Tuesday, April 05, 2011

The St. John factor

Well gentle readers, as promised, my thoughts on the St. John issue in adaptations of Jane Eyre.

One of the reviews for the 2008 production of my adaption of "Jane Eyre" said:
Unlike the novel, the production spends a great deal of time on Jane's experience with St. John Rivers, her cousin and potential mate. As Rivers, Nat Cassidy is much harsher and religious law-abiding than his character is in the novel..."
First, I did not let on that St. John was Jane's cousin. But also, the reviewer is wrong - my St. John was just as harsh and religious as the one in the novel. I blogged about that back in June 2008 in my post St. John Rivers - religious zealot or not? and I think I made a very good case for myself.

Every adapter of "Jane Eyre" chooses what aspects of the story they wish to emphasize - I'm not saying mine is the only way, but the reviewer is claiming something that is not the case - I did not change St. John from the book. In fact, mine is one of the few versions that adheres pretty closely to the book version.

I strongly suspect that the reviewer was very influenced by the BBC's 2006 Jane Eyre 4-part series, which was the most recent big-media version at the time my production went up. In that version the cousin issue is mentioned.

The BBC version has been posted to Youtube, and you can see at the end of episode 4 part 4 and the beginning of episode 4 part 5 that unlike in the book, the St. John issue is seriously weak. I mean it's basically:


Jane, I've decided to let you marry me and come a-missionarying with me.


I'll think about it.


Jane Jane Jane!


Adios, San Juan Rios!

A big issue, not surprisingly, is that St. John is almost never as hot as Bronte describes him:
He was young - perhaps from twenty-eight to thirty - tall, slender; his face riveted the eye; it was like a Greek face, very pure in outline: quite a straight, classic nose; quite an Athenian mouth and chin. It is seldom, indeed, an English face comes so near the antique models as did his. He might well be a little shocked at the irregularity of my lineaments, his own being so harmonious. His eyes were large and blue, with brown lashes; his high forehead, colourless as ivory, was partially streaked over by careless locks of fair hair.

The only version I've found that gets St. John right (besides, ahem, my own) is the BBC's 1983 version with Zelah Clark and Timothy Dalton. Not only is St. John played by a very attractive man who resembles the St. John of the book, but they left in all the passive-aggressive guilt-tripping mindfuck that St. John lays on Jane. It's quite good:

As in the book, St. John is very seductive in his own way and he almost gets Jane - only Jane hearing Rochester's voice foils his dastardly scheme. Also Zelah Clark's Jane plays it right - she's clearly vulnerable to St. John. But damn, he's good here.

My version of St. John is similar - and interestingly, the St. John for my production fairly resembles the 1983 St. John.

I thought that the St. John vs. Rochester issue was important not only as a dramatic device, but thematically too. Jane is free to go and live with Rochester in France, but for ethical/moral reasons rejects that plan.

So what happens? She ends up being offered what she presumably truly wants - perfectly lawful marriage (never mind the ick-factor of cousins marrying) and she would not be supported by St. John but paying her way by working as a missionary (plus now she has that inheritance.) And he's closer in age to Jane than Rochester. And on top of that, he's hot! Jane won't even have to close her eyes and think of England.

But for Jane it comes down to love, and that's what made this book so controversial to the early Victorians - a woman rejecting a respectable proposal of marriage for the sake of love. Women making decisions about their lives on the basis of romantic love was very inconvenient for a society in which marriage was primarily a financial transaction.

I wanted to make sure the audience was aware of what was at stake for Jane: if it turned out that Rochester is dead, or has gone off to Europe to drown his sorrows in continental quim, Jane would truly be screwed - or perhaps unscrewed is the better choice by letting St. John get away.

As far as I am aware, no other adaptation uses this passage from the book (except the notoriously faithful - to a fault - 1973 adaptation with Sorcha Cusack and Michael Jayston):
Meantime, let me ask myself one question — Which is better?—To have surrendered to temptation; listened to passion; made no painful effort — no struggle;—but to have sunk down in the silken snare; fallen asleep on the flowers covering it; wakened in a southern clime, amongst the luxuries of a pleasure villa: to have been now living in France, Mr. Rochester’s mistress; delirious with his love half my time—for he would—oh, yes, he would have loved me well for a while. He did love me—no one will ever love me so again. I shall never more know the sweet homage given to beauty, youth, and grace—for never to any one else shall I seem to possess these charms. He was fond and proud of me—it is what no man besides will ever be.—But where am I wandering, and what am I saying, and above all, feeling? Whether is it better, I ask, to be a slave in a fool’s paradise at Marseilles—fevered with delusive bliss one hour—suffocating with the bitterest tears of remorse and shame the next—or to be a village-schoolmistress, free and honest, in a breezy mountain nook in the healthy heart of England?
I had Jane say some of this in a monologue.

The book also mentions that Jane has dreams about Rochester, but it doesn't say anything specific about the content of the dreams. So I took the liberty of using a dream sequence to portray Jane's worst fears:

(Late May. Jane is in bed dreaming. Rochester enters.)


My dear Jane, give yourself to me.

(They embrace and kiss passionately.)


Yes, my darling Edward.


Nobody will ever love you as I do.


No - it seems I am made for labor, not for love.

(In a moment, a young woman enters. It is Rochester’s FRENCH MISTRESS. She is dressed in an absurdly frou- frou pink dress, bedecked with lace and ribbons and flowers. She holds a mask on a stick in front of her face.)


Ou es-tu Edward? Est maintenant l’heur pour nous de flaner sur Le Grande Avenue des Champs-Elysees.


Who is that?


You surely did not expect me to live the remainder of my days in celibacy, did you?


It hasn’t even been a year.


Almost a year. And I am a passionate man.


No, you could not have found a mistress so quickly!


Come to me Edward.

(Rochester goes to the French Mistress and kisses her hand.)


Je t’aime, ma joli fille.


Edward, please, come to your senses!


He cannot see you no more, English lady. Au revoir – my darling Edward and I go to dancing the waltz and drinking la fee vert in the café.

(Rochester and the French Mistress waltz away. Jane lies down in her bed. There is a knock on the door and she awakens.)

This dream sequence worked really well for many reasons:

  1. The audience gets to see Rochester again - important since they want Jane and him to get back together.

  2. It is a nice change of pace - the Morton section of the story can be a bit drab, with St. John trying to shove the Bible down Jane's throat for much of the time, and the issue of the inheritance - important, but hardly romantic. Rochester and the French Mistress is colorful and lively and unexpected.

  3. It echoes the rivalry with Blanche from the first half of the play - Jane's insecurity about Rochester was an important driver of the story up until the marriage.

  4. It reminds the audience of the stakes involved for Jane, especially since I did NOT leave out Rochester's horndawging habits, as so many versions do. And for my own satisfaction I got in a reference to absinth, which is not in the original Bronte, but my own addition. It works as an intensifier of the situation - not only is the French Mistress taking Rochester away, but she's going to drink absinth - la fee vert - with him, which Rochester has said is Jane's drink.

So I think I successfully portrayed the St. John situation in a dramatically viable way. And since most of the audience was new to the story (even to other adaptations, which is where the critics got their information) they didn't know whether or not Jane was going to go with St. John, so it was a live question to them, not a foregone conclusion.

However - I might have overstated the case and made St. John a little too appealing - my mother wanted Jane to go with him. Then again, my mother has some alarmingly Victorian attitudes about sex. And she thought the actor who played St. John was hot. So did my gay friend Mike who said he'd like to "convert" St. John.