Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, available from various publishers:
Warning: Spoilers Ahead!!!!!
This was originally written as an e-mail to my former friend Richard. I then adapted it for an online book forum, where it got so much praise that I put it here on my website.
I have just read Jane Eyre for the first time since high school. The first time I read it, it was so engrossing that I read 80 pages in one day–quite a feat for me. Then I got my mom into it, and she read it even faster. I read it at least once or twice more, probably saw the Orson Welles movie, and even saw the BBC miniseries of it on A&E’s “Classroom.”
I loved the book so much that it became the hallmark of good books. Being next to or near Jane Eyre in my bookcase was an honor.
Orson Welles fit the character of Rochester perfectly, even physically, and the movie is full of Gothic overtones to match the novel, but I still prefer the BBC miniseries.
Sure Timothy Dalton does not fit the physical description of a plain man that the pretty women only want for his money. But the miniseries took the time to include a great deal of the original plot and dialogue, unlike the Welles movie, which completely cut out the part with the Rivers family.
Also, Jane was supposed to be plain–a major part of her character because she wasn’t used to getting attention for beauty–but the movie version cast Joan Fontaine in the role! The miniseries found a more appropriate face, Zelah Clarke. I do believe Zelah Clarke can be pretty, but for the miniseries, she was made to look plain.
Not knowing the standards of beauty of the time, when women often didn’t wear makeup and it seems even plain women could find pioneer husbands, I wasn’t sure if Brontë’s description of Jane’s face was supposed to look like a bushy-browed buck-teethed girl, or more like Zelah Clarke.
In our country, even the plain girls usually aren’t ugly, at least not in the Midwest where I live. Ugly meaning bad teeth, horse face, that sort of thing. Even plain girls can be cute with a sweet smile and maybe a little makeup.
Zelah Clarke fits that version of plain: not at all unpleasing, just not model-pretty, more like most young girls look. But was that the English standard of the time?
I’ve also noted that Charlotte’s description of Jane matches a description I read of Charlotte herself from a writer or publisher who met her in person. So Jane is probably modeled on Charlotte.
From descriptions I’ve read of Charlotte Brontë, she herself was considered plain; this was noted in the fact that she loved Professor Heger, but his wife was so pretty he’d have no reason even to look at Charlotte.
Though, from the best painting of her, she looks pretty to me. If that’s what they considered plain, then yes, Zelah’s is the face to bring to mind as I read.
…In case anyone believes that women were perfectly happy in their lot as homemakers with few opportunities for a career, or as submissive wives, until feminism came along and put ideas into their heads, it isn’t true. We have many examples that it isn’t.
Not only is there George Sand, who preferred to wear men’s clothes and live more like a male libertine than the conventional wife’s life.
Not only is there Anna Howe, Clarissa Harlowe‘s dearest friend and closest confidante, who was written by a man in the eighteenth century, but speaks as if she were born in the twentieth.
Not only does Clarissa herself prefer living as a single, independent woman to pledging obedience to a man she cannot respect, no matter how handsome or rich or well-connected that man may be.
Not only is there Laura Ingalls Wilder, who is gratified to find that Almanzo, her pa and her pastor do not believe in making her say “obey,” which works because she wouldn’t have said it anyway.
Not only does Almanzo reply, “I never knew [a wife] that [obeyed], nor any decent man that wanted her to.”
Not only were there the suffragettes.
Not only is there the Wife of Bath, who wants to take over control of her husbands.
But we also have Jane Eyre, a book written by a woman more than 100 years before the feminism of the 1960s and 70s:
It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it.
Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth.
Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a constraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags.
It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex (p. 129).
Jane is also a feisty little thing at 10 years old, refusing to bow down to those who offend her sense of justice. Her friend Helen is the opposite: angelic, bowing down and even agreeing to the injustices.
Helen is right that Jane’s anger against various people needs to be tempered with Christian love and mercy, but I think Helen carries it too far, becoming the one who willingly submits to abuse, the enabler.
Jane at 10 realizes that she’s probably disliked by her rich aunt because her dead uncle made the aunt take her in, and because she doesn’t act like many other children. If she were pretty, clever, laughing, running around all the time, she probably would have been welcomed into her aunt’s little family circle.
Not only does this remind me in some ways of myself as a child, but I can’t help imagining if Wednesday Addams were taken in by a family of rich blondes from Addams Family Values.
Or remembering the way Wednesday is treated at summer camp, looked on with suspicion and dislike because she doesn’t act like the other children–until she is finally forced into the Harmony Hut with the happy children’s movies and the *gasp* pictures of Michael Jackson: