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:
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.
* 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.