrows widely raised over the bloodshot eyes...”), and it created such a mood in me that I was actually spooked, in the frightened but thrilled way one gets from reading ghost stories alone in bed at night. I kept thinking that if I looked over at the window, which looked out over 10th Avenue, I would see a discolored, savage face there. I wanted Dean to come home.

This is what’s missing from Cary Fukunaga’s adaptation—the 22nd—of Charlotte Bronte’s beloved novel “Jane Eyre.” The movie is beautifully photographed (by Adriano Goldman), it’s wonderfully acted (by Mia Wasikovska and Michael Fassbender and Judi Dench), and the romance between Jane and Mr. Rochester is palpable and thrilling. But it’s never particularly spooky. When the big reveal occurs, it’s rather matter-of-fact. Oh right. Madwoman in the attic and all. Sad. It’s as if Jane Eyre herself, with all of her common sense and forthrightness, is directing the thing.

The movie begins with Jane wandering the moors of England, alone and distraught, an event that I, for the first 10 minutes of movie time, misplaced. I assumed it was after Lowood but before Thornfield Hall, but it’s after Thornfield. Jane is fleeing Rochester after the revelation, on the day of their wedding, that he’s already married to the madwoman in the attic, the setter of fires.

Good way to begin. This is Jane’s metaphoric death, from which she remembers her life, and from which she’s resurrected by St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell) and his sisters.

The Rivers residence is the fourth place we’ve seen Jane live. You can chart them thus:

Reed homeMrs. ReedUnwanted and unlovedExpelled
(to Lowood)
LowoodMiss Scratcherd/
Mr. Brockelhurst
Unwanted and unlovedGraduated
(and expelled)
ThornfieldMr. RochesterWanted and lovedFlees
Rivers placeSt. John RiversWanted and lovedFlees

But look at it again. Her youth is dominated by women who do not care for her but whom she endures until she is forced to leave them. Her adulthood is dominated by men who care for her but whom she flees—because the first is married and the second is not the love of her life. The women tear her down and the men build her up. Somehow it’s a feminist story.

I know. It is. Jane, as girl and woman, takes the world only on her terms. She refuses to compromise—with the horrible worldview of Mrs. Reed, with the circumstances of Mr. Rochester, with her lack of feelings for St. John Rivers. In this manner she wins everything. She gets wealth (from a distance relative), the man she loves (Rochester, diminished and thus controllable), and even a kind of deathbed mea culpa from the horrible Mrs. Reed. No wonder women have loved this story for 150 years. “The Color Purple” is kind of a black, American version of “Jane Eyre,” isn’t it? Except Alice Walker’s novel is truly feminist: The men tear down Celie while the women build her back up.

It struck me, watching this version of “Jane Eyre,” how calm and logical Jane is when faced with disreputable behavior—the horrible lies of Mrs. Reed; the early, teasing truculence of Mr. Rochester; the demanding, bitter love of St. John Rivers—but this didn’t remind of life as we live it. It reminded me of the way people tell their own stories: How incredibly calm and logical they always are; how huffy and obstinate their opponents remain. “Jane Eyre” is, in fact, told in the first person—Jane is telling her own story—so how much should we believe? And has anyone written a revisionist take from, say, St. John Rivers’ perspective? Or John Reed’s? “As soon as my cousin, Jane Eyre, moved in with us, our world began to crumble.”

Cary Fukunaga’s film version is still recommended. It looks beautiful, it sounds smart, it feels 19th century. An example of the great dialogue:

Rochester: I offer you my hand, my heart. Jane, I ask you to pass through life at my side. You are my equal and my likeness. Will you marry me?
Jane Eyre: Are you mocking me?
Rochester: You doubt me.
Jane Eyre: Entirely.

Just don’t expect spooky.

—October 23, 2011

© 2011 Erik Lundegaard