Deep thoughts, random insights, and musings by Susan Jacobs

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Living vicariously through Jane Eyre

I have long been a fan of Charlotte Bronte’s novel “Jane Eyre.” I first read it the summer I was 20. At that point, I was trying to catch up on some of the “classics” I hadn’t already read, and my mom told me that it had been a favorite of hers and of my grandmother.

It took me a while to get into the book, but soon I was enthralled with Jane’s reserved flirtation with Mr. Rochester, and the palpable romantic tension between them, and by the time Jane finally expresses her feelings in the emotional garden scene I was totally spell-bound. Not long after I finished the book, A&E aired its version of “Jane Eyre” with Ciaran Hinds and Samantha Morton, both of whom were superb. I was so fond of that version, that my mom eventually bought be a copy on VHS. Meanwhile, she bought herself the version with William Hurt and Charlotte Gainsbourg, which also has its charms, but, in my opinion, was not as good.

A few weeks ago, on Dec. 30, I was running errands and looking forward to a couple of days off from work when my mom told me that PBS was airing yet another version of Jane Eyre that night. A friend had recently told me that she liked this version – and was none too sorry that this Mr. Rochester was really more attractive than indicated by the book. So, even though I could not imagine that any version would equal the one by A&E, I decided to tune in.

How wrong I was.

This 2006 production by the BBC is absolutely masterful, and has me wondering how it was possible that I missed its PBS debut in early 2007. Ruth Wilson, who plays Jane, is captivating. At moments she is really a plain Jane, but with sparkling eyes and an animating smile, she is also quite attractive.

She can blend into the shadows, but asserts herself when necessary. And although Jane does not speak much, with her expressive face and mannerisms, Wilson artfully shows when she is embarrassed, exhilarated, devastated and delighted.

While the character of Jane is about 18 in the book, Wilson was 24 when this version was filmed, which was a wise decision. Wilson still has the blush of youth and innocence, but also the inner depth and maturity to convey Jane’s stormy interior.

Toby Stephens, who plays Mr. Rochester, is truly swoon-worthy material. He is wry, sarcastic, troubled, vulnerable, and irresistible. Because Jane and Rochester have many interactions long before they express their true feelings for one another, there is time for their relationship to develop real depth, a rarity in most romantic movies.

PBS aired the first half of the four-hour series on Dec. 30, and the second half a week later. I spent most of that week telling anyone who would listen that I was looking forward to the “exciting conclusion.”

Even though I knew how the story would end, there were still plenty of wonderful moments to enjoy in this adaptation. A day after watching the first half, I watched the A&E version again. While I still enjoyed it immensely, it was obvious that Stephens’ Rochester has significantly more warmth than Hinds.’ (After marveling over his acting abilities, I looked up Stephens online and discovered that he is the younger son of Dame Maggie Smith, and he obviously inherited some powerful acting genes.)

The other important difference between the A&E version and this one is the age difference between the two main characters. Hinds and Morton are probably close to 30 years apart in age, whereas with Stephens and Wilson, there is just a 12-year difference. While in the book the characters are about 20 years apart, I think it is difficult for most modern audiences to fathom a mutual attraction between people of such a wide age gap. Because Stephens and Wilson are relatively close in age, the chemistry between them is much more believable. (And there is no shortage of chemistry in this version!)

And, whereas Hinds overpowers Morton in some scenes (apparently an issue in other film versions of Jane Eyre as well), Stephens and Wilson balance each other well. He is abrupt and moody, and she is reserved, but she never seems to cower in his presence, and from the start he seems intrigued by her ideas and opinions.

The BBC production has caused some to ponder whether Stephens’ Rochester will replace Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy as the thinking woman’s sex symbol.

I certainly have a preference for the brooding Mr. Rochester to the aloof Mr. Darcy, but it seems to me in general that “Pride and Prejudice” is the more popular book, and so is its hero.

In a sense it is really unfair to compare the two books. Jane Austen wrote a brilliantly funny social commentary with a suspenseful and unlikely romance, while Bronte wrote a mysterious, passionate, sometimes outlandish tale.

As much as I like and admire “Pride and Prejudice,” I am drawn to the passions of “Jane Eyre.”

I also identify more with Jane than I do with Elizabeth Bennett.

Elizabeth possessed the confidence that comes of a comfortable upbringing, and she is unabashedly outspoken and opinionated. While I admire her forthrightness – and the charged banter she has with Mr. Darcy, I identify much more with Jane’s quietness and uncertainty.

Jane may seem plain and uninteresting on first glance, but she is smart, strong-willed and fiercely independent. And she has a deep moral resolve that carries her through life’s difficulties.

I can’t imagine myself in Elizabeth Bennett’s shoes, but, like many average looking women who dream of being appreciated by a desirable man, I can easily envision myself in Jane’s place.

Even though Jane and Rochester also banter a fair amount, their relationship is more a slowly growing friendship than a dramatic changing of heart.

One of the most moving scenes in “Jane Eyre” is the garden scene, which I referred to above.

As the story goes, Jane is under the impression that Mr. Rochester is about to announce his engagement to Blanche Ingram. He tells her that he has found a job for her in Ireland, since his fiance does not like governesses.

In this scene, Mr. Rochester says to Jane, “We’ve been good friends, haven’t we?” He then goes on to say that he feels that there is some sort of invisible string that ties him to Jane, and he fears that their connection will be severed when she leaves, causing him to bleed inwardly.

I am particularly fond of this imagery, and the notion that Rochester and Jane share a deep connection that transcends time, space and social class. More than mutual admirers of one another, they are true friends, who help one another in the most unusual of circumstances, and who will continue to care for each other, even if they cannot marry.

When Jane expresses her distress at the idea of Rochester’s marriage to Blanche, she speaks of how much she will miss him, and of how she has enjoyed interacting with him as an equal.

Even though the plot of “Jane Eyre” is a lot more fantastic than that of “Pride and Prejudice,” Jane’s feelings are very real, and that is what is so appealing to me.

Jane, after all, is an expression of Charlotte Bronte’s own passions and pains, and in that sense she is as real as any of us.


  • At January 20, 2008 at 8:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I saw Jane Eyre the first time it ran on PBS and like you, could hardly wait for the second half to play the following week. I was so blown away by Toby Stephen's portrayal of Rochester, I had to know who this actor was. He played him as multi-dimensional, much more than any previous Rochesters. I was also taken with Ruth Wilson's portrayal of Jane. The fact that she had graduated 6 months prior to filming, from drama school, made her performance all the more remarkable. I think it is such an artful production in every way. I especially love the music, setting and costumes. I am glad you enjoyed it.

  • At January 20, 2008 at 10:22 PM, Blogger Annette Piper said…

    Here, here Susan and well said!

    My previous favourite period-drama, Pride & Prejudice (with Colin Firth & Jennifer Ehle) is just froth and bubble compared to Jane Eyre which is real, earthy and passionate.

    I agree that the casting was brilliant - both Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens bring a depth to the story that previous versions have not been able to achieve. They have raised the bar and any subsequent versions will have to work very hard indeed to reach their level! The passion that these actors portray is palpable!

    I had never heard of Toby Stephens before Jane Eyre either and am bowled over by his obvious talent and ability. He is able to portray so many emotions not just with his face but with his eyes. (It doesn't hurt that he's good looking either!)

    I am not surprised he is such a brilliant actor given his parentage but I am surprised that he hasn't been in more films. I hope the industry is taking notice and cast him in something just as good... soon!

    I have managed to track down The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Twelfth Night both with Toby Stephens and although he is much younger in these, I can highly recommend them!

  • At January 21, 2008 at 9:30 AM, Blogger Chris said…

    Great review. I agree with all of it. I saw this version last year and still think it's the best I've seen.

  • At January 21, 2008 at 7:25 PM, Blogger Susan said…

    Thanks, all, for your comments. I am so glad that this version of Jane Eyre has so many fans.

    Annette, thanks for the tips about the other films with Toby. I actually saw "Twelfth Night" several years ago and really liked it, but didn't realize that was him. I think he has improved with age.:)

  • At January 24, 2008 at 2:52 AM, Blogger Annette Piper said…

    Oh yes Susan, I agree!!

  • At April 2, 2008 at 10:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Dear Susan,
    I loved your thoughts on the PBS/BBC version of "Jane Eyre". After viewing it, I ,too, did some research and discovred a whole world of videos and interviews on the Jane Eyre site on Youtube. The interview with Toby Stephens, Ruth Wilson and the author of the screenplay is especially revealing as to how they saw the characters. If you send me your email address I will be happy to forward that to you. I, too, love pink, which is evidenced by my website and signature color at www.sandechernett.com I am so looking forward to meeting you in a couple of weeks. Jonathan says nothing but wonderful things about you. It seems we have much in common!!! Great writing. Sande Chernett, Jonathan Jablow's mom.

  • At April 12, 2009 at 8:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    i haven't seen the toby stephens version, but i've been a lifelong fan of jane eyre and rochester in particular - read it for the first time when i was ten, and then over and over again since then. have you seen the BBC version with timothy dalton? it was made years ago, and he too was far too dishy to be true to the real rochester. but the version was very true to the book and the dialog in the book. i own it and watch it whenever i need a fix. it's a treasure! i hope PBS replays the toby stephens version - i'd like to see it.

  • At November 26, 2011 at 3:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    i just cant get over Toby Stephens

  • At July 14, 2012 at 11:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Toby Stevens is absolutely gorgeous and marvelous as Mr Rochester my fav adaption have it on DVD and watch it many times Ruth Wilson is fabulous as Jane Eyre

  • At September 30, 2012 at 1:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    My favourite version ever. Toby Is magnificent as Rochester ...totally believable and Ruth as Jane. I have watched it many times over. love it. ah for. Toby Stephens Mr Rochester. handsome charming funny. but broody as Rochester. wonderful.


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