Inspecting the handwriting of an author, even one born in a century long-past, brings you to a direct apprehension of her (or his) personhood. Or so I often say, and the Charlotte Brontë exhibition at the Morgan Library in New York has only strengthened my conviction. The show is filled with works from her pen: the miniature books she created with her siblings when they were children; letters she wrote while toiling miserably as a governess; even a full manuscript of Jane Eyre, which has never before been seen in the US.
Just as fascinating are her paint box, with unused wafers of watercolor paint, and her portable writing desk, with pens, materials for sealing letters, and a heavily-ruled guide sheet to place under the paper, so that her lines would be straight on the page.
Viewing the exhibition helped me gather the wit and will to continue with this series, which has now reached a low point in Jane’s fortunes. I never thought it could be anyone’s favorite part of the book, until I discovered Reader, I Married Him, edited by Tracy Chevalier. It’s a collection of stories inspired by Jane Eyre, and in it, Chevalier reveals that the most memorable part of the tale for her is Jane’s ordeal after leaving Thornfield. It is a story of strength in the face of utter despair.
Chapter XXVIII does not romanticize Jane’s experience as a penniless, homeless, bereft woman. True, it refrains from exploring the degradations to which countless women in her situation were forced in that pitiless age. Selling her body does not occur to Jane, for as we have already seen, she would rather die than dishonor herself. And yet, she finds that dying for a principle is not so easily accomplished, because she has a strong will to survive.
After two days of travel in the coach, the coachman can take Jane no farther for the fare she paid. He sets her down at a place called Whitcross. After he has gone, she realizes that her parcel is still in the coach. She is destitute.
Still wary of anyone who might question her, Jane wades into the heath and after some time, sits under a granite crag to rest. At last she begins to reflect on her situation.
In the bosom of Mother Nature, Jane eats her remaining morsel of bread with some foraged berries, says her prayers, and composes herself to sleep on the moor, still grieving for “Mr. Rochester and his doom.”
During the night, she gets to her knees to pray for Rochester, and is comforted by the knowledge of God’s mightiness as revealed in the starry sky. She wakes to a sunny morning, but regrets that God had not taken her while she slept, that she might be at peace. Instead, she must endure whatever is to come. Returning to Whitcross, she hears a bell chime. After a long time of walking, she approaches a village.
Jane considers what she might trade for a piece of bread. She enters the shop, planning to offer the shopwoman her gloves, but is too ashamed to make the request. Instead she asks if there is work in the village for seamstresses, or servants. She receives only negative answers, and finally leaves the shop. At a loss, she wanders the village, sometimes sitting down to rest, and growing more and more hungry. Finally, she knocks at the door of a pretty little house and asks if a servant is wanted. Again, the reply is negative.
Again Jane wanders, drawing near houses, then leaving again, “like a lost and starving dog.” She approaches the church and knocks at the door of the parsonage, but the parson is absent, and once again she is too ashamed to ask for help. Returning to the village, she enters the shop again:
Jane writes that the pain of the experience, both physical and emotional, was so great that years later she can scarcely bear to describe it. At last, a little before dark, she begged a piece of bread from a farmer eating his supper. He cut her a thick slice of his loaf. After eating it, she retreated to the wood, passing a wretched night. Then the rain started.
Brontë could have passed over this ordeal much more quickly, but she chooses to emphasize the humiliation of Jane’s position. At first too proud to beg for food, Jane is ultimately forced to do so. Rather than retreating to the moor to die in peace, she wanders the village, driven by her physical need, and at last accepts food that even an animal has rejected.
That evening, Jane considers whether she may die of exposure during the night, and asks why she cannot reconcile herself to this fate. There are two reasons:
Having wandered onto the moor again, Jane reflects that to die there would be better than in a street or a busy road. Far off among the marshes she sees a light, which may be a candle in a far-off house or a will o’the wisp. In any case, it is too far off for her to reach. She sinks down against the ground as the rain continues, but at last, driven by some instinct of survival, she rises.
In the dark of night, Jane crosses a marsh, at last reaching a hedge and gate. She approaches the house and looks in the small window which gives off the light.
Within sat an elderly woman knitting, and others:
The dog and cat signal comfortable domesticity: recall that when Jane first glimpsed Mrs. Fairfax, she was knitting before the fire, with a large cat beside her feet. But the image of the happy pets also recalls Jane’s description of herself as a lost and starving dog, an idea she will revert to again.
Jane describes the young women’s faces as somehow familiar. They were not handsome, but thoughtful as they pored over thick books and consulted smaller ones, like people translating a foreign language. Jane hears their conversation, which confirms that they are reading German and hope to teach it. One was Diana and the other, Mary. Their father, the occupant of the house, had suddenly died, and their brother St. John had sent for them. He was absent, but expected soon.
To one of Jane’s temperament, the sight of ladies engaged in serious study, with their piles of books, was like beholding a vision of heaven. Dickens would have shown the starving Jane gazing through the window at a roast goose or a fruit pie. But Brontë has her stare longingly at a loving family, occupied with study and intelligent conversation.
When the servant Hannah goes to prepare the meal, Jane knocks on the door and asks to speak to the ladies. Hannah harshly questions her, rebuffing her request of shelter for the night and a morsel of bread.
Pitilessly the servant shuts the door in her face and Jane sinks down on the doorstep. She groans in anguish, believing this to be her last hour.
The speaker is the ladies’ brother, St. John Rivers. Hannah opens the door to him, and exclaims at the continuing presence of the “beggar-woman,” telling Jane to move off.
The moment of Jane’s discovery by St. John is, not surprisingly, a favorite among illustrators.
Again, Brontë avoids romanticizing the scene. It would be more exciting to have Jane faint on the rainy moor and be rescued by St. John (as indeed happens in the 1997 film adaptation). But this would be to misrepresent St. John, who is decidedly not the romantic type. He doesn’t even offer to help Jane up.
With difficulty, Jane obeys and stands trembling before the hearth, surrounded by the Rivers family and their servant. Able to stand no longer, she drops into a chair. Diana and Mary receive her with curiosity and compassion, removing her soaked bonnet and giving her some bread dipped in milk.
St. John continues to question her, but she is unwilling to say more. When St. John and Diana ask whether they are to turn her back out into the rain, Jane says:
This may be over-interpretation, but Jane’s comparison of herself to a dog who has lost its master reminds me both of Jane’s references to Rochester as her “master,” and of Rochester’s oft-used metaphor of the lost lamb. The dog is the more abject and humble animal, but also the more faithful.
After a time, Jane is conducted to a room, undressed by Hannah the servant, and put to bed. She thanks God for her deliverance and falls asleep. As Chapter XXIX begins, Jane remarks that she remembers very little of the next three days, during which she was lethargic and unable to move or speak. Diana and Mary visited her once or twice a day, whispering to each other:
St. John visits only once, and declares that her near-comatose state is the result of excessive fatigue; she needs rest. Looking at Jane’s face, he comments that she has an “unusual physiognomy,” but “not indicative of vulgarity or degradation.” He thinks that she is a young lady who has run away from her friends after some quarrel.
While the sisters are compassionate, kind and discreet, St. John is harsh but honest. His assessment of her looks is nothing Jane hasn’t heard before, but how unchivalrous to voice it, even when he thinks she is asleep. St. John and Rochester share the quality of bracing directness, yet Rochester was always exquisitely attuned to Jane’s reactions, whereas St. John is incapable of even guessing at them.
On the fourth day, Jane is able to rise from her sickbed. After making herself neat and presentable, she descends to the kitchen, makes her peace with Hannah, who now recognizes her as a lady, and helps with the day’s baking.
She learns that St. John is the parson of the village a few miles off. The Riverses are an old family, but fallen on difficult times. The girls have no dowries and are obliged to work as governesses. The Riverses return for their tea.
The two sisters insist that Jane not sit in the kitchen, like a servant, but come to the parlor for tea, which they will themselves prepare.
In this section, the class distinctions of nineteenth-century England reassert themselves. During Jane’s exchange with Hannah, she reproaches the servant for calling her a “beggar,” even though Jane had begged in the village, repeatedly, and at the Rivers’ door. But as far as Charlotte Brontë was concerned, there was a crucial difference between Jane and other people who begged; Jane was educated, and only temporarily in need. Still, the episode reveals how fragile was the distinction between genteel poverty and beggary for women like Brontë.
Jane is left alone with St. John, who ignores her, giving his attention to a book. The room is comfortably but plainly furnished. Jane turns her eyes to St. John:
The description of St. John emphasizes his unusual physical beauty: he is like a Greek god, but with nordic coloring, a blue-eyed, blond Apollo. All this is by design, of course, for St. John is the foil to Rochester. Where Rochester is of medium height and “athletic” (muscular) build, St. John is tall and slender. Where Rochester is dark, ugly, and fortyish, St. John is fair, handsome and a decade younger, much closer to Jane’s age.
Despite his beauty, St. John gives an impression of restlessness and severity. When the tea comes, he questions Jane with “unceremonious directness.”
St. John asks whether Jane has ever been married. She replies that she has not, but her face burns. Under St. John’s relentless gaze, a few tears form in her eyes.
Jane admits that she owes the Riverses her life, and promises to tell all she can without compromising her peace of mind and security. She tells of her stay at Lowood and how she became a governess, omitting the personal details, but assuring them that no blame attached to her when she departed her last position. She states that she prefers to be called Jane Elliot, though that is not her real name. Above all, she wants to find work.
None of our five feature-length films gives an accurate description of Jane’s ordeal, and all omit the begging. Why, I wonder? Is it because showing the village would have increased production costs for the sake of only a few brief scenes? Or were the reasons less practical, and more to do with squeamishness about showing our heroine in such undignified straits? In two cases, the story has been altered so that Jane flees not to the moors, but to her aunt’s home at Gateshead Hall. The 1943 version was the first to use this device.
Approaching the house, she sees the servant Bessie emptying something into a bin outside the door.
Bessie’s words refusing employment hint at the reaction of Hannah and the other women of the village near Whitcross, but her behavior is far different; like the Riverses, she proves to be more generous to a vagrant woman. Jane is disappointed that Bessie doesn’t recognize her, but she enters the kitchen and removes her wrap, revealing her one ornament.
“Jane! Jane Eyre! A grown lady, and you were such a tiny thing, no higher than a broomstick. Oh, Miss Jane.” (A bell rings.) “That’s your poor aunt.”
In this version, Jane’s Aunt Reed is still alive (though ill), whereas in the book, her death occurred while Jane was still living at Thornfield. (For discussion of the other Aunt Reed scenes, see my Part 11: Aunt Reed’s Deathbed.)
Jane (ashamed): “Don’t tell Aunt Reed I’m here, or Cousin John, or anyone.”
Bessie: “Master John isn’t here any more. As soon as he was of age, he was off to London. Gambling, that’s what it was. Thousands and thousands of pounds the missus paid for him. She had to shut up most of the house, and turn off the other servants. But still he kept plaguing her for money. Then, last summer, he killed himself, Miss Jane. They found him hanging in his room, and the cards still on the table where he’d played the night before. When they told the Missus, she had a kind of stroke, wandering like, in her mind. (The bell rings again; Jane follows Bessie.)
Aunt Reed: “Is that you Bessie?” (Seeing Jane) “Who are you? Go away.”
“I’m Jane, Aunt Reed. Jane Eyre.”
“Jane Eyre. Nobody could know the trouble I’ve had with that child. Little pauper rat… should have been in workhouse…” (She gradually becomes more alert.) “Jane. Jane Eyre…” (Sounding pitiful) “Oh, don’t leave me, Jane! Please don’t leave me.”
“I won’t leave you.”
This development conveniently solves Jane’s immediate problem of food and shelter, at least for the moment. In the book, the confrontation with Aunt Reed serves a different purpose; Jane is not reconciled to her aunt, but she forgives her nevertheless and achieves a kind of emotional closure with her past.
Bessie to an unseen caller: “No sir, Missus can’t see nobody. She’s been ill for months.”
The Stranger: “Oh, I’m sorry, I wanted to make some enquiries about a niece of hers, Miss Eyre.”
“Oh, would you wait inside a moment, sir.” (Bessie enters.) “A gentleman to see you, Miss Jane.”
“Oh, I don’t want to see him, I don’t want to see anyone.”
“Now don’t be foolish. You can’t live all alone, like the man in the moon. I’ll sit with the Missus. Run along now, he’s waiting.”
Doctor Rivers takes the place of the novel’s St. John Rivers, but as we will see, most of the St. John plot is omitted. 1943’s “Doctor Rivers” was always a father figure rather than a potential suitor and rival to Rochester, as St. John is.
1970, reacting as always against 1943, sticks to the basic storyline and shows us Jane’s ordeal, though it is not as harrowing as the original.
Cut to Jane, her face dirty and hair disheveled, lying on a couch. Around her, voices are heard dimly.
Jane is silent.
1970 represents Jane’s experience as a dreamlike, almost delirious journey, from which she awakes deeply traumatized. The visual medium is used effectively to compress the story: Jane’s rescue from the moor by St. John is implied but not shown, nor is the process of reviving her. Unlike the Jane of the book, 1970 Jane is utterly silent.
“He works very hard; he’s devoted to the church.”
“Yes, he wants to go to India, doesn’t he, Di, as a missionary.”
Diana: “Her name is Jane Eyre. She’s a governess. She left her last post for reasons that are personal and private, and she doesn’t wish to answer any questions.”
St. John (dryly): “Naturally… My sisters seem to have everything arranged. I’ll do what I can.”
Jane: “Thank you.”
The sisters, played by Kara Wilson and Michele Dotrice, are satisfyingly assertive toward St. John and protective of Jane, very much as in the novel, even if we don’t see the intellectual qualities which so endeared them to Jane. Ian Bannen, who plays St. John in the 1970 version, is cast against type; he’s a dark man with an intense gaze. (Bannen is perhaps best known as Jim Prideaux in the Alec Guinness version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.) Here he adopts a slightly creepy, Roddy McDowall-like manner. While he has St. John’s forbidding reserve, he’s hardly as beautiful as an Greek god, and we don’t sense that he could be a rival to Rochester.
Of the other St. Johns, Samuel West and Jamie Bell are both attractive but not heartbreakingly so. Only Rupert Penry-Jones fulfills Brontë’s description of St. John, with his fine eyes, straight classical nose and “Athenian mouth.” Only Bannen, however, and to a lesser degree Bell, convey St. John’s rigidity of manner and his missionary zeal. Penry-Jones is far too gentle and sweet, a foil to Ciarán Hinds’ Rochester, certainly, but in a way different from the book.
1996 adopts the same plot device as 1943, passing over Jane’s ordeal in a quick voiceover, and having her return to Gateshead Hall, where Mr. Rivers is the local clergyman. In this version, Jane had already met him and his sisters briefly, when she attended her Aunt Reed’s sickbed.
Jane’s voiceover is an almost verbatim crib from 1943, substituting Mr. Rivers for “Bessie who had once been kind to me.” I’m not sure whether to call this an homage or a lazy, derivative way of getting Jane to the next stage in the story.
For whatever reason, both Jane’s departure from Thornfield and her ordeal are given short shrift in 1996. It makes no sense to me that Jane traveled aimlessly about the country in a carriage for “many days,” spending money on transport to nowhere. (At least 1943 has the penniless Jane arriving at Gateshead on foot.) It is no surprise that the moor and its fascinations are cut from this anti-Gothic version.
For me, 1997 is the most satisfying retelling of Jane’s ordeal, even if it is overly romanticized and lacks the begging scenes. Here the influential model is 1970.
“Poor little soul. I wonder what happened to her.”
“No doubt she’s endured great suffering.” (He leans closer.) “What is your name?”
St. John: “Moor House has been a different place since you arrived.”
“That’s very kind, but I must find some employment. I’ve worked as a teacher, so I ought to be able to find something.”
St. John: “A teacher…”
Mary: “Don’t, St. John.”
St. John: “Well, if she’s strong enough to work…”
Screenwriter Kay Mellor grasps that St. John is meant to be a rival suitor for Jane, and makes his personality attractive and gentle, working against the grain of the book. This St. John seems delighted with Jane from the start, even smitten. He has the Christian piety of the literary St. John, but lacks his nearly superhuman willpower and religious zeal. Still, this version earns points for acknowledging the religious themes. As in 1996, there is only one Rivers sister.
2011 includes perhaps the most accurate representation of Jane’s wandering, though it too omits the begging scenes. The narrative flow is weakened, however, by the use of flashbacks. As the film begins, we see Jane on the moor, where she wanders through mud, rain and night.
Interestingly, every version except 1943 involves a rescue of Jane after she collapses. The Jane of the book is made of stronger stuff and does not faint; even when her body gives out, her mind is still alert enough to surrender herself to whatever fate God has planned. Here, instead of bidding Jane rise and precede him into the house, St. John romantically carries her.
St. John: “I found her at the door.”
“She’s white as death!”
“Hannah, some of that hot milk.”
“St. John, we would have found her a corpse in the morning, and she would have haunted us for turning her away.”
“She’s no vagrant, I’m sure of it.”
“Tell us how we may help you.”
(A mocking voice says, “Jane.”)
(The voice continues, “Where are you?”)
Jane (fearfully): “Must I?”
At this point, the scene dissolves to show us Gateshead, where a young John Reed is stalking his cousin Jane; the film continues with the story of young Jane, Lowood, and the events at Thornfield. When Jane finally flees Rochester, we again see her progress onto the moor…
It is tempting for both filmmakers and viewers (to say nothing of readers) to pass quickly over the non-Rochester parts of the story, but both the Lowood interlude and the Riverses are essential to understanding Jane’s life. Not coincidentally, both episodes include important religious elements. St. John is a foil not only to Rochester, but to Brocklehurst, the sadistic and miserly director of Lowood. Where Brocklehurst is a hypocrite, St. John is a true believer, but his charity is based on principle, not the compassion his sisters (and Helen Burns) show. In the next section, we will look more closely at St. John and what he represents for Jane.
But now, it’s time for the rubric!
1943 is one of the least faithful versions; moving Aunt Reed to the end is a distraction and doing away with St. John distorts the book’s symmetries.
1970 is reasonably faithful and beautifully directed. St. John is not cast according to type, but both Bannen and York are excellent here; Jane’s trauma is well-played.
1996 is disappointing because it avoids showing Jane’s ordeal, but still cashes in on the crowd-pleasing device of having her faint. Actress Charlotte Gainsborough is given little to do.
1997 is the most romantic version and has a suitably handsome St. John, even if he is not cold and forbidding. Direction resembles 1970, in a good way.
2011 has clever use of flashbacks, a detailed portrayal of Jane’s ordeal, and a good performance by Jamie Bell, but the structure might be confusing to someone who never read the book.