Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The Problem of Jane Eyre

This is an unapologetically literary (even book-club-ish) sort of post.

You can blame it all on Toby Stephens. After seeing the BBC version of Jane Eyre starring the Divine Toby Stephens – and the equally talented Ruth Wilson, to be scrupulously fair – I’ve had the story in my head. My mind has been munching on it for a few days, and I thought I’d share a few of the conclusions and observations I’ve come up with so far – with special contributions from conversations held with my sister and my friends Miss Amazing and L-Bean.

Here’s the nifty trick that Charlotte Bronte pulled off when writing Jane Eyre:

She created just exactly the right set of circumstances so that her two romantic leads would call off their wedding at the altar and yet still be madly in love with each other.

The tension of the second half of the story rests between lovers who are still completely besotted with each other, but have separated because honor (and, well, the law) demands it.

Think about this for a second. Are there any circumstances you can imagine, any at all, where you can see yourself at the altar next to the fellow you must be certain is Mr. Right, mere seconds away from pledging your futures to each other, only to have Mr. Loud Mouth Deus Ex Machina walk in blaring out some startling fact that changes everything and not have that startling fact Damage Your Love?

I don’t think so. I’ve tried to imagine such a scenario and failed. I’ve polled various friends. They’ve also tried and failed. Either the wedding-halting fact is not all that startling (“It appears the groom has a dramatic horror of public speaking”) or it’s so startling that it Damages the Love.

Yesterday I wrote to my friend Miss Amazing:

What would the modern equivalent of the Jane Eyre story be? Girl meets Boy. Boy scowls. Girl ignores scowl. Girl and Boy have encoded flirtatious conversation. Boy proposes. Girl accepts. Boy and Girl are at the altar when… drum roll… Big Scary Secret is revealed which immediately negates the wedding, no questions asked. Although Boy and Girl both still desperately love each other and want to be together, there is now ‘no hope.’ They must part forever.

In the early 19th century it was finding out Boy already had a wife. Divorce was apparently never an option given said wife’s insanity and the social mores of the time.

But today, what would it take to stop a wedding in cold blood right at the altar? Not just temporarily, but For Good. Granted, finding out he already has a wife is not good news. But depending on how smoothly he can explain it away, in today’s society an inconvenient wife could be seen as a legal problem that is usually speedily resolved. Wedding could proceed, if both parties still wished. In this day and age disclosing a pre-existing wife at the altar indicates a lack of foresight and organization, a lamentable lack of problem-solving skills, but it’s not necessarily an insurmountable problem in and of itself. *

Miss Amazing wrote back, with admirable insight:

I suppose one could make the case that if the man you love neglects to mention a Wife, you may be dealing with a man with limited communication skills, at the very least. But we don't, typically, fall in love with a man's communication skills, so hopefully there was something else there. [This sentence makes me giggle every time I read it.]

I would say 'at the altar' is a bad place for first time disclosure of anything. One might question the wisdom of marrying a man who waits until just before the “I dos” to mention having herpes, for example. Though Jane might have paused before even getting to the altar if she took a moment to realize she was being dragged across the terrain in her wedding frock by a rather intense looking groom...

[For those who didn’t see it, this was indeed the sort of moment that any other person besides a frothy-headed bride might have considered a Reality Check: Rochester had grabbed Jane by the wrist and was hustling her up a rocky hill to the church. She was puffing along behind him in dress and veil, dreamy eyed, not at all put off by his scowling high-speed man-handling. Surely, in retrospect, she had to see that as A Sign.]

My sister’s response to my Jane Eyre question was this:

That would have done it for me. Revealing you already have a wife at the altar would have done it. That would have Damaged the Love.

Well, we all agree on that.

But as I said at the beginning, Bronte’s trick was to sever the marriage rites in an instant WITHOUT irrevocably Damaging the Love.

Thoughts? Ideas?

* All this talk of last-minute inconvenient-wife-revelations is purely from a story construction point of view. I’m not at all saying that the last-minute revelation that Your One True Love is actually still legally attached to his Previous True Love is something anyone could or should get over right quick. I think that would be quite devastating. Despite the legal solutions to such a problem, a quick return to the altar seems unlikely. As Kelsey said, such a surprise would Damage the Love, no matter how expediently the problem could be solved. This is merely an exercise in story architecture.


Annette said...

I think the story is hard to translate into our current society... with Mr Rochester (looking as good as Toby Stephens) offering a villa on the Med, most of us would probably say yes and leave the insane and unwanted wife where she was! Or, as you say, we would take offence at not being told the truth and tell him to nick off.

However Jane was incredibly strong and quite the modern, independent woman. Much like we would be should we find ourselves in such a situation - hurt but still in love. Can our hurt and loss of trust be overcome? A lot of us would say say no. Jane also says no...

The book states in detail her anguish after the event "I looked on my cherished wishes, yesterday so blooming and glowing; they lay stark, chill, livid corpes that could never revive. I looked at my love: that feeling which was my master's - which he had created; it shivered in my heart, like a suffering child in a cold cradle; sickness and antuish had seized it; it could not seek Mr Rochester's arms - it could not derive warmth from his breast. Oh, nver more could it turn to him; for faith was blighted - confidence destroyed! Mr Rochester was not to me what he had beenl for he was not what I had thought him. I would not ascribe vice to himl I would not say he had betrayed me: but the attribute of stainless truth was gone from his idea; and from his presence I must go..."

Then she thinks he is going to hate her: "Real affection, it seemed , he could not have for me, it had been only fitful passion: that was balked; he would want me no more. I should fear eaven to cross his path now: my view must be hateful to him...."

THen he speaks to her and in language so full of emotion and remorse that she writes "Reader! - I forgave him at the moment, and on the spot. There was such deep remorse in his eye, such true pity in his tone, such manly energy in his manner, and, besides, there was such unchanged love in his whole look and mien - I forgave him all: yet not in words, not outwardly, only at my heart's core."

He declares his love and explains his history whereupon : "I was experiencing an ordeal: a hand of fiery iron grasped my vitals. Terrible moment: full of struggle, blackness, burning! NOt a human being that ever lived could wish to be loved better than I was loved and him who thus loved me I absolutely worshipped: and I must renounce love and idol. One drear word comprised my intolerable duty - 'Depart!' "

She is a product of her society - and cannot live as a mistress it would not agree with what she perceives as right.

She almost gives in - "...my very Conscience and Reason turned traitors against me, and charged me with crime in resisting him. They spoke almost as loud as Feeling: and that clamoured wildly. 'Oh, comply!' it said. 'Think of his misery; think of his danger - look at his state when left alone; remember his headlong nature consider the recklessness following on despair - soothe him, save him love him tell him you love him and will be his. Who in the world cares for you? or who will be injured by what you do? Still indomitable was the reply - 'I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself...' "

Thus Jane turns to the modern day ideal - we have to much respect for ourselves to let ourselves be treated that way - so does she.

But then the times it was written in, intevenes - the separation with no other such man to distract her (as we might have in our modern society), leads her love to grow stronger and she knows she will always love Rochester and resigns herself to never marrying (since he is not available). On the other had, we would go out, find solace with another and do our best to forget with only the sweet pain of love lost appearing on occasion.

Much more of the true romance in the story isn't there - probably why it appeals so much, even today.

(Apologies for my lengthy reply!!!)

Geekwif said...

There's a couple of factors that I think play into this. First, Jane was not your average girl. Because of her past, she had a very different view of love. Even before this incident, she put up with a lot of stuff from Rochester that most women would not, and she loved him in spite of it – maybe even because of it.

Secondly, the circumstances of his first marriage were extreme. Yes, if a woman found out at the altar today that the man was still married, she would be angry and devastated; however, she might soften if she found out the circumstances were those of Mr. Rochester. I mean, consider what he did: he kept a wife for many years who he could have divorced or turned out of his home long ago, a woman whose family had deceived him into thinking she was sane when she was not, a woman who was his wife only by law but in no other way fulfilled the role of a wife, and a woman who had on more than one occasion threatened his life and the lives of those he loved.

Under such extraordinary circumstances, I think a woman might be tempted to love him even more than she had before. You said, "Bronte’s trick was to sever the marriage rites in an instant WITHOUT irrevocably Damaging the Love." I think the important word here is "irrevocably". Jane's love for Rochester may have been temporarily damaged, but the damage was certainly "revocable".