I’ve often thought that the Eurhythmics’ song “Missionary Man” could have been inspired by St. John Rivers. The Missionary Man, he’s got God on his side, he’s got the saints and apostles backing up from behind…
Stop what you’re doing
Get down upon your knees
I’ve got a message for you
That you’d better believe
St. John Rivers is not the namby-pamby fellow you see in the films. He is formidable, and he wants Jane. He’s every bit as dangerous as Rochester, but not as much fun. He’s a foil to Rochester, and he bookends Mr. Brocklehurst of Lowood. Brocklehurst was a pious fraud, but St. John is the real deal.
Jane’s relationship with St. John covers Chapters XXX-XXXV. This is a substantial chunk of the book, although the films pass over it in a few minutes. My object is to show how St. John is presented as an anti-Rochester, yet parallels him in some ways. The beautiful St. John is no less masculine than Rochester, but far more virtuous (though as we will see, he’s not quite the saint he aspires to be). Both men try to bully Jane into a union which would destroy her, and in both cases, she survives through a supernatural prompting—God or Nature intervenes at the crucial moment.
After her arrival at Moor House, Jane realizes that she has much in common with the Rivers sisters, Diana and Mary. They share the same taste in books, the same love of the purple moors and granite crags of the north country.
Only in drawing and painting is Jane superior to the sisters, but she is content. For his part, St. John is rarely at home, ministering instead to the sick and poor of the parish with his dog Carlo (the counterpart of Rochester’s dog Pilot).
Like Rochester, St. John is of a brooding nature; he enjoys no serenity, and despite his labors seems restless and distracted. He is not communicative, but Jane gauges his mind and character through his sermons:
Jane is sure that St. John has not yet found peace despite his fervent faith, no more than she has been freed from regret for her “broken idol and lost elysium.” Where Rochester challenged God and transgressed divine law, setting his own will in its place, St. John chooses the opposite path, of allying himself with God and (as we will see) pretending that God’s will and his own are the same.
After a month, Diana and Mary must return to their posts as governesses; Jane questions St. John about his promise to help her find employment. He explains that his new school for the village girls requires a teacher, for whom a cottage has been furnished by the kindness of Miss Rosamond Oliver, daughter of a local industrialist.
Like Rochester, then, St. John will be Jane’s employer, and he will test the limits of her humility. He warns Jane that the students will be cottagers’ children, learning to cipher, read, knit and sew. How will she exercise her own accomplishments and tastes, which he knows to be refined? Jane assures him, “They will keep.” St. John is gratified by this equable answer, yet he suspects in her a kindred spirit, impatient for a broader scope to exercise her abilities. Diana and Mary grow sad as the day of parting approaches, for they fear that once St. John travels to India as a missionary, they will never see him again.
“Sacrifice” is a word that appears frequently in this section of the book (and will recur at the end). St. John thinks that he finds in Jane “a soul that revels in the flame and excitement of sacrifice.” But while St. John sternly urges others to sacrifice themselves on the altar of piety, he would never dream of giving up his own plans. His future life as a missionary, while full of dangers and privations, represents no sacrifice of anything he values, but on the contrary, the fulfillment of his deepest desires.
A little later, St. John receives a letter announcing that their uncle is dead, and containing the depressing news that he has left them only ten guineas each to buy mourning rings.
This uncle, a wealthy man, might have changed their circumstances with even a modest bequest, but because of a quarrel with his brother, he had bequeathed all his fortune to another relation. The next day, Jane leaves Moor House to open her school, yet she continues to think about Rochester:
Jane believes that she will never know the “sweet homage” of a man again, for Rochester was unique in finding her beautiful. Still, she has “free and honest” employment. She has made the right decision, by the providence of God, yet she weeps to think that Rochester, in his desperate fury, may have strayed “too far to leave hope of ultimate restoration.” At that moment St. John appears, and notices Jane’s tears. He questions her insistently as to the cause, but Jane will not admit to being dissatisfied with her situation. At last he replies,
A year ago, St. John was himself “intensely miserable” because he thought his choice to become a minister was a mistake. He burned with ambition for a more active life, for power, glory and renown. Then he realized God’s calling: all his energies could be fully occupied in the life of a missionary, which required the skills of soldier, statesman and orator. Now it only remains for St. John to prevail “in one last conflict of human weakness, which I know I shall overcome.”
Even as St. John finishes speaking, they are joined by the beautiful young Miss Oliver, who has come to check on the school she funded. Mr. Rivers starts at the sound of her voice, but holds himself still, then turns “with measured deliberation.”
Crushing a tuft of daisies beneath his foot, St. John remarks that it is late for Miss Oliver to be out alone. She teases him by describing how she danced the night before with men from the local regiment. When he does not respond, she poutingly observes that Carlo the dog is not stern and distant to his friends. If only Carlo could speak, he would not be silent.
St. John’s chest heaves, but he curbs his impulses with a superhuman effort, and says nothing. Miss Oliver begs him to visit Vale Hall and her papa, but he refuses, visibly struggling to control himself, and turning pale. At last, she leaves, defeated.
Is St. John a cold fish, as his reserved manner suggests, or a man of great passion, hopelessly in love with the exquisite Rosamond? Jane knows a thing or two about hopeless love and passion. She suspects that this may be the key to understanding him, and feels compassion for his “sacrifice.”
Jane makes progress with her pupils, and begins to feel more satisfaction with her circumstances. She becomes a favorite in the neighborhood, and her days are full, yet she suffers invisibly:
After such interludes, Jane experiences “the convulsion of despair,” then stoically composes herself for the day. She is tormented by a love she feels compelled to renounce and suppress—not unlike St. John, she believes. She observes his agonies every time Miss Oliver visits the school as he is teaching the catechism. Jane paints a portrait miniature of Rosamond, and offers a copy to St. John one day when he brings her Scott’s new poem Marmion.
Marmion, by the way, firmly dates the events in Jane Eyre to 1808 or shortly thereafter, which means that the setting is well before the Victorian period–technically, even before the Regency. St. John admits that he longs to possess the portrait, but he will not permit himself that pleasure. Instead, he allows himself to think and talk about Rosamond for fifteen minutes, which he times precisely with his watch, a detail which reveals that he is self-disciplined to the point of absurdity.
Although St. John loves Rosamond “with all the intensity of a first passion,” he states that she would not make him a good wife: she could never be a missionary, and he will not relinquish his plans. Jane shocks him by remarking that he trembles and flushes whenever Miss Oliver enters the room.
Like Rochester, St. John is surprised and intrigued by Jane’s candid manner, but he insists that his feelings are not as profound as she believes; they are a mere fever of the flesh. “Know me to be what I am, a cold hard man.” Jane smiles, not believing this, but he confides further: he is guided by reason alone, not feeling. He is interested in Jane, not because he feels compassion for her plight, but because he considers her “a specimen of a diligent, orderly, energetic woman.” Subsequent events will reveal that this is the truth; despite his good looks, St. John does not have a romantic bone in his body.
Rising to leave, St. John glances over Jane’s painting materials. He tears the edge off the paper which she uses to rest her hand while painting, and pockets it, giving no explanation. Jane thinks this odd, but soon forgets it. The next day, he returns to her cottage in the midst of a snowstorm, surprising her.
After a long silence, he begins to tell a story, of a poor curate and his wife who perished, leaving a daughter to be cared for by her maternal relations, the Reeds. This girl was educated at Lowood and became a governess in the house of a certain Mr. Rochester.
St. John goes on to explain that it was a matter of serious urgency that the governess be found; advertisements had been placed in all the papers. Jane immediately asks for news of Mr. Rochester, but St. John can offer none; the inquiries at Thornfield were answered by a woman named Fairfax. Jane now fears the worst: Mr. Rochester has left England for the Continent.
St. John reveals that the slip of paper he tore from Jane’s paint stand has the name “Jane Eyre” upon it, and that this is how he came to know her identity. A solicitor has been seeking Jane because her uncle in Madeira has left her his whole fortune; she is now a wealthy woman, the heiress to twenty thousand pounds.
St. John rises to leave, but Jane presses him for the truth, and extracts it: her uncle in Madeira is the same man who cut the Riverses from his will. She and the Rivers siblings are cousins. Jane is thrilled: she has a family after all, and the means to repay their kindness. She will give each of them five thousand pounds and keep five thousand for herself. St. John insists that this is impossible; she cannot know what it would mean for her to be wealthy.
After more argument and hesitation, Jane has her way, St. John accepts her as a sister, and the instruments of transfer are drawn up so that each of the cousins possesses “a competency.” Jane reopens and re-furnishes Moor House as Mary and Diana return home, freed from the need to earn their wages. At long last, Jane finds a measure of happiness in the domesticity she loves so well. St. John, however, takes no pleasure in her arrangements for their comfort and chides her for frivolity.
St. John, Jane finally grasps, is a man guided entirely by reason and principle. He scorns his own sexual desire, and seems incapable of higher human love. Only the pure love of God is acceptable to him. His proper milieu is not the parlor but the Himalayas or the swamps of the Guinea coast. He will thrive in scenes of heroic strife and danger, devoting himself to great endeavors. He is the opposite of the unprincipled Rochester, whose keen sensibilities and overwhelming emotions led him to a multitude of sins.
Rosamond Oliver’s engagement to another man is announced, but St. John seems unmoved. One afternoon, he asks Jane to give up learning German with Diana, and to learn Hindustani instead, for he requires a study partner.
St. John now takes on the role of “master” which Rochester once filled, but Jane experiences his dominance as a constraint, not a pleasure. Jane’s nature is to be either completely obedient or completely rebellious. Now she falls increasingly under St. John’s influence and feels herself “painfully controlled by his will.” One night Diana insists that if Jane is his sister, he ought to kiss her goodnight, just as he does for herself and Mary.
St. John, as beautiful as a marble statue, also kisses like one, presumably another notable point of contrast with Rochester. But the “experiment kiss” reveals that St. John has his own plans for Jane.
Jane writes twice to Mrs. Fairfax, asking for news of Rochester, but six months pass with no reply. Then truly, her hopes fade. In spring, St. John asks her to walk with him in the hills. They come to a green turf spangled with small white flowers, and rest there. St. John announces that he is to leave for India in six weeks.
He marvels that everyone around him is not flocking to work of such importance, but Jane answers that if people are truly equal to such a task, their hearts will tell them.
Jane objects, but St. John speaks to her of Christian humility and duty; of her tractability in performing the tasks he sets; of the invaluable help she could provide as a teacher in Indian schools. Shaken by his masterly resolution, Jane asks for a quarter hour to ponder the decision. He lies on the grass not far away as she considers. Jane has no wish to go, but believes that she must not waste the rest of her life on vain hopes of reunion with Mr. Rochester.
Yet Jane cannot marry a man who does not love her. She is willing to go to India as his sister, but not as his wife, and tells him so. St. John vehemently rejects this as improper, for they are cousins, not siblings. Furthermore, he wants her absolute commitment: “I want a wife: the sole helpmeet I can influence efficiently in life, and retain absolutely till death.” St. John insists that he advocates in the cause of God. Jane replies with repressed sarcasm, “Oh! I will give my heart to God; you do not want it.”
St. John is surprised by her tone and says repressively that they must not speak lightly of the matter, nor scruple over minor caprices and trivial delicacies of feeling. Hearing this, Jane is all the more certain that to be his wife—to be always restrained, always checked—would be intolerable. She objects that she feels for him only a frank regard, respect, and submission to his spiritual authority. But this is exactly what he wants, and he comments that “undoubtedly enough of love would follow upon marriage to render the union right even in your eyes.”
Rochester had offered her love without marriage; St. John offers marriage without love. Jane can consent to neither. The sin in Rochester’s offer is clear to all the world, but there is a kind of sin too in St. John’s offer, a violation of the sacred, which he does not recognize. But Jane has known love, and it angers her to think that he values it so little.
St. John says with dignity that he has done nothing to deserve such scorn; he will be away for a fortnight, during which time Jane is to reflect further on his offer.
Once Jane had set up Rochester as her idol, her false god. Now St. John wishes to be obeyed as though he is God, but because Jane does not love him, he would manipulate her through her religious faith.
As they walk home, Jane feels the chill of St. John’s disappointment in her. She recognizes his austere, despotic nature, his desire to coerce her, for he is a man and she is a woman. Only as a Christian does he recognize that he must allow her time—time to repent, that is. That evening, St. John refuses to kiss her goodnight. She asks if she is forgiven, but he anwers only that there is nothing to forgive, since he has not been offended.
Over the next week, St. John subjects Jane to the lingering torture of his disapproval, freezing her out while remaining perfectly polite. Thus he reveals that he is at least as great an egoist as Rochester. He is a man deficient in loving-kindness, and deeply resents it when his will is crossed—indeed he can scarcely understand that he is not to have his way. The night before he leaves for Cambridge, she tries to be reconciled with him, but he is shocked to learn that she still has no intention of going with him to India.
Angered, St. John meanly tries to insist that Jane promised to go to India and is bound by that promise; if she doesn’t go with him, she must go as an assistant to another missionary’s wife. Jane insists that she is under no such obligation, but St. John now turns to a different mode of attack:
St. John leaves her in disgust, but even now he has not given up. Meanwhile Diana asks what has been going on, and when she hears of the proposal, she is indignant at St. John’s bullying.
On the night before he is to leave for Cambridge, St. John reads from the Book of Revelation, making clear that he fears Jane is falling into damnation. So powerfully does he speak, laying his hand on Jane’s head, that she nearly submits.
That St. John is a foil to Rochester is never more clear than at this moment. Each man attempts to bend Jane to his will, and each fails. Yet with Rochester, Jane’s submission in lesser things was a pleasure, while she feels every assertion of masculine will by St. John as a suffocating constraint. As a last resort, St. John tries an inexperienced hand at seduction:
Jane replies that she would marry him if she could be sure it was God’s will. St. John embraces her jubilantly, interpreting this as a yes. At this very moment of crisis and decision, Jane’s heart suddenly stands still, then thrills to a sensation “as sharp, strange and startling” as an electric shock.
Empowered by this visitation from afar, Jane shakes off St. John. “It was my time to assume ascendancy. My powers were in play and in force.” She commands him to withdraw and he obeys at once. Jane retires to her room to pray to God for guidance, and soon she receives an answer.
Jane’s “ascendancy” reveals that all of St. John’s religious fervor is no match for the power and certainty of love. Rather than accepting St. John’s word about what God wants, Jane herself reaches out, and feels that her soul penetrates “very near” a Mighty Spirit. In thanksgiving, she takes her resolve.
Of our five feature-length films, none in my view reflect the structural importance of St. John’s character in the story. Two completely erase Jane’s narrow escape from a miserable fate in India with a man she cannot love (and more to Brontë’s point, a man who cannot love her). Except for the omission of Rosamond, the other three present a reasonably faithful account of St. John’s offer. Still, they fail to show the powerful hold St. John has over Jane, or why she comes so close to sacrificing herself. All compress the story, so that St. John’s proposal and Jane’s response are covered in one scene, during their walk outdoors, when the supernatural summons arrives. (In the book, there are three distinct scenes and three refusals over a period of weeks.)
In the 1943 version, St. John has been replaced by a character from Jane’s childhood called “Dr. Rivers.” He finds Jane at Gateshead, her aunt Reed’s house, and tells her that he has received an inquiry about her.
Dr. Rivers: “Forgive me, it’s no business of mine. All the same, I do feel obliged to ask you about this letter. It comes from a lawyer in Millcote. He writes to me as the person whose name you gave as reference, when you went to Thornfield. That’s near Millcote, isn’t it?”
“A client of his wants to know your whereabouts. You know who is inquiring for you?”
(Jane nods, unwilling to speak.)
“It’s for you to say. Or would you rather I didn’t answer it at all?”
Houseman and Huxley’s screenplay dispenses with St. John and the whole Rivers family, as well as Jane’s “free and honest” work and her inheritance from John Eyre in Madeira. Readers of the book might well suppose that in refusing the letter, Jane misses out on a fortune, but in this version the inquiry comes from “a lawyer in Millcote,” and it seems clear that it is Rochester, not John Eyre, who is searching for Jane.
The letter reveals that Jane has no place to go, and is forced to throw herself back onto the mercy of the vicious Mr. Brocklehurst at Lowood. Of course, this has no foundation in the book, but it does create a crisis point to substitute for the missing proposal from St. John, and a suitably grim alternative to India.
Although Jane’s excited response “I am coming! Wait for me!” is just legible in the fake book, Joan Fontaine does not voice it. By amputating the St. John and Madeira storylines, 1943 leaves viewers with a lopsided understanding of the book, but as a device to get Jane back to Thornfield, these scenes are satisfying and effective. Still, I think there is a problem here, because the literary Jane is now an independent woman with means of her own. She can finally meet Rochester on equal terms. 1943 takes that status away from Jane, and she goes to Thornfield as a woman impoverished, with Rochester as her last hope. In order to remain true to the book, any adaptation must allow Jane to rescue Rochester, not the other way around.
1970 devotes generous screen time to this part of the story and offers one of the two best portraits of St. John. It’s a shame that Ian Bannen is not also fair-haired and devastatingly handsome, but he does his best.
Jane is outdoors painting a new picture, this time of the moors.
St. John goes outside to suggest that they all take a walk, but only Jane is interested.
Jane: “I’ll be a better judge of that when you tell me what it is.” (St. John strides on ahead, then leads her to a church.)
“Your sister has told me you want to go to India.”
“One can serve God in many ways.”
This is an interesting answer from Jane (and not in the book, though I think it is in sympathy with Brontë’s ideas on the subject). On the one hand, Jane acknowledges that St. John has a right to go to India, but on the other, her words imply that his way is not the only way.
St. John: “Let me show you something.” (He leads her into the schoolroom, which is attached to the church.) “I’ve had it mind for some time to open a school here for the village children. They have no access to education and therefore no hope of progress. You have a need to serve too, I think. That’s the only reason I offer it to you. The pay is poor, thirty pounds a year, but you can live with us.”
In the book Jane has her own cottage, and only later moves back to Moor House with the Riverses, after it is discovered that she is their cousin. But 1970 omits both Jane’s family tie with the Riverses and her inheritance. For screenplay purposes, Jane live must with them so that the film can show the kissing scene.
St. John approaches and hands her a letter she had addressed to Thornfield Hall. It is marked “Return to Sender.” Jane looks stricken. He asks, “Jane, what is it?”
Cut to the sisters, sitting by the fire in the evening. St. John is watching Jane play the piano.
Diana: “That was lovely, Jane!”
St. John: “Yes, you play very well.”
Jane: “No, I play a little.” (She smiles, then looks sad.)
St. John: “I don’t agree; you play well. Please continue.”
Jane: “I’m very tired. If you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll go to bed.”
Although fabricated, this is a pleasing little reference to the earlier exchange between Rochester and Jane about her piano skills. It stands in for the several passages in which Jane describes her persistent longing for Rochester, and how often she thinks of him.
Mary agrees that it is time for them to go to bed, and St. John kisses his sisters goodnight.
Diana: “Oh Jane, he likes you!”
This scene stands in for the passages in the book where Diana indicates that she would be pleased by a match between St. John and Jane–but not if Jane dislikes it, and certainly not if Jane is expected to sacrifice herself in India.
“I can see you are enjoying yourself.”
“Yes, yes I am.”
“Surely you find it dull. The larger portion of your mind you cannot use here. What will you do with all your accomplishments?”
“Save them till they are wanted; they will keep.”
This is where Bannen’s performance really becomes singular. He is more emotionally demonstrative than the literary St. John, but he is very convincing as a man seized by a religious calling, and the way he tries to overpower Jane with the force of his oratory is very St. John. As Jane, Susannah York gives the impression that she has been aware of St. John’s interest in her from the start, and has been sending discreet signals to warn him off. In spite of his forcefulness, we don’t feel that Jane is in any danger of succumbing.
“I knew at that moment that I had been chosen, that God would take me far away, carrying me into the regions of darkness. It was as if someone had lit a lamp that I never realized was there.”
“And what of love, St. John?”
“Of woman. I was thinking of you.”
“It has its place, but we must all bow to a higher love.”
“Can we love one without the other?”
“You place too much importance on human love.”
St. John thinks so little of marital or romantic love that when Jane asks about it, he at first mistakes her meaning. Jane’s point is that someone who renounces all human love cannot love God, for the two are inextricably linked. This is an interpretation of the book rather than a reflection of actual dialogue.
Cut to St. John and Jane, walking on the moor after church.
St. John: “Jane, I leave for India in six weeks. Come with me. God intended you to serve, as he intended me. Think what you could do there. You could run schools, help in hospitals, it would be glorious work.”
Jane (shocked): “Marriage??”
This was cleverly written, because St. John’s words reveal his assumption that Jane will fall in with his wishes. His actual proposal, insultingly, is an afterthought.
Jane: “But we don’t love each other.”
This is going too far. First of all, the literary St. John never admits an emotional need for anyone else; that would be quite out of character. Second, he is not this expressive. Only when he senses that his case is desperate does he turn to physical contact to persuade Jane, embracing her, but very gently, and in a calculated manner.
There’s something wrong with an adaptation when your Rochester is mostly cold and reserved (George C. Scott) and your St. John is a fiery preacher who seems to be genuinely attracted to Jane and expressing his desire in the only way he knows how. On the other hand, this St. John is definitely a foil for this Rochester, so 1970 has a logic of its own.
The screenplay perhaps reflects the popular mood of the late 1960s, the Summer of Love, and the ideal of Love as a cure for all the world’s ills. This is the “anti-Gothic” version, so the supernatural impact of Rochester’s call is reduced. Still, they couldn’t get rid of it completely.
1970 offers more of an explicit theology lesson than the book, but I think it’s a reasonable interpretation. Without the milk of human kindness, the spiritual teachings of St. John’s religion do not mean much. How exactly this connects with romantic passion is perhaps a more difficult question (that emotion being notoriously selfish). Still, the key idea here is a very powerful one from the book: Rochester’s need is desperate; therefore Jane must go to him, and do what she can to ease his suffering. Yet it is well to remember that St. John was the one who rescued Jane when her need was most desperate. He did so on principle, not because he felt kindness, but he saved her all the same.
The 1996 film starts out quite faithful to the book, but as the plot progresses, it strays more and more from both the letter and the spirit. As we saw last time, 1996 imitated 1943 by having Jane leave Thornfield and go to Gateshead after some aimless traveling in a coach (this being another anti-Gothic version, no storm-stricken moors are traversed). Here, Mr. Rivers is the parson Jane has already met at her aunt’s deathbed.
St. John: “You’re looking much better. The doctor is very pleased and you should be well enough to come down in a few days.”
St. John: “Miss Eyre, I did not want to excite you beyond your strength, but I have some very surprising news. A gentleman has been here, looking for you, a lawyer. I took it upon myself to act on your behalf.”
Jane: “A lawyer? What did he want?”
St. John: “It seems that your uncle in Madeira, John Eyre, has died and left you his entire estate. He always believed that you were alive, and he had the greatest faith that one day you would be found. You are his only surviving relative. You have become a wealthy woman.”
Perhaps Franco Zeffirelli observed that both 1943 and 1970 cut out Jane’s inheritance, and wanted to restore it to her. That is well enough, but as we will see, it creates a problem.
In the book, Jane receives no such heirloom pictures. Presumably this emotional scene is added in order to substitute for the literary Jane’s discovery that the Riverses are in fact her own cousins, that she has family and is not alone in the world.
Anyone who has read the book would scarcely recognize St. John here. Samuel West’s St. John, per the screenplay, is gentle, kind and considerate, if a bit reserved and formal. He is not the handsome, cold, domineering, arrogant soldier of God in the book. I think it would be impossible for the literary St. John to be undignified, even if he found himself naked as a jaybird in front of giggling ladies.
The supernatural summons is stripped of its proper context: it is supposed to save Jane at the moment of crisis, when she is about to fall under St. John’s sway. Instead, we are as puzzled as Jane. If the voice is Rochester’s, why does he call to her while she’s visiting Lowood?
Oddly, St. John does not speak the actual words asking Jane to marry him, and in this version there seems to be no question of going to India.
This is an example of how disastrous a carelessly written adaptation can be. Here, St. John proposes to Jane a few months after learning that she is an heiress. This sequence of events must inevitably raise questions about his motives, no matter how kind he seems to be. If this proposal had happened in real life, society would have assumed that he wanted her money. In the book, this was simply not an issue, because Jane had already insisted on dividing her fortune among the three Riverses and herself–and she only achieved this over St. John’s strenuous objections.
Jane gives part of her money to Lowood (what, to be administered by Mr. Brocklehurst???) and part for St. John’s unspecified “missionary work.” Her offer to St. John seems to acknowledge the possibility that this was the object of his proposal.
The screenplay, direction and acting fail to convey that Jane feels a conflict of any kind. She is in no way tempted to accept St. John’s offer, and he is hardly a foil to Mr. Rochester. In fact, Samuel West resembles William Hurt’s Rochester in being gentle and reserved. The only differences are that St. John is younger, less experienced, and not in love with Jane.
Jane is thinking of Rochester; presumably the offer of marriage has brought her mind back to Thornfield. She can now travel there as a woman of independent means. But there is no supernatural call and answer, no desperate need, no anguished prayer for guidance. Why should this Jane return to Thornfield, after all? What does she expect to find there?
1997 hews a bit more closely to the book, but Rupert Penry-Jones is too genial and smiling to resemble the reserved, emotionally stunted St. John of the book. Toward the end of his scenes, however, he manages to become a bit creepy.
Jane: “That’s very kind, but I must find some employment. I’ve worked as a teacher, so I must be able to find something.”
St. John: “A teacher!”
Diana (reprovingly): “Don’t, St. John.”
Jane: “A little.” (She smiles.) “That’s what all the schoolgirls say.” (She grows more serious.)
St. John: “What’s the matter?”
Jane: “Nothing. I suddenly remembered something, that’s all.”
This scene is shamelessly ripped from 1970. Rather than assuming that her audience will make the connection and get the joke, screenwriter Kay Mellor spells it out by having Jane look sad and say that she “remembered something.”
Jane: “I wish that were true. Other people have a different opinion of me, I’m sure.”
St. John: “It is the truth. Believe me.”
The literary St. John was not one to shower Jane with compliments, though he did admire her good temper, her work ethic, and particularly her habit of obedience.
St. John: “What are you reading, Jane? Anything interesting?”
St. John: “What for? Are you planning on traveling?”
Jane: “I’ve no plans as yet, but I would like to see more of the world.”
St. John: “I’ll give you a book on Hindustani; you can learn that instead. India is a fascinating country.”
This is true to the book, in that Diana is a woman of strong character and intellect who loves her brother, but disapproves of his high-handed ways. None of the films gives a really accurate account of Diana’s powerful impact on Jane as a teacher, friend, and cousin.
St. John: “Your help would be invaluable to me. I’ve been meaning to ask you for some time, but I knew you were busy at the school, and I didn’t want to distract you from what you were doing.”
Jane: “I’m not sure I’m capable of that kind of work.”
St. John: “You are, Jane. Trust me. I know you could do it. Yes, the work will be strenuous, but when have you been afraid of that? You have endurance, Jane. You will make a perfect missionary’s wife.”
Here the screenplay goes against the book. Jane agreed with Diana that St. John was “a good man,” but she was also quite certain that he would make a terrible husband. Jane was close to giving in, not because she rejected love as too painful, but because St. John was wearing her down by force of will, slowly “mastering” her. The submissive side of Jane’s personality responded to him (just as it had to Rochester, and later, Diana), yet this yielding was painful and destructive.
The decision Jane must make is represented by mixing bits of St. John’s speech with the remembered voice of Rochester:
Jane: “I’m confused. My heart won’t speak to me.”
Rochester’s remembered voice: “I love you more than I’ve ever loved anybody in my whole life… Look me in the eyes and tell me you don’t love me… say it!”
Jane: “I can’t.”
This bit of writing is good because it pits St. John directly against Rochester, and each uses all the force of his will to try to make Jane say and do what he wants. Jane’s “I can’t” answers both men.
Rupert Penry-Jones remains oddly smiling, complimentary and cheerful throughout his scenes with Jane. He doesn’t give St. John much of a dark side, yet he becomes suitably zealous and almost aggressive in the proposal scene. 1997 reduces the supernatural impact of Rochester’s voice by having it follow immediately upon Jane’s memories, as though the voice somehow arises from her own unconscious. Still, it comes at the crucial moment and its impact is dramatic. This version omits both Jane’s blood relationship with the Riverses and her inheritance from Madeira.
Of our five films, 2011 is by far the most faithful representation of the St. John interlude. Not only does the screenplay preserve the essence of many lines from the book, it also retains some key plot points omitted in other versions.
“I’m getting on very well.”
“Do you find the work too hard?”
“Not at all.”
“Is the solitude an oppression?”
“I hardly have time to notice it. Thank you, girls.” (The remaining students leave.)
“Then perhaps you are dwelling on things past.”
“It’s what I intend to do.”
“A year ago I was myself intensely miserable. I scorned this weakness. I fought hard against it and won.” (Jane only smiles, a little, and he continues.) “I wonder if we do not share the same alloy. You are ambitious, I think, and this little school will not hold you for long.”
The scene conveys visually what Jane describes several times in the book: her hidden preoccupation with Rochester and her erotic fantasies about him. The sudden substitution of St. John for Rochester suggests that he is a potential husband, but also that in Jane’s eyes, he would be a disappointment. As St. John, Jamie Bell is good-looking, but not the Apollo of the text, and he falls short of competing with the beauteous Michael Fassbender.
Jane (shocked): “Mr. Rivers!”
“I can guess your feelings, but please, hear me.”
“As you know so much, perhaps you’ll tell me how he is.”
“I am ignorant of all concerning him.”
“But he’s been seeking me.”
“No, he hasn’t. Mr. Briggs has.”
“There must be some mistake.”
“Not at all.” (St. John rises, remembering his manners.) “You look desperately miserable about it, I must say. Please, sit down. I’ve shocked you.” (He goes to get her some water.)
St. John: “–Is nothing.”
“You saved my life. Please write to them. This money frees us. They will have five thousand each, and so will you, if you’ll take it.”
“And if you will accept me as a sister, perhaps we could live together at Moor House.”
Jane: “I have been alone always. I’ve never had a brother, or sisters. Please, let me be yours.” (He hesitates.) “Are you reluctant to have me?”
“No, Miss Eyre. On the contrary. I shall write to my sisters as you request.”
This is a beautifully-handled treatment of a relationship which most adaptors find too complicated to show onscreen. (Granted, St. John seems to acquiesce a little too quickly, compared to his determined resistance in the book.) It also reproduces the novel’s brother/cousin ambiguity. In Jane’s world, there was no objection to first-cousin marriages, but of course a brother-sister marriage was off limits. Both here and in the book, Jane makes it clear that she thinks of St. John as a brother, yet he attempts to revise his role to that of husband.
In the book, St. John quotes this passage before he leaves for Cambridge, as a veiled warning to Jane that she must reconsider her rejection of his suit, or face damnation.
“Why this refusal? It makes no sense.”
“I earnestly wish to be your friend.”
“You can’t give half a sacrifice. You must give all!”
“To marry you would kill me.”
This exchange is a bit stilted because so many lines from different spots in the book are being joined together (the technique is reminiscent of what we find in 1996). Still, it’s a noble effort to represent the complexity of the lengthy argument between Jane and St. John.
There it is: St. John identifies himself with God.
Jamie Bell’s St. John is closest to the original–serious, even a bit grim, and surprisingly commanding. Still, there is no hint that he could overwhelm Jane with the force of his will.
This version is interesting because it is not Jane’s indecision at the moment of crisis which triggers the Voice, but St. John’s own invocation of Rochester: speak of the Devil! The influence of 1970, which also set the supernatural call on the moor, is noticeable here, right down to the shot of Jane hurrying away.
Time, dear Reader, for the rubric!
1943 incorporates suspense and drama, but is in no way faithful to the book.
1970 boasts excellent acting, a devout, overenthusiastic St. John, and an answering homily from Jane on the value of Love.
1996 prunes the Rivers plotline and misfires badly by having St. John propose to a wealthy Jane.
1997 has a handsome St. John but he is too boyish and does not follow through with a reserved and masterful personality.
2011 uses plenty of original lines, and has a superior retelling of the St. John interlude, making clear that he is a rival/foil to Rochester–even if Jane does not seem in danger of being overwhelmed.
Next time: Reunion with Rochester!!!
Such a big project, Linnet. Again and again I’ve found your writing has made me enjoy the book more than I ever have before. Thank you for it, I hope it is evolving into a publication for you. I at least know that you’ve found new friends and experiences as a result of writing these pieces so am glad for that as well as your effort in putting all this information together.
Thanks Ellen! I think the project will top out at 20 posts, more than I ever dreamed. It gets plenty of hits, though not as many as “What the Well-Dressed Roman General is Wearing,” LOL
Excellent again! And reminds me again how ahead of her time and emancipated Jane is when even in movies they can’t make her as strong as in the book.
Love the idea of Alexander Skarsgard for St John!
Thank you Esther. Exactly so… a close reading shows how wrong were the critics who claim that JE is not a feminist book. Maybe not in the modern sense, but it’s a shining example of a woman of strong intellect and character who sees no reason to put herself second to a man, or do his bidding simply because of her gender.
She knows what she does or doesn’t want and acts accordingly. “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will” – that quote says it all to me.
Yes, that quote is a gem.
This is the major issue I have with 2011. It makes it sound as if Jane is trying to buy her way into the family. Sure, it’s way too convenient that the Riverses are not only her rescuers/good samaritans but also her cousins, but come on! It’s like she has money but what she wants is a family and the Riverses, well, they are nice people. “Be my family! I have money! Please have some of it in return for your affections!” That’s such a big misfire.
Other than that, your observations are spot on as usual! ❤ St John is supposed to be a cold fish (he’s a bit creepy in the book, tbh) but he’s rarely that on screen. We have yet to experience a perfect adaptation of this novel …
Thanks Traxy. How do you feel about the way Brontë herself handles the issue? St. John is a bit affronted by her offer to share the money and assures Jane that he will be a brother to her whether or not she shares it. But Jane insists. I think Brontë saw that as a practical matter, Jane could not keep all the money and avoid some feelings of resentment from her newly discovered family, even if they would never dream of voicing it. So I didn’t see her as trying to buy their affection (she knew she had that) but as an expression of family feeling. That’s a very complex and difficult thing to express on film, which is why other versions have cut this part out completely.