Happy Friday, Persephoneers! In the bleak chill of winter, there are times when I like to watch a film based on a classic novel. This week’s pick, “Jane Eyre,” based on Charlotte Bronte’s work, was made in 1943 and stars Orson Welles as Mr. Rochester and Joan Fontaine as Jane Eyre. The film was directed by Robert Stevenson with a script written by John Houseman and Aldous Huxley. Other cast members include Agnes Moorehead as Aunt Reed, Elizabeth Taylor as Helen Burns, and Margaret O’Brien as Rochester’s ward Adele.
Young orphan Jane Eyre has lived with her aunt, Mrs. Reed of Gateshead Manor, for much of her young life. Mrs. Reed despises the girl and treats her particularly cruelly. Soon it comes to the point that Mrs. Reed has had enough of the whole situation, and she sends Jane to attend Lowood School, run by Reverand Brocklehurst. Upon arrival Jane is labeled a liar based on what her aunt has told Mr. Brocklehurst in front of the entire school, but one of the other students, Helen Burns, comforts Jane. The two soon become friends. It’s Jane who protests when Brocklehurst decides that Helen’s hair should be cut, and both girls are punished and made to walk in the schoolyard in the pouring rain, after which Helen dies, leaving Jane quite alone in the world.
Ten years later, Jane leaves Lowood and accepts a position as governess to Mr. Rochester’s ward, Adele, at Thornfield Hall. While on a walk on the moors at night, she startles Mr. Rochester’s horse. Consequently, the horse throws him from the saddle and Rochester is injured. Nonetheless, Jane and Mr. Rochester begin to tentatively cultivate a friendship, which soon blossoms into love, despite the strange laughter in the hallway in the middle of the night and Grace Poole’s odd behavior. Rochester boldly declares his love for Jane and asks her to marry him, and things go as planned until a man by the name of Mason arrives from the Caribbean islands with the horrible news that Mr. Rochester is already married and keeps his wife, who is very mentally ill, locked in the attic with Grace Poole as a sort of nurse for her. Heartbroken, Jane leaves Thornfield and Rochester behind and returns to Gateshead Manor after receiving news that her aunt is dying. After Aunt Reed’s death, Jane hears a voice calling out to her from out of nowhere, and in her heart of hearts she knows that Rochester has need of her, and so she hurries back to Thornfield only to find that it has burned to the ground. But Rochester is alive, though he was struck blind while trying to save his wife from the inferno. Jane and Rochester are reunited and begin their lives anew together.
This version of “Jane Eyre” focuses more on the love story between Jane and Rochester and on the gothic elements of the novel. It completely ignores Jane wandering on the wild moors and her encounter with the Rivers family. Jane is shown as an unwanted orphan, completely alone and without a place in this world, until she arrives at Thornfield and meets Adele and Rochester. Welles’s Rochester isn’t so ominous and brooding. He is cynical about life in general, but he’s also a witty and urbane man – much like Welles himself – and he enjoys his conversations and exchanges with Jane.
Bronte’s problematic theme of the love of a good, pure-hearted woman redeeming the tormented Byronic hero is a big part of the film as well. Jane finally finds a home at Thornfield and a friend and lover in Rochester, but without him, she is lost, just as he is lost to the darkness of his soul without her. Even though he intentionally deceived her into a bigamous marriage and humiliated her, Jane still loves him. In his greatest moment of need, she’s able to sense his anguish, and that’s what drives her back to Thornfield. Rochester, who does some very dastardly things throughout the film, is redeemed by the one act of trying to save his wife from the fire at Thornfield and losing his eyesight in the process. When Jane returns, he can be whole again, and by the time their first child is born, his eyesight has completely returned. This is a direct reference to the Biblical story of Paul, a Roman who persecuted Christians and who was struck blind, yet whose eyesight was restored when he decided to renounce his old ways and dedicate the rest of his life to following Christianity and preaching about Jesus’s teachings. The fire is more or less Rochester’s come-to-Jesus moment. Jane was the light who would rescue him from the errors of his old ways and who would be at his side to help him live a good life.
So yeah, the love of a good woman can change any man, or so Bronte would like us to believe. When I first watched this film in high school, I was so in lurve with Mr. Rochester. But now that I’m older and know how the ideal of a man in the vein of a Byronic hero is the key ingredient to a bad romance, I’ll admit that it was Orson Welles himself that I liked. Which, again, only shows how lame the Byronic hero really is when everything is all said and done.
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