Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Jane Eyre, divorce and the needs of the author

I've been watching the most recent BBC adaptation of JANE EYRE. I love that book, so it could be the worst adaptation in the world, and I'd still watch. Fortunately, it's pretty good, although I think Toby Stephens is too young for Rochester. Plus, too good-looking. When he says, "Do you think I'm good-looking?" and Jane says, "No, sir," I'm thinking, "Are you nuts???"

Most of all, though, I wish they'd shown more of Jane's childhood. We should see where she gets the grit and determination not just to survive, but to survive with dignity enough to stand up to Rochester.

But there's something else about the story as Charlotte Bronte wrote it that I've been wondering about: why, if Rochester is so miserable, does he not seek a divorce from his (insane) wife?

I have always assumed it's because getting a divorce in Victorian times wasn't an easy thing to do and it would have led to a lot of (unwelcome) publicity. However, I was curious enough to do some research on the subject of divorce and annullment.

In the text of Jane Eyre, when Mr. Rochester is telling Jane about his marriage, he says, "And I could not rid myself of it (the marriage) by any legal proceedings: for the doctors now discovered that my wife was mad...." (Italics in original text)

But according to my research, there seems to be enough evidence in the text to support the notion that Rochester could have had the marriage annulled on two grounds: that his wife was not mentally competent to give true consent and that he'd been the victim of a fraud.

Even if his wife hadn't exhibited all the signs of madness that she does later in the book, Rochester tells us "I seldom saw her alone, and had very little private conversation with her." Also, "My bride's mother I had never seen: I understood she was dead. The honeymoon over, I learned my mistake; she was only mad and shut up in a lunatic asylum. There was a younger brother, too -- a complete dumb idiot."

He's kept away from her and also kept ignorant of the family history of mental illness. I think one could argue that, as Ms. Bronte wrote it, Mrs. R's family knew she was mentally ill and therefore unable to give true consent in the legal sense. Since in those days, madness was thought to be hereditary, keeping the family history a secret is also a major deceit on the part of her family. Rochester also notes that "her family and her father had lied to me even in the particular of her age."

So we have a lot of deception here, and a suggestion that her condition was advanced enough that they felt they had to limit their meetings lest Rochester suspect; in other words, I think a good attorney (and presumably Rochester could afford the best) could likely make a case that Rochester had been seriously deceived to the point of fraud, and that the bride was mentally ill enough that she couldn't give true consent.

But there's more. Rochester also says his wife was "unchaste," which implies she committed adultery. Even if he couldn't get the marriage annulled, the possibility of divorce existed.

Charlotte Bronte was the daughter of a clergyman; presumably, she would be somewhat familiar with the canon law as regards annulment, at least. If Rochester had obtained a divorce, I don't think they would have been allowed to remarry in the Anglican church. However, they could have been married in a civil court. There may be something I'm missing, but it seems it might very well have been possible for Rochester to find some legal means to be free to remarry - if the author had wished it.

If Rochester were free or able to annul the marriage or divorce his wife, though, we wouldn't have her raving in the attic and sneaking around at night. We wouldn't have all those Gothic elements to entertain us.

But there's more to it than that, I think. By not having Rochester free of his wife, we get to see more of his character, both good and bad.

The good: He feels compassion for his wife and doesn't attach any blame to her for the deception. He doesn't send her to a mental institution (and anybody familiar with the "treatments" of the time will appreciate what a kindness that is); instead, he has her looked after at Thornfield. Grace Poole doesn't come across as an Angel of Mercy, and goodness knows Mrs. Rochester isn't getting any treatment, but it could be much, much worse. He also seems to be adhering to the vow of "in sickness and in health."

The bad: He's still selfish enough that he tries to deceive Jane, to make a bigamous, illegal marriage with her -- to trick her, in effect, in an even worse way than he was tricked. He admits he lusted after his wife, and married in haste, that he was partly responsible for the unhappy union in which he found himself. Yet he's willing to deceive a completely innocent woman.

What about his vows to her?

There's also the very real chance that his deception would have been discovered (Mrs. R's brother is still living, and so, presumably, are others in the West Indies who know of the marriage.) He doesn't seem to think about what will happen to Jane, how she'll be treated, and especially how she'll react if she discovers the truth after they're married.

At that point, he's still too selfish and self-absorbed to be worthy of Jane, and one could perhaps even question how much of his feelings for her are love, or self-interest masquerading as love. She makes him feel happy, she brings him comfort, he desires her. But how much weight does he attach to her feelings and desires and possible fate? Not a lot. This is readily apparent in the scene where he makes his desire known and asks her to marry him. Teasing doesn't begin to describe it. He torments her with the notion he's going to marry Blanche and Jane has to move to Ireland before he reveals that he loves Jane and wants to marry her. This isn't loving; it doesn't even seem kind. He's enjoying himself without, apparently, any real concern for Jane's tumultuous feelings.

Later, when the truth of his first marriage is revealed, he doesn't seem to understand, or care, that if they marry, Jane will have to lose her honor and her self-respect, the two things she can truly call her own, and that are at least as important to her as love.

Jane's running away finally forces Rochester to realize the magnitude of the deception he was about to perpetrate and how selfish he's been. Only then is he humbled enough to change, and to be truly worthy of Jane's love -- he finally "passes judgment." In fact, in medieval times, an "eyre" was a traveling law court.

Is it possible Charlotte Bronte made a choice between what could really, legally happen and what would make for a more exciting story?

Why not? I think it's quite possible, because this is something all authors of fiction do, some more, some less -- we pick and choose what we use in our stories, and where the line between "could be" and "must be" is.

I know where my line is, and what my tolerance is for another author's choices, but because we're talking fiction, it's really just a matter of opinion, taste and personal preference. As with so much of writing, there's no hard and fast rule. I personally feel strongly about keeping within the legalities, which is why I wound up totally rethinking part of the new trilogy I'm working on. However, I had more than one person wonder why I'd do that -- after all, how many people would really know that I had that particular point wrong?

Well, I would know, so I had to change it.

That's one reason I can't help wondering if Charlotte Bronte knew the legalities, and if she choose instead to overlook them for the sake of drama.

Whether she did or not, JANE EYRE is still one heck of a great read.


Michelle said...

Great post, Margaret. I can't wait to see this.

Amy Ruttan said...

Great post, I guess I never really thought about it. I just enjoyed the story,but now that you pointed it out I wonder to why he didn't seek an annullment or a divorce. King Henry sure did it enough and he was before poor Rochester.

I couldn't bring myself to watch this newest version of Eyre, I thought the girl playing Jane just didn't sit right with me. I still love the PBS version with Ciaran Hinds the best.

Margaret Moore said...

I like Ciaran Hinds in some things (Ivanhoe comes to mind, where he was the baddie) but he just ain't right for Rochester for me. Maybe because I've seen him in too many other things?

I just ordered another version on DVD, starring Sorcha Cusack. Accoring to some of my fellow Harlequin Historical writers, it's really good. I'll have to do a review after I've seen it.

KatyDoesWrite said...

Regarding the possibility of a divorce under the circumstances in Jane Eyre, Rochester certainly was the victim of fraudulent representation of facts, and could perhaps have gotten an annullment because of it. However, because the marriage vows apply "in sickness and in health," her insanity may create a sort of "catch-22" since it's a form of "sickness." I never could decide whether R's behavior toward his wife was a plus in the morally responsible column or a minus in the martyrdom column. (As for Henry VIII's divorce extravaganza, he caused a rift in the church that has had monumental impact on world history, but even so, the divorce of Charles and Diana wasn't exactly quick or easy.)