Wednesday, June 1, 2011
Of Governors and Governesses
When I was fourteen and first read Jane Eyre, I was completely immersed in Charlotte Brontë’s story of the young orphan who endures years of mistreatment at the hands of her callous relations and teachers before embarking on a new life as a governess. I enjoyed the book and liked Jane. She is plucky in a beaten-down kind of way, and she never indulges in self-pity. A worthy heroine, she thinks for herself and triumphs on her own terms. So I was pleased when I read about the new film adaptation of the novel, and one Friday night I indulged in a rare solo trip to the movies to see it.
It was a fine plan, and the seven other people in the theatre, all of whom were women of a certain age, reacted at all the appropriate places and seemed quite engrossed. However, I could not enter Brontë’s world this time. I stood apart, like Jane outside the door of Moor House, peeking in but never crossing the threshold.
Here’s why. You should never go to see Jane Eyre the same week that Arnold Schwarzenegger reveals that he had a child 13 years ago with his housekeeper and that International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn is hauled off to Rikers Island, charged with the sexual assault of a hotel maid. It ruins the story.
I could not see the romance between Jane and Edward Rochester as anything but inappropriate and sinister. What business does a smart, clear-headed young woman like Jane have with a manipulative, controlling employer who fails to communicate even the most vital information—my crazy murderous wife lives upstairs—but expects her literally to put out the fires and clean up the evidence? What does she see in a boorish, inconstant man who flirts with her but prances off without so much as a farewell to visit the beguiling Blanche Ingram? Edward Rochester is needy, gruff, and deceptive, a bully who carelessly exploits—at Jane’s expense—the privileges his status and gender confer.
During the movie, the imbalance of power undermined any possibility of ardor. I could not feel the story’s passion because I was preoccupied by the ominous sense that nothing good could come to Jane from a relationship with a man who pays her—and then only when she demands her overdue wages.
(It is the same icky feeling I had when I first saw The Sound of Music as an adult and felt viscerally that Maria should hightail it back to the convent while the Reverend Mother sternly explains to Captain von Trapp that it would take an act of God to transform a governess into an equal partner.)
Amazingly, something good does come to Jane. An inheritance. Newly-discovered cousins. A fire that destroys dark old Thornfield Hall, dispatches the crazy wife, and blinds Rochester.
When Jane hears a voice calling to her over the moors, I kept hoping it would be Judi Dench—as the housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax—telling Jane to take the money and build a progressive school for girls where she could be headmistress. If Edward Rochester wanted to brush up on his social skills and present himself on her turf, she could entertain any proposals. At the very least, I hoped Mrs. Fairfax would take Jane by the shoulders and tell her that she had to stop calling him “sir.”
Charlotte Brontë could not bring herself to do that for Jane, to choose freedom and integrity over companionship and love. It should be a terrible, false, obsolete choice, but as the week’s news reminded me, clichés are tenacious. What could be more banal than powerful men who treat the women in their domestic lives—from wealthy and powerful spouses to low-wage immigrant employees—like useful but stupid oxen? And what could be more trite than women who imagine that such a union is a good wager?
In the end, Charlotte Brontë endowed her heroine with the upper hand: desirable choices, real agency, and the necessary resources to make a good life. In both the movie and the novel, this sudden transformation requires a suspension of disbelief, but I can overlook the great stretch to find a satisfying ending for Jane. The disbelief I cannot quite suspend is that the heirs of Rochester carry on, as if Thornfield Hall had never been gutted.
Dana for the Poplar Grove Muse