Sunday, April 03, 2011

Jane Eyre!

Our book today is that venerable chart-topper from 1847, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, a fast-paced, disarmingly playful, and incredibly lively book that's been egregiously mis-served for the last hundred years by the British and American teaching professions. If you're a product of a school anywhere in the West, you were no doubt force-fed Jane Eyre at some point in middle school or high school, required to read a certain number of chapters a week, perhaps quizzed on its contents before you were hurried on to Dickens. You were likely never allowed even so much as a moment to pause and think about what you were reading, let alone savor the fantastic atmosphere Charlotte Bronte so consistently evokes. You had to memorize bits about the madwoman in the attic, and maybe you got a little side-lecture on typhus and gruel. Your teachers might have had the best of intentions in doing this, but they nevertheless owe you an apology.

All middle school and high school teachers do, really, or rather, the programs they serve do. Those programs force students to march through a tour of classic novels long, long before those novels can ever possibly resonate with them personally - the combination of strange reading-settings and fascistic page-requirements usually has two effects more pronounced than all the others: it makes those students viscerally hate the very idea of reading, and it reserves their deepest hatred for the very books they should most love.

The more sensitive of those students, the ones who grow up to be lifelong readers despite the best efforts of their basic schooling to prevent that, almost always feel a nagging ambivalence toward 'the classics.' I hear it every day: "You know, I've always wanted to go back to those books I had to read in high school and really read them." Some of those grown-ups do just that, and I'd like to think those old classics don't let them down. These books were, after all, written for adults, not distracted children. High school students should certainly be required to read, of course (it's a muscle that needs exercising just as much as any other), but their requirements should be books they have at least a chance of actually liking - the goal should be to inculcate the love of reading, not to ram certain books down their throats.

You can always tell when a new movie adaptation of one of those high school assignments is in the theaters, because suddenly slightly abashed adults will be in the shops buying the book and vowing to read it. That's a very welcome development, whether the movie is any good or not.

There's a new movie-version of Jane Eyre in movie theaters right now, and I'll leave it to my colleague Mr. Anderson to tell you whether or not that movie is any good. My bailiwick here is books, and I can tell you one thing your teachers way back when might not have bothered to tell you: Jane Eyre is a very, very good book.

The plot will be hazily familiar to virtually everybody. Young Jane Eyre, having survived your standard-issue horrific Victorian-style childhood, takes a job at Thornfield Hall as governess to a young girl who's the ward of the Hall's master, Edward Rochester. Rochester is bluff and rough but dashing - he's stern with Jane but also clearly fascinated by her, as she is by him, and their mutual interest deepens to affection even while very odd things keep happening at the Hall (somebody sets Rochester's bed on fire one night, for instance, and Jane is forever hearing a strange cackling laugh echoing through the walls). Rochester tends to blame these things on a drunken servant, but it turns out that's only half-true: when the servant in question gets drunk, the real culprit - Rochester's estranged and insane wife, whom he keeps in the Hall's attic - escapes and wreaks havoc. Despite his married status, Rochester urges Jane to marry him. She refuses on principle and flees into the night. She encounters her kinsman St. John Rivers, a little prig who's every bit as stern as Rochester but nowhere near as sexy, and he begins pressuring her to marry him. She finds him drearily uninteresting (although she doesn't really allow herself to think about it in those terms), and when she eventually learns that a relative has left her enough money to make her independent for the rest of her life, she promptly returns to Thornfield Hall - and encounters only a smouldering ruin. The madwoman in the attic had finally succeeded in burning the place down (taking her own life in the process), leaving Rochester crippled and blind. Jane doesn't care about such surface things, however: she still loves only him. They get married, and his sight gradually returns.

You can see right off the great, primary-color elements that would attract a film director - which explains how often this story has been filmed. I've seen some fine performances of this basic material (my favorite being George C. Scott, although to my mind Colm Feore would make the perfect Rochester), although producers far too often shorten the spectrum dividing Jane from Rochester - they make her prettier than she is, and they make him younger than he is (even from the poster of this new film, you can see that's been done in this case too), thereby weakening one of the strongest elements of the book: that none of us can predict where love, real love, will strike.

One of the greatest ironies involved in all this camera-work is how much of Jane Eyre is essentially unfilmable. Charlotte Bronte herself often stresses this ineffable element in her book (time and again we're told what something doesn't look or sound like, as though our author only wants to eliminate wrong impressions in her readers' minds rather than implant right ones), and many of its most memorable scenes either fall flat if filmed as they're written (I'm thinking here of the aforementioned burning-bed scene, but there are lots of others) or contain visual delicacies far too fleeting for any clumsy camera to pick up. Two keys scenes, for instance, involve Jane in passionate night-time conversations in the moonlight. First with Rochester:
"I would not - I could not - marry Miss Ingram. You - you strange - you almost unearthly thing!  - I love as my own flesh. You - poor and obscure, and small and plain as you are - I entreat you to accept me as a husband."

"What, me!" I ejaculated: beginning in his earnestness - and especially in his incivility - to credit his sincerity; "me, who have not a friend in the world but you - if you are my friend: not a shilling but what you have given me?"

"You, Jane. I must have you for my own - entirely my own. Will you be mine? Say yes, quickly."

"Mr. Rochester, let me look at your face: turn to the moonlight."


"Because I want to read your countenance: turn!"

"There: you will find it scarcely more legible than a crumpled, scratched page. Read on: only make haste, for I suffer."

There's more light in the scene with St. John, but less heat. She catches him walking at sunset and talks to him while he watches the moon rise:
"Must we part this way, St. John? And when you go to India, will you leave me so, without a kinder word than you have yet spoken?"

He now turned quite from the moon, and faced me.

"When I go to India, Jane, will I leave you? What! do you not go to India?"

"You said I could not, unless I married you."

"And you will not marry me? You adhere to that resolution?"

Reader, do you know, as I do, what terror those cold people can put into the ice of their questions? How much of the fall of the avalanche is in their anger? of the breaking up of the frozen sea in their displeasure?

"No, St. John, I will not marry you. I adhere to my resolution."

In both these scenes, the interplay of natural light works an active, atmospheric magic that even the best cinematographer must perforce make crude - and Jane Eyre is full of such gauzy stuff. A movie may well capture the driving essence of the plot, but I suspect even the best movie will miss more of the book's true moor-spells than it hits.

But who knows? The new movie might succeed beyond my wildest expectations! And wait - did I say 'who knows'? The answer to that would probably be, "Mr. Anderson knows"!


Anita Leone said...

I just saw this new version of Jane Eyre on April 3, 2011. I did enjoy it very much. I agree that these books that we were supposed to read in high school were a waste of time on our crazy youth. I am now 72 and recently read Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, along with several Charles Dickens....I LOVED THEM BEYOND MY IMAGINATION....School is wasted on the I can't get enough of these old classics...

I do have a question that you might be able to answer....What breed of dog was Pilot in this version. I have been trying to find the answer to luck...any help would be appreciated.

Anita Leone

Thanks so much for any help...

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