What Is It About Jane Eyre?


In 2009, British readers voted Mr. Rochester the “most popular hero in literature.” Now, there’s yet another adaptation out. I like Jane Eyre as much as the next guy, but what’s our obsession with this objectively creepy dynamic?

It’s a relationship that’s spawned a thousand romance novels: governess meets mysterious rich man; is chosen and elevated above her station. But, as a piece on Slate observes, the actual novel is a lot more than that: Rochester is weird, manipulative and borderline sadistic. He plays on their unequal power dynamic mercilessly, taunts her, humiliates her. And (spoiler alert!) oh yeah: he has a crazy wife in the attic. Romantic, no? (Charlotte Bronte’s Vilette — in which this dude is always hissing abuse in the protagonist’s ear — features the same dynamic, so clearly this was her idea of sexytimes.)

If you’ve only seen adaptations, you’d be forgiven for thinking the story was pure romance: Toby Stephens, in particular, made Rochester seem kind of sexy and unpredictable, rather than just motiveless.

But even other film versions can’t hide the oddness — Orson Welles is not remotely seductive, William Hurt not remotely smouldering — and the story requires a lot more suspension of disbelief. At his best, Rochester has none of Darcy’s honor, or Rhett’s humor. So what is it that’s so eternally intriguing? Is it just the skewed Cinderella story? That may be part of it, but I like to think it has more to do with the story’s arc. At the end of this novel, more than almost any romance I can think of, the agency is hers. It is she who has the money, the power, the good health. It is her choice — after a lifetime of powerlessness — to marry him. That famous line “Reader, I married him” has a lot of agency in it. And it’s not until the power dynamic has been righted that they can be together.

So what will the new version bring us? While the promise of a “bold new vision” is ominous, it’s clear they’re not stinting on the darkness. But will we be getting more emotional drama or Gothic horror? It seems fairly likely to burnish Rochester’s smouldering reputation. But as for the novel’s? Maybe at this point, that’s almost irrelevant.

Up In The Eyre [Slate]

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