Sunday, March 27, 2011

MIA in the latest Jane Eyre

Well, it isn't a bad Jane Eyre. Mia Wasikowska's Jane has an understated dignity and a measure of strength;  the rather sparse scraps of dialogue preserve a degree of fidelity to the book; the film offers a vivid sense of the interiors of 19th century English dwellings of various kinds; and it has a haunting score that conveys the forces arrayed against Jane, if not the ultimate confidence with which she engages them.

But a lot is missing: the movie lacks the book's force. To understand what's missing, consider three sources of that force: individual ego, patriarchal authority, and let's face it, sisterhood.

Ego: Jane Eyre is an exercise in sublimated but quite megalomaniacal self-aggrandizement.  Charlotte Bronte may have known herself poor, obscure, little, plain, etc. etc. , but she also felt herself to be the intellectual and moral superior of virtually everyone she'd ever met, with the exception of her sisters (and perhaps her father and, until he sank to ruin, her brother).  Jane is her alter ego in this regard. She may claim, at the book's climactic moment, spiritual equality with Rochester, but she makes it perfectly plain as their relationship plays out that she's his superior. She is productive and accomplished; he is idle and profligate; she obeys God's law when it's hard; he tries to make his own rules; she can sustain herself in solitude; he literally goes to pieces without her.  How many novels-about-idealized-me go quite as far as the passage below in self-apotheosis? This is when, having internally reviewed her religious principles as Rochester urges her to go abroad and live as his "wife," she resolves that she cannot, and must leave him:
Mr. Rochester, reading my countenance, saw I had done so. His fury was wrought to the highest; he must yield to it for a moment, whatever followed; he crossed the floor and seized my arm and grasped my waist. He seemed to devour me with his flaming glance: physically, I felt, at the moment, powerless as the stubble exposed to the draught and glow of a furnace:mentally, I still possessed my soul, and with it the certainty of ultimate safety. The soul, fortunately, has an interpreter -- often an unconscious but still a faithful interpreter - in the eye. My eye now rose to his; and while I looked in his fierce face I gave an involuntary sigh; his grip was painful, and my overtaxed strength almost exhausted.

"Never," said he, as he ground his teeth, "never was anything at at once so frail and so indomitable.  A mere reed [get it? She's already burned the inferior Reed family into oblivion] she feels in my hand!' (And he shook me with the force of his hold.) 'I could bend her with my finger and thumb; and what good would it to if I bent, if I uptore, if I crushed her? Consider that eye: consider the resolute, wild, free thing looking out of it, defying me, with more than courage - with a stern triumph. Whatever I do with its cage, I cannot get at it -- the savage, beautiful creature!  If I tear, if I rend the slight prison, my outrage will only let the captive loose. Conqueror I might be of the house; but the inmate would escape to heaven before I could call myself possessor of its clay swelling-place. And it is you, spirit -- with will and energy, and virtue and purity -- that I want; not alone your brittle frame. Of yourself you could come with soft flight and nestle against my heart, if you would: seized against your will, you will elude the grasp like an essence -- you will vanish ere I inhale your fragrance. Oh! come, Jane, come!'[now, now, Reader, don't go there...] (Ch. 27).

Wonderwoman!  Wasikowa's Jane has dignity and self-possession, but not quite the 'will and energy' that Rochester so histrionically celebrates. In the scene in which she first meets Rochester, as he tumbles off his horse, she is way too passive; in the book, she takes the walk on her own initiative, rather than at Mrs. Fairfax's instigation as in the movie, and it's she who insists on helping Rochester, not he who demands it.  In the proposal scene, when, breaking cover, she asserts her spiritual equality with Rochester, she lacks the "volcanic vehemence" with which the autobiographical narrator asserts she is prone to break out periodically. Similarly, when she rejects St. John River's marriage proposal in the novel, the confrontation is cast as a titanic spiritual wrestling match.  In the movie, it ain't. Ditto with her volcanic attack against Mrs. Reed, of which the movie preserves just a sliver.  Take it neat:
Sitting on a low stool, a few yards from her arm chair, I examined her figure, I perused her features. In my hand I held the tract containing the sudden death of the Liar: to which narrative my attention had been pointed as to an appropriate warning. What had just passed; what Mrs. Reed had said concerning me to Mr. Brocklehurst; the whole tenor of their conversation was recent, raw, and stinging in my mind; I had felt every word as acutely as I had heard it plainly, and a passion of resentment fomented now within me.

Mrs. Reed looked up from her work; her eye settled on mine, her fingers at the same time suspended their nimble movements.

“Go out of the room; return to the nursery,” was her mandate. My look or something else must have struck her as offensive, for she spoke with extreme, though suppressed irritation. I got up, I went to the door; I came back again; I walked to the window, across the room, then close up to her.

Speak I must; I had been trodden on severely, and must turn, but how? What strength had I to dart retaliation at my antagonist? I gathered my energies and launched them in this blunt sentence: “I am not deceitful: if I were, I should say I love you; but I declare I do not love you; I dislike you the worst of anybody in the world except John Reed; and this book about the liar, you may give to your girl, Georgiana, for it is she who tells lies, and not I.”

Mrs. Reed's hands still lay on her work inactive: her eye of ice continued to dwell freezingly on mine.
“What more have you to say?” she asked rather in the tone in which a person might address an opponent of adult age than such as is ordinarily used to a child.

That eye of hers, that voice, stirred every antipathy I had. Shaking from head to foot, thrilled with ungovernable excitement, I continued: “I am glad you are no relation of mine: I will never call you aunt again as long as I live. I will never come to see you when I am grown up; and if any one asks me how I liked you, and how you treated me, I will say the very thought of you makes me sick, and that you treated me with miserable cruelty.”

“How dare you affirm that, Jane Eyre?”

“How dare I, Mrs. Reed? How dare I? Because it is the truth. You think I have no feelings, and that I can do without one bit of love or kindness; but I cannot live so: and you have no pity. I shall remember how you thrust me back—roughly and violently thrust me back—into the red-room, and locked me up there, to my dying day; though I was in agony, though I cried out, while suffering with distress, ‘Have mercy! Have mercy, Aunt Reed!’ And that punishment you made me suffer because your wicked boy struck me—knocked me down for nothing. I will tell any body who asks me questions, this exact tale. People think you a good woman, but you are bad; hard-hearted. You are deceitful!”

Ere I had finished this reply, my soul began to expand, to exult, with the strangest sense of freedom, of triumph, I ever felt. It seemed as if an invisible bond had burst and that I had struggled out into unhoped-for liberty. Not without cause was this sentiment. Mrs. Reed looked frightened; her work had slipped from her knee; she was lifting up her hands, rocking herself to and fro, and even twisting her face as if she would cry.
“Jane, you are under a mistake; what is the matter with you? Why do you tremble so violently? Would you like to drink some water?”

“No, Mrs. Reed.”

“Is there anything else you wish for, Jane? I assure you, I desire to be your friend.”

“Not you. You told Mr. Brocklehurst I had a bad character, a deceitful disposition; and I'll let everybody at Lowood know what you are, and what you have done.”

“Jane, you don't understand these things: children must be corrected for their faults.”

“Deceit is not my fault!” I cried out in a savage, high voice.

“But you are passionate, Jane, that you must allow: and now return to the nursery—there's a dear—and lie down a little.”

“I am not your dear; I can not lie down; send me to school soon, Mrs. Reed, for I hate to live here.”

“I will indeed send her to school soon,” murmured Mrs. Reed, sotto voce; and gathering up her work she abruptly quitted the apartment.
Mortal Kombat!  I know you can't get everything into a movie. But the little cross section of this scene we are given is tame, tame, tame by comparison.

Patriarchal authority: My onetime professor Bette London argues that for all its iconic status in the yah yah sisterhood, Jane Eyre is really about the pleasures of submission to the established order, with lots of sado-masochistic fireworks confirming its disciplines. The adult Jane's occasional outbreaks of "volcanic vehemence" are sanctioned by her perfected self-discipline: her success is ultimately to be as Rochester wishes and imagines her to be. Notwithstanding that Bronte maims and blinds him and makes Jane an heir (of wealth won in the slave state of Jamaica) to level the financial playing field, Jane remains, for London, a Mr. Rochester production:
Far from giving vent to the subversive sentiments of an "undisciplined spirit," Jane's revolutionary outbursts can be seen as the production of an over-disciplined body. Moreover, in the case under consideration [the marriage proposal scene], Jane's impassioned self-expression constitutes more of a command performance instigated by Rochester than some spontaneous overflow of authentic female feelings. For Jane speaks the very text Rochester seeks to elicit, the text Rochester demands as the condition for his declaration of commitment. The revolutionary possibilities embodied in Jane's act of resistance are thus deactivated even before Rochester's formal proposal retroactively authorizes Jane's utterance.
This dynamic I think the movie actually captures pretty well.  Rochester's gaze and his hectoring interrogations do seem to draw Jane out as the fantasy antidote to his debauched past. But I've always thought that London's reduction of Jane to an object of male desire misses the matriarchal substratum beneath Jane's submission to Biblical authority and Victorian marital convention.  And it's here -- in Jane's communion with earthly surrogate mothers and sisters, and with spirits arising from her paintbrush, imagination and prayer, that I think the movie really falls down.

New Republic editors Chloe Schama and Hillary Kelly are ahead of me here -- and dead-on:
Jane Eyre is not just a male-female romance (either in the early nineteenth-century or the twenty-first century sense of the term). It is also a novel of female-female romance—or, rather, female camaraderie. Jane possesses the seeds of self-reliance when she’s reading behind the curtain on the opening page, but it is the independent women who enter her life who cultivate these seeds.

In the film, however, these women are all but eliminated. Jane’s only childhood friend and a crucial figure in her early development, the philosophically inclined Helen Burns, offers Jane a roll and, then, a minute later, sweaty skin shining in the candlelight, dies of consumption. Their relationship in between is lost. Miss Temple, a teacher at the cruel Lowood school, the first adult to show any kindness to Jane, and the person who intimates to Jane that she might possess the ability within herself to escape the deprivations of her lot in life, was listed in the credits, but we missed her on the screen. Even Blanche Ingram, who is a fully developed foil in the novel, is reduced to a series of pretty dresses and spiteful comments. And though the handsome St. John lifts Jane off his doorstep and carries her out of the rain in both the film and novel, his kindly sisters play the far greater role in her recovery. Devoid of female kinship, the film becomes a bare-bones romance.
The values expressed and lived by these women do suggest an alternative order to the one in which they all live and teach -- however circumscribed.  Most important ideologically, considering Jane's absorption of religious principals in her well-regulated life at Lowood (well regulated after the sadistic hypocrite Brocklehurst is forced out, a detail omitted in the film) is Helen Burns' personal doctrine of universal salvation -- the antidote to the hellfire sadism of Mr. Brocklehurst. Helen imparts not only the notion of an all-forgiving God (a concept that the more combative Jane manages to transmute into a weapon as she forgives and thus spiritually vanquishes the dying Mrs. Reed), but also a kind of animism that later stands the solitary Jane in good stead.

In any case, with regard to sheer drama, I don't see how any moviemaker can reduce to a mere sliver Jane's communion with Helen. Here is the scene following Mr. Brocklehurst's denunciation and humiliation of Jane: I lay again crushed and trodden on; and could I ever rise more?

“Never,” I thought; and ardently I wished to die. While sobbing out this wish in broken accents, some one approached; I started up—again Helen Burns was near me; the fading fires just showed her coming up the long, vacant room; she brought my coffee and bread.

“Come, eat something,” she said; but I put both away from me, feeling as if a drop or a crumb would have choked me in my present condition. Helen regarded me, probably with surprise: I could not now abate my agitation, though I tried hard; I continued to weep aloud. She sat down on the ground near me, embraced her knees with her arms, and rested her head upon them; in that attitude she remained silent as an Indian. I was the first who spoke: “Helen, why do you stay with a girl whom everybody believes to be a liar?”

“Everybody, Jane? Why, there are only eighty people who have heard you called so, and the world contains hundreds of millions.”

“But what have I to do with millions? The eighty I know despise me.”
“Jane, you are mistaken: probably not one in the school either despises or dislikes you: many, I am sure, pity you much.”

“How can they pity me after what Mr. Brocklehurst has said?”

“Mr. Brocklehurst is not a god: nor is he even a great and admired man: he is little liked here; he never took steps to make himself liked. Had he treated you as an especial favorite, you would have found enemies declared or covert, all around you: as it is, the greater number would offer you sympathy if they dared. Teachers and pupils may look coldly on you for a day or two, but friendly feelings are concealed in their hearts; and if you persevere in doing well, these feelings will ere long appear so much the more evidently for their temporary suppression. Besides, Jane—” she paused.

“Well, Helen?” said I, putting my hand into hers: she chafed my fingers gently to warm them, and went on:
“If all the world hated you, and believed you wicked, while your own conscience approved you, and absolved you from guilt, you would not be without friends.”

“No; I know I should think well of myself; but that is not enough: if others don't love me, I would rather die than live—I cannot bear to be solitary and hated, Helen. Look here; to gain some real affection from you, or Miss Temple, or any other whom I truly love, I would willingly submit to have the bone of my arm broken, or to let a bull toss me, or to stand behind a kicking horse, and let it dash its hoof at my chest—”

“Hush, Jane! you think too much of the love of human beings; you are too impulsive, too vehement: the sovereign hand that created your frame, and put life into it, has provided you with other resources than your feeble self, or than creatures feebler than you. Besides this earth, and besides the race of men, there is an invisible world and a kingdom of spirits: that world is round us, for it is everywhere; and those spirits watch us, for they are commissioned to guard us; and if we were dying in pain and shame, if scorn smote us on all sides, and hatred crushed us, angels see our tortures, recognize our innocence (if innocent we be: as I know you are of this charge which Mr. Brocklehurst has weakly and pompously repeated at second-hand from Mrs. Reed; for I read a sincere nature in your ardent eyes and on your clear front), and God waits only the separation of spirit from flesh to crown us with a full reward. Why, then, should we ever sink overwhelmed with distress, when life is so soon over, and death is so certain an entrance to happiness—to glory?”

I was silent: Helen had calmed me; but in the tranquility she imparted there was an alloy of inexpressible sadness. I felt the impression of woe as she spoke, but I could not tell whence it came; and when, having done speaking, she breathed a little fast and coughed a short cough, I momentarily forgot my own sorrows to yield to a vague concern for her.

Resting my head on Helen's shoulder, I put my arms round her waist; she drew me to her and we reposed in silence (Ch. 8).
After Helen's death and the marriage and departure of Jane's mentor, Lowood headmistress Miss Temple, Jane is in an odd sense sustained by Helen's the kingdom of spirits that Helen perceives. She paints and draws them: as a personified North Star (of which we're given a half-glimpse in the movie), one of the paintings the creation of which Jane calls "the keenest pleasure I have ever known"; and as a naiad's head rising out of "a group of reeds and water flags" sketched as she sits awaiting the death of Mrs. Reed.  And then, at the dark hour when she resolves to leave Rochester, the moment that Adrienne Rich framed as the climactic resolution of the "temptation of a motherless woman":
That night I never thought to sleep; but a slumber fell on me as soon as I lay down in bed. I was transported in thought to the scenes of childhood: I dreamed I lay in the red-room at Gateshead; that the night was dark, and my mind impressed with strange fears. The light that long ago had struck me into syncope, recalled in this vision, seemed glidingly to mount the wall, and tremblingly to pause in the center of the obscured ceiling. I lifted up my head to look: the roof resolved to clouds, high and dim; the gleam was such as the moon imparts to vapors she is about to sever. I watched her come—watched with the strangest anticipation; as though some word of doom were to be written on her disk. She broke forth as never moon yet burst from cloud: a hand first penetrated the sable folds and waved them away; then, not a moon, but a white human form shone in the azure, inclining a glorious brow earthward. It gazed and gazed on me. It spoke to my spirit; immeasurably distant was the tone, yet so near, it whispered in my heart, “My daughter, flee temptation!”

“Mother, I will” (Ch. 27).

Sadomasochistic though the pleasure may be, the emotional charge of Jane Eyre rests above all in her abused childhood, and in her (and her creator) "striking back hard" against her oppressors (including Rochester).  Jane Eyre may be, as London suggests, the kind of "rebel" who makes the system work for her as she plays by its rules. But she leaves a lot of bodies in her trail while doing so. Early on, at age 10, she tells Mr. Brocklehurst that she likes "a little bit of Exodus"; I imagine it's the part where the Egyptians get creamed (e.g., drowned in the Sea of Reeds). And she's supported along the way by a covey of strong if less combative women, not to mention the odd spiritual visitation.  This movie loses the warrior, and the votress.

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