Sunday, May 18, 2008

Jane Eyre vs. sexism

Although I disagree with those who wish to put a feminist spin on adaptations of "Jane Eyre" by turning Bertha Mason into a victim of imperialism and sexual oppression, I am certainly not pro-imperialism nor pro-sexual oppression.

My point to adaptors and reviewers of "Jane Eyre" is that there is enough feminist sentiment in the novel, as written, that it does not need any modern sub-text. The primary feminist position in the novel is quite radical, even up to the present day: women are creatures with sexual desires, rather than than objects of desire only.

The driving force of "Jane Eyre" is Jane's erotic desire for Rochester, which is why it was so controversial when it was published. To even hint that a female might have her own sexual desires, rather than be a passive, sentimental object waiting to be married off so she can start procreating, went against everything that 18th & 19th century English society believed was proper for a woman.

Jane expresses Bronte's disgust with the socio-economic system of the day in the famous "poor, obscure" speech:
Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! - I have as much soul as you,—and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh;—it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal,—as we are!
To Jane - and Bronte - the fact that Rochester and Jane are intellectual equals should overcome their socio-economic inequality.

Although Jane says that Rochester is not handsome, it is clear that he has no trouble attracting women, from Blanche to his many European mistresses. If he was truly repulsive and women did not feel attraction for him, he wouldn't be much of an object of desire for Jane either. And of course Rochester's many flings does not make him any less of a respectable gentleman - a clear marker of the traditional sexual double standard. We joked about Rochester's horndawg ways during the first production.

But while Rochester is not handsome, he is very masculine. Jane often alludes to his power and virility:
I traced the general points of middle height and considerable breadth of chest. He had a dark face, with stern features and a heavy brow.

His shape, now divested of cloak, I perceived harmonised in squareness with his physiognomy: I suppose it was a good figure in the athletic sense of the term—broad chested and thin flanked, though neither tall nor graceful.

With this announcement he rose from his chair, and stood, leaning his arm on the marble mantelpiece: in that attitude his shape was seen plainly as well as his face; his unusual breadth of chest, disproportionate almost to his length of limb. I am sure most people would have thought him an ugly man; yet there was so much unconscious pride in his port; so much ease in his demeanour; such a look of complete indifference to his own external appearance; so haughty a reliance on the power of other qualities, intrinsic or adventitious, to atone for the lack of mere personal attractiveness, that, in looking at him, one inevitably shared the indifference, and, even in a blind, imperfect sense, put faith in the confidence.

He had a rounded, muscular, and vigorous hand, as well as a long, strong arm.
The first actor to play Rochester in my adaptation is not physically very similar to Rochester, but a theatre acquaintance who saw the show remarked how masculine he was in the role, which I consider confirmation that I made the right casting choice.

But the quality that makes Rochester most attractive to Jane is that he is actually interested in her intellectual and artistic accomplishments. While conversing with Jane, Rochester compliments her intelligence:
“Humbug! Most things free-born will submit to anything for a salary; therefore, keep to yourself, and don’t venture on generalities of which you are intensely ignorant. However, I mentally shake hands with you for your answer, despite its inaccuracy; and as much for the manner in which it was said, as for the substance of the speech; the manner was frank and sincere; one does not often see such a manner: no, on the contrary, affectation, or coldness, or stupid, coarse-minded misapprehension of one’s meaning are the usual rewards of candour. Not three in three thousand raw school-girl-governesses would have answered me as you have just done. But I don’t mean to flatter you: if you are cast in a different mould to the majority, it is no merit of yours: Nature did it. And then, after all, I go too fast in my conclusions: for what I yet know, you may be no better than the rest; you may have intolerable defects to counterbalance your few good points.”

And he admires her paintings:
Not quite: you have secured the shadow of your thought; but no more, probably. You had not enough of the artist’s skill and science to give it full being: yet the drawings are, for a school-girl, peculiar. As to the thoughts, they are elfish. These eyes in the Evening Star you must have seen in a dream. How could you make them look so clear, and yet not at all brilliant? for the planet above quells their rays. And what meaning is that in their solemn depth? And who taught you to paint wind? There is a high gale in that sky, and on this hill-top. Where did you see Latmos? For that is Latmos. There! put the drawings away!"
I emphasized this aspect of Rochester in my adaptation:

When did you paint these?

My last vacation, at Lowood.

Watercolor is a notoriously difficult medium. Were you happy when you painted them?

Yes sir, I was. To paint them was the keenest pleasure I have known.

That’s not saying much - I gather you have had few pleasures thus far in your life. These painting are peculiar. The thoughts are otherworldly.

(He looks at them, absorbed. Then he remembers himself and becomes business-like again.)

Well, Miss Eyre, I find you have satisfactory attributes to educate my ward. Now go do your job.

Yes, sir.

(She curtsies and attempts to take the portfolio. )

Lend me your portfolio a bit longer, will you? I find these pieces strangely compelling.

Certainly, sir.

(Jane exits and Rochester continues to examine the portfolio. End of scene.)

How rare a trait this must have been in a man of the 19th century - Rochester is almost a fantasy figure - a man who is able to look beyond physical appearance in a woman. I'm sure that was a big reason why Charlotte Bronte was so in love with her teacher Constantin Heger - he seems to have taken a genuine interest in her intellectual development.

And I completely empathize with Bronte. Such men are rare even in the 21st century, so much so that if any sufficiently attractive man expresses an interest in my intellectual/artistic accomplishments I will pretty much become his slave for life.

So "Jane Eyre" is still relevant without any extra modern meaning added. Although of course adaptors will emphasize certain elements over others - as I did by emphasizing Rochester's admiration for Jane's paintings - it is simply wrong to change the meaning of the work entirely for ones own agenda.