Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Why Jane endures

I saw the latest movie version of Jane Eyre on the weekend. It was okay but I prefer the version with George C. Scott, because I think he's a good Rochester. The new Rochester is a little too pretty. On the other hand, nobody would ever call Susannah York unattractive, and she was a bit long in the tooth to play Jane opposite Scott.

It's been noted that Jane Eyre's been filmed and remade many times, because it's a true classic. Why? Here's my take on what elevates Jane Eyre above a simple gothic romance - and also where too many versions miss the boat.

In the scene where Jane tells Rochester she needs to find a new job because he's getting married, Rochester realizes she's upset because she's fallen in love with him. Nevertheless, he lets her twist in the wind for what seems a cruelly long time before, basically, telling her he's going to marry her. At this point, as happy as Jane may be, Rochester is very much in the power position.

But the story doesn't end there. Jane flees, inherits money and returns to find that Rochester's home is in ruins and he's disabled. She doesn't care about his state; she's still passionately in love with him, and it's immediately clear he's still distraught over losing her. Yet notice that not only does Jane not pity him, she lets him twist in the wind for a while, just as he did her. In one way, this is showing him that she doesn't pity him; to her, he's the same as he ever was. But in another way, this shows that Jane's much more his equal now. This is, to me, the reason Jane Eyre is a classic. It's about a heroine who finds love and becomes an equal to the hero.

There's one other character who's key to Jane Eyre, though, and it's one that most film versions get wrong. St. John Rivers is supposed to be very handsome - movie idol handsome, in a way Rochester is not. And he's a minister - quite the catch for a Victorian woman without home or family. However, he's also got a huge martyr complex and sense of self-righteousness that stands in contrast to Jane's steadfast, but quiet, determination to do what is right. Think about what St. John Rivers would have said to Rochester if he'd been at the ruined wedding, and you see the difference between Jane and the future missionary. She's quietly firm, but forgiving. St. John? Oh, baby! I can just imagine him denouncing Rochester as Satan's minion and calling for the wrath of God to descend upon him.

Note, also, the difference in the men's reactions to Jane's strength of purpose when she rejects them. Rochester is distraught and does his best to change her mind through persuasion. St. John reacts as if she's stupid for not agreeing to marry him - poving exactly why she shouldn't. One man is a hero, the other is not.

Charlotte Bronte apparently didn't think much of Jane Austen's work - she wondered where the passion was. Fair enough - Austen tends to pull back from the major emotional moments between the hero and heroine. On the other hand, Austen would probably say Jane Eyre was "over the top" and too melodramatic. But I think Austen did create a character that was, in some ways, very much like Jane Eyre - the much-maligned Fanny Price in Mansfield Park. Fanny stands quietly firm in her decision not to marry a man everyone agrees would be a brilliant match for her, much like St. John could be seen to be a brilliant match for Jane Eyre. Fanny may be physically weak, as Jane is "little", but she, too, has an inner strength that doesn't yield. That's why Fanny, like Jane, is a heroine.

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