Why does generation after generation return to a romantic novel written by the daughter of a Victorian clergyman?
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte’s mid-19th century heroine, has emerged, as the New York Times puts it, for “another hike on the moors”. Cary Fukunaga’s film, released earlier this year, is the 18th movie version of the novel by common count and there have been nearly a dozen television adaptations. Even the resurgent Pride and Prejudice cannot match that tally. Why is it that the tale of the persecuted orphan who eventually marries a mutilated widower continues to fascinate 21st century sophisticates?
In the first place it is because we are not as sophisticated as we pretend. Witnessing the mania among adolescent girls -- and, often, their mothers -- for vampire romances, Fukunaga has chosen to play up the Gothic elements of the novel. The manor house on the moor, with its spine-chilling bouts of maniacal laughter and unravelling dark secret, even provides (in the book, at least) an explicit vampire touch as the mad wife, Bertha, attacks her visiting brother and sucks his blood. And Jane’s susceptibility to the supernatural, from the episode in the red room of her childhood to the telepathic exchange between her and Mr Rochester at the moment she might finally give him up (“Jane! Jane! Jane!” … “I am coming!”) also appeals to current superstition.
Secondly, Jane Eyre is a romance, and there are few ordinary mortals -- women, anyway -- who cannot be seduced by a love story. From the moment Jane encounters Mr Rochester in the woods as he falls from his horse -- or even earlier when she takes on the job of governess at a great house with an unmarried owner -- we know it is only a matter of time until they become man and wife. That the intervening time, like all that has gone before, is full of complexity -- near despair, joy, resolve, temptation -- is what lifts Jane Eyre out of the Mills and Boon category and into the realm of literature, making it a novel that W.M. Thackeray noticed and that even Henry James, who hated the autobiographical novel as a form, thought successful.
There is a third element that keeps Jane Eyre on the movie circuit, if not in the hands of actual readers. As if to put a cloak of respectability over our threadbare romanticism and superstition, the novel gives us a heroine with a distinguished place in the annals of feminism.
For a mid-Victorian creation, Jane Eyre is a truly remarkable young woman (she is still only 19 by the end of the novel). From the age of 10 she has rebelled against oppression, whether in male or female forms, and embarks on adult life with a passionate desire for independence, which she pursues with heroic determination -- and with the help of an inheritance which, in contrast with her own situation, Charlotte Bronte kindly gave her at a critical point.
Jane not only talks about equality, she stakes her life and happiness on it. She will sacrifice herself in the Indian missions with her admirable cousin St John Rivers as his curate (!) or “sister” but not as his wife since she does not love him. She will not bend to his will, though sorely tempted by his religious ideals. When she first accepts Mr Rochester’s proposal of marriage they speak of equality; when she returns to him the fact that he is maimed and blinded makes Plain Jane more than his equal physically, and of course she now has her own income.
There is one thing about Jane, however, that today’s audience might find challenging. She is a very moral young woman. Not in a conventional sense; she has her creator’s vehement dislike of hypocrisy, especially when it is used, as her Aunt Reed and the loathsome Mr Brocklehurst use it, to oppress vulnerable children; and she believes it is more moral, however it looks, to go to India as St John’s sister-co-worker than as a wife in a loveless marriage. When the man she does love, however, turns out to be married (though the victim of deceit) she rejects his proposal to run off to France and live together anyway, though her heart is breaking.
And that is because Jane is not only instinctively virtuous but because she is religious, a Christian (of an ill-defined stamp), on all important points the mouthpiece of Charlotte Bronte, the clergyman’s daughter and Victorian Englishwoman. She not only dreams and draws inspiration from nature, including the best in human nature (Helen Burns, Miss Temple), she consults her conscience, she prays and seeks God’s will in her struggles, she forgives the Reeds their ill-treatment of her. Her story ends with a paean of praise for the “good and faithful servant” of Christ, the man who is not accidentally called “St John” Rivers. But don’t expect to find that in the latest movie.
In fact, don’t expect to understand Jane Eyre at all without reading the book -- if necessary, again. Elizabeth Bennett is a fairly straightforward sort of character to place on the screen since she comes from what is basically a comedy of manners. Jane Eyre is a much more complex and morally interesting character, a passionate individual who experiences intense conflicts between her emotions and ideals before finally being able to reconcile them. But it is only by reading her account of it all, being grabbed by the scruff of the neck and being made to experience her indignation, her delights, her struggles and victories that we can know the Jane that Charlotte Bronte wants us to know, and the author herself.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet. The YouTube video above is a dramatic scene from the seventh film version of the novel, with Joan Fontaine as Jane and Orson Welles as Rochester.