Have You Ever Been Locked in an Attic?
With the release of the newest Jane Eyre film, Gwen Smith takes a look at the real reasons we keep coming back to Charlotte’s classic story.
The madwoman in the attic: woefully oppressed victim of patriarchy or just a heinous bitch? Wherever you stand on this one, you’d imagine that most of us would reject a novel that asks the reader to fall head over heels for a glum bigamist with weird sideburns. A man to whom reconciliatory flowers and chocolates translate as padlock, key, and unblemished younger model.
Apparently not. Major adaptations of both Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and her sister Emily’s Wuthering Heights are released this autumn; alongside a play directed by Blake Morrison, We Are Three Sisters, which focuses on the real life experiences of the three Brontë girls. This sudden vogue has led to considerable media acclaim that “Brontëmania” is a phenomenon that actually exists. Avoiding such sensationalism, one can still acknowledge that something about the Brontë novels consistently manages to enthral.
The make-up of the Jane Eyre cinema audience gave a clue to this “something”, at least for Charlotte Brontë’s text. Looking around, (no doubt peering offensively into others’ faces in the gloom), it was evident that most people were in parent-child duos. This makes quite a clear point about the novels: they have been passed through generations without ever becoming fatally anachronistic. I can remember eating supper with a female friend and her mother, who launched into a mildly alarming appraisal of Jane’s virtue over all other heroines. She evidently had been inspired by the character; partially egged on, no doubt, by Jane’s implicit “no-no” to pre-marital sex; and wanted to incite similar admiration in us.
Now, this sort of sorority vigil suggests that, as Gilbert and Gubar have been trying to tell all first year English students, Jane Eyre can be read as a feminist text. Jane does indeed establish herself as Rochester’s equal, rather than his subordinate, telling readers “I am my husband’s life as fully as he is mine.” But is it feminism that has secured the novel’s firm footing within the canon?
If the novel’s success requires the reader to at least understand Jane’s love for Rochester, then surely not. He may be gentle, and ultimately heroic; risking his life to save that of a woman who had effectively ruined his; but his brooding exterior remains irreconcilable with the image of a modern man. One really cannot imagine him pureeing the organic vegetables before taking little Timmy and Susan to school. What would his playground epithet be? Dismissive Dad? Dad who can’t be bothered to address child in language it understands? Dad who shags pretty Blanche Ingram whilst eyeing up the governess? Definitely not feminists’ dream Dad.
These comments may be glib, but the fact remains that even now Jean Rhys has given Bertha a voice, kindly ruining the romance for us all, Brontë’s Jane refuses to be a paragon of feminism. And this has translated to the film. As one Guardian critic put it, “there was no Eyre of feminism in the new film”. Although reading this sort of headline makes one feel frankly embarrassed at the estimated level of intellect of the newspaper’s readership, it was rather apt. Moira Buffini’s screenplay focussed far more on the suppression of seemingly unrequited love, lingering on images of the female protagonist drifting across moorland. This highlighted her desolation instead of launching a visual vendetta against patriarchy.
Such a focus on the wandering figure suggests the ultimate reason behind Charlotte Brontë’s contemporary popularity. Recurrent and successful images of isolation, alongside tropes of fire and mirroring effects, indicate that the novel’s strength lies in its portrayal of the individual rather than of gender imbalances.
Buffini’s cast spend a considerable percentage of their on-screen time engaged in putting out candles. This universality in the theme of fire is found in the novel – it is not just Bertha, the deranged ex-wife, who is capable of such maniacal passion. Jane’s description of her “veins running fire” suggests that she possesses the same potential for madness as her upstairs counterpart. This incites focus on the individual’s attempt at personal vilification in the face of intense emotion, which is also symbolised by Rochester’s eventual blindness.
So Brontë says passion can be both good and bad. This links clearly to (highbrow) literature of modern time. To reference Bridget Jones’ Diary (in my defence a character who has been hailed by certain, now excommunicated, modern critics as a contemporary heroine): “You think you’ve found the right man, but there’s so much wrong with him, and then he finds there’s so much wrong with you, and then it all just falls apart.” Passion is the thing we’re scared of because it executes love just as swiftly as it generates it. Love for Jane holds this negative potential – she calls marriage “unendurable”, referring to its distilment of passion: “the imprisoned flame consumed vital after vital.”
Jane Eyre can be read as being about humans, rather than genders, which is what makes it so refreshing in this day and age. Female protagonists are, after all, just a gender, not a genre, and should be responded to as a range of varying individuals rather than didactic ciphers. Whatever is unearthed in the current murky waters of post-wave feminism, the novel at least reminds us that we are all human; capable of passion, madness, and attraction to amusingly-haired members of the opposite sex. Maybe we should just hold on to that for now.