Janeites, I know you’re getting impatient for Mr. Rochester. I fear he is off on one of his interminable travels, and like Jane and Adèle, we must patiently await his return. When he arrives, he will (I trust) be worth the wait. In this third post of this series, I discuss our five feature-length Jane Eyre movies from Helen’s death through Jane’s arrival at Thornfield Hall, and her meetings with Mrs. Fairfax, Adèle, and a mysterious woman named Grace Poole. (Here are links to Part 1 and Part 2.)
When we left Lowood, Jane had just lost her friend Helen to tuberculosis, a disease which also killed Charlotte Brontë’s two older sisters, and several other girls at the Cowan Bridge School for clergymen’s daughters in Lancashire. After their deaths, Patrick Brontë removed Charlotte and Emily from the school, and eventually the horrible conditions there were greatly improved. Something very similar happened at the fictional Lowood.
Jane remains at Lowood in relative happiness for eight years, the last two as a teacher. After Miss Temple, the headmistress, marries and leaves, Jane feels restless and places an advertisement seeking a position as a governess. She receives one reply, and secures references from Mr. Brocklehurst and the board who now supervise his work. On the eve of her departure, she has a visit from Bessie, the maid at Gateshead. Bessie observes that Jane “looks like a lady” but has not grown into a beauty; she is also very small for her age. She tells Jane that Mr. Eyre, her uncle, had called to see her at Gateshead, and left, disappointed, to board a ship bound for Madeira.
The five films pass over most of this history in silence, and only 1970 alludes to the change for the better at Lowood. The cinematic transition from young Jane to 18-year old Jane is usually accomplished through scenes of one or both at Helen’s grave.
1996 slightly alters the story, giving Jane a final conversation with Miss Temple, who sees her off in the carriage for Thornfield. The change seems acceptable, as it helps round out the character of Miss Temple, who is so important to Jane, yet so neglected in the films.
1943 takes a very different approach. Helen’s death is represented by a shot of Jane’s hand touching Helen’s now-cold one in the morning. We hear Jane’s scream of terror (Gothic enough, but not true to the book). Cut to young Jane sobbing at Helen’s grave.
She is found by kind Dr. Rivers, who represents “religion,” being as he is an adaptation of St. John Rivers’ character. He explains that “Helen is with God,” and when Jane refuses to go back to school, delivers a heavy-handed speech about duty and the need for Jane to prepare herself to do God’s work. So far as I can tell, we are supposed to take this pious claptrap seriously. It is especially offensive because Jane’s real spiritual teacher, Helen, has been robbed of that role. Instead, Jane is to be taught what God wants by an authoritative male. This is exactly what St. John Rivers does to Jane later in the book, but the whole point is that Jane rejects him and follows her own path. Screenwriters Houseman and Huxley thus subvert one of Brontë’s fundamental messages. (A minor point in their favor, I suppose, is that Rivers insists on the value of female education. But Jane didn’t “hate” her education as they suggest; she loved it.)
The passage of time is shown by a series of Jane’s report cards from Lowood, as we hear Brocklehurst discussing the desirability of hiring her (very cheaply) as a teacher. But Jane refuses the offer, drawing a flood of insults from Brocklehurst. He dishonorably withholds a letter which he guesses is for her, but as soon as he leaves the room, she snatches it up.
Our first look at Joan Fontaine as Jane is promising (though she is far too lovely to play the character). This is one of her best scenes, in fact. She stands up to Brocklehurst, and although she speaks quietly, there is fire in her eye. She accuses him of ten years of mistreatment. None of this is in the book, of course.
In the 1970 version, Helen’s death is similarly followed by a scene of Brocklehurst offering the adult Jane a position as teacher. She refuses, saying that she has “nothing but respect for the Board and all that they have done at Lowood,” but that she has none for Brocklehurst himself. “I have neither forgiven nor forgotten,” she declares (surely Helen would not approve!). A crestfallen Brocklehurst is left to ponder Helen’s gravestone in silence, and the next shot shows Jane’s first view of Thornfield.
1997 has a brief but well-directed sequence dissolving from dead Helen’s face to a drawing of Helen viewed by one of Jane’s young pupils. The girl asks if it is her friend, and adult Jane replies, “Yes, that was Helen.” She places the drawing in her portfolio and smiles, preparing to leave. The scene conveys something of Jane’s happiness in her latter years at Lowood, but then Jane’s voiceover adds, “I was desperate for change.” This is an accurate description of Jane’s feelings after Miss Temple’s departure.
2011 accomplishes the transition from young to 18-year old Jane through a flashback of Jane leaving Thornfield. First we see the young pupils from Jane’s perspective, bidding her goodbye. They are reprimanded for their enthusiasm by an older Miss Scatcherd. Suddenly face-to-face with Jane, she musters not a word of farewell. Jane bids her goodbye, and she stares after her, still speechless.
In the book, Jane is eighteen years old, tiny of stature, and plain-looking. Of our five Janes, Susannah York (5′ 6″) and Joan Fontaine (5′ 3″) were the oldest, both established stars when they took on the role, and both acknowledged beauties. Charlotte Gainsbourg is an accomplished singer and actress, but her roles have been limited (she is best known in the US for her role in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac). Her slightly jutting lower jaw gives her the plainest, and in many ways, the most interesting face of all the Janes; however at 5′ 8″ she is very tall for the role. Samantha Morton (5′ 3″) has also been limited mostly to supporting roles. Her onscreen persona is cool and self-contained (she reminds me a bit of Jodie Foster), and there is something slightly elfin or fey about her face which makes her a good choice for Jane. Mia Wasikowska (5′ 4″) came to fame playing Alice in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, and since then has consistently won lead roles in Hollywood films–usually a sign that an actress is considered beautiful. Her sober expression and pale complexion recall the Jane of the book.
Each film shows Jane’s carriage ride to Thornfield, though they don’t show Jane on top in the chill air, where the lower-fare passengers were obliged to sit. Brontë describes Jane arriving at the George Inn, where she settles by the fire after her wearying journey:
Finally, after dark has fallen, a man inquires for Miss Eyre. The six-mile journey from Millcote to Thornfield is about an hour and a half. Jane alights from the carriage and is ushered into a room where Mrs. Fairfax awaits.
All of the Mrs. Fairfaxes give fine performances, although they do not all receive the same degree of attention from the directors and thus do not have an equal opportunity to bring the character to life. Joan Plowright (Mrs. Laurence Olivier) and Judi Dench were both legends by the time they made these films, and both receive plenty of screen time and closeups. In the other films, middle-length and longer shots of Mrs. Fairfax with Jane are the rule, and closeups of the housekeeper’s face are rare. This is a shame because Rachel Kempson, the 1970 Fairfax, is very interesting. A stage and film actress, she married Michael Redgrave and became the mother of Vanessa, Corin and Lynn Redgrave, and the grandmother of Joely and Natasha Richardson. Gemma Jones, the 1997 Mrs. Fairfax, is familiar from the Kate Thompson Sense and Sensibility as well as Bridget Jones’ Diary and many a television role. The weakest Fairfax is 1943’s Edith Barrett (Mrs. Vincent Price), who had to be made up as an older woman (she was only 36 at the time she played the role).
For Jane’s first meetings with Mrs. Fairfax and Adèle, the screenplays stick reasonably close to the book and extract many of the same essential lines, but they compress the events and make minor rearrangements. In 1970, 1996, and 1997, for example, Adèle is brought in to greet Jane as soon as she arrives, rather than the next morning.
To my mind, it is the wonderful Margaret O’Brien (1943) who gives the most memorable and vivacious performance as Adèle. Her accent is a bit fake, but she is so full of life and so innocently feminine, dancing and delighting in cadeaux and frills, that one can only smile.
Joséphine Serre (1996) and Timia Berthomé (1997) both have better French, but they are too old for Adèle, who sat on Jane’s knee as she sang the canzonette her mother taught her before departing “to the Holy Virgin.” (Berthomé is more expressive and vivacious than Serre.) Sharon Rose is believable as a real little girl, but not a memorable Adèle (though this may be due to a lack of screen time and closeups). Romy Settbon Moore has good French, which the directors show off by using subtitles. She is very convincing as Adèle, though more serious, not as bubbly as Margaret O’Brien.
Shown to her room, Jane is delighted to reach this “safe haven” and sleeps soundly. The next morning she meets Adèle, who sings a love song and recites a fable of La Fontaine. After Adèle’s morning lessons, Jane questions Mrs. Fairfax about their employer, but learns little except that he has traveled widely and that “you cannot always be sure whether he is in jest or in earnest.” She receives a tour of the house, including the unused third-story rooms, the attics and the view from the roof. In the “narrow, low and dim” corridor of the attic, she hears a strange laugh: “distinct, formal, mirthless.” Mrs. Fairfax attributes the laugh to Grace Poole, one of the servants.
1943 includes a delightful scene of Adèle waking Jane with her music box, which has dancing figures on top. Jane learns nothing from Mrs. Fairfax about “Mister Edward” except that he is a “strange man,” and her first inkling of Grace Poole’s existence is delayed until after she meets Rochester. That night, she overhears Mrs. Fairfax cautioning Grace about noise.
In 1970, Jane hears strange laughter as she is being shown into her room. Mrs. Fairfax attributes the laugh to Grace Poole. “She works here. She’s a little… eccentric.” Hearing the laugh again, Jane opens her door and wanders outside. She suddenly turns to see the unsmiling face of Grace Poole.
Later, Jane is painting and Mrs. Fairfax is sewing. Jane asks what sort of man Mr. Rochester is, but Mrs. Fairfax only remarks that he is “unexpected,” that some might think him “peculiar.” He has traveled the world and seen a good many things; he is “a hard man to understand.” Jane asks about Grace Poole, why Mr. Rochester keeps her on. Mrs. Fairfax disclaims any knowledge and clearly wishes to change the subject. This is a very well-played scene, one of Susannah York’s best, and Rachel Kempson’s only chance for a few closeups.
1996 has the most extended treatment, including the tour of the house. Mrs. Fairfax even shows Jane “the Master’s chambers,” including his bedchamber, which would have been rather indiscreet by the standards of the time. The scene gives Mrs. Fairfax an opportunity to describe Rochester’s estrangement from his family (some lines, such as her description of Rochester as a “gentle” boy, are added to provide a fuller exposition). At this point, Jane hears the odd laugh, and receives the explanation about Grace Poole.
1997 plays up the Gothic aspect. After Jane is shown to her room, she hears the laugh. Uncertainly she investigates the source of the sound, but just as she tries a certain doorknob, Mrs. Fairfax interrupts her, saying loudly: “The door is locked!” She explains that Grace Poole enjoys a tipple of an evening and promises to “speak to her about it.”
We hear Jane’s voice as she looks up at Grace Poole’s chamber, where the window is being closed.
As usual, 2011 takes an original approach. There is no tour of the house, though Jane sees the servants keeping the rooms ready against the Master’s return. Adèle’s first lessons include a story of the spooky Gytrash, a lionlike goblin which roamed the hills and lay in wait for travelers. (As we will see, the Gytrash has been moved from a rather crucial point later in the book.) This goblin sets the stage for Adèle to tell a story she heard from her French maid Sophie.
In 2012, this overt reference to Bertha (not in the book) substitutes for the mystery of Grace Poole.
How do the five versions tally now that Jane is ensconced at Thornfield, and feeling the need for expanded horizons? It’s time for the rubric!
1943 is uneven; there are serious problems with fidelity, screenplay and casting, but the chemistry between Joan Fontaine and Margaret O’Brian as Adèle is excellent and O’Brien is a scene-stealer.
1970 is lackluster, but Fair to Good on most counts and boasts a fine set.
1996 is Excellent on every count.
1997 suffers from low budget but has excellent casting, acting and good direction.
2011 has high production values; casting and acting are Good to Excellent; screenplay is more daring and original than usual while remaining faithful in spirit.
So far, 1996 and 2011 are well ahead of the competition. Will Rochester’s arrival change all that?
Coming Soon to a Moor Near You: The Master of Thornfield!