Lately I have a hankering to watch costume dramas. The custom of 18th and 19th century England holds lots of appeal. I imagine it does for lots of us. So I have raked through Netflix, Amazon and HBOGo to find costume dramas to satisfy my yearning. To date I have watched three versions of Jane Eyre and three of Wuthering Heights.
Now I have to admit that both of these novels intrigue young women in the height of their vulnerable adolescence, as they did for me. I mean I spent years looking for Heathcliff and finding lots of duds. The flavor of bad boys and penetrating stares and husky voices seemed mighty appealing to my young idealized state of mind. To rescue a man trapped by the forbidden ghosts of his past would seem ridiculous to my adult state today, but then I believed it highly likely I would find my Mr. Rochester.
Every young woman wants to save some man from his worst habits. They want to be a shining beacon in their lost darkness. That is the stuff of great romance and great romance novels. Unfortunately, for us even Hollywood enjoys spreading that rumor. But with a more jaundiced eye I see now what becomes of those plot lines when transferred to the screen and watched over and over, blunting any romantic notion my female mind might entertain.
Jane Eyre is always cast as about one to two feet shorter than Rochester. What is that about? Does Charlotte Bronte describe her as diminutive? It is most awkward in every scene of the movie. She needs a ladder to reach his shoulders, much less kiss him. How awful for both of the actors! How can they convey the passion Charlotte Bronte intended when Rochester is reaching for a midget! Seriously. The Michael Fassbender version, the most recent version of this story, is superior to the others in that she is almost the same height. Thank goodness for that. No step stools needed. Another point of contention is that Rochester is always handsome. He asks Jane if she thinks he is handsome and she replies no. How can anybody look at Timothy Dalton, William Hurt or Michael Fassbender and say no? Now George C. Scott, yes. He is ugly. And he does not improve with viewing.
Each of the films starts at various points in the novel. A secret I never told anyone is that when I have read the book, I always skip the part about Jane at her aunt’s home and life at Lowood. Who cares? Let’s get to the passion and possibly sex! Well, no sex. This is Charlotte Bronte. Everything is PG throughout the entire novel. But every young woman who reads the book gets all stirred up at the possibility of loving the mysterious and hard-to-live-with Mr. Rochester. We must all be masochistic! We suffer right along with Jane in the secrets of the mansion and in Mr. Rochester’s strange behavior.
On the night of the fire when she rescues his lordship, he tends to some secret chore and asks her to stay in his bedroom. Ah, the reader or viewer thinks, now we are getting down to it. But no. She starts to leave and he asks if she will leave him so. What kind of question is that? What have you done Rochester to make her want to stay? Jane is as perplexed as anyone, but her audience thinks they know what he wants. But how could he want it? Just out of the clear blue? The man has no idea of romance. Really. So we are left longing again for passion and sex. By this time, there should be some.
Eventually though it is worked out that he loves her. Ignore that screaming you hear, he tells her and us. Yeah, well, any young woman knows better than to do that and would insist on him cleaning out his closets as it were. But not our Jane.
And thanks to a novel, The Wide Sargasso Sea, we know who is in the attic and why. But most of the readers and viewers are not acquainted with that tome, so they, like Jane, are a bit befuddled by the mystery overhead.
Needless to say the wedding does not take place, much to the readers’ and viewers’ displeasure. Sort of like a kiss that gets interrupted or worse. Ugh. So off Jane goes into the damp, unforgiving Yorkshire moors which Bronte knew so well. (In fact the whole damn family knew about them which is why they show up in every novel or poem the sisters wrote. Bleak, to say the least.)
Okay. Another confession. I usually skip this part too. After all, Jane, or rather Bronte, is not going to marry Sinjean the minister. He could only love God and rocks. That’s about it. But Charlotte Bronte really didn’t write this novel for romance. She wanted us to understand a woman who wanted to make her own choices and live her own life unimpeded by society or circumstance. Okay. Got it. Now where is the passion and sex? Yeah, gods. The publishing world had just read Fielding’s Tom Jones. Can’t we have some pepper in this pot of stew?
So, across the moors, she hears Rochester call her and off she goes, five thousand pounds richer than before. (Bronte inserted a Dickens moment even before there was Dickens. He is the master of coincidence.) Finds Rochester blinded and one handed in some versions, just blinded in others. And even with the scars on his face, the movies still can’t make Dalton, Hurt and Fassbender ugly. Lost cause.
So with a sigh, our story/movie ends. Satisfaction? No, not really. I guess professors of literature will tell me that the story holds much more than this. But, really? Who reads Jane Eyre for something other than entertainment, except graduate students hiding in the ivory towers of lit criticism?
Maybe I’ll turn to Wuthering Heights and try to find passion and sex? Hmmmmm.