This week has seen the 171st anniversary of the completion of Shirley by Charlotte Brontë, the third of her novels to be finished and the second to be published (as her first book The Professor was only released posthumously). I love Shirley because it’s a riveting read but also because it features people and places Charlotte knew, disguised under different names, so that the protagonists Shirley and Caroline are clearly inspired by Emily and Anne Brontë. I also believe that it was an influential book, and today we’re going to look at a classic Victorian novel that I feel owes a debt of gratitude to Shirley: Elizabeth Gaskell’s North And South.
We’re all Brontë lovers, so many of us may know Elizabeth best for her biography of her friend and fellow writing great The Life Of Charlotte Brontë. She was also, however the author of eight full length novels and numerous short stories, including many dealing with horror and the supernatural. Perhaps the books that Gaskell is most famous for today are Cranford, Wives And Daughters and North And South, and the Brontë influence can clearly be seen on this latter work.
North And South was first published by Chapman And Hall in 1855, although its serialisation in Household Words magazine had begun in September 1854 – five years after the publication of Shirley.Household Words is famous today for serialising many of the novels of Charles Dickens prior to their appearance in book form, and indeed Dickens was also the owner and editor of the magazine. Perhaps for this reason, North And South is sometimes compared to Dickens’ Hard Times, as well as to Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice, but I think Shirley was just as important in the novel’s genesis.
North And South centres around Margaret Hale, a nineteen year old woman who has been used to a genteel and relatively wealthy existence in the South of England. After her father, a Church of England vicar, resigns his position over a matter of conscience the Hale family are forced to give up this comfortable way of living and start a new life in Milton in the industrial county of Darkshire in the north of England.
On one level Gaskell’s novel utilises elements of Austen-like romance, but it is also a moving and brilliant portrayal of the social divide in England at that time (and which still exists, to a lesser degree today). The South is affluent, bucolic, whereas the North has nouveau riche industrialists lording it over workers who exist in extreme poverty, and for whom starvation can be a real threat. Simultaneously we see the South representing the old England, languid and stuck in its ways, whereas the North is fast moving and forward looking. It is dark and dangerous in the North, but for a select few smiled on by good fortune it can also be a land of great opportunity.
Elizabeth Gaskell knew these contrasts intimately; she herself had been born Elizabeth Stevenson in Chelsea but after a tragic change in her family circumstances she moved north to be raised by her aunt in Knutsford in Cheshire. This was an affluent little town, but Elizabeth saw the darker side of northern life after she married the Unitarian minister William Gaskell and moved to Manchester amidst the beating heart of the industrial revolution.
Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley sees the titular heroine arrive in a northern mill town after coming into her inheritance, and coming into contact with the local mill owner Robert Moore and his tutor brother Louis. There are huge similarities in temperament and circumstances between Robert Moore and the mill owning John Thornton of North And South; both men seem outwardly to care purely for money and industry, paying scant regard to their workers and the appalling conditions they endure. When Thornton’s men go on strike he brings in Irish workers to take their places, whilst Robert Moore installs the latest machinery in his mill, leading to Luddite action and a pitched battle watched over by Shirley and Caroline. Illness also plays a striking part in both novels, with Caroline Helstone almost dying of tuberculosis in Shirley and in North And South we see Bessy Higgins die of byssinosis, a consumption-like disease of the lungs caused by the inhalation of cotton dust.
Industrial unrest, then, is at the heart of both novels, but surprisingly in both books the seemingly cold hearted and uncaring mill owner is also the love interest. It is testament to the power of both Elizabeth Gaskell and Charlotte Brontë as writers that we can witness the dispassionate attitude of the industrialists to their workers, and yet still be happy when their love story is fulfilled. They are fully rounded characters, and therefore like all human beings they are also complex, filled with weaknesses as well as strengths.
At the time that Elizabeth was writing North And South her friendship with Charlotte was growing, and there can be no doubt that she was a great admirer of Shirley, and that it, and its writer, was at the forefront of her mind as she wrote the saga of Margaret Hale. Both stylistically and in regards to its subject it is close to Shirley, but perhaps the greatest sign of the influence of Charlotte’s novel can be found in the names within Elizabeth Gaskell’s masterpiece.
First, we have the name of the mill owner, Mr Thornton: Thornton as we know, and as Elizabeth certainly knew, was the birthplace of Charlotte Brontë. Next, we come to the village where Margaret Hale grew up before she became acquainted with Milton’s soot stained streets: Helstone. Whilst Charlotte’s second published novel is named after its character Shirley Keeldar, its true heroine (featuring across hundreds of pages before Shirley first appears) is Caroline Helstone. We also have the evidence of Margaret Hale’s godfather Mr Bell, the pen name used by Charlotte when writing Shirley.
North And South is not only a brilliant book, and a searing indictment of societal inequality in the nineteenth century, it is also a tribute by Elizabeth Gaskell to Charlotte Brontë. It certainly is a brilliant book however, and deserves to be read by all who love classic fiction. There’s also an excellent BBC adaptation from 2004 starring Daniela Denby-Ashe and Richard Armitage. Now, if only we could get the BBC to dramatise Shirley, or even Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey! Whatever book you’re reading in the coming week, enjoy it and let the turn of the pages take your troubles away. Whether you’re in the north or south, I hope to see you here again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.
The Brontës loved to write, we all know that and we’re all thankful for it, but they also loved art and music too. Emily Brontë in particular was a highly gifted pianist, at one point teaching her fellow pupils at the Pensionnat Heger in Brussels, and Ellen Nussey stated that: ‘Anne also played, but preferred soft melodies and vocal music. She sang a little; her voice was weak, but very sweet in tone.’ We also know that Branwell could play the flute, as well as the church organ, so we can be sure that the parsonage was often full of sweet melodies and moving music – which is why I’m so pleased to be reviewing The Bluebell by Charlie Rauh in today’s Brontë blog post.
Charlie Rauh is an accomplished and acclaimed musician and composer who lives in New York city, and his previous album Hiraeth was well received on both sides of the Atlantic. As we shall see, his latest work is based upon the poetry of Anne and Emily Brontë, so I was delighted when I was sent a digital copy of the album to review. I must say here that whilst I received a free copy of The Bluebell I was not given any financial incentive nor am I connected to it in any way, so you can be sure that my review which follows will be my full and honest opinion.
Charlie is an excellent acoustic guitarist, and this album showcases his talents to the full. The nine tracks create a series of modern lullabies, full of gentle pleasures which are both relaxing and stirring. As in the Brontë poetry which inspired the album, these are vignettes which make you think, so that the pauses and silences are as important as the notes you hear played.
Charlie Rauh has long been a Brontë enthusiast, and his deep love and understanding of their work shines through in this album. Each of the nine tracks is based upon an individual poem by either Anne or Emily, and the album both closes and finishes with a track entitled The Bluebell – the first being based upon Anne’s poem of that name, and the last based upon Emily Brontë’s poem of that name.
In his compositions, Charlie has not simply taken the words of the sisters and set them to music, but rather he has taken the feel and theme of the poems and created a short piece of acoustic guitar music that represents a musical representation of the work. In short, he has transformed words and stanzas into crochets and bars, and I found that this worked extremely well. The standout tracks for me were the two eponymous songs, and ‘Faith Shines Equal Arming Me From Fear’, inspired by Emily’s brilliant ‘No Coward Soul Is Mine’. This is a complex, thought provoking track, perfectly in keeping with Emily’s treatise upon the power and nature of her personal faith and beliefs.
On one level, you could simply pour yourself your favourite drink, kick off your shoes, and listen indulgently to Charlie Rauh’s sublime guitar playing – it often reminded me of classical guitar legend John Williams at his best, and I can’t give it higher praise than that. I think this album works even better, however, if you play it alongside the Brontë poetry which has inspired it – by reading ‘Last Lines’ by Anne Brontë, for example, and then listening to ‘With Purpose Pure And High’ from The Bluebell you can’t help but feel moved as its last note fades into silence.
The Blubell by Charlie Rauh is released by Destiny Records on August 28th, and will be available as a digital download from all the usual music download channels. There was also a special limited edition version available from Destiny Records themselves, and I plan on buying a copy myself if they release more copies of this limited edition because it really is something very special. Charlie Rauh has embraced the sibling power which was so important to the Brontës, and enlisted the help of his brother Christopher and sister Christina to create their own versions of Anne and Emily’s diary papers. Christopher has written a series of poems which Christina has then embellished with exquisite watercolours along with pressed flowers including bluebells. These modern diary papers are then placed within a wooden box, and the end result is absolutely stunning.
In summary then, this is a very fitting and very well executed tribute to the poetry of Anne and Emily and to the enduring power of the Brontës. It should make perfect listening as the dark nights of autumn draw in, and I think this is a great addition to any Brontë lover’s collection. This isn’t the first time that the Brontës have inspired music of course, as we have everything from Kate Bush’s take on ‘Wuthering Heights’ to Bernard Herrmann’s opera of the same name. Charlie Rauh’s guitar driven, Brontë-inspired lullabies have a universal appeal, and are a welcome addition to this cannon. I think that Anne and Emily themselves would have enjoyed and approved of this album, and we can’t ask for more than that. We know, after all, that Emily Brontë loved guitar music, as one of her poems is entitled ‘The Lady To Her Guitar’, as we see here in my book Emily Brontë: A Life In 20 Poems:
There’s more than a hint of a magic tone in The Bluebell by Charlie Rauh, so I wish it every success as we enter its launch week. Whatever you’re listening to or reading at the moment, enjoy it! I will see you again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.
It’s certainly been a busy few days, but one of the most joyous and moving elements of it has been listening to the new album ‘ The Bluebell’, by Charlie Rauh. It takes some of the greatest poems by Anne and Emily Brontë and sets them to sublime guitar music. I’ll be reviewing it fully in a special post on Wednesday, but for now let’s take a look at a place I visited once more yesterday, Hathersage in words and pictures – you may know it better as Morton in Jane Eyre.
Hathersage is a picturesque village in the Derbyshire Peak District, and like just about everywhere associated with the Brontës it’s rather hilly and a test for the knees. I say associated with the Brontës because Charlotte Brontë visited here in the summer of 1845, spending three weeks with her great friend Ellen Nussey. These weeks were happy but fleeting but their influence has marked English literature for ever, as we shall see when we examine some of Hathersage’s attractions in words and in actuality.
Hathersage Moor is at the northern portion of the Peak District, around ten miles south of South Yorkshire’s largest city Sheffield. Indeed Charlotte caught the train to Sheffield, before taking a coach to Hathersage itself (although it now has its own train station). En route she passed through stunning yet bleak moorland, which must have reminded her of the similar vistas around Haworth. If anything the Peak District moors are bleaker, wilder and more powerful, and it is here that a distraught Jane finds herself after leaving Thornfield Hall and the would-be bigamist Rochester:
‘From the well-known names of these towns I learn in what county I have lighted; a north-midland shire, dusk with moorland, ridged with mountain: this I see. There are great moors behind and on each hand of me; there are waves of mountains far beyond that deep valley at my feet. The population here must be thin, and I see no passengers on these roads: they stretch out east, west, north, and south – white, broad, lonely; they are all cut in the moor, and the heather grows deep and wild to their very verge. Yet a chance traveller might pass by; and I wish no eye to see me now: strangers would wonder what I am doing, lingering here at the sign-post, evidently objectless and lost. I might be questioned: I could give no answer but what would sound incredible and excite suspicion. Not a tie holds me to human society at this moment – not a charm or hope calls me where my fellow-creatures are – none that saw me would have a kind thought or a good wish for me. I have no relative but the universal mother, Nature: I will seek her breast and ask repose. I struck straight into the heath; I held on to a hollow I saw deeply furrowing the brown moorside; I waded knee-deep in its dark growth; I turned with its turnings, and finding a moss-blackened granite crag in a hidden angle, I sat down under it. High banks of moor were about me; the crag protected my head: the sky was over that.’
The George Hotel
One of the first thing that visitors to Hathersage often encounter, now and then, is the George Hotel. Now it’s a rather salubrious location to rest one’s head, and they also serve a fabulous afternoon tea. In 1845 it was the coaching stop for the village, and so it was here that Charlotte alighted. In Jane Eyre Charlotte transports the George Inn (as she calls it) from Hathersage (Morton) to Millcote as her protagonist prepares to return to Thornfield Hall. Portraits of George III still hold a position of prominence in the hotel:
‘A new chapter in a novel is something like a new scene in a play; and when I draw up the curtain this time, reader, you must fancy you see a room in the George Inn at Millcote, with such large figured papering on the walls as inn rooms have; such a carpet, such furniture, such ornaments on the mantelpiece, such prints, including a portrait of George the Third, and another of the Prince of Wales, and a representation of the death of Wolfe. All this is visible to you by the light of an oil lamp hanging from the ceiling, and by that of an excellent fire, near which I sit in my cloak and bonnet; my muff and umbrella lie on the table, and I am warming away the numbness and chill contracted by sixteen hours’ exposure to the rawness of an October day: I left Lowton at four o’clock a.m., and the Millcote town clock is now just striking eight.’
The reason for Charlotte’s visit to Hathersage was that Ellen Nussey’s brother had been made vicar of the parish. Whilst Charlotte was there, Henry was on honeymoon with his new bride Emily Prescott (he had previously had a proposal rejected by Charlotte of course). Charlotte and Ellen were overseeing some renovations that Henry had ordered, and the beautiful parsonage building they stayed in was recreated as the home of the Rivers family in Morton:
‘I could not bear to return to the sordid village, where, besides, no prospect of aid was visible. I should have longed rather to deviate to a wood I saw not far off, which appeared in its thick shade to offer inviting shelter; but I was so sick, so weak, so gnawed with nature’s cravings, instinct kept me roaming round abodes where there was a chance of food. Solitude would be no solitude—rest no rest—while the vulture, hunger, thus sank beak and talons in my side.
I drew near houses; I left them, and came back again, and again I wandered away: always repelled by the consciousness of having no claim to ask—no right to expect interest in my isolated lot. Meantime, the afternoon advanced, while I thus wandered about like a lost and starving dog. In crossing a field, I saw the church spire before me: I hastened towards it. Near the churchyard, and in the middle of a garden, stood a well-built though small house, which I had no doubt was the parsonage. I remembered that strangers who arrive at a place where they have no friends, and who want employment, sometimes apply to the clergyman for introduction and aid. It is the clergyman’s function to help—at least with advice—those who wished to help themselves. I seemed to have something like a right to seek counsel here. Renewing then my courage, and gathering my feeble remains of strength, I pushed on. I reached the house, and knocked at the kitchen-door. An old woman opened: I asked was this the parsonage?’
Eyre Family Graves
As described in Jane Eyre, the parsonage with its lovely garden is in the shadow of the spired church of St. Michael and All Angels, and in the graveyard are a number of graves for members of the leading family of the area: the Eyres. Other common names in the churchyard include Higginbottom and Gulliver, so the nation’s favourite heroine could have had a very different name.
North Lees Hall
Charlotte not only saw the Eyre family graves in 1845, she also met the Eyre family themselves at their family seat of North Lees Hall, just over a mile to the north of Hathersage. It’s castellated ramparts are very reminiscent of a famous literary building – Thornfield Hall.
Charlotte was obviously greatly impressed by Hathersage, for its influence upon Jane Eyre cannot be overstated. If you get the opportunity I thoroughly recommend that you visit it and follow in the footsteps of Charlotte and Ellen. In the meantime, stay safe and happy and join me next Sunday for a new Brontë blog post, as well as on Wednesday to hear more about the brilliant album ‘The Bluebell’ by Charlie Rauh.
We are now well into the month of August, progressing through a summer unlike any other. The Brontë novels, and adaptations of them, continue to provide solace and entertainment in these strange times, so in today’s post we’re going to take a look at what the Brontës had to say about this pivotal month when the year changes from its waxing to its waning form.
‘“You are not, perhaps, aware that I am your namesake? – that I was christened St. John Eyre Rivers?”
“No, indeed! I remember now seeing the letter E. comprised in your initials written in books you have at different times lent me; but I never asked for what name it stood. But what then? Surely—”
I stopped: I could not trust myself to entertain, much less to express, the thought that rushed upon me—that embodied itself, – that, in a second, stood out a strong, solid probability. Circumstances knit themselves, fitted themselves, shot into order: the chain that had been lying hitherto a formless lump of links was drawn out straight, – every ring was perfect, the connection complete. I knew, by instinct, how the matter stood, before St. John had said another word; but I cannot expect the reader to have the same intuitive perception, so I must repeat his explanation.
“My mother’s name was Eyre; she had two brothers; one a clergyman, who married Miss Jane Reed, of Gateshead; the other, John Eyre, Esq., merchant, late of Funchal, Madeira. Mr. Briggs, being Mr. Eyre’s solicitor, wrote to us last August to inform us of our uncle’s death, and to say that he had left his property to his brother the clergyman’s orphan daughter, overlooking us, in consequence of a quarrel, never forgiven, between him and my father. He wrote again a few weeks since, to intimate that the heiress was lost, and asking if we knew anything of her. A name casually written on a slip of paper has enabled me to find her out. You know the rest.” Again he was going, but I set my back against the door.’
August has certainly proved to be a pivotal month for Jane, for by a strange twist of fate she finds out that she is related to her erstwhile rescuers the Rivers family and that she has become a wealthy heiress, thanks to the passing of her Madeira uncle John. Typically for Jane her subsequent ecstasy comes not because of her new found riches but because of her new found cousins.
‘He had a fixed idea, I guessed by several observations he let fall, that, as his nephew resembled him in person, he would resemble him in mind; for Linton’s letters bore few or no indications of his defective character. And I, through pardonable weakness, refrained from correcting the error; asking myself what good there would be in disturbing his last moments with information that he had neither power nor opportunity to turn to account.
We deferred our excursion till the afternoon; a golden afternoon of August: every breath from the hills so full of life, that it seemed whoever respired it, though dying, might revive. Catherine’s face was just like the landscape—shadows and sunshine flitting over it in rapid succession; but the shadows rested longer, and the sunshine was more transient; and her poor little heart reproached itself for even that passing forgetfulness of its cares.
We discerned Linton watching at the same spot he had selected before. My young mistress alighted, and told me that, as she was resolved to stay a very little while, I had better hold the pony and remain on horseback; but I dissented: I wouldn’t risk losing sight of the charge committed to me a minute; so we climbed the slope of heath together. Master Heathcliff received us with greater animation on this occasion: not the animation of high spirits though, nor yet of joy; it looked more like fear.’
The warm days and evenings of August are leading to love for young Catherine and Linton, or are they? As usual in Emily Brontë’s brilliant novel, all is not as it seems, and Linton is just a pawn in Heathcliff’s unending lust for revenge.
The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall
‘To return, however, to my own affairs: I was married in summer, on a glorious August morning. It took the whole eight months, and all Helen’s kindness and goodness to boot, to overcome my mother’s prejudices against my bride-elect, and to reconcile her to the idea of my leaving Linden Grange and living so far away. Yet she was gratified at her son’s good fortune after all, and proudly attributed it all to his own superior merits and endowments. I bequeathed the farm to Fergus, with better hopes of its prosperity than I should have had a year ago under similar circumstances; for he had lately fallen in love with the Vicar of L—’s eldest daughter—a lady whose superiority had roused his latent virtues, and stimulated him to the most surprising exertions, not only to gain her affection and esteem, and to obtain a fortune sufficient to aspire to her hand, but to render himself worthy of her, in his own eyes, as well as in those of her parents; and in the end he was successful, as you already know. As for myself, I need not tell you how happily my Helen and I have lived together, and how blessed we still are in each other’s society, and in the promising young scions that are growing up about us. We are just now looking forward to the advent of you and Rose, for the time of your annual visit draws nigh, when you must leave your dusty, smoky, noisy, toiling, striving city for a season of invigorating relaxation and social retirement with us. Till then, farewell, GILBERT MARKHAM’
August is mentioned many times in Anne Brontë’s second novel, and in many of these occurrences we find Helen bemoaning the fact that her husband Arthur Huntingdon is away carousing with friends during this month. It’s good to see, then, that the final mention of August is in the much more positive paragraph above. Gilbert and Helen are finally married, and August love has conquered August cruelty. This is also one of the overriding messages of the novel as a whole, so it’s also fitting that this is the very last paragraph in the book.
Anne Brontë wrote a number of her poems in August, perhaps reflecting the greater freedoms that she had in this month during summer breaks from her role as governess. One such poem is Fluctuations, dated by Anne on the 2nd August 1844. She talks of the fluctuations that she sees in the natural world, reflecting fluctuations in her own life and emotions. August is a month of fluctuations after all, but it can also be a month of warmth, love and hope. I will leave you with Anne’s poem now, and I hope to see you all for next Sunday’s new Brontë blog post, when I will be reviewing a very special new work of music inspired by the Brontës: Bluebells by Charlie Rauh. Stay happy and healthy!
‘What though the sun had left my sky;
To save me from despair
The blessed moon arose on high
And shone serenely there.
I watched her with a tearful gaze
Rise slowly o’er the hill;
While through the dim horizon’s haze
Her light gleamed faint and chill.
I thought such wan and lifeless beams
Could ne’er my heart repay
For the bright sun’s most transient gleams
That cheered me through the day.
But as above that mist’s control
She rose and brighter shone
I felt her light upon my soul,
But now – that light is gone!
Thick vapours snatched her from my sight
And I was darkling left,
All in the cold and gloomy night
Of light and hope bereft.
Until methought a little star
Shone forth with trembling ray
To cheer me with its light afar,
But that too passed away.
Anon an earthly meteor blazed
The gloomy darkness through.
I smiled yet trembled while I gazed,
But that soon vanished too.
And darker, drearier fell the night
Upon my spirit then;
But what is that faint struggling light –
Is it the moon again?
Kind Heaven, increase that silvery gleam
And bid these clouds depart;
And let her kind and holy beam
Restore my fainting heart.’
In last week’s post we looked at the life of Jack Kay, the fortune teller of Haworth who inspired the fortune telling scene in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Included in the post was a picture of Timothy Dalton as Rochester in his fortune teller’s guise, and I was asked why that scene is so rarely included in television and film adaptations of this great novel? It’s an excellent question, so that’s something we’re going to look at today, as well as assessing three of the greatest recent Jane Eyre adaptations.
I will also be calling upon some expert help today in the form of my wonderful girlfriend Emma Langan. We were in Scarborough this week to visit Anne Brontë’s resting place, and we also celebrated Emily Brontë’s 202nd birthday on Thursday with some lovely Victoria Sponge cake at the appropriately named Bonnets cafe. Emma is passionate about the Brontës, Jane Eyre and its adaptations, so I was thrilled when she agreed to helping me with this post.
After reading my post last week, Amy Louise Maris commented, ‘It’s always been a source of great disappointment to me that most (all but one?) adaptations in film omit this great scene in Jane Eyre. It is one of my favourites. Interesting post!’ Thanks Amy, and thanks to everyone who comments on my posts, they’re always welcome.
I’ve always found the fortune telling scene to be a very interesting one, and one that serves well to move the plot forward – Rochester is becoming ever more enamoured of Jane, despite the attractions of Blanche Ingram, and this odd ruse is his attempt to discover if his feelings are reciprocated. It shows Rochester in a more playful light than he had hitherto been seen, but it also shows his capacity for self-interest as it is, after all, rather a cruel trick to play. Why then isn’t this pivotal scene in many adaptations, other than the 1983 series starring Timothy Dalton and Zelah Clarke? Emma Langan takes a look:
As much as it pains me to highlight a flaw in the timeless masterpiece that is ‘Jane Eyre’, it is worth noting that the fortune telling scene seems a little far fetched even for someone as imaginative and filled with genius as Charlotte. With fortune telling and interest in the supernatural being extremely popular in the 19th century, a fortune teller at a party would not have gone amiss. Premonition games were heavily included at Halloween and Christmas parties in the rural countryside (where Thornfield Hall appears to be set). Whilst claimed professional experts of the supernatural laid the cards for the most rich and accomplished ladies and gentlemen in some of the most superb drawing rooms across the country.
The issue I find is that Charlotte felt Rochester had to secretly pose as the fortune teller rather than just hiring a real one, and how this segment in the story passes without anyone seeming to notice any familiarity until Jane Eyre herself is called. Could this be because a genuine fortune teller would not have been able to sense Jane’s presence and would not have been so pushy as to have called Jane to have her fortune told? Or was it to slightly hint at the fact that Charlotte herself may have been a cynic when it came to the habits of self-proclaimed mystics? Would a real fortune teller have been as detailed in telling the stories as Rochester was?
This could be a possible explanation as to why the fortune teller scene is cut out in most of the film adaptations of Jane Eyre regardless to how well the rest of the film is true to the novel. In 1846-47 when Jane Eyre was written, fortune tellers were criminalised under the 1824 Vagrancy Act, as the following excerpt explains: “every person pretending or professing to tell fortunes, or using any subtle craft, means, or device, by palmistry or otherwise, to deceive and impose on any of his Majesty’s subjects…shall be deemed a rogue and vagabond.” Could Charlotte have used a fake fortune teller to avoid breaking any laws in her novel unlike her trailblazing sister Anne in the Tenant of Wildfell Hall? And is the fortune telling scenes often cut out of the movie adaptations because supernatural abilities are often a cause of controversy across the world and because the 1824 Vagrancy Act is still an official act of parliament even 196 years later?
A fascinating theory from Emma, and it could well be that Charlotte was influenced by a cynicism when it came to supernatural phenomena and psychic abilities. Whilst society in general is much more open to the possibility of some psychic phenomena, it’s still true that a healthy cynicism remains prevalent and that some people find the possibility of such phenomena to be contrary to their religious beliefs. With that in mind, film and television producers may be tempted to consign this interesting scene to the dustbin.
There is another scene which is often overlooked when it comes to adaptations. In the aftermath of her supposed wedding day to Rochester, the ever proud Jane determines to leave Thornfield Hall, and the man she still loves, forever. She eventually finds herself on the desolate moors of the Peak District, but most adaptations show Jane wandering dejectedly around the moors and then finding herself, hungry and bedraggled, at the home of the Rivers family in Morton (based upon the real life Derbyshire village of Hathersage visited by Charlotte and Ellen Nussey).
In choosing this route, the adaptations miss a very moving scene in which a starving Jane is forced to beg for scraps of food that were intended for pigs. I believe this scene is important because it shows the physical and emotional nadir that Jane had reached, but it also shows her finally overcoming her pride that until then had been an unconquerable, controlling emotion. I believe that Charlotte is showing us that both Jane and Rochester have to overcome their pride before they can finally find a lasting love together – Jane’s epiphany comes as a result of her sudden poverty and hunger and Rochester’s as a result of his sudden blindness and disability. Charlotte is saying that despite their different social backgrounds, Jane and Rochester are the same emotionally and spiritually, with the same frailties – they are indeed equal, just as they affirm so powerfully in the beautifully and moving proposal scene.
In my opinion, Jane Eyre adaptations would be even better with these two scenes included, but there are still some brilliant adaptations out there. Three of the most modern adaptations have to be among the very best, so let’s take a brief look at them now:
1983: We’ve already encountered the 1983 adaptation by the BBC, and it was one that did show Rochester’s fortune telling farce. Against very fierce competition, this has to be my favourite adaptation and that’s down to three things – the first two being its leads, Zelah Clarke as the eponymous heroine and Timothy Dalton as Edward Rochester. For me, these two will forever epitomise these roles.
Zelah is small, determined and pronounces her words very clearly and deliberately, which I think is perfectly fitting for the determined and proud governess. Her Jane is often reserved, but the strength of Zelah’s portrayal is that you are never in any doubt about her hidden passions and fire within.
Some have commented that Timothy Dalton is just too handsome to play Rochester, as the protagonist is described as plain, even ugly, by Charlotte. These adjectives could clearly never be applied to Timothy, famous now as a James Bond, and yet I find him entirely convincing. This Welsh actor delivers a very convincing northern accent throughout, but once again we can see his inner emotions despite a bluff, uncompromising exterior.
The third positive for me in this adaptation is that it remains incredibly faithful to Charlotte Brontë’s original text, which surely has to be a positive. I think this trilogy of factors reaches its zenith in the proposal scene – Rochester looks troubled and feverish, Jane looks angry at first, but the denouement of this scene is entirely romantic and entirely believable. I’d also like to take a moment to praise the gentle, yearning theme music by Paul Reade, which is entirely in keeping with this loving and loveable adaptation.
2006: The BBC returned to Jane Eyre in 2006 for a four part adaptation which is many people’s favourite version, and which gives the 1983 adaptation above a real run for its money in my opinion. Our protagonists are played this time by Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens. They handle the roles with aplomb and the only real criticism is the one levelled against Timothy Dalton: namely that they’re just too good looking to play Charlotte’s characters. That we soon forget this, however, is testimony to their acting and the directing by Susanna White.
This is a very stylish and lavishly filmed production, with a series of almost cinematic scenes that hold great visual appeal. Even so, it never fails to engage the heart and mind as well as the eyes, and there’s real chemistry between the main characters. Toby already had a fine Brontë pedigree when he stepped into Rochester’s shoes, as he had played Gilbert Markham in the BBC’s 1996 adaptation of The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall. Starring as Helen alongside him on that occasion was the brilliant Tara Fitzgerald who can also be seen here as Jane’s wicked aunt Mrs. Reed.
There are some differences from the original novel, however. Firstly, Rochester doesn’t disguise himself as a fortune teller but hires one, which as Emma has explained above may be a more realistic interpretation of what was happening in country houses at the time. Secondly, Jane’s flight across the moors is condensed, although Ruth Wilson still does an excellent job in portraying Jane’s despair and vulnerability at this time. Finally, Emma will take a look at what is arguably the greatest film adaptation of Jane Eyre:
2011:Director Cary Fukunaga’s and script writer Moira Buffini’s 2011 film adaptation of ‘Jane Eyre’ is my favourite adaptation of Jane Eyre because, despite the unconventional start to the film, I feel that it is excellently cast and true to Charlotte Brontë’s original narrative. It does the novel justice and lingers in the memory, which is difficult considering how many adaptations there are.
The beginning of the film starts with Mia Wasikowska’s perfectly parted Jane Eyre running away from Thornfield Hall and being rescued by Jamie Bell’s St John Rivers and his sisters. Then the film carries on in the same sequence as in the novel revealed in a series of flashbacks. Jane adjusts to her new life with the Rivers siblings until she comes into unexpected fortune and makes her way back to Thornfield triggered by the haunting voice of Rochester calling her.
Some scenes that you would not find in the novel have been subtly added, such as Rochester emerging from a snowstorm and somehow finding Jane at her pokey school mistress lodgings and embracing her. The film is excellently cast throughout except for Rochester’s faithful and energetic companion Pilot who is played by a lovely cross breed rather than a Newfoundland, but that is easily forgiven. The connection between the solicitor Mr Briggs, Mason, St John Rivers and Jane is a little non-descript compared to how it is made evident in the novel but I found this only a minor error.
As someone who does not judge others by their looks and believes looks can fade very quickly, it’s almost impossible for me to describe any actress who has played Jane in any adaptation as ugly or even plain as Charlotte and Jane both describe themselves and the same applies to Mia Wasikowska who portrays Jane as quiet, pious, virtuous, self-assured and strong willed to the point that the actress emanates Jane herself, as if Jane has stepped directly onto the big screen straight from the novel. Michael Fassbender’s Edward Rochester is neither dark nor ugly but perfectly balances out the combination of secret hopeless romantic and his broody aloofness and handsome arrogance. Judy Dench is as iconic as ever as the talkative housekeeper Mrs Fairfax to the extent where once you’ve seen her in the role, it’s difficult to imagine anyone else portraying Mrs Fairfax. Sally Hawkins is almost unrecognisable in her portrayal as the menacing Mrs Reed especially as only four years before this adaptation of ‘Jane Eyre’, she portrayed the quiet and sweet Anne Eliot in the 2007 adaptation of Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion’. Freya Parks is excellent in portraying the positivity and wisdom of Helen Burns in such a way that we see the closest we have ever come to seeing her inspiration of Maria Brontë brought to life. With this brilliant cast and an emphasis on passion, this is the greatest big screen ‘Jane Eyre’.
All three of these adaptations are well worth watching, and there are many other Jane Eyre adaptations to try too, including the recent National Theatre adaptation with the very first version being filmed in 1910. If you have a spare hour or so, why not watch this 1934 film version right here, but be warned that it’s not quite as, er, sophisticated as some later adaptations:
There’s a Jane Eyre for everyone, which is a fitting tribute to the power of Charlotte’s work. Join me next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post, thank you to the wonderful Emma Langan for her hard work and her contribution, and thank you all for reading it. Stay happy and healthy, keep reading the novels and watching the films.