Contrary to popular belief, the setting of Jane Eyre is not Victorian. According to Wikipedia, Jane Eyre is set “somewhere in the north of England, during the reign of George III (1760-1820).” Chapter XI mentions the George Inn with its portrait of the reigning monarch, and another of the Prince of Wales (soon to take over as Regent for his father, who suffered from madness).
Only one detail dates the events with any specificity; Walter Scott’s poem Marmion is called a “new” work (Chapter XXXII) and it was published in 1808. This means that Jane would have completed her Lowood schooling around 1800, and that she was born around 1790. At the end of the novel, Jane states that she has been married ten years; this places her, a year or two short of her thirtieth birthday, right at the end of the Regency period.
Yes, Jane ought to be dressed like Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice! Of course, she never is. Every single adaptation of which I am aware puts the characters in costumes of the 1830s or 1840s, contemporary with or slightly earlier than the publication of the book itself. Given that the novel contains autobiographical elements, this seems a reasonable adjustment. And yet I wonder what a Regency Jane Eyre would have been like onscreen. The Gothic elements would be right at home; after all, Jane Austen satirized Gothic novels in her early work Northanger Abbey.
Marmion, a tale of intrigue under Henry VIII, was a huge popular success. It is famous today principally for two reasons. First, it is the source of this quote (with obvious application to a certain landed gentleman in Jane Eyre):
Oh what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practice to deceive.
Second, it contains the romantic ballad of “Young Lochinvar” who rides “out of the west” to the wedding of his beloved, whose parents have rejected his suit. Lochinvar dances one measure with the bride, then sweeps her onto his horse and rides off:
So daring in love, and so dauntless in war,
Have ye e’er heard of gallant like young Lochinvar?
Mr. Rochester may be daring in love, but he is no Lochinvar. In Chapter XVI, Jane recounts how her dreams of romance were dashed on the morning after the Fire Scene, when she waited all day, hoping to see Rochester, only to learn that he had hurried off without a word of farewell. The first sentence of the chapter sums up Jane’s feelings:
In the morning, Jane is surprised that Rochester does not step in to see how Adèle is getting on. After breakfast, she hears the bustle of Mrs. Fairfax and the servants in Rochester’s chamber, cleaning up the mess. As she approaches, she sees that none other than Grace Poole is in the room, sewing rings to new curtains. Shocked that Grace is acting as though nothing has happened, Jane decides to “test” her by asking about the fire. Grace coolly explains:
Grace asks whether Jane perhaps heard something, and Jane states with emphasis that she heard “a laugh, and a strange one.” Grace replies that Jane must have been dreaming, and begins to question her about whether she bolts her door at night, immediately putting Jane on her guard. “Dumbfounded” by Grace’s “miraculous self-possession and most inscrutable hypocrisy,” Jane spends the midday meal silently pondering Rochester’s motives in failing to call Grace to account. Grace must have some hold over him:
Considering Mrs. Poole’s “square, flat figure” and “uncomely, dry, even coarse face,” Jane feels that her supposition must be impossible…
At this point, Adèle looks up from her drawing and sees Jane’s flushed face. In French, she says, “What’s wrong, Mademoiselle? Your fingers are trembling like a leaf, and your cheeks are red; red like cherries!” Jane dismisses Adèle’s concern and continues with her internal monologue:
Having convinced herself that despite her lack of beauty, it is not unreasonable that Mr. Rochester might be attracted to her, Jane now begins to suffer acutely from the long delay in seeing him. She listens for the bell, fancies she hears his footstep, and imagines how she will confront him on the matter of Grace Poole:
Rochester’s absence has cast Jane into doubt of what she saw and heard with her own senses the previous night, and yet she remains optimistic that she shares a unique bond with him. Once again, what Jane describes is a form of flirtation based on the power dynamic between them: she likes to alternately tease and “soothe” him while preserving all the appearances of a “proper” employer-subordinate relationship. The piquancy of their conversations also lies in Jane’s intellectual equality with Rochester: she is able to “meet him in argument” in a way few other women can, and she takes great pleasure in doing so. But just as she has shored up her doubts against the negative evidence of Rochester’s absence, she receives a heavy blow. Coming down to tea, she hears from Mrs. Fairfax that Rochester left that morning for the estate of Mr. Eshton on the other side of Millcote, and may be gone for weeks:
Jane cannot help asking whether there are any ladies present at Mr. Eshton’s house party, and indeed there are. Mrs. Fairfax mentions the three Eshton daughters as well as Blanche and Mary Ingram, the daughters of Lord Ingram. Blanche once came to Thornfield, and was considered the “belle of the evening.” Jane is obliged to ask twice for more particulars of Blanche before she receives a dismayingly full description:
Jane continues to ask questions about Blanche Ingram, learning that she is not only beautiful, but talented, with a lovely singing voice. She and Mr. Rochester sang a duet together, and Rochester, who is musically skilled himself, pronounced her piano playing “remarkably good.” Although high-born, however, the Ingrams are not rich, and Blanche has not yet attracted a husband.
Blanche Ingram is the opposite of Jane. Where Jane plays “a little,” Blanche is musically accomplished. Where Jane is small, ethereal, and plain, Blanche is tall, queenly and strikingly beautiful. Jane has just been congratulating herself on her status as a “lady,” but Blanche is an aristocrat and in the eyes of the world, Mr. Rochester’s social equal. Jane immediately suspects a romance between them, and raises the possibility of a marital alliance, but Mrs. Fairfax is doubtful on this point due to the great difference in their ages. If Rochester would scarcely consider a woman of twenty five, we gather, Jane’s chances must be even more remote.
Once she is alone, Jane puts herself on trial and examines her feelings and behavior of the past weeks, and especially the night before. Bitterly she passes judgment:
Jane concludes that it is “madness” in all women to cherish the kind of secret love which if unrequited must devour them, and if returned must, like the ignis fatuus (will o’ the wisp), lead them into the mire “from which there is no extrication.” She forces herself to create two portraits:
This portrait is to be called “Blanche, an accomplished lady of rank.”
The exercise calms Jane. It was fortunate, she confides to the reader, that she subjected herself to this sharp discipline:
That is to say, the pain was only just beginning. What Jane felt in being parted from Rochester was difficult, yet scarcely to be compared with the torment of watching him romance another woman.
Chapter XIV is difficult to adapt to film because so much of it is composed of Jane’s private thoughts and speculations. Key to the chapter is Jane’s struggle to understand Rochester’s inconsistent behavior towards herself, and the enormous force of will she exerts in order to bring her emotions under control. The two principal actions which can be visually portrayed are the confrontation with Grace Poole and the teatime conversation, when Mrs. Fairfax delivers the bad news. Each of our five feature-length films handles these events differently, and uses different strategies to convey Jane’s feelings to the viewer.
None of the five films has Jane waiting all day for news of Rochester. 1943 (2 minutes 50 seconds) takes the bold approach of actually making Jane witness his departure, first thing in the morning.
This is great visual storytelling–no dialogue is necessary for us to understand the situation. The divergence from the book seems justified, even if the anticipation and agony of Jane’s long wait is lost. Jane then finds Mrs. Fairfax taking down the curtains in Rochester’s room:
“Oh Miss Eyre, isn’t it terrible? We might all have been burnt in our beds.”
“Where did Mr. Rochester go?”
“He said something about a house party at Millcote. Goodness knows how long he’ll be away. One can never tell with Mr. Rochester. Maybe a day or a year or a month.”
“Yes, my dear?”
“Did Mr. Rochester tell you how the fire started?”
“Why of course. He was reading in bed and fell asleep with the candle lit. The curtains took fire. Why do you ask?”
Rochester’s harsh verbal rejection of the house and its inhabitants is not in the book, but here it is effective at dashing Jane’s hopes. Mrs. Fairfax seems oblivious to Jane’s feelings for Rochester and assumes that Jane will share her humble acceptance of his verdict. There is no lesson with Adèle, and the conversation about Blanche Ingram is delayed until the arrival of Rochester’s guests. This focuses the scene on the many unanswered questions about Rochester’s behavior and its relationship to the tower room.
After hearing the news, Jane leaves and walks down the hallway until she comes to the door to the tower, which is open. She looks around to see if anyone is watching, then ascends the stairs…
This scene is fabricated in order to increase the Gothic element. Jane shows initiative by investigating the mystery, but meets with a frightening rebuke from the very servant she suspects of setting the fire. Grace is made up to look ghoulish, and assumes more authority than she possesses in the book (the Yorkshire accent/dialect is a nice touch). Again, the visual storytelling is highly effective. Suddenly, however, the screenwriters and director fall back on voiceover and the fake “page” purporting to be the text of Jane Eyre:
The only part of this text with any basis in the book is Jane’s questioning of Rochester’s relationship to the “mystery in the tower.” The auxiliary text, which is not included in Jane’s voiceover, would have disgusted Charlotte Brontë. She explicitly rejected that saccharine worship of the child (“I lived in the tender warmth of that small and radiant shadow”) which the Victorians found so essential to femininity.
1970 takes an economical but equally original approach to this section (2 minutes):
“Oh my dear, what an escape we had last night. Mr. Rochester was near burnt in his bed.”
“Indeed, Mrs. Fairfax?”
“He fell asleep, leaving the candle alight. Why it’s a wonder you didn’t hear something, or smell burning.”
“Not a thing. But then I’m a sound sleeper.”
“Mr. Rochester, I trust, has suffered no ill effects.”
“Oh no, no, he was hale this morning when he left.”
Adèle (having a painting lesson): “When will Mr. Rochester come back?”
“I don’t know.”
“It is nearly three weeks. It is long, n’est-ce pas? Perhaps Miss Ingram will not let him go. Perhaps he is a prisoner! They say she is beautiful. Don’t you wish you were beautiful, Miss Eyre?”
“Flowers can be beautiful, Adèle. (She picks a flower from the vase.) See how delicate the petals are. The shade of blue, where it joins the stem. Let’s start again, shall we? And I shouldn’t bother to sign it until you can do a little better.” (She takes the flower to the window and looks out.)
Jane’s blue frock is an egregious departure from fidelity, for every reader of Jane Eyre knows that Jane possesses only a couple of severe black dresses and a dove grey one as her Sunday best. Still, the pastel blue dress (which doubtless would have charmed Rochester, had he seen it) works well to signal Jane’s inner anticipation of seeing him–just as her return to dismal black underlines her disappointment.
1970 minimizes the role of Grace Poole, and Jane’s confrontation with her is omitted. Clearly the filmmakers were reacting against the overwhelming Gothic-ness of 1943. Instead of the novel’s description of self-castigation, they convey Jane’s feelings of humiliation by having Adèle innocently ask, “Don’t you wish you were beautiful?” Jane’s response obliquely suggests acknowledgment of her wound (the “delicacy” of the blue flower) but also her intent to maintain a more businesslike and less sentimental frame of mind henceforth.
1996 (2 minutes 40 seconds) is the only one of our five films to include the confrontation with Grace Poole as it is represented in the book: Jane challenges Grace, and is surprised at her coolness.
Jane: “What happened here?”
Grace: “The master was reading in bed last night. He fell asleep with the candle lit and the curtains got on fire. Luckily he woke up in time to put the flames out. (To another servant): Here you are, hand them up.”
“Did nobody hear anything? Did nobody wake up?”
“Perhaps you heard something.”
Jane leaves and finds Mrs. Fairfax working in the linen press with the maid Leah.
“Oh Miss Eyre, I suppose you’ve heard about the Master’s accident.”
“It’s a mercy he wasn’t burnt in his bed.” (Leah drops a sheet) “Leah!”
(Jane picks it up.) “Is he all right?”
“Well enough, to be up with the sun and gone before breakfast.”
“Do you expect him back tonight?”
“Oh no. Nor tomorrow night either. When these fashionable people get together, they’re in no hurry to part.”
“He’s quite a favorite with the ladies in the party. That Miss Blanche has been setting her cap at him for years.”
“Lord Ingram’s daughter, the prettiest girl in the county.”
Leah: “She is, Miss.”
“Does the Master like her?”
1996 gets high marks for fidelity. As in all our films, the revelation of Rochester’s departure happens early in the morning. Furthermore, Adèle’s lesson is omitted, yet the basics of the chapter are retained. Grace is suitably over-empowered, without presuming to order Jane about as she does in 1943. Her warning to Jane to bolt her door at night confirms that something is terribly wrong at Thornfield and that Rochester refuses to correct it. The key difference from the book is that Mrs. Fairfax (albeit very subtly) seems to emphasize the arbitrariness of Rochester’s behavior and the probability of a match with Blanche Ingram for her own reasons: she wishes to steer Jane away from any infatuation which may be developing. Little does she realize that it is already too late. Jane’s confrontation with her own image in the mirror stands in for the self-imposed penalty of drawing her own portrait and that of Blanche.
1997 devotes almost 4 minutes to this section, which is very generous compared to the other films. It also gives a better sense than the other films of Jane’s anxious wait to see Mr. Rochester, and her worries about Grace Poole. We begin with a voiceover:
(Jane, boldly): “It was Grace Poole. She did it deliberately. Ask Mr. Rochester, he’ll tell you.”
(Still determined): “Yes, well I would if he was here, but he left at the crack of dawn.”
(Jane): “Who are the Ingrams? How far do they live, and when will he be back?”
“All these questions, you’ll have me dizzy! I expect he’ll be gone for some time. That fashionable lot, society folk. Over the other side of Millcote, about ten miles off. Oh, they have theatres, parties, drinks, dinners. Mr. Rochester’s very popular with the ladies.”
“No, not yet. Although the family comes from money, I reckon there’s no great fortune left. Between you and me, I think she’s got a soft spot for Mr. Rochester. She’ll not let him back within the month.”
(Jane leaves the room without another word.)
Instead of presenting the confrontation between Jane and Grace Poole, 1997 makes Jane attempt to discuss the problem with Mrs. Fairfax. This is a bit off in terms of plot and character, for while this Rochester did not issue strict instructions to say nothing of the fire, he certainly suggested that he did not wish Mrs. Fairfax to be told. The literary Jane would not have disclosed her master’s secret this way.
For her part, Mrs. Fairfax acts in character: she knows there is a secret to do with Grace Poole, and like a good family retainer, she has no intention of discussing it with Jane. She changes the subject by bringing up Rochester’s departure. Samantha Morton does a fine job of showing how the news of his departure affects Jane like a physical blow. The director keeps Mrs. Fairfax and Jane facing away from each other, so that Jane is able to conceal her emotions as she asks more questions. In this version, as in 1943 and 1970, Mrs. Fairfax is oblivious to Jane’s reaction, and her praise of Blanche is not intended to deliver a warning.
Jane’s self-reproach is conveyed through an extra scene with Adèle as the pair are walking in the woods (a situation which evokes the earlier walks with Rochester).
“But you’re grown up.”
“Yes, I am grown up. But I am just a plain governess. It would be foolish to think that Mr. Rochester would want to be in my company… It would be ridiculous.”
Like 1996, this version allows Adèle to express her longing for Rochester, suggesting that she thinks of him as her father. Jane offers what comfort she can. The scene is fabricated, but it seems true to the Jane of the book, in that it reveals her genuine affection for Adèle without straying into sentimentality. It also allows Jane an opportunity to examine her hopes and recognize their utter futility, given the facts to hand. The shared sorrow of teacher and pupil foregrounds Rochester’s cruelty in leaving both with no word of farewell.
The 2011 version devotes a brief 2 minutes 30 seconds to this section. It begins with a shot of the great hall at Thornfield.
“Why, he’s gone away. Were you not aware? He left after breakfast. He’s gone to the Leas. It’s Mr. Eshton’s place. I believe Blanche Ingram is there; she’s a great favorite of his. I saw her two years ago when Mr. Rochester gave a party here. She’s a most elegant girl—they sang a duet together. They made a lovely harmony. I was quite surprised he didn’t make a proposal, but she has no fortune.” (Mrs. Fairfax faces away from Jane and cannot see her expression.) “In every other way they’d make a splendid match; perhaps it’s his intention now… He’s far more likely to have gone off to Europe. He often goes without so much as a fare-ye-well, and I don’t see him for a year.”
Mrs. Fairfax leaves with the linens and meets a maid on her way, saying “That’s fine, just go and make up the bed.” This is the only reference to the fire, and it is an indirect one.
Cut to Jane giving Adèle her lesson.
Cut to Jane walking on frozen ground, in the walled garden.
Cut to Jane drawing in her room.
Gone is all discussion of the fire and its causes, gone is the entire plot line with Grace Poole. Even the conversation with Mrs. Fairfax is reduced to a monologue by the housekeeper; Jane silently and passively absorbs the information rather than peppering Mrs. Fairfax with questions as she does in the book. Significantly, it is Mrs. Fairfax who suggests a marital alliance between Rochester and Blanche (as in 1996). The screenplay states that Mrs. Fairfax “has delivered a veiled warning.”
Although the omission of the fire discussion is odd, it is consistent with this version’s ruthless narrowing of focus. The film sometimes seems to rely on cultural knowledge of the story, presenting a stylized version in which no discussion of the fire is necessary, either between Jane and Rochester or between Jane and the servants. This erases the gathering atmosphere of threat and mystery surrounding Thornfield. Jane contemplates no mysteries; instead she is simply downcast at Rochester’s absence and Mrs. Fairfax’s warning. There is no clear suggestion of self-correction, as in 1996 and 1997, or of Jane’s humiliation as in 1970.
The visual storytelling in this version is quite effective. Once Mrs. Fairfax has made her speech, few words are necessary to convey Jane’s frame of mind. In her lesson with Adèle (conducted after she gets the bad news) Jane falters as she tries to deliver a lecture on British domination of the globe. This seems to be a nod to the large body of academic scholarship examining Jane Eyre from a postcolonial perspective. Surprisingly, Jane does not mention the West Indies and Jamaica, the most crucial subject lands in the Empire for the purposes of our story.
Time for the rubric!
1943 has excellent direction and is great fun to watch. It builds a real feeling of suspense.
1970 has a special charm and pathos of its own, but is very brief.
1996 comes out on top as the most faithful, with good direction and acting, even if Charlotte Gainsbourg’s performance is not the most interesting of the bunch.
1997 is consistently “good” and quite faithful to the book in spirit, if not in the letter.
2011 is the least faithful and moves the emphasis from Jane’s mental exertions to simple feelings of rejection and bereftness, but it is visually effective.