March 16, 2011

Mia Wasikowska

Mia Wasikowska

Some of the plot will seem peculiar today, such as that staple of Victorian literature, the (164-year-old Spoiler Alert!) unexpected bequest of a fortune by a distant relative. By making Jane Eyre an heir, this windfall allows the heroine to marry Mr. Rochester not as a Cinderella, but as an equal partner in that emerging Victorian England ideal: the companionate marriage of two intertwined souls.

Not many people in the 21st century are lucky enough to receive a surprise inheritance. Then again, not many of us are unlucky enough to have all our more likely heirs die before us. The high death rates among the young in 19th-century England would more often trigger a series of increasingly implausible if-then-else instructions written into wills.

The topic of inheritances seems strikingly underexploited in 21st-century fiction. We like to think we”€™re beyond all that. Unlike 19th-century heroines such as Jane Eyre and Elizabeth Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, we simply go out and earn our own fortunes. Yet in my own experience, the question of who inherits what remains a hot button, albeit one we consider distasteful to push.

The main question in adapting Jane Eyre into a 115-minute movie is what to exclude. This latest Jane Eyre skimps on the novel’s more Romantic and Gothic aspects, such as the ghostly scratching on the walls of the isolated country estate. Similarly, Jane’s gift (or curse) of hearing loved ones”€™ voices in her head is reduced to one tasteful scene. Mr. Rochester’s dog Pilot, a significant figure in the book, gets merely a cursory shout-out at the end. The most bizarre plot twist, Rochester cross-dressing as a Gypsy fortune-teller, is tastefully excised.

What we are left with seems rather like Jane Eyre if Jane Austen had written it. Austen, who died in 1817, was a witty, levelheaded product of the 18th century. She would have gotten along well with Ben Franklin. In contrast, the Brontës were the quintessence of the 19th century’s Romantic mood.

After the neo-Romanticism of the 1960s-70s, tastes have moved away from the Brontës and toward Austen. (The name “€œEmma,”€ Austen’s second-most-famous heroine, was merely the 448th most popular girl’s baby name in the 1970s. By 2003, it was the 2nd.) Thus, the new movie features much about the Austen-like topics of class and gender battles. Fassbender’s Mr. Rochester comes across more like a bigger, bolder version of Pride and Prejudice‘s Mr. Darcy than like Wuthering Heights“€™ demonic Heathcliff. Yet Jane Eyre is so expansive and lively a source that this rendition remains authentic and entertaining.



Sign Up to Receive Our Latest Updates!