We have now reached what may be the most extraordinary chapter in Jane Eyre. Not because it contains Jane’s first meeting with Mr. Rochester (never fear; I shall have plenty to say about him in this post) but because it contains a confession from Jane so startlingly frank and unexpected that it drew stern criticism from certain Victorian readers of the novel. Elizabeth Rigby found Jane not only “coarse” and “vulgar,” but downright subversive: “We do not hesitate to say that the tone of mind and thought which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine abroad, and fostered Chartism and rebellion at home, is the same which has also written Jane Eyre.”
In his review of the 2011 film adaptation, David Cox claims that Jane Eyre only came to be viewed as a feminist work “in our own era” and that Charlotte Brontë had no interest in female equality with men. Rubbish. Laughably, Cox has to go back to 1966 to find a Brontë scholar (male, naturally) who denies the book its place in feminist history.* According to Robert Bernard Martin, “there is not a hint in the book of any desire for political, legal, educational, or even intellectual equality between the sexes.” Because Jane’s story is private, Martin and Cox assume it has no bearing on social issues or woman’s place in society. If they knew more about feminism, surely they would have acknowledged its most fundamental teaching: the personal IS political.
As Chapter XII opens, Jane notes that while Mrs. Fairfax was kind and Adèle affectionate, neither was particularly intelligent, and she found their company insipid. What audacity, for a woman to be dissatisfied with her lot, to cherish an unfeminine desire for intellectual conversation! Later, Rochester casually remarks that it would be intolerable to him “to pass a whole evening tête-à-tête with a brat,” and that he does not relish the company of “simple-minded old ladies.” Such attitudes were unexceptionable in a man, but shocking in a woman.
Jane further refuses to conform to the gender expectations of her time and ours with feminine cooing over the young child who is entrusted to her care (Brontë’s experience as a governess had demolished that piece of humbug once and for all). Adèle, she coolly says, “inspired me… with a degree of attachment sufficient to make us both content in each other’s society.” Gasp! One might almost be tempted to speculate that Jane (like her creator Charlotte Brontë) didn’t particularly enjoy the company of children, but worked as a governess because it was the only career option available to her in a rigidly patriarchal society. Dear me. How unfeminine of her.
Acknowledging that “anyone may blame me who likes,” Jane then expands upon these remarks with yet another extraordinary declaration:
“To learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.” Now tell me that Jane would not have jumped at the chance to attend a university and to exercise her talents in precisely the same ways as a man. No, Jane did not desire intellectual equality with a man. She desired a man who was her intellectual equal. Which is where Edward Fairfax Rochester comes in.
2011 is the only one of our five feature-length adaptations to grapple seriously with this passage in Chapter XII, an interior monologue which does not easily lend itself to a visual treatment. Mrs. Fairfax finds a pensive Jane, who has not appeared for tea, staring out the window. She comments sympathetically that life at Thornfield is “a still doom for a young woman.” Jane replies with language condensed from the book.
So far, so good. But then screenwriter Moira Buffini ruins it by making Jane add “I’ve never spoken with men, and I fear my whole life will pass…” She doesn’t finish the sentence, but Mrs. Fairfax immediately understands the trouble and so does the audience. No, the problem is not that Mrs. Fairfax and Adèle are a bit dim. They could be members of MENSA for all Jane cares, because they aren’t men. And it’s not really those broader horizons and sweeping vistas Jane wants. They are not ends in themselves; they are only the means for her to get… a husband. Someone who can pep up her life with a little action.
Now, far be it from me to deny Jane her libido. But to suggest that Jane longs for a man and worries about spinsterhood misrepresents the opening of Chapter XII. As we will see later in this series (and have seen at Lowood), Jane finds the company of intelligent, educated females extremely satisfying. Still, it is interesting that a raging libido in the person of Rochester will presently gallop into her life on the back of a tall, impetuous steed. (Food for thought: Rochester’s horse Mesrour is most likely not a stallion but a gelding, since in The Arabian Nights, “Mesrour” is the name of the Caliph Haroun al Rashid’s chief eunuch.)
Before embarking on the film versions of Jane’s first meeting with Rochester, let us examine the book in some detail. On an icy but still winter day, about three o’clock, Jane goes for a walk, to post some letters at Hay. Resting on a stile, she hears a “metallic clatter” and recalls Bessie’s stories of the Gytrash, a “North-of-England spirit” which accosted travelers in the form of an animal. A great dog, black and white, bounds past her, and she thinks for a moment that she has met the Gytrash. Then the horse and its rider follow.
Jane asks again whether she can help, and the traveler replies, “You must just stand on one side.” Man and horse are re-established on their feet, and the barking dog is silenced with a “Down, Pilot!” Then he limps to the stile where she had just been sitting. Once again, she offers to fetch someone from Thornfield or Hay. He replies, “Thank you, I shall do. I have no broken bones; only a sprain.” He tries to stand, but exclaims in pain.
Next we have our first description of Mr. Rochester, who is currently in a rather bad mood:
Jane is persistent with her offers of help, and when the traveler tries to “wave her off,” she insists that she cannot leave until she sees he is fit to mount his horse. To the reader, she explains that a handsome man would have intimidated her, and a cheerful refusal would have sent her on her way. Indeed, it is his “frown and roughness” that set her at her ease and embolden her.
The traveler asks Jane to lead his horse to him, challenging her with “You are not afraid?” She is afraid, but tries repeatedly, and fails. At last the traveler laughs and says that Mahomet must go to the mountain; “I must beg of you to come here.” She approaches, and he continues, “Excuse me. Necessity compels me to make you useful.” Jane helps him to his horse and he springs into the saddle, further wrenching his sprain.
The unhandsome stranger is brusque (though not, for the most part, downright rude), and peremptory in his requests, yet the novelty of the encounter pleases Jane. Afterwards, she describes the incident as “of no moment, no romance,” yet she muses on the traveler’s face the rest of the way to Hay, and all the way home: “firstly because it was masculine, and secondly, because it was dark, strong, and stern.”
Each of our five films condenses Jane’s meeting with the traveler in different ways. The 1943 version is brief but full of impact.
“I’m sorry I frightened your horse.”
“Apologies won’t mend my ankle. Down Pilot!… (To Jane) Well, what are you waiting for?”
(He looks surprised) “Hmmph. A will of your own. (staring intensely) Where’re you from?”
“From Mr. Rochester’s house, just below.”
“You know Mr. Rochester?”
“No, I’ve never seen him.”
(Thinking) “You’re not a servant at the hall.”
“I’m the new governess.”
“Oh… (staring intensely at Jane) You’re the new governess.” He goes to his horse and mounts. “Now just hand me my whip…Thank you. Now kindly get out of the way.”
He gallops off with Pilot.
1943 sets the visual standard for later film versions by having Rochester’s horse rear up dramatically in front of Jane, rather than ride past her and slip on the ice. This puts Jane in danger, which was not the case in the book. Also, Rochester is not seriously hurt; he gets up easily and requires almost no assistance from Jane, so the gender reversal of the book is almost nullified. The scene emphasizes Rochester’s intense scrutiny of Jane; he stares at her distractedly and the camera stays on his face much of the time. In fact, unlike all other versions, it is filmed as a series of closeups of their faces. Together with Orson Welles’ superlative acting, this creates an immediate chemistry and sexual tension. As Rochester, Welles is brusque and commanding, yet the manner seems natural to him. His observation “Hmmph. A will of your own” is not in the book, but neatly sums up Rochester’s surprise when Jane insists that she will not leave him. In the book, she notes that this point in the conversation was the first time he really looked at her.
1970 continues the motif of the rearing horse, but the dark Gothic shadows have been removed; Jane walks through a rocky landscape to the sound of serene music as the sun slowly sets. She stops to watch, mesmerized, and the music swells.
(Surprised by his rudeness, but recovering herself): “I was trying to move out of your way.” (As he tries to rise) “Can I help you, sir?”
“Come on, come on” (He gestures impatiently for her to help him mount.) “What is it you do to horses?… You should be home. Where’d you come from?”
“Thornfield. Not a guest, I take it?”
“No sir. Though it’s clever of you to suppose that, just from looking at me. I’m the governess.”
“You’d better get back. Before the dark comes.” (He gallops off.)
Jane gathers her things and takes a last glance at Rochester and Pilot retreating over the path.
1970 immediately sets up a “battle of the sexes” between an irate, rude man and a relatively cool and self-possessed woman. The fallen Rochester angrily blames Jane for the accident. She defends herself in a ladylike way and offers help. Rochester has sustained a mild injury, but (like Orson Welles) he still rises easily and goes to the horse as she holds it; all he needs is a little help mounting. “What is it you do to horses?” is a reference to Jane’s “bewitching” qualities, but here it comes off as merely sarcastic. The game of questions about Rochester’s identity is cut, as is Jane’s insistence on staying until she knows he is safe. Instead, he insults her by assuming that she is “not a guest” (that is, she must be a servant). In the book, Rochester says just the opposite: “You are not a servant, of course,” though the plainness of her clothing puzzles him. The 1970 Jane subtly reproaches Rochester’s rudeness with a compliment on his “cleverness” in deducing her non-guest status. Again, it is a ladylike yet unexpected reply. Overall, George C. Scott plays Rochester as a direct, commanding “man of few words” who would scorn fancy manners as effeminate. His gruff instructions to get back “before the dark comes” suggest a concern for Jane’s safety, out of keeping with his other remarks. Pilot’s role in the encounter is almost completely cut and we never have a clear view of him.
The 1996 screenplay is by far the most faithful to the words in the book, yet the emotional tone of the encounter is quite different.
(Jane approaches in concern.) “Are you injured sir? Can I do anything?”
(He limps to a rock and sits.)
“If you’re hurt I can fetch some help.”
“Thank you; I shall do. I have no broken bones… (dismissing her) Well, go on then.”
“You should be a home yourself. Where do you come from?”
“There.” (She points at Thornfield.)
“What, there, do you mean that house with the battlements? Whose house is it?”
“Ah, the governess. (He tries to rise.) I believe I must ask your help after all. If you would be so kind?” (pointing at the horse).
“If you would get hold of my horse’s bridle, and lead him to me.” (Jane looks doubtful.) “You’re not afraid?”
(She tries ineffectually and he laughs.) “I see the mountain will never come to Mohammed, and so you must help Mohammed to go to the mountain. Would you please come here?” (She does.)
“Thank you. Would you hand me my hat and crop?” (She does.)
“Thank you for your help. Now…make haste home as fast as you can.” (He smiles.)
In spite of its fidelity to the words reported in the book, 1996 is not faithful in spirit. Jane’s fantasy about the goblin Gytrash and the hint of danger in Rochester’s approach are erased. Instead of a profanity-using, brusque, frowning Rochester, we get a gentle, polite, almost courtly one. Rochester’s horse slips only after it passes, which (although faithful) drains the scene of visual impact. Unfortunately, the fall also makes Rochester look like a poor horseman, since no reason is given for his accident until later. 1996 earns points for retaining Rochester’s sly questioning of Jane about the owner of Thornfield, his teasing “You’re not afraid?” when she hesitates to deal with the horse, and his laughter at her failure. Interestingly, the film plays up Rochester’s apology for his need to touch Jane, for the sudden, unexpected degree of physical contact between them. He first places his hands on either side of her, as if to prepare her, before leaning his weight on her. He also says “please” and “thank you” more than the literary Rochester. A degree of intimacy is established by the use of closeups intercut with middle and full-figure shots. Altogether, the encounter is mildly romantic, a sort of Victorian “meet cute,” but it lacks much of the piquant tension that is produced in the book by Jane’s reaction to Rochester’s curtness.
William Hurt gives Rochester a pleasingly wry demeanor, and captures some of Rochester’s disarming oddness, but without the brooding, forbidding aspects of the character. His smile as he leaves her is an intriguing departure from the way other actors handle this moment by making Rochester project haughty indifference. The smile suggests either that he is relishing the joke, or looking forward to seeing Jane again very soon, or both.
1997 includes a brief nod to Jane’s musings at the beginning of Chapter XII. Jane is shown painting with Adèle outdoors and we hear Samantha Morton’s voiceover:
The scene dissolves to a small waterfall in the mist and an image of Jane walking beside a stream.
Immediately a horse’s neigh is heard. The scene cuts back and forth from Jane looking around for the sound, and Rochester galloping in slow motion, half-seen through the mist. The music flows dramatically, signaling fear.
“Do you want me to go and get some help?”
(He tries to get up.) “Blast! No, come here and help me up.”
(Jane is concerned.) “I’m not sure that’s the correct thing to do; your leg might be broken, sir. I can fetch someone from where I live at Thornfield. It’s just at the bottom of the lane.”
(Rochester struggles up, obviously in pain.) “No need for that, it’s just a sprain. Come here.” (Jane hesitates.) “Come on, for heaven’s sake, woman! Give me your arm.”
“Since I took a post as governess.”
(He mounts his horse.) “And what, pray, is a governess doing out at this time of the evening?”
(Jane is now annoyed.) “Walking, sir.”
(Harshly) “Well, before you carry on with your walk, could you get me my whip? It’s there.”
(He watches her closely.) “Thank you… Give my regards to Mr. Rochester. Come on, Pilot.”
He gallops off as she answers, “I’ve yet to meet him…”
Just as the 1996 Rochester is too gentle and polite, the 1997 Rochester is too angry and rude. However, there is some justification for this directorial choice in both the book and the scene as it is set in this version. First, the book does refer obliquely to Rochester’s use of profanity when he falls, and he is described as “ireful.” Second, in this version he is seriously hurt, as in the book, and in a good deal of pain. Only this version makes him fall into icy water, as if to add insult to injury. Ciarán Hinds plays Rochester as a privileged but embittered “man of wrath” who covers his unhappiness and insecurity with an angry manner, because there is nobody with the ability to make him curb his rudeness. In this instance, he has also been shocked and humiliated by his fall. (How he has kept his hat on during the fall is something of a mystery.) Thus 1997 draws to some extent on 1970, which also had a harsh, gruff Rochester. Here, he is given fabricated lines which make him seem even more unpleasant. The literary Rochester’s mild “I should think you ought to be at home yourself” becomes a haughty questioning of Jane’s right to walk out at dusk.
It is authentic in spirit that Rochester refers to Jane “looming out of the mist, like a witch,” but to make him ask whether she is a “madwoman” is rather too clever a piece of irony; the Rochester of the book would hardly have bandied words about madwomen. This is also the only version in which Rochester is clearly at Jane’s mercy and needs her help to rise; this screenplay actually makes him more helpless than in the book. Thus in spite of his anger, it is Jane who rescues him in a reversal of conventional gender roles. (Think of Willoughby rescuing Marianne Dashwood after she sprains her ankle in Sense and Sensibility.) Although there are some closeups of Jane’s reactions, there are no very close shots of Rochester’s face. This makes it difficult to gauge his interest in her, though he does look down at her intently while she is helping him to his horse, and after he mounts.
Jane responds to Rochester’s rudeness with politeness frigid enough to indicate her displeasure. His curiosity about her role is trimmed to one line (“How long have you been living at Thornfield?”) and he doesn’t test her by asking whether she knows Rochester. Instead, he ironically asks her to “Give my regards to Mr. Rochester.” The last is a pleasingly Rochesterian line, even if it’s not in the book.
The 2011 version keeps the “battle of the sexes” to a minimum and presents a restrained and (barely) polite Rochester, though not a courtly one. It begins in an atmosphere of disquiet, as Jane begins her walk at dusk.
There is no music: instead we hear the sound of Jane’s labored breathing as she struggles up a hill.
“Are you injured, sir? May I be of some help?”
(Still heated, stumbling away to a rock): “Where did you come from?”
“Just below, at Thornfield Hall; I am the governess… I’m on my way to post a letter; can I fetch someone to help?”
(Jane looks at the horse and hesitates.)
(Rochester, with restrained impatience): “If you would be so kind.”
(The horse bucks as she approaches; she looks back Rochester with reproach in her eyes.) “It would be easier to bring me to the horse. Come here.”
(He mounts.) “Make haste with your letter, for who knows what might lurk in these dark woods.”
2011 establishes a “Gothic” atmosphere by making Jane’s walk eerie and frightening, although Pilot does not play his expected role. The 1943 motif of the rearing horse appearing suddenly from the mist is retained. The lack of any sound preceding the horse’s approach is strange, almost supernatural. This version does away with Rochester’s perplexity about Jane’s identity; she identifies herself immediately as the governess. It also cuts Jane’s crucial statement about refusing to leave him until she sees he can mount his horse, as well as Rochester’s game of questions about the Master of Thornfield. Even Jane’s repeated offers of help are reduced; her active role in assisting him is minimized. Instead, the focus is on Rochester’s peremptory demands as he attempts to impose his will on a hesitating Jane. When Jane does not immediately obey his order to take the horse’s bridle, he grudgingly adds: “If you would be so kind.” The horse rears up scarily at her approach, and he commands, “Come here.” She hesitates, so he rephrases the question in politer words, but with a more impatient tone.
In this version, Rochester is convincing as a man who has painfully injured his ankle, but he is in far more of a hurry to leave than his literary counterpart. There is no hint of apology for touching Jane, and he leans heavily on her (as in 1997). His last words are a mocking reference to the dangers of being out in the woods alone. The sexual subtext, of Jane’s vulnerability to rape, is fairly clear throughout. In spite of (or perhaps because of) Rochester’s dominant attitude, sexual tension is established immediately. The feelings of both characters are revealed through closeups of their faces. Michael Fassbender plays Rochester as restrained yet imperious, arrogant yet knowing. He has little time to spare for this insignificant little governess’s scruples about providing the assistance he requires. Of course, this is different from the book, where Jane obeys Rochester readily even though she fears his horse. The literary Jane shows no fear of physical contact with Rochester himself, however, and it is his gruffness, and indeed his ugliness, which ease her, where she would have been shy with a handsome man. Altogether, this 2011 scene is powerful and well-played, even though it veers from both the letter and the spirit of the book.
What of the all-important casting of Rochester? As we have seen, for perfect fidelity to the book, he should be 38 or 39, with dark, grim, unhandsome features, and of middle height, with a broad, powerful chest. Not surprisingly, none of the actors precisely fits this description. With respect to age, Welles was shockingly young when he played the role, although he somehow managed to seem a decade older. Fassbender was also too young, but within 5 years, while Scott was about 5 years older than Rochester. William Hurt and Ciarán Hinds were also a few years older. All these actors were six feet or taller, not “of middle height” as Rochester is. Hurt is cast against type as the only blond, but the others are dark.
What are we to say about Rochester’s “stern features” and “heavy brow”? Jane is quite clear in the book that Rochester is not handsome; she even notes that others probably would have called him ugly. Should a filmmaker try for realistic casting, given Brontë’s insistence on this core element in the story? After all, it is a love story about two people who see past externals and into each other’s souls. Or, given the visual nature of the medium, should the filmmaker yield to the audience’s inevitable desire for a good-looking Rochester? Ideally, in my opinion at least, Rochester ought not to be classically handsome (just as Jane should not be beautiful), yet he must possess a certain magnetism.
But given the subjectivity of “good looks,” how do we assess the appearance of the actors? I propose to apply two measures. First, has the actor had a significant stage career, or has his time been devoted primarily to screen appearances? Especially in the US, but also in the UK and elsewhere, there is an opportunity for talented but less handsome men and women to thrive on the stage, whereas very good-looking people are quickly drawn into television and (especially) film careers. Second, does the actor’s career, as a whole, lean toward lead or supporting roles? Casting directors can be relied upon to choose people with more regular features for leads, whereas people with interesting faces become supporting actors.
Of course, Orson Welles is sui generis and fits no conventional categories. However, he began his career as a director-actor, with emphasis on the former. As an actor, he was valued most for his magnificent voice and his charismatic stage presence, rather than his looks (and indeed, he was very self-conscious about his looks). The young Welles of 1943 was at his most handsome, but still strikes one as unusual, even androgynous, with his small nose, full sensuous lips and rounded jaw. Although his face as a young man was not “stern,” his masculine brow and intense gaze, together with nonstandard looks and an authoritative voice, make him a reasonable casting choice.
In spite of iconic roles like “Patton,” George C. Scott was best known for his stage work. In his long TV career, he played both supporting and lead roles. His large nose, cleft chin and intense gaze give him a distinctively masculine look. Physically, he is a good choice for Rochester.
William Hurt has had many lead film roles, but has also regularly undertaken character roles; he has always remained active on the stage as well. He can appear handsome or plain depending on the camera angle and lighting. He has a pleasant, likable quality which has caused him to be chosen for “everyman” roles. As Rochester, he is miscast, or at least cast against type.
Ciarán Hinds spent the first 20 years of his career on the stage, before gaining steady work in television and films. In the 90s he occasionally played leads, as in Jane Eyre (1997) and Persuasion (1995), but the majority of his screen roles have been character and supporting parts. He has a rugged, angular face with high cheekbones, and he is often cast as a villain. In terms of physiognomy, he is nearly an ideal Rochester.
Michael Fassbender has worked on the stage, but he was quickly recognized as a “leading man” type and found great success in films. Of all our Rochesters, he is the only one who is far too handsome for the role. The filmmakers play down his good looks, but they often shine through. He is miscast.
In spite of all the space I have devoted to casting, however, it is not the decisive factor in an actor’s success as Rochester. Casting against type, or casting “up” to a more handsome actor causes problems for purist fans of the book, yet a good-looking or fair Rochester does not automatically ruin a film. In the end, what counts is the acting. Brooding masculinity, sexual charisma, and intelligence can be recognized quite independently of looks (consider Adam Driver, who would make a perfect Rochester in a few more years).
Chapter XII ends with Jane’s return from her walk. She goes to Mrs. Fairfax’s room, where a large black and white dog, “just like the Gytrash of the lane,” is sitting by the fire. She addresses him as “Pilot” and he snuffles her. The maid Leah enters, and Jane learns that “the Master” has returned, having sprained his ankle in a fall from his horse. The surgeon has been called for, and the house is bustling. Jane goes upstairs to take off her things and does not see Mr. Rochester until the following evening.
Not surprisingly, all of the films speed things up by having Rochester call for Jane the same evening. Pilot is quite important in the novel, and functions almost as Rochester’s familiar spirit. Wherever Rochester goes, the dog is present, and he heralds Rochester’s arrival. 1943, 1996 and especially 1997 are best at conveying his role.
1997 adds details which change our perception of the encounter in Hay Lane between Jane and an angry Rochester. First, Mrs. Fairfax mentions three times that Rochester has been asking for her. Second, Jane is pleased. She looks forward to the challenge of meeting him again, and is in no way daunted by his rough manners.
*As a matter of fact, there is scholarly debate over whether Charlotte Brontë can be regarded as a proto-feminist. Much more convincing than R. B. Martin is (for example) Bette London, “The Pleasures of Submission: Jane Eyre and the Production of the Text,” ELH 58.1 (1991), pp. 195-213. She argues that JE is ultimately about Jane self-disciplining her rebel energies to more closely fit conventional models of femininity. In my view, this in no way cancels out the proto-feminist ideas of the book. In JE, Charlotte Brontë expressed nuanced, complex and even contradictory views on what it means to be a woman. That is what I would expect from a great work of literature, and it explains the enduring appeal of the book, for women face the same contradictions and complexities today.
And now, Dear Reader, it’s time for the rubric!
This time the results are far more split:
1943 has reasonable fidelity and is Good or Excellent on most other measures, except Fontaine’s acting.
1970 is Poor or Fair on most measures except Susannah York’s acting, which is quite good. However, George C. Scott is (purely in terms of casting) one of the better Rochesters.
1996 wins Excellent only on fidelity of the first meeting. Rochester is cast against type and the screenplay and acting misfire, in spite of some good moments.
1997 is Good on fidelity and although Rochester is too harsh in this first scene, Hinds is well-cast. Keeps the focus on Jane for some good acting and direction. Consistently Good to Excellent.
2011: Excellent in most categories BUT veers rather seriously from the spirit of the book.