The Brontë Sisters are incredibly famous. I don’t think this point can be overstated. Their contribution to the English literary canon, especially Gothic literature, has influenced countless authors, filmmakers and musicians (I’m looking at you, Kate Bush.) They revolutionised a genre that had been seen as low brow, melodramatic trash for almost a century, and imbued it with complex psychological exploration and the expansion of the female Bildungsroman. They were also pretty much the only female authors to be included in the western literary canon for ages (because you know, female centred literature isn’t serious literature).
Charlotte Brontë wrote Jane Eyre in 1847. It would be, and remains, her most popular and well known work. It would either establish or solidify various tropes in the romantic Gothic genre, and spawn many, many similar works of fiction, like Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and Jean Rhy’s post-colonial sequel, Wide Sargasso Sea.
It tells the story of a young orphan, Jane Eyre, the eponymous heroine, who was abused by her indifferent aunt and deposited into the unclean and cruel confines of Lowood School. There Jane meets and loses her truest friend, the virtuous Helen Burns, to consumption, and attains a respectable enough education to become a governess. Jane leaves Lowood and embarks on her first position as governess to a French orphan, Adele, who is the ward of the mysterious and brooding Mr Rochester (the template for so many
moping inscrutable romantic love interests after him), at the isolated Thornfield Hall. As Jane begins to care for her enigmatic employer, a secret that he has (quite literally kept in his attic) is revealed, and the innocence of Jane’s youth is shattered forever.
When a work of fiction becomes famous and is celebrated, and Jane Eyre ticks both those boxes big time (being one of the most famous romantic novels ever), people are going to want to adapt, interpret and expand on that lightning in a… moor? And so there have been countless adaptations of Jane Eyre on radio and film. Even Orson Welles took a crack at it with Joan Fontaine in the leading role. She had played the nameless heroine in Hitchcock’s adaptation of Rebecca. Coincidence? I think not, sir!
I have seen almost every English language adaptation of Jane Eyre. But my two favourites are Cary Fukunaga’s 2011 adaptation with Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska as Mr Rochester and Jane, and the 1983 BBC version with Zelah Clarke as our titular orphan and Timothy Dalton as Mr Rochester.
The 1983 version lacks the visual flare and poetry of Fukunaga’s version, with its interesting narrative structure and filters of purple, blue and grey. But what it lacks in visual beauty, it more than makes up for in terms of script and performance. Because the long and complex novel, which explores gender roles in Victorian England, social class, Western ideas of civility, morality, Christianity and sexuality, is adapted over eleven, half an hour long episodes, there is time for character development, narrative tension and the inclusion of all plot elements of the novel. The audience is fully able to understand Jane’s impoverished beginnings at Lowood School, the tragedy of Helen’s death, Jane’s maturation through adolescence, and most importantly, her experiences as governess at Thornfield Hall.
This adaptation also has a wonderfully grey, heavy atmosphere. You become completely immersed in the isolation, both physically and mentally, which Jane experiences at Thornfield Hall. This acts as a microcosm for the larger concerns of Victorian England, where women were largely constrained in terms of pursuing their own desires due to laws that favoured men. Women of the working and lower middle class lacked social mobility, and governesses were often seen as people of the in between: too educated to fit in with the servants and too impoverished to occupy the world of their often aristocratic employers. This is most obvious in Jane’s mistreatment by the haughty Miss Blanche Ingram, who openly derides her employment in front of Mr Rochester’s house guests. A interaction which is given even more agony for both Jane and the viewer due to the protracted format of the miniseries.
Zelah Clarke is perhaps too old for the part of Jane, as she was already thirty years old at the time, whereas Jane is about twenty for much of the novel. But her portrayal is one of the best I have seen, with her calm air, the clear suppression of a passionate nature that must fit in with the strictures of her society and the expectations of her class and gender. I particularly like her delivering of the famous “I am no bird” exchange, before Mr Rochester proposes to her.
The rest of the cast also suits their roles very well, especially Carol Gillies as Grace Poole and James Marcus as St John. But it is Timothy Dalton as Mr Rochester who is absolutely perfectly cast.
I remember when I first read the book, I was struck by how Mr Rochester was not supposed to be traditionally handsome. Many comparisons are made between he and St John, who is fair haired and possessing of an aquiline, classic Greek profile, whilst Rochester is, well, the opposite. For me, Timothy Dalton’s looks capture that perfectly. He has never been the forgettably handsome type. His eyes are perhaps his most unusual feature, with their pale, heavily slanted appearance.
As Jane’s Byronic love interest, he is tall, imposing and tortured. He fleshes out a character that could very easily devolve into parody (and which let’s face it, has been heavily parodied in popular culture). His evolution from a lonely, embittered man, who feels that he has been cheated in terms of happiness and personal freedom; to a man hoping for a new start through the youth and vitality of a young woman (which sounds vampiric, but which Dalton manages to make hopeful yet tinged with tragedy), and finally to a man delivered from the abyss by Jane’s love, is one of the best I have ever seen from an actor in a classic BBC miniseries. Whilst many of us sniff at the artificiality of awards and entertainment accolades, I really do feel that Dalton deserved to win a Golden Globe, Emmy and/or BAFTA TV award.
Michael Fassbender, Toby Stephens, William Hurt and Cirian Hinds have all given fine performances as Mr Rochester, however, I think that Tim is the gold standard. He is the actor who has been most able to capture the contradictory elements of the character, and endear him to the audience, not just as Jane’s object of desire and eventual equal, but also an actual human being and character a part from her. This is not an easy task, due to Mr Rochester being seen by the audience through Jane’s psychological lens. I am not exaggerating when I say that his realisation of Rochester’s desperation, despair and agony at the prospect of Jane’s rejection and desertion of him after she discovers that he’s been keeping his mentally unstable wife in the attic (not a good look, dude), is one of the most incredible pieces of acting that I have ever seen. Period. So many actors make that kind of emotionally intense scene look cringeworthy, but Dalton makes you want to cry with him.
I know that it’s become fashionable to reject novels written by authors who lived at the height of colonialism, and who wrote from a very, very white European perspective. And this has happened with good reason. Other voices need to be heard, different experiences need to be known. But I truly think that there is something valuable to be found in this story for almost every reader. Charlotte Brontë explores universally recognised emotions and human frailties. Whilst the elements of her novel have become garbled tropes through seemingly endless reinterpretation and realisation, the 1983 BBC adaptation, and Timothy Dalton’s performance as Rochester, makes me realise why I first came to love the gothic romance genre as a pre-teen looking for literature and stories that really spoke to me.