Jane Eyre on Page and Screen 15: The Madwoman in the Attic

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In their pioneering work of feminist criticism The Madwoman in the Attic (1979), Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar wrote that Bertha Rochester represented Jane Eyre’s “encounter… with her own imprisoned hunger, rebellion and rage.” Bertha, they argued, is “the ferocious secret self” which Jane has been trying to repress since the abuse she suffered as a child. Jane is fearful of marriage and the loss of freedom it will bring; Bertha tramples on the wedding veil. Jane harbors hostility toward a patriarchal system which makes the equality she desires impossible; Bertha tries to kill Rochester and eventually burns down Thornfield. Jane is the “elf”; Bertha is the “goblin.” They are physical and temperamental opposites, yet two facets of the same personality, the two brides of Rochester.

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F. H. Townsend (1897) “It removed my veil from its gaunt head, tore it into two parts, and flinging both on the floor, trampled on them.” (detail)

Even if it doesn’t account for all the novel’s complexities, there is much truth in this reading. As a model for Rochester, Brontë explicitly invokes Bluebeard, the man who murders his wives and locks away their corpses. Bertha reverses this plot. In Bertha’s tale, the undead wife, the “Vampyre” who has been suppressed and confined too long, emerges to take her terrible revenge. But we need to consider Bertha’s madness on the practical as well as the symbolic level. Readers of Jane Eyre often speak of the “creep factor” in the book, something Brontë herself acknowledged with the Bluebeard comparison. Can Rochester’s conduct toward Bertha be justified? And what of Brontë’s own demonization of Bertha, a woman suffering from mental illness, as a physical and moral monster?

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A haglike, monstrous Bertha, by John Huehnergarth (1954)

We will examine these questions this week and in Post 16, “The Leavetaking.” 

On the morning of Jane’s wedding, Sophie takes such a long time dressing her that Rochester sends to ask why she is not ready. Jane is anxious to leave, but Sophie insists that she look at herself in the mirror.

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Anthony Colbert (1965): “I saw a robed and veiled figure.” This unusual illustration expresses Jane’s difficulty in seeing herself as a bride.

When Jane learned that Rochester was romancing Blanche Ingram, she looked in the mirror and pronounced herself poor and plain. After he proposed, she consulted the mirror again and found that she was “no longer plain.” Now, on her way to the altar, Jane looks in the mirror… and cannot recognize herself.

Rochester is in such a hurry that he gives Jane only minutes for breakfast. He orders the carriage ready and luggage stowed, in order to leave the moment the ceremony is complete. Mrs. Fairfax sees them off, but Jane is unable to speak with her:

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Jenny Thorne (1975): “Now I can recall the picture of the grey old house of God rising before me…”

At the churchyard, Rochester finally realizes how he has been dragging Jane along. He permits her to rest and they stop for a moment to gaze at the old structure. Jane notices two strangers passing to the back of the church. As Jane and Rochester enter, the strangers stand facing away, examining a tomb:

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The battle of Marston Moor (1644), fought west of the city of York, was decisive in the English Civil War. The Royalists, including Rochester’s ancestor, lost some 4,000 men and were forced to yield the north to the Parliamentarians. The given name “Damer” is unusual, but it is known as an English surname; “de Rochester” retains the French style, suggesting a noble family of great antiquity.

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Armor worn at the Battle of Marston Moor. Click for source.

Jane and Rochester advance toward the parson in his white surplice, who begins the service, charging the bride and groom to confess any impediments to their marriage. As he is about to continue with the vows, there is an interruption.

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Barbara Brown (1979): “The marriage cannot go on…”

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Profound silence falls at this command, but at last the priest declares that he cannot proceed without investigation. The voice insists that the impediment is “insuperable.”

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John H. Bacon (1897): “The marriage of Mr. Rochester and Jane Eyre is forbidden.”

The stranger explains that Rochester has a wife living. Jane feels the “subtle violence” of these words in her nerves and blood, but is in no danger of swooning:

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Simon Brett (1991): “I looked at Mr. Rochester: I made him look at me. His whole face was colourless rock.”

Rochester interrogates the stranger, who turns out to be a solicitor named Briggs. Challenged to provide proof of his claim, Briggs reads an affidavit by Richard Mason to the effect that Rochester was married in Spanishtown, Jamaica to Bertha Antoinetta Mason, daughter of Jonas Mason and his wife Antoinetta, a Creole. Mason himself then steps forward, and Rochester can barely restrain himself.

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Edmund Garrett (1890): “And he stirred, lifted his strong arm…”

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E. Stuart Hardy’s illustration (ca. 1904), “He could have struck Mason,” is clearly a copy of the earlier work.

When Mason claims that Mrs. Rochester is resident at Thornfield, the clergyman is incredulous:

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Rochester holds counsel with himself for some minutes, then tells Mr. Wood, the clergyman, to close his book and the clerk to leave the church: “There will be no wedding today.” He declares that he is guilty of plotting bigamy, and bitterly reveals his long-held secret:

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Rochester invites Briggs, Mason and Wood to his house to see his wife, Mrs. Poole’s patient, pausing only to make clear that Jane knew nothing of the secret:

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Rochester angrily dismisses the coachman waiting at the church door, and when they reach Thornfield, he shouts at Mrs. Fairfax, Sophie and Adèle: “Away with your congratulations! They are fifteen years too late!” Still holding Jane’s hand, he climbs the stairs to the third story chamber where Mrs. Poole receives the party.

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Jane Eyre has been much-criticized for failing to give us any insight into Bertha’s point of view. Indeed, Jane describes Bertha in a way that dehumanizes her; she is an animal or a monster. In hindsight, Brontë herself recognized this flaw. She wrote that Bertha suffered from a kind of madness which rendered her vicious, what today we might call “criminally insane,” and had led “a sinful life” even before her madness, yet she still deserved compassion:

“It is true that profound pity ought to be the only sentiment elicited by the view of such degradation, and equally true is it that I have not sufficiently dwelt on that feeling; I have erred in making horror too predominant.” (-Letter from Charlotte Brontë to her publisher, 1848)

When the figure, a “clothed hyena,” sees Rochester, she gets to her feet and bellows. Jane notes, “I recognized well that purple face, those bloated features.” Grace warns that Bertha is about to attack, and she does:

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Edmund Dulac (1905): “The lunatic sprang and grappled his throat viciously.”

Rochester is careful not to strike Bertha, but gradually wrestles her into a chair, to which he ties her as she screams.

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F. H. Townsend (1897): “That is my wife.” (detail)

Rochester dismisses the party, saying bitterly that he must “shut up his prize”; the solicitor tells Jane that her uncle in Madeira will be relieved to hear of her rescue from the false marriage. Jane’s letter announcing her wedding plans had reached Mr. Eyre when his acquaintance, Mr. Mason, was passing through Madeira on his way back to Jamaica. John Eyre was too ill to make the trip himself, but he had urged Mason to return in order to prevent the marriage.

Astonishingly, it was Jane herself who set in motion the chain of events that stopped the wedding, by writing to her long-lost uncle. Recall that when she took this action, the uppermost thought in her mind was independence; she hoped that were she to inherit some money of her own from Mr. Eyre, she would be in a better position to stand up to Rochester once they were married.

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“I leaned my arms on a table and my head dropped on them.” Ethel Gabain (1923).

Jane ponders her situation. She has not been physically maimed, and yet the Jane Eyre of yesterday has been transformed to “a cold solitary girl,” one desolate and hopeless. Worst of all, in her despair she cannot turn to Rochester. The feeling which he had created lies “like a suffering child in a cold cradle”:

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Jane blames herself for blindness and weak conduct, believing that Rochester must not have truly cared for her; now that his fitful passion has been thwarted, she presumes that he will speedily dismiss her. She lies half-fainting, longing to be dead. She tries to pray: “Be not far from me, for trouble is near: there is none to help.” But she has no energy to express the words.

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Jane’s unuttered prayer comes from Psalm 22 (line 11). Not coincidentally, this is the Psalm Jesus quoted when he hung on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The lyrics go on to express utter despair and hopelessness, yet they also recognize that ultimate power lies with God. The quotation from Jane-as-narrator, attempting to describe the experience in retrospect, comes from another Psalm (69) in which the singer feels he is drowning in shame and mortification, and calls on God for aid.

Because the film versions tend to whitewash Rochester and minimize his character flaws, his secret doesn’t add up. In the book, the reader knows almost from the moment Jane arrives at Thornfield that a secret of some kind exists, and that Rochester is a complex and ruthless man with a narcissistic streak. Rochester’s charismatic personality lulls us (like Jane) into forgetfulness, but when disaster strikes, we recognize that we have expected something like it all along. The films, on the other hand, often struggle to excuse or erase Rochester’s bad behavior and reconcile him with Hollywood notions of the romantic hero. But 1943 (and in a different way, 2011) both allow Rochester’s guilty secret to speak for itself.

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1943: Rochester’s tenants wait at the church door to greet the happy couple; the carriage stands ready as ordered.

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1943: Cut to the third story of Thornfield, where an unidentified woman gazes out toward the church as bells ring.

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1943: The bride and groom are about to exchange vows.

Priest: “I require and charge ye both, as ye will answer at the dreadful day of judgment, when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed, that if either of you know of any impediment, why you may not lawfully be joined in matrimony, ye do now confess it.”

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1943: As the priest speaks, shadows on the wall reveal that an unknown person has entered and removed his hat.

Priest: “For be ye well assured that so many as are coupled together otherwise than God’s Word doth allow, are not joined together by God, neither is their matrimony lawful… Edward Rochester, wilt thou have this woman to be thy wedded wife?”

Like the novel, 1943 takes the time to repeat the exact words of the divine service which require prospective marriage partners to reveal any known barriers to their union. Rochester’s failure to respond highlights his defiant intention to proceed with a marriage he knows is against God’s law.

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1943 (detail): The couple turn as a voice cries, “One moment please. I declare the existence of an impediment.”

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1943 Rochester: “Proceed with the ceremony.” Stranger: “You cannot proceed. Mr. Rochester has a wife now living.”

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1943: Rochester says in a choked voice “Who are you?!” as Jane looks at his face searchingly.

Stranger: “My name is Briggs; I am an attorney. Mr. Mason!” (Mason shows himself.) “On the twentieth of October 1824, Edward Rochester of Thornfield Hall was married to Bertha Mason at St. Mary’s church, Spanishtown, Jamaica. The record of the marriage will be found in the register of that church.”

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1943: “It’s true, it’s true, I swear it! She’s now living at Thornfield! I’ve seen her there myself. I’m her brother.”

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1943: “Parson, close your book. There’ll be no wedding today. Instead I invite you all to my house to meet Grace Poole’s patient… my wife.”

Rochester’s extended conflict with Briggs and Mason, his near-violence against Mason, his self-justifying words, and his exculpation of Jane are all omitted. Here, he gives in a little too quickly, and we don’t have time to register the set teeth, the stonelike face, and the difficulty Rochester has in accepting that the other men have the power to veto his commands and thwart his will. Interestingly, Welles-as-Rochester makes no move to touch Jane, whereas the literary Rochester places his arm about her waist and “rivets” her to his side.

Rochester turns and stalks off, leaving the others to follow.

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1943: At the church door, the men step forward to congratulate Rochester. He snarls, “To the right-about, every soul of you! Away with your congratulations! You’re fifteen years too late!”

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1943: As Jane leaves the church in utter humiliation, the men all bow their heads.

In the book, Rochester does not abandon Jane to a solo walk of shame, but dismisses the carriage and holds her hand all the miserable way back to Thornfield, and up the stairs to the third story, as if unwilling to let her escape.

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1943: Cut to Thornfield, the third story chamber. Rochester rips away the tapestry, lifts the heavy bar from the door, and tosses it aside.

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1943: The camera view shifts to the inside, looking out. The moment Rochester opens the door and enters, he is attacked.

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1943: Offscreen, Rochester wrestles the attacker into submission. The sound of chains is heard. He backs toward the door, breathless.

Rochester: “That, gentlemen, is my wife. Mad, and the offspring of a mad family, to whom the church and law would bind me forever, without hope of divorce.”

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1943: “And this is what I wished to have, this young girl, who stands so grave and quiet at the mouth of hell. Look at the difference, and then judge me.”

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1943: The others do not answer, but leave in silence. After a moment, Jane turns and follows them. Grace Poole shuts the door behind Jane.

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1943: Rochester takes a forlorn step or two toward Grace, then shuts Bertha’s door behind him, leaving Bertha in total darkness.

At three minutes, this is a masterful adaptation, condensing a full chapter to its bare essentials. Rochester sets forth his case succinctly, but at the core is his conviction that he was cheated into marrying Bertha and that she is his “wife” only in a superficial sense which he refuses to accept. Implicitly, the scene shows that the other men may pity him, but his attempt to lure Jane into an invalid marriage cannot be excused.

Rochester’s allusion to English divorce law is transferred from the next chapter, but it is pertinent for viewers to know that this is not an option. Divorces were still very difficult to obtain in the 1820s and 30s; each divorce required an act of Parliament as well as a decision by an ecclesiastical court, and the insanity of a spouse was not considered sufficient grounds, as it would be later. In the next chapter, we learn that Bertha had been an adulteress; this was grounds for divorce, but Rochester would have had to publicly accuse one of her lovers and (somehow) bring him to trial from Jamaica. Few men, even among the wealthy, went to such great expense to proclaim to the world that they were cuckolds.

Like the book, 1943 refuses to permit Bertha a human dimension. We never see her face, and thus she remains monstrous. She attacks Rochester like a wild beast, only to be chained and shut up in a dark hole (even the literary Bertha was not treated so brutally). Still, the film manages to comment subtly on the horror of her fate, for the camera watches from somewhere behind Bertha. When he closes the door on her, the audience experiences her dungeon-like confinement, if only for a fleeting moment.

1970 spends more time on the scene, almost five minutes. It opens with Mason’s arrival in a carriage.

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1970: Mason comes to the front door of Thornfield.

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1970: “I would like to see Mr. Rochester, please.” Butler: “He’s at the church, sir. The master’s getting married today.”

Cut to Jane and Rochester at the altar.

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1970: Parson: “Have you the ring? Edward Fairfax Rochester, wilt thou have this woman for thy lawful wedded wife, for better or worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness or in health, until death you do part?” Rochester: “I will.”

Parson: “And wilt thou, Jane Eyre, have this man for thy lawful wedded husband?”
(A noise in the back of the church.) Mason, offscreen: “The marriage must be stopped! I declare the existence of an impediment!”

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1970 Rochester: “Proceed.” Mason: “I can prove my allegation! An insuperable impediment exists.”

Rochester to the parson, coolly: “Go on.”

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1970: “Mr. Rochester, I cannot go on.” (To Mason) “What is the nature of this impediment?”

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1970: “Mr. Rochester has a wife now living. She’s at Thornfield Hall.”

Parson: “Impossible. I would know of it.”

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1970: Reaction shot of Sophie, Adèle and Mrs. Fairfax in the pew as Mason continues, “I saw her there last April. She’s my sister!”

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1970: Jane looks at Rochester; his face remains impassive.

Mason: “I’m sorry Rochester, but it is not right!”

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1970: “By God, it IS my right! Only right to condemn a man to eternal hell!”

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1970 Rochester: “You shall see my wife, Wood. I owe you that much. And this girl. You shall see her too, Jane. I insist. Come.”

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1970: Rochester drags Jane by the hand out of the church and practically throws her into the carriage.

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1970: He mounts the seat and drives off at top speed, leaving the others to follow.

I’m not sure why Rochester is made to drive Jane back in the carriage, since the others could hardly arrive at the same time. This is the second time Scott-as-Rochester drives (the first time was when he took Mason to the doctor; also a departure from the book). I suspect that the director wanted to show off his lead actor’s skill with horses. Visually, it’s interesting and has a strange “runaway bride” feel.

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1970: Cut to the third story chamber. Rochester bursts in with Jane and opens the door.

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1970 Rochester: “This is my wife. Such is the sole conjugal embrace I am ever to know.”

Rochester (turning away from Bertha): “And how are we today, Mrs. Poole?”
Grace Poole: “We’re tolerable today, thank you sir. Snappish but not outrageous.”

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1970: Suddenly Bertha attacks and leaps onto Rochester, knocking him to the floor.

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1970: A nurse and Mason wrestle Bertha off him. Rochester lies passively as Bertha calms, touching his face gently.

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1970: Jane’s reaction.

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1970: Jane comes closer and kneels, watching. After another moment or two, Rochester rises and they help Bertha to her feet.

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1970: Rochester brushes the hair from Bertha’s face.

Rochester: “Bertha Mason Rochester, mad through three generations (although I in my naiveté was never told), who even tried to murder me on our wedding night. Look at her, Jane, look at her.”

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1970: “But I loved her once, as I love you now. What should I do with her, tell me? Confine her to an asylum, to the care of strangers, where they will beat her and throw cold water on her? Have you ever been in an asylum, Jane?”

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1970: Rochester turns, but they have all gone.

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1970: “Well, Bertha, 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? Shall you? …Shall you?”

1970 tries to correct the book by introducing a more contemporary understanding of mental illness. The reaction against 1943 is also clear: instead of the monster whose face we never see, Bertha is a beautiful woman, with an unexpected dignity. Rochester does not struggle against her or tie her to a chair. Instead he lies on the floor with her, allowing her to stroke his face. The scene is a sad parody of a “conjugal embrace,” but it reveals very clearly that whatever Rochester might say to the contrary, Bertha is his wife. Jean Marsh (best known as “Rose” in Upstairs, Downstairs) is extraordinary in this small role.

Rochester’s statement “I loved her once, as I love you now” is a surprise, for in the book, he declares that he never loved Bertha, though he initially found her alluring. Here, I suppose it is part of the screenwriter’s effort to humanize Bertha: only her illness sets her apart from Jane. But Brontë’s tale is more complex.

This version also inaugurates the most common defense of Rochester’s behavior in locking his wife in the attic: she was a danger to herself and others, yet he could not commit her to an asylum, for she would have been ill-treated. If, as I have suggested, the book is set during the reign of King George III, this is quite true; the horrors of “Bedlam,” where the filthy inmates were beaten and displayed to gawkers for money, are well-known. By the time Jane Eyre was written in the 1830s, the treatment of the insane was undergoing much-needed reforms, yet home care likely would have been a preferable option for those who could afford it.

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Benjamin Rush’s “Tranquilizing Chair” was considered an advanced and humane form of treatment in the early nineteenth century.

But questions remain. Why did Rochester employ only a single, habitually drunken woman to care for Bertha? Why was Bertha never allowed out of her chamber for exercise? Why did Mrs. Fairfax not know her identity? Bertha’s life of confinement was not due to her violent behavior alone, but also the result of the decision to keep her lunacy (and the marriage itself) a secret. Rochester more than once emphasizes how hard he worked to avoid exposure, long before Jane’s arrival on the scene. Simply put, he placed his own need to deny the marriage above the best interests of his wife. Of course the secrecy was a necessary plot device for Brontë’s story, but it also leaves us no way to fully excuse Rochester’s treatment of Bertha.

1996 follows a strategy similar to 1970, but with a few twists and a fuller treatment (about six and a half minutes).

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1996: Jane’s wedding bonnet and cape.

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1996: The camera moves back to reveal Jane being dressed by two women. Seamstress: “Now let’s try the cape on, shall we? Oh, you look beautiful!”

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1996: Jane examines herself in the mirror. After a moment, she smiles in pleasure.

1996 conflates two mirror scenes. After Rochester proposed marriage, Jane awoke the next morning and liked what she saw in the mirror. When dressed in her wedding finery, however, Jane saw herself as a stranger; her beauty or lack of it was not the issue.

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1996: Cut to the stairs; a footman going down with the luggage. Rochester is on his way up.

Rochester: “Have you been to the church?”
Footman: “Yes sir, the parson’s just arrived.”
“The carriage?”
“The horses have all been harnessed.”
“I want to leave the moment the ceremony’s over.”
“Yes, sir.”
“Jane!” (He runs up to the next landing.)

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1996: “Yes, I’m here.”

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1996 Rochester: “Any regrets?” Jane: “Only that Adèle is away at school; she would have loved to see me in this dress.”

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1996: “I will have a portrait painted, and sent to her. Like this, with the morning light upon you.”

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1996: Rochester places the engagement ring on Jane’s finger; Jane smiles.

1996 serves up a hefty helping of traditional wedding romance. In the book, the atmosphere is much more tense: Rochester pronounces Jane “fair as a lily, the pride of his life and the desire of his eyes.” Then he drops the chivalry and gives her ten minutes to eat breakfast.

In the novel, Jane wears a white wedding dress and veil. White had been a popular color for wedding dresses in the previous centuries, not because it symbolized virginity but because it displayed wealth. If you could afford to buy voluminous yards of such an impractical color, for a dress you might wear only once, you must be financially secure. The trend really took off in 1840 when the young Queen Victoria chose white for her own wedding.

All the more recent costume designers seem determined to put Jane in an ugly 1840s “coal scuttle” bonnet as part of her wedding ensemble (1996, 1997, 2011). But Victoria did not wear such a bonnet, only a lovely chaplet of flowers. To me, the prettiest wedding dress of our five is the one worn by Joan Fontaine in 1943 (with a huge lace veil like Victoria’s), and the least-attractive is Samantha Morton’s plain and sober ensemble in 1997.

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Victoria in her wedding gown and voluminous lace veil. Portrait by Franz Winterhalter, 1847.

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1996: Cut to the arrival of a carriage outside the church; two men exit.

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1996: Cut to the church interior with Rochester and Jane at the altar. Parson: “We are gathered together here in the sight of God to join together this man and this woman…”

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1996: John and Mrs. Fairfax watch from the pews. Mrs. Fairfax looks grim.

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1996: The two strangers approach the door as the parson continues: “… so many as are coupled together otherwise than God’s word doth allow are not joined together by God; neither…”

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1996: “The marriage cannot go on!”

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1996: Rochester turns to look, then seizes Jane’s arm and tells the parson, “Continue, sir.”

Parson: “I cannot. What… what is the nature of this impediment?”
Stranger: “Mr. Rochester is a married man.”

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1996: Rochester turns and approaches the stranger. “Who are you?”

William Hurt is very good in this scene. He’s usually so calm and lacking in Rochesterian danger and sexual charisma that I was delighted when he finally got red-hot under the collar. He looks like he’s about to throw himself on Briggs and administer a good thrashing.

“My name is Briggs; I am a lawyer. I was engaged to look after the interests of your wife.”
“There is no wife.”
Briggs, (reading): “I affirm and can prove that on the twentieth day of October, 1829, Edward Fairfax Rochester of Thornfield Hall was married to my sister, Bertha Antoinetta. A copy of the wedding certificate is now in my possession. Signed, Richard Mason.”
“That may prove that I have been married. It does not prove that the woman is still living.”

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1996: “She was living three months ago. I have a witness to the fact.”

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1996: Rochester: “Then produce him, damn you!” Parson: “Sir, do not forget that you are in a sacred place.”

Briggs: “Have the goodness to step forward, sir.”

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1996: Mason appears. Rochester (disgustedly): “Mason!”

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1996: Reactions from Mrs. Fairfax…

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1996: And from Jane.

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1996: “Close your book. There’ll be no wedding. What these men say is true. I have been married. And the woman to whom I was married lives still. Come to the house, all of you.”

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1996. Rochester stalks out, shouting: “Come meet Grace Poole’s patient! My wife!”

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1996: Closeup of Mrs. Fairfax, looking at Jane in compassion.

1996 follows 1943 in having Rochester abandon Jane at the altar and storm out of the church.

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1996: Cut to the staircase; Rochester charges up at top speed and the rest struggle to follow.

As they enter the chamber, Grace Poole rushes to shut the door but Rochester stops her: “Stay out of the way, Grace.”

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1996 Grace Poole: “Be careful, sir. She’s a bit snappish.” (To Mason): “She’s seen you, sir, you’d better not stay.”

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1996 Mason: “We had better leave.”

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1996 Rochester, raising his voice: “You stay here! This is my wife. Your sister, Mason! Look at her. She is mad. So was her mother; so was her grandmother. Three generations of violent lunacy. I wasn’t told about that, was I, Mason? All I was told about was that my father had made a suitable match, one that would prop up his dwindling fortunes, and one that would give your family the Rochester name.”

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1996: While Rochester is speaking, Jane and Bertha examine each other.

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1996: Jane unveils herself to see and be seen by Bertha.

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1996: Bertha listens as Rochester continues, “I did what I was told! And Bertha was kept away from me, until the wedding. It was cleverly done. Everyone got what they wanted. Except me. Even she is better off here than she would be in a lunatic asylum, but I have spent the last fifteen years in torment.” (Pointing to Jane) “And this is what I wished to have!”

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1996: Jane reacts to Rochester’s words.

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1996: Grace Poole reacts.

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1996: “This young girl who stands so grave and quiet at the mouth of hell. Look at the difference; then judge me, priest on the gospel and man of the law, and remember, with what judgment ye judge, ye… “(He sighs tiredly.) “Off with you now.”

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1996: As Rochester speaks, Bertha picks up a burning brand from the fireplace. Suddenly she rushes at Jane, screaming.

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1996: Rochester tackles Bertha and John comes to his aid. Bertha screams, and Grace Poole yells at the other men, “Will you all get out of here!”

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1996: In the confusion, Jane quietly turns away.

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1996: She enters her room and removes her bonnet and veil.

Like 1970, 1996 shows us a human Bertha, an attractive woman rather than the swollen faced “hyena” of the novel. This seems like an appropriate accommodation to modern understandings of mental illness, though Bertha is not as frightening as in the book. The key change is that Bertha attacks not Rochester, the object of her hatred in the book, but Jane. The confrontation between Bertha and Jane has dramatic value and is visually effective, but there’s nothing in the book to suggest that Bertha felt jealous of Jane or wished to harm her. Indeed, she had a perfect opportunity to harm Jane on the penultimate night before the wedding, and did not. Her hostility was reserved for the veil, the symbol of her confinement.

The pathos of Bertha’s condition in this version (together with the weak screenplay) has the effect of making Rochester look ignoble (rather than tragic) and sound rather self-pitying. 1970 plays much better: Scott’s Rochester is bitterly ironic, yet he is not lacking in compassion for his mad wife.

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The five Berthas. None of the post-1943 versions makes Bertha a hideous hag (as she often appears in the book illustrations), and some depict her as a beautiful woman. To my mind, Maria Schneider and especially Sophie Reissner are closest to the once-beautiful, physically formidable older woman of the novel.

1997 lavishes almost 8 minutes on this part of the story, and takes 1970 as its model, especially in the wedding scene. 

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1997: Jane looks into the mirror. “Is that me?” (She might almost have mistaken herself for a nun!) Sophie: “You look beautiful.”

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1997: “Thank you. Do you approve, Mrs. Fairfax?”

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1997: “Take my little blue pin. For luck.”

In the book, Mrs. Fairfax doesn’t even get to say goodbye as Jane is leaving for the church, and the emotional tie between her and Jane is not emphasized as much as it is here. But Gemma Jones turns in a marvelous performance as Mrs. Fairfax, who knows that something is amiss, yet is powerless to help.

Jane: “Thank you. I will make him happy.” (The church bell rings, and Jane smiles as they leave.)

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1997 Parson: “I require and charge you, (as ye will answer at the dreadful day of judgment, when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed), that if any of you know any impediment why these two persons may not be joined together in holy matrimony, ye are to declare it.”

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1997: When the near-empty church is silent, Rochester says, “Marry us, then.”

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1997: “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here in the sight of God and in the face of this congregation to join together this man and this woman in holy matrimony.”

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1997: Cut to a lone horseman, speeding across the horizon at a gallop.

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1997: “I require and charge you both, as ye will answer at the dreadful day of judgment, when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed, that if either of you know any impediment why ye may not be lawfully joined together in matrimony, ye do now confess it.”

1997 gives the charge to confess impediments twice (once for witnesses and once for the couple), hammering home the implication that Rochester is concealing something.

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1997: Reaction shot of Mrs. Fairfax.

Parson: Wilt thou have this woman to thy wedded wife?

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1997: Suspense builds as the horseman draws closer.

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1997 Parson: “… and forsaking all others, keep thee only unto her as long as ye both shall live?” Rochester: “I will.”

In the book, the parson is preparing to administer the vow to Rochester (but does not actually voice it) when the intrusion occurs. Both 1970 and 1997 allow Rochester to make the vow. The portion of the vow we hear in 1997 is significant. From the church’s perspective, he is sinning by breaking his promise to his first wife. From Rochester’s perspective, he is swearing his fidelity to Jane and securing his salvation.

The ring is placed on the prayerbook as the horseman leaps a fence and arrives at the church door.

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1997 Mason (shouting): “The wedding cannot go on!”

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1997: Rochester turns to direct a chilling glare at Mason. As in 1970, Mason alone interrupts the wedding; there is no Briggs.

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1997: Shocked, the parson lets the ring fall from his book.

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1997: The ring falls unnoticed to the flagstones.

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1997: “There is an impediment!”

Rochester (savagely, to the parson): “Proceed!”
Mason: “Mr. Rochester is already married!”
Rochester (yelling): “The man’s an imbecile; carry on!”
Parson: “I’m obliged to listen to the accusation.”

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1997: Rochester realizes that the game is up.

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1997: Jane listens, a tear forming in her eye, as she grasps what the truth must be.

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1997: The Thornfield servants and Adèle sit in the pew, witnessing the disaster. This is not in the book; it’s lifted straight from 1970.

Mason: “I have the wedding certificate here, of Edward Rochester of Thornfield Hall, and my sister, Bertha Antoinetta Mason of Spanishtown, Jamaica.”
Parson: “And is she still living?”
Mason: “Yes! I saw her with my own eyes not three months ago.”

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1997 (A howl of anguish): “Nooooooo!!!!”

Ciarán Hinds is not the Man of Granite we read of in the novel’s wedding scene, but desperate and raging. The scene correctly conveys his absolute contempt of Mason, but in the book he is much cooler, even as he fights a strong temptation to strike his brother-in-law.

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1997: “I’m sorry, but it’s not right.” (Compare 1970 where Mason speaks an almost identical line.)

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1997: “Edward…”

Mason: “I tell you, he has a wife!”

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1997 Rochester, really furious now: “Wife! You dare to call her that?”

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1997 Rochester goes on: “Wife!! Follow me and I’ll introduce you to my wife!” Still holding Jane’s hand, he drags her from the altar.

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1997: Closeup of Rochester’s shoe treading on the wedding ring as he leaves, and Jane’s white slipper passing by.

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1997: Cut to Thornfield, with Rochester still pulling Jane along; the others follow.

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1997 Mrs. Fairfax to the servants: “Get back to to work; take the child to her room.”

They climb the stairs. Grace Poole is surprised while drinking.
Rochester: “Grace, open the door.”
Grace: “Are you sure, sir?”
Rochester: “OPEN the DOOR!”
Grace: “For God’s sake, take care, sir!”

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1997: The camera looks past Rochester and Jane into a large room hung with padding. Bertha is blindly driving herself against the walls.

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1997: Rochester warily says, “Bertha, it’s Edward.” She asks, “Who…” and he replies, “They will not harm you; these people will not harm you. They’ve not come to take you away.”

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1997: Bertha reaches to touch his face.

Rochester: “How are you feeling?”

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1997: Bertha thrusts her large bosom toward him, half-smiling. Rochester: “No, Bertha, no.”

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1997: Enraged, she tries to strangle him. Grace Poole rushes to help.

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1997: Together they wrestle Bertha to the ground as she screams.

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1997: Bertha is comforted by Grace Poole as she rocks back and forth, moaning.

To my mind, 1997 achieves the best compromise with the text of the original. Without making Bertha hideous, it allows her to be a little bit scary, and to be physically heavy and strong, as she is in the book. Without making her a monster, it shows that her illness has destroyed her sense of social norms, and it accurately shows how psychosis causes people to behave in ways we would rather not acknowledge, ways that cause shame and embarrassment in us when we see them. At the same time, it treats Bertha as a human being, deserving of compassion. It does not overreact to the book by making Bertha young and beautiful (in the novel, she is older than Rochester by a few years, so certainly in her 40s).

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1997 Rochester (rubbing his neck where Bertha wrenched it): “That is who Mr. Mason calls my wife.”

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1997 Mason: “You married her, Edward.”

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1997: “I was tricked into it by your family in Jamaica. They showed her off to me at parties, but I was never allowed to see her alone, talk to her properly. I was dazzled by her beauty. It was only after the wedding that I realized that she was insane. Like her mother, and her grandmother before her.”

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1997: Parson Wood gives Mason a look of disgust.

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1997: “I tried everything in my power to make her well. I hired the best doctors. I sought alternative methods and then finally I realized that there was no cure. I could have run away, back to England, but instead I brought her home, with me. Not to have her chained up in some lunatic asylum, as some would have it, but to keep her safe. Here, at Thornfield. With a nurse, day and night, to tend to every need.”

Parson: “But you must have known you couldn’t marry Miss Eyre, when you were already married. It would have been a crime; you would have been committing bigamy, sir.”

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1997: “Do you blame me? When all I wanted was to be with this woman? I would have done anything to be with her. I have been in torment for fifteen years. Can you stand there and honestly judge me…”

He goes to kneel by Bertha, who is still lying on the floor.

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1997: “…when you see in front of you this poor wretch to whom I am bound for life?” (He kisses Bertha’s head and embraces her.) “Can you?”

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1997: “I’ll pray for you, Mr. Rochester.”

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1997: “You can keep your prayers.” Rochester gets up and stalks out of the room.

After a moment Jane and Mrs. Fairfax leave, then Mason, and finally the parson.

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1997: We see a last image of Bertha and her nurse, alone.

Like 1970, this version makes Rochester compassionate enough not to deny Bertha a human touch, and that display of intimacy drives home to the onlookers the fact that she is indeed his wife. In the novel, Rochester can barely stand to look at Bertha, much less touch her. Simply put, he hates her and she him. Except for 1943, the movie versions refuse to show Rochester’s complete rejection of Bertha, because it seems to be a character flaw. The true sources of Rochester’s hatred have nothing to do with her madness, but these are not explored.

Ciarán Hinds’ hot-tempered portrayal of Rochester works better here than in the wedding scene. He’s able to communicate the complex brew of passions churning in Rochester’s soul: not just fury at his betrayal by the Masons, but also grief and desperation at the lack of a cure, and an overwhelming need to be with Jane. In much of this scene, he is near tears, and together with Sophie Reissner’s realistic performance as Bertha, it is very moving.

The 1997 screenplay tries much harder than the book to show that Rochester is a compassionate husband who did all he could for his ailing wife and treated her kindly. Of his sinister obsession with secrecy, nothing is said.

Meanwhile, Jane stumbles into the hallway, tearing off her bonnet and veil. Mrs. Fairfax is sobbing and embracing her.

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1997 Mrs. Fairfax: “I’m so sorry; I’m so sorry.” Jane: “Did you know?” Mrs. Fairfax: “Only that Grace Poole had a patient. I thought it was little Adèle’s mother. I had no idea it was Mr. Rochester’s wife.”

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1997: In her room, Jane holds up her wedding dress. The gown has the high, early 1830s waistline, but not the voluminous sleeves fashionable at the time. It’s almost a Regency style.

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1997: When she lowers the dress to lay it out on the bed, we see that she is once again dressed in her old gray gown.

2011 gives us a brief, spare presentation (slightly over four minutes). Recall that in this version, we have seen nothing of Grace Poole. The only hints of Bertha’s existence have been the fire and Mason’s wound, which simply lacked explanation. So the revelation comes as much more of a surprise than in the other versions. We begin with Jane’s gown and lace veil:

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2011: Jane is being dressed by Sophie. She looks soberly into the mirror.

Cut to the courtyard where Rochester is talking to the coachman, mentioning the luggage. Jane enters and Mrs. Fairfax tells her, “Take courage, Jane.” She answers that she will.

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1997: As soon as he catches sight of Jane, Rochester makes a beeline for her and grabs her hand, breaking off her contact with Mrs. Fairfax. They start to walk.

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2011: Rochester walks so fast that Jane can barely keep up.

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2011: The camera cuts back and forth between Jane’s view of his back, and a view across his shoulder of her dismayed expression.

This is good visual storytelling. Barely a word has been spoken, but we see that Rochester is nervous and desperately anxious to get the ceremony over with. In the book and in the original screenplay, Rochester eventually realized that he was dragging Jane, and tenderly gave her a moment to rest, but that bit has been left out of the final cut.

Cut to the church interior.

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2011: “I require and charge you both, as you will answer at the dreadful day of judgment when the secrets of all hearts shall be revealed, that if either of you do know of any impediment why you may not be joined together lawfully, you do now confess it.”

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2011: Rochester is very fidgety and has a guilty expression as the charge to confess is spoken.

Parson: “Edward Fairfax Rochester, do you…”

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2011 Stranger, from the back of the church: “The marriage cannot go on. An insurmountable impediment exists.”

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2011: The bride, bridegroom and parson react with shock, then…

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2011: “Proceed!”

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2011 (Reading from an affidavit): “I can affirm and prove…”

Rochester: “Proceed!!!”

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2011: Jane reacts, staring at Rochester.

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2011: “…that Edward Fairfax Rochester was fifteen years ago married to my sister, Bertha Antoinetta Mason, at St. James’s church, Spanishtown, Jamaica. A copy of the register is now in my possession, signed, Richard Mason.” (Mason appears behind the stranger.)

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2011: Rochester strides down the aisle…

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2011 Mason: “She lives at Thornfie….arrrggh!” (Rochester grabs him by the throat.) The parson and the stranger subdue Rochester.

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2011: The camera lingers on Jane standing alone by the altar.

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2011 Rochester: “This girl knew nothing of this. She thought all was fair and legal. She never dreamed she was being trapped into a feigned union with a defrauded wretch.” (He walks toward Jane.)

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2011: Rochester grabs Jane by the hand. “Come Jane. Come all of you. Meet my wife.”

This version is extraordinary because Rochester says absolutely nothing in his own defense, either in the church or when the group views Bertha. He merely clears Jane from guilt in the crime, an important detail of the book which the other films omit. Unlike the literary Rochester, he gives in to the urge to attack Mason. What’s missing from these scenes is the literary Rochester’s sincere (if deluded) belief that his marriage is not real, his conviction that the laws of God and man do not bind him, and his insistence that love is the true standard of commitment. (In this version, Rochester’s account of his history with Bertha will come later, in private, just before Jane leaves.)

Rochester’s silence has the effect of making him seem to acknowledge his guilt, which is something the literary Rochester refuses to do.

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2011: As the servants and Adèle greet them, Rochester yells, “Get back! Go! All of you go! You’re fifteen years too late!”

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2011: He drags Jane along until they reach the Tapestry Room. He pulls aside the tapestry and they go up the stairs. “Mrs. Poole!” Sound of keys clinking.

Mrs. Poole: “You ought to give warning, sir!”

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2011: Reaction shots as they enter, first Rochester, then Jane. A figure kneels on the floor, facing away.

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2011: The figure silently turns and regards them. Rochester: “This is Bertha Antoinetta Mason. My wife.”

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2011: Bertha looks at them, then turns away. A large number of dead flies lie on the sill next to her. She puts one in her mouth.

Mason: “Netta, it is I, Richard.”
Voice of Grace Poole (off camera): “She has her quiet times and her rages. The windows are shut lest she throw herself out. We have no furniture, but she can make a weapon out of anything. I take her for a turn on the roof each day, securely held, for she’s taken to thinking she can fly.”

Mrs. Poole is only glimpsed for a few moments, and the sound is engineered so that her outline of Bertha’s condition and treatment is heard as if at a distance or through a filter. It’s easy for the viewer to miss most of what Mrs. Poole says.

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2011: Bertha stares at jane, then approaches Rochester and embraces him. He holds her, saying, “My own demon.”

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2011: Bertha spits the fly at Jane.

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2011: Jane looks down at her dress, tainted by the dead fly.

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2011: Suddenly, Bertha turns and slaps Rochester, flying at him violently. He wrestles with her.

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2011: Rochester and Mrs. Poole kneel beside Bertha. Jane turns and leaves.

Bertha is cast against type as a young and beautiful woman, and as in 1996, the screenplay sets up a confrontation between her and Jane which is completely absent from the book. The scene suggests that Bertha is sexually possessive of her husband and/or wishes to defend her position as Rochester’s wife. Therefore she embraces Rochester and spits at Jane, then slaps Rochester as if to chastise him for his faithless behavior. Far from making Jane and Bertha sexual rivals for Rochester, Brontë’s account seems to go out of its way to show that Rochester finds Bertha physically repulsive.

Bertha’s fly-eating seems to be ripped off from a scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula (1992), where the madman Renfield (played by Tom Waits) eats flies and worms in his cell. Or perhaps we should think of it as an homage?

Cut to Jane’s room.

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2011: Closeup of Jane unlacing her wedding gown.

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2011: She pulls off the gown in front of the mirror and leaves it on the floor.

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2011: A few tears fall from her eyes, but she does not sob.

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2011: She stands in her room wearing her underthings, gripping a chair as if to hold herself upright.

Overall, 2011 is a strange mix of very faithful details (like Rochester dragging Jane to the church, or clearing Jane of guilt, or roaring at the servants) and major changes to the letter and spirit (like Rochester’s attack on Mason, and the casting of Bertha).

And now it’s time for the rubric!

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1943 is strong on direction and boasts a lovely wedding gown for Jane, but the church and mad scenes are a bit too stripped-down and rushed. It seems a shame after such a long build-up to the climax.

1970 is consistently good to excellent. It has a suitably rock-like Rochester and a very powerful, interesting mad scene with Jean Marsh. But it focuses on Rochester at Jane’s expense.

1996 strays by trying to capitalize on wedding sentimentality; Hurt’s performance is mixed and Gainsbourg’s is blank, but Maria Schneider is memorable as Bertha.

1997 has the best treatment of Bertha’s situation (given the difficulties of the source material) and manages to give Jane her due even as Rochester is allowed the lion’s share of the attention. Rochester is over-emotive as always, but it works in the mad scene.

2011 takes away Rochester’s voice and his impassioned defiance. Bertha is all wrong. On the other hand, much is shown from Jane’s point of view, and the script retains some original lines and faithful details.