Jane Eyre is a very personal heroine who, once encountered, is hard to forget, and everyone has their own ideas as to how she should be portrayed. The proof is in the dozens of film and TV movies made about her over the past century (see a complete list here).
For those who might not be familiar with the basic plot, the title character of Jane Eyre is an orphan who lives with her aunt and her cousins, but they treat her like dirt because for the majority of the nineteenth century some people considered orphans to be trash. Jane is sent to a school called Lowood where she is, again, treated harshly, but she manages to make friends and get a decent education.
After graduation and then teaching at Lowood for two years, Jane applies to be a governess at Thornfield Hall, where she not only encounters the initially inscrutable Mr. Edward Rochester, but a frightening secret that may upend her life more than she can imagine. She may run, she may wander far, but she can’t escape her past, her demons, or her ultimate destiny.
Charlotte Brontë’s own life, at least in part, inspired her to write Jane Eyre. Born on April 26, 1816, her early life was marked by death, as her mother, Maria Branwell Brontë, died of cancer in 1821, leaving father Patrick, who was a curate, grieving with six young children to raise. Three years later, Charlotte and sister Emily joined their older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, at the Clergy Daughters’ School, a horrid place with bad food and even worse living conditions.
In 1825 a tuberculosis plague struck the school and Maria and Elizabeth both fell ill, dying at home in May and June of that year. Charlotte and Emily were both sent home as well, which, even without the tuberculosis infestation was for the best, as none of the Brontë children thrived in conventional education and would be homeschooled by their aunt Elizabeth.
Ironically enough, a report from the Clergy Daughters’ School had said this of Charlotte: “Writes indifferently. Knows nothing of grammar, geography, history, or accomplishments.”
Mmmmkay, then. Not only were they wrong, but Brontë had the last word, as the school became the basis for Lowood in Jane Eyre and Helen Burns, Jane’s friend at Lowood, was based on her sister, Maria. The school moved to Casterton in 1833, where it became a leading boarding school, and was merged with the Sedbergh School in 2013.
Also like Jane, Brontë worked as a governess for several years, in addition to being an avid writer, as were her sisters and her brother, Branwell, and she loved illustrated books.
As writing was not a suitable profession for women during Brontë’s era, she published Jane Eyre under a pseudonym, Currer Bell and rumors immediately started flying as to who Currer Bell was, especially after she dedicated the second edition of her novel to one of her favorite authors, William Thackeray. All was revealed by 1850, however, and Brontë met Thackeray that same year. Thackeray’s daughter, Anne, described Brontë this way:
One of the most notable persons who ever came into our bow-windowed drawing-room in Young Street is a guest never to be forgotten by me – a tiny, delicate, little person, whose small hand nevertheless grasped a mighty lever which set all the literary world of that day vibrating…The moment is so breathless that dinner comes as a relief to the solemnity of the occasion, and we all smile as my father stoops to offer his arm; for, though genius she may be, Miss Brontë can barely reach his elbow. My own personal impressions are that she is somewhat grave and stern, especially to forward little girls who wish to chatter. She sat gazing at our father with kindling eyes of interest, lighting up with a sort of illumination every now and then as she answered him. I can see her bending forward over the table, not eating, but listening to what he said as he ate.
Thackeray was more like Rochester than Brontë was aware of, as he also knew the pain of having a severely mentally ill wife. Who knows if he ever told Brontë this, but reading Jane Eyre must have felt uncomfortably close to home. It might even be why, at that famous dinner party in 1850, Thackeray sneaked off to his club, leaving his guests to entertain themselves.
As Anne Thackeray said, Jane Eyre turned the literary world on its head. Among other criticisms, Jane and Edward were of different classes and Jane wasn’t a suitably retiring heroine, arguing passionately that she is a real human being with thoughts and feelings. Interestingly, while Brontë was equally passionate, she was also very traditional; for example, while she wasn’t keen on votes for women, she did think women should be allowed to work.
Brontë’s celebrated heroine has certainly seen her share of work, what with all of the various adaptations of Jane Eyre that have appeared over the years. Naturally, we don’t have time to look at the many dozens of versions, so here is a very small smattering:
One of the first known adaptations, this one-reeler stars Irma Taylor and Charles Compton and makes Adele Edward’s niece instead of his love child. Unfortunately, like too many silent movies, the 1910 version is considered lost.
A pretty odd adaptation as Jane Eyre films go, the 1934 movie is unusually bright, reducing Jane and Edward’s story to a very generic, flaccid, romantic-ish meet-cute. It hits a few of the high points of the story, but most of the mystery is gone, or rather, the mystery wanders in and out, looking no more menacing than an errant squirrel, albeit a vaguely balmy one. Seeing as Colin Clive, who plays Edward, could do dark and disturbed, it seems as if the filmmakers really missed the boat with this one.
This is one of my mom’s favorite movies, and until recently it was the only filmed version of Jane Eyre I knew. The cast is fantastic–Joan Fontaine is a luminous Jane, Orson Welles an imperious Rochester, Margaret O’Brien an adorable Adele, Peggy Ann Garner is a wonderful young Jane, and Elizabeth Taylor is perfect as Helen. It could have easily been Orson Welles’s movie, but he chose to deliberately underplay his participation in the film so director Robert Stevenson could put his own stamp on it. It absolutely should not be missed (Read my full review here).
Starring Mary Sinclair as Jane and Charlton Heston as Edward, this Westinghouse Studio One production is an abbreviated version of the Brontë story. There’s not much mystery here, either; Grace Poole wafts in and out within the first ten minutes, as does the insane Bertha, who grimaces at windows and laughs evilly off camera. Charlton Heston is a terrific Rochester, though, although a bit too young to conceivably be Bertha’s husband.
Much as I like George C. Scott, this is one of my least-favorite iterations, maybe because Scott is the last person I would want playing Edward Rochester. He doesn’t read as a romantic lead to me; it’s almost like having Claude Rains in the role. Good acting, but not quite a good fit. On the plus side, the score was written by John Williams, so there’s that.
This excellent version stars Samantha Morton as Jane, Ciaran Hinds as Edward and Gemma Jones as Mrs. Fairfax. Morton is exactly how I picture Jane; she’s attractive but not in a conventional way and she plays Jane with such warmth. Hinds gives me Albert Finney vibes, which isn’t a bad thing, but I guess I don’t see him as Edward although he does bring a lot of humor and passion to the role. The film also plays up the horror and Gothic aspects of the story, with Bertha sneaking into Jane’s room and tearing her wedding veil in two. It’s simply done but it’s just creepy enough.
I haven’t seen this one yet, but would be remiss if I didn’t include something from the current century. The bits I have seen are intriguing, even if the response seems mixed, so I’m excited to see it when I can.
Charlotte Brontë died on March 31, 1855. She was just under thirty-nine, newly married, and in her first trimester of pregnancy, which was, unfortunately plagued by hyperemesis gravidarum, or very severe morning sickness. When she caught a chill it was too much for her.
Thackeray later called his friend “that intrepid outspeaker and champion of truth, that eager, impetuous redresser of wrong,” and the years have since proven him correct.
Another post is coming up on Friday. Thanks for reading, all…
The 1950 (DVD), 1970 (DVD), 1996 (DVD), and 2011 (DVD and Blu-ray) versions of Jane Eyre are available to own from Amazon. Charlotte Brontë’s original novel is available here.
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3 thoughts on “Page To Screen: Jane Eyre”
Love the Bronte sisters so much. For me the best screen adaptation of Jane Eyre is the 1983 miniseries.
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Ooh, yeah, I want to see that one. Timothy Dalton looks as if he’d be a good Rochester. 🙂
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He’s brilliant. The series is available on YouTube and DVD. Pretty much every moment from the book(including Jane’s childhood and what happens later after she runs away from Thornfield) is in there. The relationship develops slowly and we get to known both Jane and Rochester more than in any other adaptation.
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