Disclaimer: My memories of Jane Eyre in book and film form are admittedly a bit sketchy, as it’s been a while since I viewed them. That said, I feel everything I’ve written below, however well-intended, should be taken with a grain of salt.
Additionally, please be aware that Jane Eyre does deal with some mature subject matter along the lines of marital fidelity, and I’ve referenced some of it in this post.
A couple of years ago, I read the abridged version of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. I loved the story so much, especially all the parts about the creepy lady who haunted the Fairfax manor in the night, that I wanted to read the original. There was much more to the story than creepy ladies, though, which drew me in even further. Then, out of curiosity, I decided to watch one of the film adaptations – I chose the 1997 British TV movie version, starring Samantha Morton and Ciaran Hinds.
It was a cute, albeit condensed narrative. We really don’t have much opportunity to see Jane shine as a character onscreen, in this version or (I’m assuming) others. I understand, we’ve only got just under two hours to convey 178,404 flowery, drawn-out written words (which is approximately 356.808 pages). And we all know movies can never stay 100% faithful to the books upon which they’re based. Somewhere along the way, we’re going to be disappointed.
What I enjoyed so much in the original, unabridged Jane Eyre book was seeing the world through Jane’s eyes. She witnesses so much injustice and hypocrisy: in her early childhood, where she’s neglected by her foster family; in school, with that hypocritical monster of a headmaster who abused religion as a basis for persecuting others of lesser means; in her childhood friendships, taken away from her by illnesses contracted in deplorable living conditions. Even if Jane was held back by circumstance from doing anything significant about the injustices she witnessed, there was a beautiful intelligence to her perceptions. I found that intelligence appealing, which is why I continued to read this long, classic novel with some romantic overtones.
I think Mr. Rochester found it appealing too, which is why he wanted to marry her and be with her for the rest of their lives. All that gets glossed over in most movies – instead, the focus is on Jane’s seemingly bizarre romance with the much-older Mr. Rochester. After all, who doesn’t love a nice, romantic movie where the gullible young woman marries a creepy old bigamist, and they all live happily ever after?
….Which brings me to the main point of this post: defending Mr. Rochester.
If you’re watching a movie that glosses over the nuances of his origin story as much as Jane’s, Mr. Rochester would seem like the quintessential awful man. Many horrible literary boyfriend characters have been created with a negative perception of Mr. Rochester as their blueprint.
Movie Rochester can be easily dismissed as a creepy, philandering predator who has taken advantage of at least two other women, one of whom he keeps locked away in his attic. He even has a child with a woman from France whom he won’t even acknowledge; reluctantly, he allows the little girl to live in his home as a ward. So when quiet, gullible Jane Eyre comes to work at his manor as the girl’s governess, he knows he’s found his next target. He wills into existence an attraction between them and manipulates her into consenting to his sham second marriage. Movie Rochester totally deserves to have his room set on fire and his entire house burned down by his first wife, Bertha (and if old-time British special effects will permit it, missing limbs and blindness in one eye)!
But Book Rochester is given time to explain who he is and how he came to be the off-putting man he is when Jane meets him, allowing us to see him in a more sympathetic light. Here, Mr. Rochester comes from a wealthy family. Naturally, there are people out there – gold diggers, let’s call them – who’d love a piece of that wealth.
Enter the Masons of Jamaica, who arrange with the Rochesters for their children to court. Our Mr. Rochester is introduced to the Mason’s daughter Bertha, who is very beautiful, in very controlled environments where Bertha’s mental instability won’t be apparent. They see each other in public gatherings, but are never alone together. Mr. Rochester is pressured into marrying Bertha before really getting to know her – after all, if she knew, the relationship would likely dissolve immediately – and only finds out about Bertha’s issues after the wedding, when they begin living together.
Putting it simply, Mr. Rochester was swindled by the scheming, gold-digging Masons into marrying Bertha, and thus I feel his reaction (not necessarily his specific actions) is justified.
Update: I drafted this post before rereading Jane Eyre – since, I’ve found some additional insights that conflict slightly with what I’ve found so far. Specifically, Rochester’s father planned for his other son to receive the family fortune – the senior Rochester sent our Rochester away to make his own fortune. The father might have even helped to arrange Rochester’s marriage to Bertha Mason, whose family was also wealthy (but not as wealthy, I suppose). But I think we can still look upon our Rochester with a bit of sympathy – he was manipulated by the Masons AND his own family.
Caring for a severely mentally ill spouse is not what he signed on for. That still doesn’t mean locking said wife in the attic is the right way to treat her, especially with her condition(s), but his feelings towards her and their relationship are incredibly valid in my book. He didn’t abandon her, though; he made sure she was taken care of by a nurse, the infamous Grace Poole, even if he couldn’t have a healthy marriage with her.
So Mr. Rochester travels the world, not exactly being a loyal husband in a marriage he’d been misled into, meeting other women who take advantage of his wealth and break his heart. So he comes back to his estate, distraught, heartbroken, and lonely. There, he meets a perceptive and intelligent young woman, Jane Eyre, who actually seems to think on the same wavelength, despite their apparent age and social class differences. Basically he sees his soulmate in Jane.
Digression: Likewise, as naive as Jane is, the book – which is told from Jane’s perspective – shows us Jane’s thought process as she enters into a romantic relationship with Mr. Rochester. There is a process, and it’s got a lot more depth than the usual “I like him, he’s so handsome.” That, too, is lost in the movie.
Like the Masons, Mr. Rochester conceals the knowledge his first marriage from her – but unlike the Masons, his motives for this deception are not perverse. He so wants this relationship with Jane to work, and is afraid that if she knew, she’d run away and leave him forever. In his infatuation, he makes some dumb mistakes. He wouldn’t be the only character, male or female, to be blinded by romantic infatuation – just saying.
From a morality standpoint, I don’t have to condone Mr. Rochester’s actions or life choices. I’m just trying to explain where the character’s coming from in a more sympathetic light. Before you write off Mr. Rochester as an awful, manipulative, womanizing monster, I hope you’ll take a moment to dig a little deeper into his origin story. And especially if you’ve only seen the movie(s), I hope you’ll give Jane another chance too. You just might find she’s a very strong and intelligent classic literary heroine, especially for her time.