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Just watched the most recent iteration of Jane Eyre, starring Mia Wasikowska as the eponymous Jane and Michael Fassbender as Rochester.

It’s funny how so many of these adaptations of classics are becoming like Shakespeare–it’s a matter of comparing renditions, productions, and portrayals of the well-known and beloved characters, rather than seeking the definitive version.

One of the things that struck me this time was the notion of plainness and how that must have been a significant protection for women of little means at the time. If you were thrust into the role of dependent (or, of course, servant) and were attractive, then I suspect that the world would have been a dangerous place indeed. The minority of women in that situation would have been lucky enough to get a marriage offer. And in the mean time, attracting the attention of the husband or the son of the household would have led to possible rape and brutalization, as well as ruination and disgrace. In a world where women had little autonomy and almost no legal agency, they would have had to walk a very fine line indeed.

Being plain would have served as something of a shield in such situations. Presenting yourself as nondescript, and fading into the background would have been the safest option in such times, I would think. Someone who attracts neither the amorous attentions of the men nor the rivalrous resentments of the women would at least have survived in such adverse and oft-challenging circumstances. That kind of invisibility would have been an advantage in other ways as well–it would have allowed an astute observer to learn a good deal about the dynamics of the interactions and relationships between the people who had power over her finances and her life.

Indeed, I would suspect that this was what happened with the Bronte sisters: they learned much during their placements, as silent observers. Certainly, Anne’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall was apparently based on what she saw while working as a governess.

And of course, the advantages of being plain hold true today as well–though in a very different way, in a time when most people have the means at their disposal to be gorgeous and call attention to themselves. And indeed–I’ve generally found that women, regardless of shape, size, and so on, can be plain or lovely, as they choose. It’s a matter of self-presentation and confidence.

As for me, I generally chose plain. I’ve been closer to the centre of attention in the past, and frankly, I could take it or leave it–with a preference towards the leaving. It’s far more interesting to be on the sidelines. As an observer by nature, I prefer it. I like it when gazes slip over me and move on to the next person–as well as when they don’t. That reaction to my nondescript exterior, among many other factors of course, tells me something about a person.

And as regards the film–I’d say this latest Jane Eyre is worth checking out. The sense of spaces, of openness, and of ambience, is potent. The countryside feels vast, beautiful, and weighted. I also loved the impression of insularity. Such vast spaces and heavy weather meant that human society, food, warmth, and other requirements of survival kept you close to the houses, with their draughty doors, windows, and corridors. It kept you close to fires and blankets, even as the dampness penetrated the walls and radiated off the stones and brick. I felt that sense of the immediacy of nature in this version–as well as a sense of how restricted life would have been for women, confined to the sheltering spaces, in their impractical garments, and how someone like Jane would have chafed at it.

A few additional impressions:

  • I felt the relationship & interactions between Jane and Rochester weren’t developed enough for my liking (i.e. many of the ongoing interactions that formed the basis of their growing connection and love for each other were not included), but they still did a really nice job of showing why Rochester might have been fascinated by Jane’s unique and fresh perspective, her self-contained and measured intelligence, and her candour in a world of pretence, affectation, and weary cynicism.
  • the age difference was really striking, somehow and I had to make some effort not to be creeped out, as Jane looked about 15 or 16 in a number of the scenes.
  • a few moments, when Wasikowska was sitting by the fire, she strikingly evoked some of the illustrations of Charlotte Bronte.
  • loved the ambience and feel of the work–evocative and often bleak. I also loved the feeling of solitudes in the places. The sense of vast landscape and the tininess of so many of the dwellings on the face of that open countryside brought out the vulnerability of human life in that time, against seasons, and the challenges of nature.
  • In one scene, Jane is ensconced in a cottage in the midst of hills and darkness, and she has a knock at the door. Though I knew the story–and so knew it wasn’t going to be some crazed axe-murderer–I still felt a touch of fear at the possibility that it could be anyone, at her door, in the middle of nowhere. The vulnerability of that situation really struck me–as did the haunting and remote nature of the context.

I suppose a few of the negatives of the film just arose from the shortcomings of doing it as a film rather than a mini-series. You can’t bring out facets of the whole motif of the madwoman in the attic as metaphor for the repressed psyche of the Victorian woman, nor the full scope of the relationship between Jane and Rochester. They still did a rather good job of establishing the fascinations and the affinities between them, however. If you’re a fan of the book, it’s a credible adaptation–definitely worth checking out.

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