Jane Eyre: The Past and the Present

I’m rereading Jane Eyre, because do I really need a reason? And it’s reminding me that the Jane who has taken residence in my head – the calm, passionate, but reasoning, principled Jane – is only a finished product. She was not always so.

Revisiting the beginning of her story is highlighting the parallels and contrasts between the younger and the older Jane.

Jane’s passion, and thirst for fairness, is one of her most appealing, and identifiable qualities. In the passage below, she is vociferously declaring her need for love and affection to her callous Aunt Reed:

You think I have no feelings, and that I can do without one bit of love or kindness; but I cannot live so: and you have no pity.

Of course these lines immediately made me think of her impassioned speech to Rochester:

Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you? Do you think I am an automaton? – a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!

The older Jane is more eloquent when it comes to expressing her pain, but the similarities are there. In some aspects Jane doesn’t change. She has always longed to be loved, to be accepted. The younger Jane is more pitiful, sure, being a child, and being so isolated. But the older Jane, while armed with more maturity and confidence with which to stand on her own, still longs for her love to be recognised, and maybe even reciprocated.

On the other hand, she is certainly more stable as an adult. She is confident enough to stand on her own if the situation requires it, to be satisfied with her knowledge of herself even if the world deems her an outsider.

As a young child, she says:

…I know I should think well of myself; but that is not enough: if others don’t love me I would rather die than live – I cannot bear to be solitary and hated, Helen.

Reading this, I couldn’t help but think of the lines Jane utters following her failed nuptials:

I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.

I love those lines. They always make me swell with pride and admiration. Jane has grown strong enough, and confident enough in herself, to be able to stand up for herself. Even if that means standing alone.


Transcending the Gothic Canon

Gothic literature and I are pretty tight. What’s not to love? Isolated, looming mansions; floating, mysterious figures; sinister secrets. It speaks to the psychological thriller loving, mystery aficionado in me.

If you’re not familiar with this genre, a Gothic story will usually have these common identifiers:

  • an isolated, naive/idealistic/clueless protagonist (usually female);
  • who finds themselves in a large mansion (usually in the middle of nowhere);
  • the dark mansion will harbour a sinister secret of some sort;
  • that everyone else in the mansion is trying to keep from the protagonist;
  • this secret is a danger to the protagonist’s sense of identity, their physical well-being, and/or their emotional well-being (often it’s all three).

A very recent & delicious addition to the Gothic canon

How the author chooses to present these can vary. Sometimes there are supernatural factors involved, and sometimes it can all be explained away by good old logic. Other times people are just plain crazy.

Gothic literature is labelled such for the Gothic style architecture of these great, looming mansions that these types of stories traditionally take place in. Over time, of course, the settings have changed. The great thing about Gothic literature is that it creates these parameters in which it can discuss the “unmentionables”. (And I don’t mean underwear.) It’s the place where the repressed comes out, and it does so with a vengeance. Everything that’s been swept under the rug no longer stays dutifully under the rug. The rug is now alive with all your worst thoughts, doubts, and everything bad that you ever wanted to do. Thus, the Gothic becomes a space in which social anxieties manifest, usually into a tangible monstrosity that can be pointed at, marveled at,and unpicked and discussed.

“Gothic monsters such as the vampire and the Frankenstein creature, for example, should not be read merely as nightmarish configurations of twisted fantasies, but important metaphors for understanding historically-specific socio-political crises. As Jeffrey Cohen posits, ‘the monster is born only at this metaphorical crossroads, as an embodiment of a certain cultural moment – of a time, a feeling, and a place. The monster’s body quite literally incorporates fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy (ataractic or incendiary), giving them life and an uncanny independence. The monstrous body is pure culture.’”

Asian Gothic: Essays on Literature, Film and Anime, ed. Andrew Hock Soon Ng

The first Gothic novel I read was Jane Eyre, though I didn’t realize at the time that it was a part of this genre. Jane Eyre, published in the Victorian century, examined such outrageous notions as female anger, female desire and sexuality, and most outlandish of all: the female’s right to choose. Needless to say, sixteen year old me loved it. I did not expect to find a self-sufficient hero of  badassery garbed in a corset and sleeves wide enough to take out entire crowds.

Over time I have picked out and devoured various Gothic stories: Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankentein, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (possibly the first lesbian vampire story ever), and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. These are all the Gothic Greats for me. But over time my reading tastes have also shifted dramatically to accommodate the marginalised authors: from continents other than North America and Europe, of varying degrees of sexuality and backgrounds, authors who push the boundaries of literature and dare to depict the world as it is. And I wanted Gothic stories from these authors, too.

And lo and behold, I stumbled upon some magic words: the Asian Gothic, and the Post-colonial Gothic. The Gothic after all is about transcending boundaries, between the rational and the irrational, the natural and the supernatural. Who’s to say it can’t transcend geographical boundaries?

“… the Gothic has spawned many sub-species of itself including the postmodern Gothic, and more recently, postcolonial Gothic. This attests to the malleable nature of the Gothic to transcend its own historical, cultural and geographical parameters (its “canon”). After all, transgressing taboos, complicity with evil, the dread of life, violence, the return of the repressed (just to name some familiar Gothic themes) are not specific to any culture or people, but are experienced by all throughout history, although of course, the complexities in which these concerns take may vary from culture to culture.”

–  Asian Gothic: Essays on Literature, Film and Anime, ed. Andrew Hock Soon Ng

In Western literature, the Gothic, when talking about the repressed, and the taboo has also examined The Other. The Other can be the monstrous, the irreverent thing that’s supposed to be kept in the dark, but it can also (unsurprisingly) be the foreign(er). In Dracula, Count Dracula is from Transylvania, the mysterious land of superstition and irrationality, trying to insinuate himself into London, where his very presence threatens their structure of science and rational thinking. Not to mention he’s literally a leech on their society. In Jane Eyre Jane’s alter ego is represented by :::spoiler alert::: Bertha Mason, the Caribbean foreigner whose rampant sexuality and madness are supposed to counter the calm, collected, and always in control Jane. Generally speaking, the Gothic has not been kind to non-Westerners.

But the Gothic is exactly the type of genre to subvert the conventional, even itself. It even transcends its own canon, as pointed out in the above quote. How powerful is it when the The Othered take the very tool that has been used to oppress and Other them (the tool being the Gothic genre, and simultaneously the English language), and use it, in their turn, to throw off the oppressors? Post-colonial and Asian Gothic can redefine the old canon to make way for a different set of Gothic stories. Not only that, but they can shed light on a Gothic genre that is as old and as long-standing as the Western one.


Manichitrathazhu, a South Asian film with strong Gothic undertones

I’ve only just stumbled onto this concept of Post-colonial and Asian Gothic myself. Having read scraps of articles around this new canon, I would say I’ve only read two novels in this genre:

  • Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (which also fits into Caribbean Gothic, and is, incidentally, a retelling of Jane Eyre from the view point of Bertha Mason – talk about subversion) AND
  • Toni Morrison’s Beloved (which falls into Post-colonial Gothic, and details the horrors of colonization of the body and the mind)

This convoluted post is also a way of asking you, dear reader, for any suggestions for stories that might fall into this category of Post-colonial and/or Asian Gothic. I will be publishing another post on South Asian Gothic myself sometime in the near future. As I said, though, it’s a genre that I’ve only just dipped into and I would very much like to dive further into it, so I welcome any and all suggestions.

Doubting Rochester

(Be warned: This post is steeped in Jane Eyre spoilers.)

I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the web series adaptation of Jane Eyre (titled The Autobiography of Jane Eyre). The videos number up to 40 or so now, and the narrative’s reaching the point where Rochester’s and Jane’s relationship develops from being merely boss/employee relations to something significantly more. Cue the cyber-squealing.

It’s the turning point of their relationship when you start to realize just how much Jane is comfortable around Rochester (and vice versa), and just how much of her happiness is derived from simply being around him. It’s also when you start to realize how well they are able to read each other, something to be cherished for someone like Jane who has been an outsider for much of her life.
The Autobiography of Jane Eyre

During my early readings of the novel, I was an avid supporter of the Jane/Rochester relationship. Not simply because Jane was so happy with Rochester but because he was one of the few people in her life, aside from Helen Burns, who truly cared for her, and truly understood her. Their conversation wasn’t simply enjoyable because of the witty banter, but was satisfying in the way that the exchanges revealed each other’s characters, as well as the influence of each on the other.

But lately, all that lovely stuff’s been submerged by some not so lovely considerations. My view of Rochester and Jane’s relationship is not as rosy as it once was. Frequent re-reads make me doubt Rochester’s claims, and question the reasons for his actions. Considering Rochester’s astute understanding of Jane’s character, his manipulations and deceptions appear to be all the more outrageous and unreasonable to me.

Toby Stephens as Mr. Rochester (JE 2006)
There is no doubt that he displays a deep understanding of Jane’s character. In fact, his descriptions about her are almost scary in their accuracy:

“I see at intervals the glance of a curious sort of bird through the close-set bars of a cage: a vivid, restless, resolute captive is there; were it but free, it would soar cloud-high.” (Ch 14)

His most telling deductions are made in his guise as the gypsy woman:

“I see no enemy to a fortunate issue but in the brow; and that brow professes to say , – ‘I can live alone, if self-respect and circumstances require me so to do. I need not sell my soul to bliss. I have an inward treasure born with me, which can keep me alive if all extraneous delights should be withheld, or offered only at a price I cannot afford to give.’ The forehead declares, ‘Reason sits firm and holds the reins, and she will not let the feelings burst away and hurry her to wild chasms. The passions may rage furiously, like true heathens, as they are; and the desires may imagine all sorts of vain things: but judgement shall still have the last word in every argument, and the casting vote in every decision. Strong wind, earthquake-shock, and fire may pass by: but I shall follow the guiding of that still small voice which interprets the dictates of conscience.” (Ch 19)

From this extract, and from Jane’s actions which follow later (and which are in exact correspondence with this deduction) it is clear that Rochester sees accurately that Jane favours reasoning as her governing tool; that she won’t simply give into passion or even the opinions or coercions of others.

In that sense, I suppose it is obvious then why Rochester chooses to hide the truth from Jane. He remarks that though he hadn’t wanted to deceive her, he feared that the “early instilled prejudice” would have turned her against him. So he sees that the ever reasonable Jane would not agree to live with him as his wife, and thus saw deception as the only way.
Knowing this, then, the reader has to wonder: was he ever planning on telling Jane? Sure, he says he was going to, but one has doubts; would living with Jane only have made him even more reluctant to reveal this shameful part of his past? And even if he was intending to reveal that he had another wife (though he refuses to see Bertha in that way) did he think Jane would have continued to stay with him after the revelation? I cannot think that she would have simply sat by once he revealed this secret later in their marriage. I see no reason why she would not act just as she does when his secret is revealed by Richard Mason much earlier than Rochester had planned. I believe that if Rochester did stick to his resolution of revealing his past after their marriage, Jane would still have chosen to leave him (provided there were no children involved).

Michael Fassbender as Mr. Rochester (JE 2011)

Rochester is so bent on securing Jane’s love and companionship that he turns a blind eye to the truths that are so plainly revealed to him. Truths of which, by the way, he clearly and frequently exhibits knowledge! This is a man who knows and understands Jane on almost every level. But his desire to unite himself with Jane is so strong that he refuses to see the reasons for which Jane might object to such a union. That seems to me a selfish act.

I know he is kind, and is one of the first people to treat Jane with respect and without reservation (aside from reserving the truth, which in a sense is also an act of disrespect if one wants to put too fine a point on it). But it seems half the allure of marriage with Jane is the fact that she will redeem him. She does influence his views of the world, there is no doubt in that, but Rochester’s intentions to marry Jane seem to be simply another attempt at erasing his first, disastrous marriage.

Did he love Jane entirely for herself? Or did the thought that he could atone for his past actions, do a kindness in helping an individual who was clearly so alone, have something to do with his attraction to Jane?

“It will atone,” he says (in chapter twenty-three) once Jane accepts his proposal. “Have I not found her friendless, and cold, and comfortless? Will I not guard, and cherish, and solace her?” 

I don’t know if I should be miffed on Jane’s behalf that he viewed their union as a form of atonement for his previous one. There is desperation in those lines, desperation to right his past wrongs by some misjudged view that he is helping Jane by uniting her to him, when in fact, his actions would do the very opposite. Rochester, himself, states earlier, that Jane has that strength of character which would enable her to continue by herself if needed. Did he have to delude himself into thinking that he was saving her somehow, in order to procure the salvation he wanted from her?

Timothy Dalton as Mr. Rochester (JE 1983)
The more I think on it, the more it seems that Rochester’s actions don’t add up. And I know, ultimately, he is a plot device in Bronte’s attempt to tell us this story (and oh, how she loves her plot devices), and that will have consequences on a character’s actions, but as the hero of the novel, he cannot be free from scrutiny. And sadly, the more I read it, the less convinced I am by him.

From Lizzie to Jane

    No doubt all the Austenites have been keeping up with The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and all the fun and awesomeness that came with that bit of creativity. It was a great new platform with which to tell a story that’s already been told a thousand times it seems. And when it ended I felt a bit like a an old soccer ball – a bit deflated, without purpose, and weirdly . . . abandoned. (Issues. I’ve got ’em.) 

   But! Fear no more! Purpose has re-entered my life once again. In the form of…. The Autobiography of Jane Eyre! 

Mr. Collins, he feels me. (Um…)

  Two videos have been released so far. This group is in no way related to the guys who were involved in the LBD, though it’s meant to be in the same universe and Jane talks about how Lizzie was her inspiration for starting a vlog. (Is it weird that a little thrill of delight shot through me while writing that?) 

  Only two episodes so far, but what they have is great and I’m already so excited. I was a little tentative about watching it, but I can see how the Jane of the novel has been translated well into the twenty-first century. What I especially loved about the LBD was the way they wrote in the most significant and recognisable lines from the novel, something which left me very excited and gleeful and fangirling over the writers. And it seems I can expect the same with Jane’s videos as well. 

  Not only that but the quiet, observant and expectant atmosphere of the beginning of the novel is captured very well in the first video. It’s a sort of trailer. I’m kind of in love, I think. It’s Jane. And she’s in our world! Even more real than she was in my imagination. Talking about the same books and hobbies as us. Here, watch and be excited:

I can’t wait for the rest. 

     Lady Disdain 

Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre

As some of you may or may not know, I was dying for Cary Fukunaga’s adaptation of Jane Eyre to be released on New Zealand’s big screens already. It was advertised that it would be out on the 15th of September.

However, to my ecstatic surprise (and believe me, surprise can be ecstatic when it has anything to do with Jane Eyre) my friend and I discovered that it was actually out five days before the actual advertisement date. So after some fangirl squealing from yours truly, we quickly planned to go see it that weekend. When I say ‘we’ I actually mean ‘I’ as the other two friends are nowhere near addicted to it as I am – in actuality, and unfortunately for me, none of my friends are, but I was content in the knowledge that I could come home and rant about it on this blog.

I have been a huge lover of Jane Eyre ever since that first reading in my teenage years. I have seen several adaptations of the book – though not as many as I would have liked to see. And I don’t think I would be overstating anything if I were to say that I was utterly grateful and downright ecstatic to finally get the opportunity to see an adaptation of this beloved novel on the big screen.

The one thing that I can say, without a doubt, is that I was enthralled by the cinematography in this film. It is a visual feast for the eyes, with the rich colours, and stretching expanse of landscapes moving across the screen, not to mention the costumes and the setting itself. I don’t think Thornfield Hall has ever looked nicer in any adaptation. Thornfield in spring? Did you people see that? It all looked so fresh and green, it was almost as if I could feel the caress of the spring breeze, smell the newly formed buds, feel the prick of the green grass underfoot. It didn’t look dark and ominous, as most adaptations seem solely intent on making it appear, simply to emphasize the secret it hides. They seem to forget that Thornfield is supposed to be deceptive. Its grandeur does impress itself on Jane’s mind when she views the rooms and surroundings on her first morning there.

However, there was something about the film that didn’t quite live up to my expectations. I’m not entirely sure what it was. The acting, while wanting in some scenes, was actually very commendable for the most part of the film. Wasikowska definitely delivers on the subtlety front – her composure seems unbreakable, and yet you can see the mounting underplay of emotions. However, I did feel that she was a little lacking in regards to passion in the proposal scene. It seemed as if she was still managing to control a lot of her feelings, and though she says the right words, the tone doesn’t seem to indicate any rawness of emotions that is apparent in Jane’s dialogue in the novel. To me, Ruth Wilson’s performance in the 2006 BBC version is always foremost in my mind, whenever I think of the proposal scene. She’s like a burst dam; Rochester’s goading acts as the inevitable trigger and all her emotions and honesty just come pouring out. And perhaps while watching this film adaptation I was constantly comparing it with Wilson’s performance. However, even without that comparison it would not be difficult to notice the restraint that Wasikowska still seems to possess in that scene. I don’t mean to be harsh, but it felt as if, more than anything, Wasikowska was concentrating more on the accent than the acting itself.

Another aspect of her acting that I found to be utterly inexcusable was the in the scene in which she rouses Rochester from his burning bed. She makes a few trips to the water basin and douses the bed, and she is far too calm! She coughs a few times, and while there was urgency in her voice when attempting to wake Rochester, it vanishes when she actually tries to stop the fire. It is all the more evident when Fassbender wakes up and plays the part of a truly panicked Rochester. The contrast only emphasized (painfully, for me) the utter composure Wasikowska possessed in that scene. I honestly can’t believe that Fukunaga let it go. 

Having said that, the rest of the acting was actually quite satisfying for me. I’ve read several reviews which comment on the lack of chemistry between Fassbender and Wasikowska but I can’t really say I completely agree with that. I believe there was chemistry there – admittedly, not as much as what existed between Toby Stephens and Ruth Wilson, but it was definitely there. One of my favorite interactions between Jane & Rochester in this 2011 adaptation was just before the actual proposal, when Jane is walking towards that tree with Rochester, and he says “We’ve been friends, have we not?” and gently bumps his shoulder into her when he says ‘friends’. Ahhh…*swoon*, it was too cute for words, and really displayed the affection that he had for her. Even now, when I think of it, there’s this grin plastered on across my face.
Oh, and I have to say I loved Fukunaga’s unique take on the actual sequence of the film. Instead of simply starting with Jane as a young girl, the film opens with Jane’s escape from Thornfield, and her first meeting with the Rivers family. The majority of the film is displayed through many flashbacks, triggered by the questioning of the Rivers and Jane’s own reminiscence of what has passed. 

The secondary actors, too, were impressive. Of course, nothing more can be said of Judie Dench than what has already been said. She was a very suitable Mrs. Fairfax. Adele, too, I found to be much better and more memorable than the Adeles from other adaptations – she seemed to really embody the frivolous, childish girl from the book. I’m a little uncertain as to why Jamie Bell was cast as St. John – isn’t he described as being a statue-like Adonis? (But then again, they did cast Fassbender who is infinitely too attractive to play Rochester. Although I felt a suitable job was done of ‘uglyfying’ him. That first shot of him by the fireplace, where you just see over his forehead, I thought was particularly impressive – it just brought to mind Bronte’s description of Rochester’s heavy brow.) However, I couldn’t really fault Bell’s acting, and he was also very close in appearance to Wasikowska’s age which is one of the few selling points in the novel for St. John.

However, despite all the satisfactory acting and impressive setting, upon leaving the cinema I couldn’t help but a feel a twinge of…I don’t want to say disappointment. Because it wasn’t that. But it was definitely a feeling of not having been impressed by the movie itself. I felt that Fukunaga hadn’t really brought anything new to the already numerous adaptations of Jane Eyre. Yes, he presented the story in a different manner; yes it’s a bit dark and gothic, but then so was the 2006 version. I felt that the only truly outstanding aspects were the cinematography, setting and the music. I was able to appreciate that it is a 2 hour film – a film which condensed things quite admirably and with a certain aplomb, I thought – and not everything could be covered with depth in anyway similar to the book. But there was just that something that seemed to evade me throughout the whole film. I had been utterly ecstatic when I went in, just barely able to repress my squeals, and walking out I felt slightly deflated. Not completely disappointed, mind you, but just with the feeling that I hadn’t been impressed as I thought I was going to be. 

Honourable mentions:

Acting: The scene following the revelation of Bertha Mason, when Rochester begs Jane to say. It was utterly captivating. The acting from both Wasikowska and Fassbender was perfect. The lines have been changed, shortened considerably from that of the book, but even with what little they had to work with, the two leads do a superb job of portraying the raw emotion that is evident in the novel. I am not generally a weeper, but I think if I was I would have been bawling my eyes out in this particular scene. It was excellent!

Cinematography: The scenes of Jane’s little house on the moors when she becomes a teacher after leaving Thornfield: Wow! They were amazing. I loved the little dwelling set against the backdrop of the over-arching sky – especially the scenes at night, under the snow. I wanted to be there!

Final verdict: Skimming over this, it appears as if I didn’t like the film. Which is not the case at all. I did. And when it comes out on DVD here, I’m going to run off and purchase it and won’t stop hyperventilating until it’s in my greedy little hands. More likely the hyperventilating will increase. I think it was a case of great expectations – from all the rave reviews I was expecting too much, but Fukunaga does do an impressive job – that can’t be denied. And I would have to say it is my favorite film adaptation. The Hurt & Gainsborough version cannot hold a candle, let alone a torch, to this one in my opinion. I would definitely recommend any Bronte lover, or every any lit lover for that matter, to go see the film. It is definitely worth your while.