Strong minded, independent, and talented women in the nineteenth century looked to writing not only as escape from their restricted lives but also as a means of income. Literary critic, Mary de Jong in her essay, notes that there were more women aspiring to be published than actually were – probably not much different from today.
Charlotte Brontë and her sisters did make it, after first publishing under pseudonyms, and today is Charlotte’s birthday. If you cannot keep the sisters straight – Charlotte was the eldest of the three surviving sisters and here’s a hint – she worked as a governess for a while. Ah – Jane Eyre – required reading for some; literary masterpiece to others.
The first time I read Jane Eyre in high school, Sister Mary Aloysius focused on the poor orphan who resisted temptation and saved her honor. In college, the critical discussion tended to the Gothic elements, women with options, and the sexual undertones.
When the newest movie adaptation recently came out, I decided to watch the old Joan Fontaine/Orson Wells version again – as a base line for my “research.” Margaret O’Brien played little Adele with a convincing French accent, and Elizabeth Taylor ( I had not noticed her before) as a young Helen who dies in the first reel. The old black and white movie began by following the book’s plot – Jane as a polite young rebel, cast out to grow up in an austere orphanage. As she aged and became governess to sweet Adele, Joan Fontaine played her as bland and deferential – hard to imagine her having steamy sex with Orson Wells’ Rochester, dangerous and scary. This movie has Jane reading from Brontë’s book with lines appearing on the screen to let you in on Jane’s thoughts – made you want to read more. If you’d read the book, you’d notice the missing parts.
The newest version has Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland) – a prettier and bolder version of Jane, and Michael Fassbender as the brooding Rochester. Judi Dench plays Mrs. Faifax as a maternal housekeeper, who seems to be watching out for Jane’s virtue. With widescreen scenes of the moors, the story begins in the middle, with flashbacks to Jane’s childhood and life at Thornfield – an effective tool. It’s been a while since I’ve re-read the book, but this version seemed true – scenes when Jane Eyre becomes Jane Heir are included, and when she returns to Thornfield, her costume reflects her new wealth. Brontë’s ending is cut short by a final steamy Hollywood scene of lovers reunited, but, if you read the book, you know how it ends anyway.
If you are a fan of Brontë, you will not be disappointed.