In my book circles, the Austen vs Brontës debate has come up often. And, though I’ve come to appreciate Austen’s finer points over time, I have always preferred the Brontës. With the three Brontë sisters, there’s the Charlotte vs Emily debate (Anne, sadly, doesn’t get much airtime). This has been harder. For years, I stuck with Emily because I found ‘Wuthering Heights’ more poetic in terms of language — I never cared for the whole Heathcliff-and-Cathy psychopathology.
That said, I reread ‘Jane Eyre‘ recently and I am now firmly in the Charlotte Brontë camp. This is not just another Gothic romance. If you read it in the context of its times and its author’s life, it is a work of remarkable daring and independence. Jane Eyre is a strong-willed woman who manages to get past her plain looks and poverty and stand up to the likes of Rochester (who, if you ask me, is a bit of a psychopath too).
From the very opening of the book, with the ten-year-old Jane reading in her window seat behind the drawn curtain and looking at the rainy/foggy afternoon outside, to the defiant governess telling her employer, “Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!”, this is a complex character full of a hungry rebellion and spark that had never been seen or read about in those Victorian times. So much so, that it had to be first published under a male pseudonym: ‘Currer Bell’.
Of course, after having read Jean Rhys’ prequel novel, ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, about how Rochester married and sadistically drove his first wife mad, and then locked her up in the attic, I never could read ‘Jane Eyre’ the same way again. Rhys upended the “madwoman in the attic” trope with the sad story of Bertha and gave Rochester a decent backstory that made his behaviors and attitudes in ‘Jane Eyre’ more understandable. Also, Rhys, writing in the 1960s, was able to layer in more enlightened themes of colonialism, feminism, and relationships. Her language is lush, like the Caribbean setting of her story. The 1993 movie adaptation is sheer butchery of this excellent book, so, definitely, skip it. The 2006 BBC adaptation is somewhat better but it does not enhance the book experience more.
In the end, no matter how or when in life you come to this book, Jane’s ferocious radicalism (she would rather live alone than accept a relationship that compromises her independence) and her firm resolve to be treated as an equal (she does not accept flattery or hypocrisy without scorn) stand the test of time. The themes about class, servitude, religion, independence, beauty standards are as relevant today. We do not read ‘Jane Eyre’ to identify with her difficult and painful life. We do not even read her as a role model because, after a certain point, her religiosity and self-righteousness can begin to grate. But, we cannot help admiring everything she represents about truth and freedom. Her earnest narrative voice stays in our heads long after reading — e.g. “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.”
For movie and TV adaptations, I recommend the 1943 movie for Orson Welles’ Rochester. Joan Fontaine is too pretty and too theatrical for Jane. My favorite Jane has to be Mia Wasikowska in the 2011 movie version. Many like the 2006 TV miniseries with Toby Stephens and Ruth Wilson because it is a faithful (mostly) retelling. I enjoyed the cinematography of this latter and might have to revisit it at some point.
There is an Indian connection too. In ‘Sangdil‘, a 1952 Bollywood movie, Madhubala and Dilip Kumar, two good-looking and popular actors of their time, play characters that are loosely based on Jane Eyre and Rochester. This being Bollywood, the plot is changed a fair bit and we get a sickly-sweet romance with the obligatory song-and-dance routines. Not my thing but I thought I ought to include it here.
If the idea of literary ‘Jane Eyre’ retellings interests you, try a recent short story anthology edited by Tracy Chevalier: ‘Reader, I Married Him‘ (which is, of course, the famous last line of the book).
And, if you want to know more about the lives of the Brontës, there are many biographies. Try Juliet Barker’s ‘The Brontës: Wild Genius on the Moors: The Story of a Literary Family‘. While I have only read excerpts and reviews of the latter, my favorite continues to be Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘The Life of Charlotte Brontë‘. Gaskell was a close friend and presented a decent exploration of Charlotte’s genius, though she also perpetuated the myths surrounding her. Claire Harman’s ‘Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart‘ is the latest biography.
I also recommend Virginia Woolf’s essay from ‘The Common Reader‘ on ‘Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights‘ for its insightful comparisons. It was written a hundred years ago but, as with most of Woolf’s work, is as applicable today. As always, I am happy to give Woolf the last word here.
… we read Charlotte Brontë not for exquisite observation of character — her characters are vigorous and elementary; not for comedy — hers is grim and crude; not for a philosophic view of life — hers is that of a country parson’s daughter; but for her poetry. Probably that is so with all writers who have, as she has, an overpowering personality, so that, as we say in real life, they have only to open the door to make themselves felt. There is in them some untamed ferocity perpetually at war with the accepted order of things which makes them desire to create instantly rather than to observe patiently. This very ardour, rejecting half shades and other minor impediments, wings its way past the daily conduct of ordinary people and allies itself with their more inarticulate passions. It makes them poets, or, if they choose to write in prose, intolerant of its restrictions.
There is nothing there more perishable than the moor itself, or more subject to the sway of fashion than the “long and lamentable blast”. Nor is this exhilaration short-lived. It rushes us through the entire volume, without giving us time to think, without letting us lift our eyes from the page. So intense is our absorption that if some one moves in the room the movement seems to take place not there but up in Yorkshire. The writer has us by the hand, forces us along her road, makes us see what she sees, never leaves us for a moment or allows us to forget her. At the end we are steeped through and through with the genius, the vehemence, the indignation of Charlotte Brontë. Remarkable faces, figures of strong outline and gnarled feature have flashed upon us in passing; but it is through her eyes that we have seen them. Once she is gone, we seek for them in vain. Think of Rochester and we have to think of Jane Eyre. Think of the moor, and again there is Jane Eyre. Think of the drawing-room,11 even, those “white carpets on which seemed laid brilliant garlands of flowers”, that “pale Parian mantelpiece” with its Bohemia glass of “ruby red” and the “general blending of snow and fire”— what is all that except Jane Eyre?
— An excerpt from Deborah Lutz’s ‘The Brontë Cabinet’
UPDATE: April 21, 2017: I recently watched the TV movie on the Brontës: ‘To Walk Invisible’. Written and directed by the wonderful Sally Wainwright, it is more faithful to the Gaskell biography version than to any other. This means it shows Branwell, the brother, as the main cause for the loss of their meager family fortunes due to his alcoholism and drug addiction, especially during the last three years of his life. While this was handled with great care to make sure he did not come across as some monster, I wished we had seen more of the sisters than we did of the brother.
Also, I wish we had seen the Charlotte that Gaskell gave us in her biography — a lively, insightful soul and not the forever-pinched-looking repressed woman we saw here.
Nevertheless, it is a beautifully-made movie and the sets are just what you might imagine, based on the Brontës’ novels.