Last time, we looked at the weeks leading up to Jane’s wedding day (Chapter XXIV). But Charlotte Brontë devotes another full chapter to the 36 hours before the wedding, and during this time a significant event takes place: Jane Eyre comes face to face with Bertha Mason Rochester.
Literary critics have had much to say about Chapter XV, not least because of the physical description of Bertha, which seems to invoke racial stereotypes. I will focus on this aspect of the chapter, with a view to suggesting, as Susan Meyer does in “Colonialism and the Figurative Strategy of Jane Eyre,” that the portrait of Bertha draws on the racist beliefs of Brontë’s society, although it is more complex than a simple caricature.
The question of Bertha Mason’s race has been much discussed, and some readers assume that because her mother was a “Creole” West Indian, Brontë must have conceived Bertha as a person of mixed race. During the nineteenth century, however, the word “Creole” was used ambiguously, and often referred to “white” European colonists in Jamaica. Jean Rhys, herself of Creole heritage, makes Bertha a “white” woman in Wide Sargasso Sea, her retelling of the Jane Eyre story from Bertha’s point of view. As she describes the social conditions in Jamaica, the longer-established Creole slaveholders were scorned as “natives” by the newer colonial English, and regardless of their racial background, did not enjoy the full privileges of “whiteness,” yet neither were they considered “colored.”
It is impossible to read Wide Sargasso Sea without questioning one’s cherished assumptions about Rochester, but Jean Rhys merely embroidered and expanded on the ample evidence of his flaws which is already present in Jane Eyre. I will return to the question of Rochester’s guilt and responsibility regarding Bertha later in this series. For now, we’ll examine how Jane’s anxieties about marriage are intertwined with the events of the penultimate night before the wedding.
Jane’s trunks are packed for her honeymoon journey. Their tags, ready to affix, bear her new name. Once again, Jane muses on the strangeness of applying the name “Mrs. Rochester” to herself, and insists on thinking of “Mrs. Rochester” as someone else… at least until after the wedding.
To Jane, the white wedding gown and veil hanging in her room are “wraith-like apparel.” She goes outdoors, feeling feverish:
Seeking shelter from the wind, Jane goes into the orchard.
Jane speaks aloud to the two halves of the tree, telling them that despite their hopeless case, “You did right to hold fast to each other.” Looking up, she sees the moon as a blood-red disk, and hears a “wild, melancholy wail.” She brings some apples back to the Hall, and checks to see that a fire has been laid against Rochester’s return. At ten, he is still absent. Jane decides to wait for him at the gate. Outdoors, it begins to rain.
Impatiently, Jane sets out in the rain to meet Rochester, who appears at last:
Jane promises to tell him all after they get back to Thornfield; for now she is content, and Rochester is delighted at her demonstration of need for him:
Now, as in the garden conversation, Rochester alludes to Jane as a stray “lamb” and to himself as her “shepherd.” There, he was concerned to protect his “pet” from the dangers of the wolf, but here, the resonance is more obviously Christian, an allusion to the Lukan parable in which Christ speaks of his joy in recovering a single lost sheep. The metaphor is familiar in the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd,” and in many other Biblical passages. This aspect of her relationship to Rochester is one that Jane ultimately rejects; first because she does not wish to approach him with “lamb-like submission” (Ch. XXIV) and second because it wrongly places Rochester ahead of God and makes of an idol of him.
After changing, they meet in the library. Rochester asks if it is the prospect of the journey ahead that has her upset.
Jane sits at Rochester’s knee, and he reminds her that she promised to watch with him on his wedding night. He keeps probing to find what has disturbed her. Does she fear he will make a bad husband? Is she worried about “the new sphere” she is to enter? Neither. As she begins to explain, the clock strikes twelve. She tells him that on the previous day, she had been happy: “I think it a glorious thing to have the hope of living with you, because I love you.” She examined the wedding veil which Rochester had ordered from London as a gift, and thought how she would tease him about it. But that night, as a gale blew, she slept fitfully:
Rochester begins to grow concerned at Jane’s sadness and asks for reassurance.
Jane avows that she loves him with her whole heart. Taken aback at the “religious energy” and “devotion” with which her “upward gaze” meets his, Rochester feels an unaccustomed pain, and begs her to revert to a more playful, “wicked” way of interacting with him. Jane warns that she has still more to tell, and that he may not believe her:
In her dream, Rochester gallops away on his horse as Jane struggles to the top of the wall with the burdensome child, which almost “strangles” her. Straining to see him as he departs, she falls from the wall, and wakes.
Before learning of her Aunt Reed’s final illness, Jane had dreamed repeatedly of an infant; according to Bessie’s folkloric belief, such a dream was “a sure sign of trouble” to oneself or one’s kin. The same applies here, but the dream symbolism seems to go deeper, to Jane’s relationship with Rochester. It foretells separation, desolate journeys, and the ruin of Thornfield. But what of the child itself? Like all dreams, this one is open to interpretation. I think that the child is the “new born agony” of Jane’s excessive love for Rochester, “a deformed thing” which she tried unsuccessfully to “strangle” (Ch. XXII) and which is now strangling her in turn. (After the disastrous wedding, Jane compares her love to “a suffering child in a cold cradle.”) Alternatively, the child may represent Jane’s precognitive knowledge of her rival, for Jane has been unknowingly bearing the burden of Bertha Rochester’s existence since her arrival at Thornfield. As we will see, Bertha is in certain ways Jane’s “other half,” and in the dream they topple from the heights of Thornfield together. Finally, this terrified, piteous, feeble child is the orphan Jane herself, the symbol of her vulnerability and need.
Jane awakes to find that someone is in her room. At first she thinks it is Sophie, then Grace Poole. But it is a stranger, “a woman tall and large, with thick and dark hair hanging down her back.”
Jane says that the apparition reminded her of “the foul German spectre, the Vampyre.” She describes how “it” removed the veil from “its gaunt head,” tore it in two, and trampled on the pieces. Then:
Bertha possesses a “blackened” and “savage” face with rolling eyes, features which have drawn comment because they evoke an unmistakable racial stereotype. Yet it is clear from what Rochester says later that Bertha was either “white” or passed for a “white” woman (she is described as looking much like Blanche Ingram). A marital alliance to someone clearly of mixed racial heritage would have been unacceptable in Rochester’s social circle, regardless of the size of the bride’s dowry. Why, then, is Bertha described this way? One explanation is that Bertha, confined and maddened, represents the dehumanized condition of slavery which Jane fears in the state of marriage (note that Jane uses both the neuter pronoun “it” and the feminine “she” to refer to the apparition). In Chapter XXIV, Jane spoke repeatedly of slaves and masters; now those metaphors have been terrifyingly embodied in a nightmarish figure who tramples on the veil, the symbol of marriage.
This is the “second time” in her life that Jane has fainted from fear. The first time was during her childhood, when Aunt Reed locked her in the Red Room. In both cases, the terror is tied to loss of freedom. The vision follows immediately upon the dream in which Jane tried, and failed, to protect her “inner child.”
Despite the likelihood that Brontë is drawing on a racist stereotype to make her portrait of Bertha more viscerally frightening and underline the symbolic connection with slavery, we should also keep in mind that she regularly links swollen and darkened facial features with hatefulness, illness and death, quite independently of race. For example, the hostile and proud Lady Ingram has “inflated and darkened” features, and the face of Aunt Reed in her last moments is “disfigured and discoloured” as well as “livid.” Mrs. Reed herself imagines her son John dead, with “a swollen and blackened face,” while the corpse-like Bertha with her “lurid” face and “reddened” eyes resembles the undead “Vampyre.”
Jane asks Rochester for an explanation, but he can give none. He suggests that it was the product of sensitive nerves or another bad dream. Jane counters that when she awoke, she found the torn veil on the floor.
Rochester insists that the visitant must have been Grace Poole, whether or not Jane recognized her. He promises to reveal why he keeps such a woman in his house, when they have been married a year and a day. Rochester asks Jane to sleep in Adèle’s room that night and to lock the door; she agrees.
The time period of “a year and a day” is very common in fairytales, giving Jane’s prospective marriage a strangely mythic feel. It is also related to the legal concept of a statute of limitations (in the common law, for example, if a person lived for a year and a day after an assault, the assailant could not be prosecuted for murder).
Jane rises with the sun and weeps as she kisses Adèle, who is still asleep.
Of our five films, 1996 does not present this chapter, and 1943 confines itself to a single shot of a tag on Jane’s trunk, which bears her married name.
1970 is one of two versions to include the veil scene. It begins with Jane asleep in bed.
In 1970, Jane is unaware of Bertha’s entry into the room, and no mention of the veil is made the next day; it is not torn. Thus Bertha’s action has no horrific impact on Jane and does not illustrate her anxieties about marriage; it merely serves to remind the viewer that there is a mysterious inhabitant at Thornfield, one interested enough in wedding finery to place the veil over her own head. Given the “anti-Gothic” orientation of 1970, it is surprising that this brief scene (about 1 minute) was included at all, but it is well-shot (if very dark in my print of the film) and suspenseful.
In contrast to the other versions, 1997 not only shows Bertha entering the room and Jane’s terror at the sight, it also depicts the aftermath, with a needy, coaxing and hectoring Rochester working to distract Jane and redirect her attention to their mutual happiness. Chapter XXV receives a full 3 minutes of screen time.
The “wedding” motifs of dance, ring and veil are effectively tied to Jane’s fear of the intruder and her violent behavior. The racial aspect, and thus the link between the terrifying “bride” and the specter of slavery, are omitted (but understandably so, given the subject matter). Also, Jane does not get a clear look at the woman’s face, and thus cannot distinguish her from Grace Poole.
The screen is still black as Rochester’s voice says, “It must have been a dream, Jane.” Fade in to the billiard room; the table is spread with boxes and tissue paper.
(Jane, quite upset): “Edward, you said you were going to let Grace Poole go!”
“Well, I’ve made inquiries. And if I threw her out, the only place left for her is the asylum–” (Jane makes a noise of dismay and moves out of his grasp) “–and she has served this family very well, Jane. How can I do that? How can I sentence her to a life at Bedlam?”
In the book, Rochester makes no promise to get rid of Grace Poole; instead, he vows to explain, but only after they have been married a year and a day. Although she is not satisfied, Jane accepts his decision. The screenwriter’s changes seem intended to present a more feminist Jane whom contemporary audiences can admire: she openly argues with him and questions his male authority and his judgment. Interestingly, the 1997 Rochester reveals Rochester’s thoughts about Bertha under the guise of a conversation about Grace. He suggests that Grace is mad, and that were he to abandon her, she would be consigned to “Bedlam” (Bethlehem Royal Hospital), the infamous London asylum for lunatics. Jane agrees that this would be inhumane.
This scene is worth a look (among other things) for Rochester’s period-accurate puffy shirt, and the brightly-colored waistcoat which signals the dramatic shift in his mood. But I am not certain that a gentleman of the early Victorian era would have used his billiards-room as a changing room, stripping down to his shirt as casually as Rochester does here (and in front of a lady). His purchases would have been delivered to his private chambers. Come to think of it, it is unusual that the literary Rochester has no valet. Apparently he dresses himself and relies on the female staff to care for his clothing: the result of all those years of wandering abroad?
The question of gifts was already dealt with in the Millcote shopping scene, so it seems unnecessarily repetitive for Jane to reject another gift (and indeed it makes her look a bit sanctimonious). True, the literary Jane also says that she desires only his “regard” (to be given in return for her own, so that “the debt will be quit.”) But she also proposes that she continue to earn a salary after they are married (!) because she wants to maintain a degree of independence. It is not that Jane is too high-minded to value material comforts, but that a flood of gifts will put her in Rochester’s debt.
The dolls are probably Meissen figurines, costly porcelain imported from Germany as luxury goods (music boxes were also made in Germany and Bohemia). These figurines were very popular during the Victorian period. (Less expensive figures made in Staffordshire were imitations of them.)
“I’m so happy. You have made me so happy” is a terrible, flabby line, and the literary Rochester says nothing of the kind. “Tell me that you love me” is much closer to his demand, “Do you love me, Jane? Repeat it.” As in the novel, Rochester’s love makes him giddy and even more excitable than usual. None of the other versions shows how vulnerable and insecure he is, because they dare not challenge the hero’s masculinity. In stripping him of his emotional volatility and erasing his weakness, they fundamentally change the character.
The final shots tackle the underlying mood of uncertainty and foreboding, using a visual technique instead of a verbal explanation. The scene can be read on two levels. First there is the surface level of romance and the lovers’ delight in each other. But the artificiality of the figurines, and the camera’s insistent comparison of them with Jane and Rochester, suggests that there is something contrived about the situation (as indeed there is). This matches the “fairytale” theme of the book: Rochester’s head is full of moonbeams and here he literally sweeps Jane off her feet, but their idyllic happiness cannot last.
2011 includes one brief reference to Chapter XXV, which is interpolated among the other scenes of the engagement. In the distance, Rochester approaches on Mesrour, with Pilot following. Jane has been waiting for him by the bridge, pacing impatiently.
2011: “I am real enough.” He strokes her hair with his gloved hand.
Jane: “You sir… most phantom-like of all.” (Rochester looks worried.)
As we saw, the original took place on a dark and stormy night; Jane was soaked to the skin. Rochester pulled her onto his horse and kissed her (a touch of that eroticism is echoed here when Jane places her head against his leg). When they got back to Thornfield, they had the “unreal” conversation and Jane spoke of her dreams and the torn veil. 2011 strips out these Gothic elements and all mention of the terrible apparition in the night. Jane merely seems disoriented and somewhat disbelieving of her good fortune.
To conclude, only 1997 makes a serious attempt to convey the deep psychology of Chapter XXV. Jane’s terrifying confrontation with Bertha is included, but not her dreams of disaster and separation, her visit to the blasted chestnut tree, or her panicked search for Rochester. It’s a shame that none of the films shows him taking her up onto his horse in the dark rainy night and giving her a hearty kissing, gloating over how much she needs him. It would be a very Brontëan scene, but perhaps difficult to film effectively. I can hardly wait to find out whether the any of the miniseries include this part.
The rubric this time is abbreviated because there is less material to consider.
1943 skips over this chapter almost entirely.
1970 includes a well-shot scene of Bertha, but it is nothing more than a plot device; it sheds no light on Jane’s psychological situation.
1996 fails to deal with this chapter.
1997 has by far the fullest treatment and is reasonably close to the themes in the book, although Rochester is more hectoring and less worried than the text indicates, and Jane is more combative.
2011 includes only a brief scene indicating that Jane is preoccupied and restless about her future.