I’ve got a confession to make. It’s really shameful and embarrassing. Here it is: Even though I have both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in English, I’ve never read Jane Eyre, nor anything else by the Bronte clan. Despite all those years of reading, and all those Great Books crowding my plywood and cement block bookcases, that must-read novel never graced my shelves or put me to sleep at night.
I sort of knew the story. Young woman falls for the Lord of the Manor, discovers he’s got a wife stashed away – the madwoman in the attic – and, well, The End. In between there’s something about the young woman – Jane Eyre, right – wandering the moors, whatever they were, calling his name. I even knew that another, more contemporary writer, Jean Rhys, wrote a sort of prequel or companion novel to the book, called The Wide Sargasso Sea. So the sea must figure in somehow. The sea and the moors. It sounded moody to me.
And I knew it was written by one of the Bronte sisters, who all seemed to be one-hit wonders. From Emily, Wuthering Heights. From Anne, The Tenant of Wildfield Hall or Agnes Grey, take your pick. And from Charlotte, the book at hand, our famous Jane Eyre. But I had no idea how this young woman came across. Was she a victim, evoking sympathy for her pitiful plight? Or a heroine, impressing readers with her admirable independence?
And what of Mr. Rochester, he with the secret wife, the ball and chain in the attic making all that noise in the night? How in the world was the reader to think of him? As a poor, beleaguered husband, doomed to a loveless life with a loony spouse for whom he provided all he could? Or as a cruel, conniving tyrant who thought he could have his crazy wife and, well, his sane wife, too? I believe that’s called bigamy, and it’s not exactly a quality most women on Match.com are seeking.
A quick check on the IMDb reveals that through the years, Jane has been played by at least eleven different actresses, among them Merle Oberon, Joan Fontaine, Susannah York, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Anna Pacquin. Some of the actors who’ve taken on the role of the brooding Mr. Rochester are quite a stretch. Lawrence Olivier, sure; Ralph Fiennes ( He Who Must Not Be Named!), okay. But George C. Scott? Timothy Dalton? I don’t know. Maybe they were in the comedy adaptations. There were Spanish versions, and Japanese, too. It seems to be a story for the ages.
Let’s face it: Romance sells, especially thwarted romance. Girl meets boy, conflicts keep them apart, marriages are challenged at the last possible moment, tragedy ensues. (Am I the only one who noticed that, at the happy ending of “The Graduate,” as Ben and Elaine ride off the city bus together, Elaine is actually, legally, married to that other guy? That Ben, pounding at the glass of the church windows shouting “ELAINE! ELAINE!” was, I’m sorry, Too Late? The bride and the Ken-doll groom had already said “I do,” exchanged rings, kissed. So good luck with that bus ride, kids.)
But I digress. You may be wondering how I know so much about what transpires in Jane Eyre, since I (still) have not read it. Let me hasten to tell you that on my last trip to the headache clinic in Ann Arbor, marvelous city of not one but two very cool retro movie theaters, the 2011 version of Jane Eyre, The Movie, was playing. Starring Mia Wasikowska as Jane and Michael Fassbender as Rochester, it was handsomely done. So now I know. I know about that first wife, and the not-so-subtle nuances of her husband’s betrayal. I know how Jane came to work as governess at Thornfield Hall, and what a harrowing path she trod to get there. I know how the wedding was called off, and where she fled to next. I noted how this filmmaker played down the heroine’s wanderings on the moors, striking just the right balance of longing and consternation as she spurned the entreaties of her newest would-be suitor. And I know what happened to the madwoman, leaving Rochester finally free of her. A happy ending, sort of, but darkened by the circumstances that allowed him and Jane to be together again.
I still can’t say I’ve read the book, or know precisely how Charlotte Bronte plotted it, way back when. Who knows what liberties this screenwriter and director took? Maybe Charlotte portrayed Jane mooning around the moors for years, crying out his name. “Mr. Rochester! Oh, Mr. Rochester!” Or, one would hope, “Edward!” Surely they were on a first-name basis by then.
She must have had some sort of change of heart, forgiving him his betrayal; why else go looking for him? Or maybe – ooh, I just thought of this – maybe he drove her mad, too! Maybe there was something about this guy that made women crazy, really mentally ill, and it had finally happened to our poor Jane!
Sorry. It’s been a long time since I got my last English degree, and I never did study Victorian novels. My area was American lit, the more modern the better. I did take a few classes in modern British literature, but that was only because I ran out of American classes to take, and we had to show a little bit of variety in our studies. But hey. I’m a romantic at heart, and I’d much rather read something like this, with some history and substance, than today’s chick lit any day. Give me desperation! Give me thwarted love! Give me moors to moan on! Whatever they are.