Last time we looked at Mr. Rochester in the drawing room; today we meet Rochester in the dining room. Soon we will progress to Rochester in the bedroom, though not just yet. We must satisfy ourselves instead with a long walk on the beech avenue, and a stimulating conversation. Chapters XIV and XV of Jane Eyre are riveting precisely because they develop a sexual tension between the two main characters, culminating in the Fire Scene, which takes place… where else? In Rochester’s bedchamber.
All of our five feature-length films include the “interview” scene (see my Part 5), but they approach the two remaining conversations (Dining Room and Beech Avenue) quite differently. Some make drastic cuts that have a significant impact on the characterization of Rochester. Before turning to the films, let’s review the content of Chapter XIV and the first part of XV. Bear with me: the review and the entire post are lengthy, but it proved impossible to separate these last two conversations because of the way they are merged in the films.
For several days after Mr. Rochester’s accident and sprained ankle in Hay Lane, Jane and Adèle see little of him.
Rochester has company to dinner and (tellingly) sends for Jane’s portfolio to show his guests. After the meal, he asks that Jane and Adèle come to the dining room; it seems that Adèle’s present has finally arrived.
Rochester calls for Mrs. Fairfax to keep Adèle occupied; he places a chair for Jane, and twice orders her to sit where he can see her: “I cannot see you without disturbing my position in this comfortable chair, which I have no mind to do.” Rochester is in his “after-dinner mood, more expanded and genial.” Jane describes him:
Rochester notices her looking at him, and delivers one of the most famous lines in the book:
When Rochester isn’t comparing Jane to a fairy, he compares her to a “little nun,” ostensibly quiet and submissive, yet prone to tart replies. The exchange is a sophisticated piece of banter. Jane teases him by suggesting that she ought to have said beauty doesn’t matter. As he grasps immediately, “under the pretense of stroking and soothing,” she has only renewed the insult. He can’t resist asking what fault she finds with him, and the discussion turns to physiognomy–actually to phrenology, which was a popular (pseudo)science of the time.
Jane reports to the reader that Rochester’s features revealed a powerful intellect, but were deficient in benevolence. Then she records this bit of dialogue as he presents his forehead for her inspection:
The mention of conscience prompts Rochester to make an interesting revelation about himself:
As usual, Rochester is watching her closely, and he reads her facial expressions:
Rochester rises and leans against the mantelpiece. Jane has an opportunity to observe his frame, which is disproportionately broad-chested for his height. “I am sure most people would have thought him an ugly man,” she says, but there is “so much ease in his demeanor,” so much “unconscious pride” in his seeming indifference to his looks, that the negative impression is counteracted. (As we later learn, however, Rochester is not quite indifferent to his appearance.)
Rochester commands Jane to speak for his entertainment, but she remains silent. “Instead of speaking, I smiled; and not a very complacent or submissive smile either.” He quickly realizes that she is annoyed at the peremptory request, and apologizes, in his own way. Jane finally agrees to answer questions.
Rochester humorously observes that this will never do, as he has made poor use of both. He asks again, whether Jane can agree to receive his abrupt orders now and then without being hurt by them. Jane smiles; he instantly catches the passing expression, and asks why. “I was thinking, sir, that very few masters would trouble themselves to inquire whether or not their paid subordinates were piqued and hurt by their orders.” Rochester seems surprised, recalling her salary. He asks, “On that mercenary ground, will you agree to let me hector you a little?” Jane agrees, not on the grounds that he pays her, but that he cared enough to ask after her comfort. He persists: will she consent to dispense with social conventions, without thinking that the omission arises from insolence?
Rochester tempers his praise by noting that Jane may have many faults of which he is unaware. “And so may you,” she thinks. Reading her mind, he admits that he has many faults, but insists that at Jane’s age, he was as unstained as she, and enjoyed as pure a memory. “When fate wronged me, I had not the wisdom to remain cool: I turned desperate; then I degenerated… Dread remorse when you are tempted to err, Miss Eyre; remorse is the poison of life.” Rochester insists that he is not a villain, but a “trite commonplace sinner.” Then he declares that he could reform, but what would be the use, given that he is cursed?
Rochester now begins to speak in riddles, of a notion which has just flitted across his brain, an inspiration which may be devilish, yet wears “the robes of an angel of light.” He says he must admit such a fair guest when it asks entrance to his heart. Jane urges him not to do so, but he tells her that she is not the keeper of his conscience, and addresses the vision:
Rochester then suggests that he can be a law unto himself, for “unheard-of combinations of circumstances demand unheard-of rules.” Jane disagrees with this, noting that he is fallible and must not attempt to usurp the role of the perfect and divine. He continues to argue with her, and she rises to go, “deeming it useless to continue a discourse which was all darkness to me.”
Rochester says that he finds it impossible to be conventional with Jane, and that some day the constraints of Lowood which still oppress her will fall away. “I see at intervals the glance of a curious sort of bird through the close-set bars of a cage: a vivid, restless, resolute captive is there; were it but free, it would soar cloud-high.” He tells Jane to stay put, because Adèle has been trying on her new frock; “coquetry runs in her blood” and she is about to show it off. Adèle dances up to Rochester and prettily thanks him for the gift, adding in French, “This is what my mother used to do, isn’t it?” “Precisely,” he answers. “She charmed my English gold out of my British breeches’ pocket.” He alludes to his guardianship of Adèle, and promises “some day” to explain his reasons for taking her in. Then he bids Jane goodnight.
Rochester doesn’t like it when Jane leaves him. He likes to be the one to dismiss her. In fact, he shows a number of characteristics of a sexually dominant type. I don’t mean “dominant” in the modern sense of bondage and sadomasochism. And yet, Brontë uses the master/servant relationship to set forth a model of erotic dominance and submission, only to subvert and transform it. In the first place, as a governess, Jane is not a servant, but something in between servant and guest; her status is one of the key topics of the dining room conversation (just as it was in question in Hay Lane). She earns a salary, yet she is not “working class,” but a “lady” entitled to certain courtesies. Rochester desires to give her orders, to “be masterful” and to “hector” her a little, and he comes up with all sorts of rationalizations for doing so. All except the obvious one, that she is (in reality) a servant. This is because, as Jane points out, masters don’t normally care what their servants think (she does not add, as she might have, that servants may dislike orders, so long as they obey). But Rochester wants Jane to willingly accept his dominant ways. And indeed, she is sometimes quite compliant. Consider how he fussily insists that she not pull her chair away, but move it closer so that he can see her without disturbing or exerting himself.
At the same time, Jane likes to slyly tease Rochester and puncture his dominant stance. And he enjoys the teasing, or at any rate, it stimulates his urge to tame and possess her. I think this is the basis for their sexual chemistry in the book, together with the fact that Rochester is deeply interested in Jane and everything she feels and does, just as she is fascinated by him. Over the course of the book, power will shift back and forth between them.
Chapter XV: One afternoon, some time later, Rochester meets Jane, who is watching Adèle and Pilot play. They walk in a long beech avenue, while he tells her Adèle’s history. She is the daughter of a French opera dancer, Céline Varens, toward whom he had once cherished a “grande passion.”
After showering Céline with gifts, he waited for her on the balcony of her room one night, only to witness her arrival with a lover. At this point in the story, Rochester pauses. “You never felt jealousy, did you, Miss Eyre? Of course not: I need not ask you; because you never felt love.” He predicts that some day she will feel the storm of love, then interrupts himself again to muse that he both loves and hates Thornfield. Suddenly he seems to be caught in the grip of strong and terrible emotions: “Pain, shame, ire, impatience, disgust, detestation” show in his eyes as he gazes at the Hall, writhing in a kind of spasm. After a moment, he explains this in terms of another vision:
Rochester hints that he has already formed a plan to marry Jane, which he knows is sinful and against the law of God. Yet he believes that possessing Jane can make him a better man. His struggle lies in the fact that Thornfield now contains both what he most hates and what he most loves.
At Jane’s prompting, Rochester continues the story of Céline Varens, relating how she and her lover, “a vicious and brainless youth,” reviled him, not realizing he was present.
Rochester “liberated” Céline from his protection (ignoring her hysterics) and challenged his rival to a duel (leaving him with a bullet in the arm). “But unluckily the Varens, six months before, had given me this filette Adèle, who, she affirmed, was my daughter; and perhaps she may be, though I see no proofs of such grim paternity written in her countenance: Pilot is more like me than she.” When Céline eventually ran off with a musician, Rochester accepted the guardianship of the child. Rochester cynically speculates that now Jane knows Adèle’s sordid history, she will resign her post rather than be governess to “the illegitimate offspring of a French opera-girl.”
Jane spends extra time with Adèle that day, and searches the girl’s face for some resemblance to Rochester, but finds none. She continues to meet with Rochester, and finds that he is more cordial to her than ever. As for Rochester’s odd spasm of pain in the beech avenue, “I meditated wonderingly on this incident; but gradually quitting it, as I found it for the present inexplicable, I turned to the consideration of my master’s manner to myself.”
This is the first of many times in the book that Jane refers to Rochester as “my master.” Always before, he was “the master.” By giving him this secret title, she implicitly acknowledges his emotional power over her, and her willing submission to it. (Victorian women of the working class used the phrase “my master” to refer to their employers, but I suspect that this would have been unusual on the lips of a governess, who was granted the status of a “lady.”) In a paradoxical way, Jane may also be using this phrase to take possession of him.
Now to our films. The 1945 adaptation includes a delightful, verbally faithful rendering of the dining room conversation from Ch. XIV (here set in the old hall before the fire). The beech avenue conversation about Adèle’s origins (Ch XV) is included, but delayed until after the fire scene. Of all our films, 1943 lavishes the most time on these conversations (combined, they total about 8 minutes, with 6:42 for Ch. XIV).
A visual prelude signals Jane’s intense interest in Mr. Rochester: Adèle is admiring the presents, which she has already received, while Jane watches Rochester’s approach through the window.
Rochester (meeting them at the door): “Miss Eyre.” [Dialogue in blue has no source in the text.] (Adèle thanks him, but he shushes her and beckons Jane to follow him down the stairs.)
“Today I feel disposed to be gregarious and communicative, and I believe you could amuse me. You puzzled me a great deal that first evening in the library, Miss Eyre, but now I have resolved to be at ease, to do what pleases me. It would please me now to draw you out, to learn more of you.” (He sets a chair for her.)
(Jane gazes at him silently.) “You examine me, Miss Eyre. Do you find me handsome?”
(Surprised and a little offended) “Indeed!”
“I beg your pardon. I was too plain. My answer was a mistake.”
1943 is the only version to retain a recognizable discussion of phrenology:
(He stands up.) “Very well then, I am not a kindly man. Though I did once have a sort of tenderness of heart, do you doubt that?”
“Since then, Fortune has knocked me about, has kneaded me with her knuckles, till I flatter myself I am as hard and tough as an India rubber ball. With perhaps, one small sensitive point in the middle of the lump. Is there any hope for me?”
“Hope for what, sir?”
“My retransformation, from India rubber back to flesh…”
“Thirty pounds. I’d quite forgotten that. Well, on that mercenary ground, won’t you agree to let me hector you a little?”
“No sir, not on that ground, but on the ground that you did forget it, and enquired of my feelings as an equal.”
“I should never mistake informality for insolence. One I rather like; the other no freeborn person would submit to, even for a salary.”
“It’s time for Adèle’s lesson.”
“Oh ho, no, young lady. It’s not for Adèle that you are going. It’s because you’re afraid of me. You wish to escape me.” (She sinks back into her seat.) In my presence you hesitate to smile gaily, speak too freely. Admit that you’re afraid!”
“I am bewildered, sir, but I am certainly not afraid.”
Adèle: “And I shall dance for you.”
Rochester: “You will not. You will go straight upstairs to the nursery.”
“At once.” (She goes, downcast. Jane turns to follow her.)
“Miss Eyre, I am not finished talking to you… Why are you looking at me like that?”
“You’re quite right, of course. I was thinking only of myself, my own private memories and feelings. The fact is, nature meant me to be on the whole a good man, one of the better kind, but circumstance decreed otherwise. I was as green as you once. Grass green.”
(She turns to go.) “Miss Eyre.” (She turns back and they walk toward each other.)
As so often, 1943 supplies liberal doses of the original text, which is very pleasing for devotees of the novel. Rochester’s language is powerful, and Orson Welles handles it expertly. The long conversation is condensed, but most of the topics are retained; the significant omissions are Rochester’s “degeneration,” his determination to get pleasure at any cost, and his angelic vision of the “bonny wanderer,” the tempting idea which he welcomes to his embrace. Thus the film does not reveal that Rochester is already formulating his plan to possess Jane, yet it shows his intense fascination with her, and captures little character details, like his fussiness about the placement of her chair. This is the only version to retain Rochester’s repeated use of “young lady” to address Jane, perhaps to help the youthful Welles play the role of the older man. Jane’s part of the conversation is cut back significantly, but Joan Fontaine still manages to be very Janian here, calmly answering his questions without being too submissive.
There are two major deviations from the book in the form of added lines. First, Rochester speaks harshly to Adèle and sends her to the nursery; Jane reproaches him for his treatment of the child. This is to mischaracterize Rochester, for while he keeps Adèle at arm’s length in the book, he never takes out his anger on her. The second addition is a rather saccharine exchange in which Rochester hopes Jane will be happy, and she agrees. Very Rochesterian, however, is the way he dismisses her, then suddenly calls her back, unable to bear her leaving. Perhaps the exchange is meant to convey Rochester’s increasingly positive demeanor toward Jane during this period: “He had always a word and sometimes a smile for me.”
After the fire scene in Rochester’s bedchamber, he suddenly exclaims, “The child! We forgot the child!” and they rush to check on Adèle. Although nothing of the kind takes place in the book, the scene works well for the film because it allows Rochester to show that he is not unfeeling; he cares for Adèle. (And indeed, the suggestion that Bertha might have struck at Céline’s child makes perfect sense.) More practically, the need to check on Adèle provides an opportunity for Rochester to explain her history to Jane.
(They see that Adèle is safe, asleep in her bed.)
Rochester (paternally): “I had an awful fear…”
“Poor little Adèle, trying to console herself for my unkindness to her. The child has dancing in her blood, and coquetry in the very marrow of her bones.”
“I once had the misfortune to be in love with this, to be jealous of that (pointing to the male dancer, dressed in a soldier’s uniform). Love is a strange thing, Miss Eyre. You can know that a person is worthless, without heart or mind or scruple, yet suffer to the point of torture when she betrays you. At least I had the pleasure of putting a pistol bullet through my rival’s lungs.”
“And the little doll in the dancing skirt?”
“We tell Adèle she died. The truth isn’t quite so touching. I gave her some money and turned her out, whereupon she decamped with an itinerant painter, leaving me with what she said was my daughter. Let me light you to your room…”
In contrast to the Dining Room conversation, the Beech Avenue is highly condensed and rewritten. It changes some points which affect our perception of Rochester’s character. First, Welles-as-Rochester states that he knew Céline was worthless even before she betrayed him, whereas the literary Rochester describes a much deeper disillusionment. Second, Welles-as-Rochester speaks with relish of killing his rival in a duel (by a presumably fatal bullet to the lung), but in the novel, Rochester “left a bullet in one of his poor etiolated arms.” In Brontë’s day, dueling was still a recognized custom, though illegal in England, and increasingly frowned upon. Brontë allowed Rochester to recover his honor in traditionally masculine fashion, but she did not wish to saddle him with a killing on top of his other sins.
1970 presents a very different perspective on the two conversations (slightly over 6 minutes for one indoor and one outdoor scene). George C. Scott’s harsh, withdrawn Rochester continues his verbal conflict with Jane while revealing, very much in spite of himself, that he is interested in her. This section opens with an extra scene intended to rehabilitate the harsh Master of Thornfield in the eyes of the viewer. Rochester is talking to his estate manager:
“We must drain the fields.”
“It’s too costly, sir.”
“Tenants can’t farm on land that’s flooded with water. If we lose crops, we lose rent; it’s a false economy.”
“But I’ve been into the figures.”
“Go into them again; I want the fields drained.”
Rochester, we are to understand, is a good landlord, concerned for the welfare of his tenants, yet also an astute businessman.
“Very well, take it, you genuine daughter of Paris. You see Miss Eyre, how you women value us. Leave her; she’s happy. Take it to your room Adèle, and gloat over it there.” Adèle (in French): “I thank you a thousand times.”
(Rochester to Jane): “Let her go. Believe me, she has no need of you for a while. You examine me, Miss Eyre. Do you find me handsome?”
(He chuckles.) “Upon my word, you are blunt. What would you say next, that I am lame?” (She is silent.) “Well, you are no prettier than I am handsome, but you are nothing if not honest, and you know that already.”
“You must allow me to give orders, Miss Eyre, if for no other reason than that I am twenty years older. Would you not agree?”
“Surely, sir, that depends on what use you made of your time.”
(He gives a quick nod.) “Money. Still, I like your bluntness. It is unusual in a woman. Though I dare say in truth, you are no different from the rest.”
(She does not respond verbally but simply looks at him.)
(Reading her expression): “Yes, you’re right, neither am I.” (He walks around the table while she stays seated.)
“Well, talk to me, Miss Eyre, don’t just sit there.”
“About what, sir?”
“About anything. Can’t you see that I am in a mood to talk? Tell me how you get your peace of mind.” (She looks around at him questioningly.)
“To put Adèle to bed, sir.”
“Never mind Adèle; she is happy. As her mother was.” (Jane sits again.) “You saw how she took possession of that box? So her mother took possession of me; I have been green too, Miss Eyre. Grass green.”
“Is Adèle your child, sir?”
“Although her mother presented her to me as such. Not that green, by God, Miss Eyre, no, not that green. No, she is the daughter of an itinerant musician, with whom her mother finally ran off, clutching in her little hand the pieces of jewelry that I had given her. She left the child in Paris. I brought her here a year ago, when I heard her mother had died. The child is of course illegitimate. But knowing her antecedents, you will no doubt think less of your protegée now.”
“The child cannot be blamed for her mother’s faults.”
(Jane leaves, and he pours himself another drink, looking after her.)
1970 is distinctive for the hint of misogyny which is introduced to Rochester’s character, e.g. “You see, Miss Eyre, how you women value us” and his suggestion (“Money”) that Jane is principally interested in the pay she receives. Rochester’s lines reveal that because of his experience with Céline Varens, he believes all women are mercenary. (To be fair, there is a basis for this interpretation in the literary Rochester’s expectation that Jane, like Adèle and Céline, is eager for presents.) Instead of the lively flirtation of Ch. XIV, we have here a tense exchange in which Rochester reveals his interest, but only grudgingly. Whereas the Rochester of the novel claims rather unconvincingly to be “as hard and tough as an India rubber ball,” Scott’s Rochester actually is hard, deeply scarred by his past experiences. He’s attracted to Jane, but so emotionally withdrawn that he cannot even be kind to her. Needless to say, we hear nothing of Rochester’s visions and fantasies, which would be incompatible with this interpretation of the character.
Rochester leans against the mantelpiece, a pose which permitted the literary Jane to admire his “manly port” and muscular build. But this scene creates no sense in the viewer that Jane is physically attracted to Rochester; instead she seems to be bearing up under his “hectoring,” and wondering how soon she can leave–until he embarks on the history of Adèle. Jane asks whether Adèle is his child, a question which would have been presumptuous in the original 19th century context, and here too conveys a hint of judgment. Rochester denies it outright, insisting that he was “not that green,” yet in the book he bitterly calls himself a fool and a sentimental “spoony,” who believed Adèle to be his child. The literary Rochester is deeply uncertain, one moment admitting the possibility, and the next declaring that he is not the father, for “Pilot is more like me than she.”
The screenplay deviates wildly from the novel by having Rochester throw his wineglass across the room, apparently provoked by the (here implicit) contrast between his moral flaws and Jane’s purity. This is the first time his control breaks, and the passion he hides within is finally revealed. However, his violent exclamation “Have you [no faults] of your own?” suggests that he is frustrated by his desire, afraid that Jane will virtuously reject any tenders of his affection. If his uncouth show of violence before a lady is very un-Rochesterian, at least his insecurity is true to the character.
A second, outdoor scene is added to help build the sexual tension. This is rather well-played, even if it is not in the book:
“Do you never laugh?”
“But I do not amuse you. By God, you amuse me, Miss Eyre. You may take tea with me later… cheer me up.”
Rochester cannot resist approaching Jane and admitting that he wants to spend more time with her. He awkwardly admires her painting (pairing the compliment with another put-down), then chides her for failing to laugh at his feeble witticism. (“Do you never laugh, Miss Eyre?”) The 1970 Rochester suggests that Jane somehow lacks a sense of humor or is unduly stiff and prudish. In the novel, on the other hand, the question demonstrates Rochester’s keen powers of perception, and his profound understanding of Jane’s character:
As Jane, Susannah York handles this difficult man with aplomb. It is her habit to point out to him that he is being insulting, but she does so indirectly and always politely. “It’s a new role for me, that of court jester” is perhaps not quite what the literary Jane would say, but it matches Rochester’s perception that Jane “sticks the penknife in” even as she professes to soothe him with obedience. Scott’s Rochester never asks the question, but it is plain that Jane is not afraid of him.
1996 takes advantage of the lovely on-location set to bring Jane and Adèle outdoors for the Ch. XIV conversation, and adds an indoor coda to substitute for the beech avenue (a sparing 6 minutes total). The screenplay manufactures a new context for the discussion of Rochester’s handsomeness, or lack of it:
Rochester approaches after finishing his talk with the gardener.
“Very few masters would trouble themselves to inquire whether or not their paid employees were offended.”
“Do you never laugh, Miss Eyre? Never mind. Let me see what my paid employee has been drawing in her sketchbook. May I?”
(He walks away toward his horse, then stops.) “Come with me, Miss Eyre.”
(Jane, to Adèle): “Adèle, continue with your work. And remember, the shadows are as important as the light.”
(Rochester): “You believe that?”
“That the shadows are as important as the light.”
“I believe none of us is perfect. I believe none of us is without some fault to hide.”
“But fortune has knocked me about. Now I’m hard and tough as an India-rubber ball. (He mounts.) Think there’s any hope for me?”
“Hope for what, sir?”
“My being transformed from India-rubber back to flesh and blood?”
1996 allows Adèle a voice which she does not possess in the original; she expresses love for Mr. Rochester and asks for a picture of him. Clearly, she thinks of him as a father. The device of having Jane draw Rochester’s portrait is effective, because it reveals her interest. She does not enhance his appearance, yet her gaze is desiring. Rochester senses it and is emboldened to ask, “Do you think me handsome?” He’s amused at her reply and challenges her over it. Unfortunately the dialogue falls apart at this point, because the screenplay forces together disparate lines from the book with little effort to connect the sense. The effect is disjointed:
“I ought to have replied that tastes differ… something of that sort.”
“You will endure my surliness without being hurt…”
“Very few masters would trouble themselves to inquire whether or not their paid employees were offended.”
“Do you never laugh, Miss Eyre?
Rochester then looks at the portrait, and William Hurt’s expression clearly reveals his disgust at his own appearance, together with his belief that no woman can find him attractive. Jane implicitly addresses his fear by telling Adèle that “the shadows are as important as the light,” an interesting but fabricated line. Rochester responds to this with an abbreviated version of the India rubber speech, then wryly asks if he can be transformed back to “flesh and blood” (the addition of “and blood” weakens the sexual suggestion of the original). On the plus side, this version permits us to see how much Jane is attracted to him; the camera lingers on her face as she watches his departure.
Interpolated here is the earlier conversation with Mrs. Fairfax, where Jane comments that he is “changeful and abrupt.” Mrs. Fairfax replies, as in the book, that allowances must be made.
Instead of the Beech Avenue, the next conversation takes place indoors. Adèle is dancing for Jane and Mrs. Fairfax; Rochester watches broodingly from the doorway.
For the first time in the film, Rochester sounds truly angry:
“I will treat her however I see fit. When I look at Adèle, I see a miniature of her mother. The same beauty, the same merciless charm. She was an opera dancer. I was not the first to love her, but she told me that I was Adèle’s father. At the time, I wanted to believe it was so. But then, one night, I found her in the arms of a brainless viscount. I left a bullet in his feeble wing, gave her my purse, and ordered her away from me. So. Perhaps you’ll think differently of the child now. Perhaps you’ll soon be telling me I should look for a new governess.”
“Adèle is not responsible for her mother’s faults. Or yours.”
“Or mine! What have I done but play the village idiot?”
“You’ve made Adèle feel unwanted and unloved. Why didn’t you leave her in Paris where she was happy?”
“Because her mother abandoned her. When I looked around, I was all she had left. And I do honor my obligations. However they were incurred. No one can deny me that… Good night, Miss Eyre.”
1996 departs from the book, closely imitating 1943 by having Rochester speak harshly to Adèle and send her to the nursery; just as in 1943, Jane reproaches him. Why this homage to the Fontaine-Welles version? I wonder if screenwriters Whitemore and Zeffirelli realized by this point that their “gentle Rochester” approach left the film too lacking in conflict, so that it was necessary to manufacture some. (Compare 1970, where conflict was in no way lacking!) To justify his behavior, Rochester gives a much-abbreviated account of his affair with Céline. The conversation ends with a veiled allusion to Bertha: Rochester “honors his obligations.”
In some ways, 1997 is the most faithful of the adaptations, although (as always) it extensively rewrites the conversation instead of using direct quotes. After the drawing room interview, we hear a voiceover of Jane saying (as she does in the book) that she saw little of Rochester for days afterwards, for he was either engaged in business or dining with friends. The book says that he would sometimes pass her in the hall “haughtily and coldly,” but other times, he would “bow and smile with gentlemanlike affability.”
The mysterious Mrs. Poole is not forgotten. The screenplay even adds an episode which is absent from the book: Jane overhears Rochester and Mrs. Fairfax at the door to the attic.
The Dining Room exchange is held in the drawing room, like the first interview; the Beech Avenue becomes a walk through the woods. Together, the two scenes are allotted 7 minutes, quite generous given the length of the film.
“I didn’t mean to say—”
“Don’t try to modify your answer; it was an honest reply. Sit down. So… what faults do you find in me? Does my nose not please you?”
“Are my eyes too close-set?”
“–Or is it that my ears are too large? Or my forehead’s not—”
“Oh, I see. So it’s my character that you find unattractive.”
“What I meant to say was, certain facets of your character are… somewhat unpleasant.”
“You ask by way of command.”
“That’s because I have a lifetime of saying ‘Do this’ and it’s done.”
(Rochester suddenly becomes harsh; he gets up and stands imposingly over her.)
“I expect nothing, sir. You asked a question and I merely answered it.”
“But you do understand that I have the right to be master in my own house? After all, I’ve traveled the world—I’m much older and wiser than you are.”
“Do as you please, sir.”
“That is a very irritating reply, Jane. And you haven’t answered my question.”
“Surely your claim to wisdom and maturity depends on the use you have made of your time and experience.”
(At a loss): “Really, how interesting… You smile. What are you thinking?”
“Thank you, sir. I will take that as a compliment.” (She smiles slightly, then looks serious again.)
In the 1997 screenplay Adèle has already received her gift, and it was in the first interview that Rochester insisted Jane sit “where I can see you.” The changes allow this scene to begin with the key question “Do you think me handsome?” When Jane says no, Rochester comically begins to interrogate her as to the exact nature of his physical flaws; this takes the place of the more sophisticated phrenology discussion in the book. Jane then declares that “appearance is of little consequence; it is the person within that is the attraction.” Of course Jane does not say this in the book; she mentions it as something she might have said in order to be polite.
Even though Jane says that his looks are no obstacle to attraction, Rochester willfully chooses to take her remark as a criticism, and once again reveals his insecurity, as well as the high value he places on Jane’s opinion: “So it’s my character you find unattractive.”
Jane is made to be more assertive than she is in the book, where it is Rochester who reads her silent thoughts and divines the meaning in her moments of passive resistance. The literary Rochester ably diagnoses his own flaws, admitting that he puts his requests “in absurd, almost insolent form.” Still, the exchange in the film captures the spirit of flirtatious badinage in the book. It also addresses Rochester’s desire to command Jane and his frustration when she says, “Do as you please,” depriving him of willing submission. Tellingly, he forgets himself for a moment and calls her “Jane” instead of “Miss Eyre.” (This does not happen in the book until the Fire Scene.)
Jane’s perceptive remark that his claim to wisdom depends on the use he has made of his time leaves Rochester quite at a loss for words. All he can muster is a lame “Really… how interesting.” This is a shame, because the literary Rochester is always ready with an amusing reply. The scene ends with Rochester agreeing that he must treat Jane “with respect” and openly paying her a compliment, which she graciously accepts. At this moment, she is the more powerful of the two.
(Cut to green leaves; we hear Jane’s voiceover as she and Rochester walk in the woods. Pilot and Adèle run ahead of them.)
“Adèle’s mother was a French opera dancer. She was extremely beautiful and vivacious, and I was so flattered when she professed to love me, ugly mortal that I am, that I showered gifts on her, almost ruining myself into the bargain. But when she told me she was with child, I was thrilled, and at that moment, I had no doubt that the child was mine.”
(They walk into a clearing with a bench and a view of a pond. Rochester seats himself and beckons Jane to sit.) “I was besotted with her. I longed to be in her company, smell her perfume. One night I called to see her unexpectedly at the hotel.”
(Cut before Jane can answer. The scene shifts to Jane alone in her bedroom, placing the candle at her bedside.)
Much in the book is left out of these two conversations (notably “mistaking informality for insolence,”), but what remains is handled well. One of the strengths of this version is that it manages to convey what usually goes unnoticed in the book, the impropriety of a gentleman discussing his sexual adventures with a virginal young woman in his employ. The 1997 Jane innocently assumes that because Rochester (as he then believed) had a child with Céline, they must have been married. He bluntly explains that she was his mistress, and describes his erotic obsession and sexual jealousy, contrasting it with Jane’s innocent state. In the book, Rochester realizes how odd it is “for a man like me to tell stories of his opera-mistresses to a quaint, inexperienced girl like you!” Further, he understands that most would disapprove of their conversation, yet he justifies it this way:
So dangerous was the the topic Rochester introduced, that in Ch. XIV Jane herself is careful to protect Rochester from the charge of corrupting her. In pondering their talks, she says that she was “never startled or troubled by one noxious allusion.” In other words, he never spoke crudely or referred directly to sexual acts. Still, his status as a sexually experienced “man of the world” restores his advantage over the naïve Jane, even as he begins to speak to her with less anger and more intimacy.
The screenplay excels by keeping the focus on the emotions Rochester felt, rather than the details of his history with Céline. The duel with the vicomte, and Céline’s flight with her musician, even her abandonment of Adèle, go unmentioned. Rochester’s exploration of jealousy is particularly important here, for it is this agonizing emotion he will deliberately inflict on Jane during the Blanche Ingram episode. The acting by both Ciarán Hinds and Samantha Morton is delicately realized, and the direction (with the camera panning around them) conveys the intimacy of their discussion.
The scene closes with Rochester’s words from the Dining Room conversation, about “having a right to get pleasure.” In this context, his remark nearly brings the sexual subtext of his desire for Jane to the surface, but her answer is not shown. Instead, the film cuts to Jane getting into bed that night–doubtless with a great deal to think over. Her desire for Rochester is suggested by the cut, but remains implicit.
2011 introduces the sequence with a wordless scene which allows the viewer to participate in Jane’s desiring gaze at Rochester. He is shown working in his shirt sleeves to remove a stump, together with the gardeners. Jane and Adèle are playing shuttlecock, a detail drawn from the Beech Avenue section of the book.“Miss Eyre.” (He points to a seat, and sits down himself.)
Rochester (continuing): “…But you might suit me. If you would.”
Adèle (running up): “Monsieur, thank you a thousand times for your generosity. That is how maman used to say it?”
(Jane stares at him, apparently disapproving his rudeness to the child.)
(Slight glare): What fault do you find with me? I have all my limbs and features.”
“I beg your pardon, sir. I ought to have replied that beauty is of little consequence.”
(She is silent.) “Come, speak to me! The fact is, Miss Eyre, I’d like to draw you out. You’ve rather the look of another world about you. I don’t wish to treat you as inferior.”
“There are few masters who would trouble to inquire whether their paid subordinates were hurt by their commands.”
“Paid subordinate… I’d forgotten the salary. Well, on that mercenary ground, will you consent to speak as my equal, without thinking that the request arises from insolence?
“Most freeborn things would submit to anything for a salary. But I mentally shake hands with you for your answer. Not three in three thousand schoolgirl governesses would have answered me as you’ve just done.”
(Short pause.) “I envy you.”
“Your openness, your unpolluted mind. When I was your age, fate dealt me a blow. And since happiness is denied me, I have a right to get pleasure in its stead. And I will get it, cost what it may.”
“Then you’ll degenerate still more.”
“You’re afraid of me.”
“I’m not afraid. I’ve simply no wish to talk nonsense.”
2011 combines the Dining Room and Beech Avenue themes, but reduces the story of Adèle to a single hint: her mother charmed Rochester’s “English gold out of his English pocket.” The contrast with the other versions could not be greater. Rochester’s humiliation at the hands of Céline is mostly neutralized. And unlike the 1997 Rochester who speaks extensively of his emotions, this Rochester confides very little to Jane, remaining enigmatic and emotionally unavailable.
Even more than 1943 and 1996, this version makes Rochester deliberately cruel to Adèle, which is quite untrue to the book. Jane’s reproach is visual rather than verbal, but he feels her disapproval and challenges her with “Do you think me handsome,” deftly changing the subject away from his own behavior. This Rochester is also ungentlemanly toward Mrs. Fairfax, calling her a “simple minded old lady” in her hearing. In the book, he may brush her off or ask curtly for tea, but he never insults her to her face, and even insists on inviting her to the drawing room after dinner because “blood is said to be thicker than water.”
Fassbender’s Rochester is definitely a sexually dominant type, and as I argued in the introduction to this post, there is plenty of justification for this in the book. In 2011, Jane visibly tries to get her courage up to counter him, and scores one direct hit with “I ought to have replied that beauty is of little consequence.” Instead of zestfully taking up the challenge, as the literary Rochester does, Fassbender-as-Rochester is momentarily at a loss for words. He’s shocked but also intrigued that the “schoolgirl governess” Miss Eyre has dared to “slip the penknife in.” Still, he easily turns the tables by pointing out her blush. Blushing is a standard element of BDSM erotica, and dominant men are said to be turned on by female blushes because they suggest not only embarrassment and exposure, but also physiological arousal. Rochester then presses his advantage by noting how Jane looks down at the carpet (a submissive gesture). Although the Jane of the book also looks down at the flowers on the carpet, and remains silent when Rochester commands her to speak, Brontë emphasizes that her smile is “not submissive,” and she is certainly not afraid of him. Mia Wasikowska, on the other hand, presents a shy Jane who swallows nervously and struggles to speak confidently (compare the equable and confident Susannah York, faced with a very imposing Rochester). Rochester observes, “You’re hurt by my tone of command.” His close observation of Jane, and his alertness to her thoughts and emotions, is consistent with the Rochester of the book–and evokes the ideally dominant male, who is able to read the mind of his partner.
The great strength of this version is that it dares to tackle the theme of Rochester’s “degeneration” and his vision of the “inspiration” wearing “the robes of an angel of light.” None of the other adaptations found a way to present Rochester’s riddling speech and especially his visions. Even here, the spasm of pain he feels when contemplating Thornfield is left out, but at least we grasp that his desire for “sweet, fresh pleasure” is directed at Jane. She realizes it too, and her erotic confusion is visually conveyed through her examination of the nude painting. Finally, I must praise the use of original lines from the book, especially Rochester’s exquisite observation that Jane is like a bird, a “vivid, restless captive” who, once set free, could “soar cloud-high.”
Time for the rubric!
Note: for Fidelity, I counted as key elements (1) Adèle’s gift/”daughter of Paris”; (2) Rochester’s fussiness over the chair; (3) “Do you think me handsome?”/phrenology; (4) the India rubber ball; (5) display of Rochester’s physique/looks; (6) “a right to be masterful”/ “paid subordinates”; (7) “mistaking informality for insolence”; (8) Rochester’s degeneration and his determination to get pleasure; (9) Rochester’s angelic vision; (10) “You are afraid of me”/ “Do you never laugh?”; (11) Jane’s constraints/ his “greenness”/ “English gold”; (12) the story of Céline; (13) “Have you ever been jealous; Rochester seized by his destiny; (14) Céline part two; Jane expected to resign her post; (15) Jane’s desiring reaction toward Rochester
1943 scores very high on fidelity in elements and language used, but introduces a few false notes; acting is good and direction excellent.
1970 is only fair on most measures but Susannah York’s acting stands out as excellent.
1996 has reasonable fidelity and great set/direction but some problems with the screenplay.
1997 faithfully captures the feel of the book with nuanced interpretation, even though the dialogue is unfortunately rewritten (dumbed down?). Good direction and Excellent acting.
2011 is Excellent on some measures of fidelity but not in spirit; the acting is very good but the direction stumbles a bit in reusing the drawing room, with very little visual interest.
Next time: A fire rages in Mr. Rochester’s bedchamber…