Everyone who loves Jane Eyre has a favorite version. Mine is the 2006 miniseries starring Toby Stephens and Ruth Wilson, because it helped me understand, for the first time, what Jane saw in Edward Rochester.
Almost everyone knows the story by now. Young Jane Eyre goes to the remote Thornfield Hall on her first trip as a governess, where she quickly falls in love with little Adelle, a spoiled French girl, and the master of the house, Edward, who accuses her of bewitching his horse when he comes upon her in the mist and topples off it. The two trade insults (he dismisses her piano playing as mediocre, and she tells him that he is not handsome in answer to his honest question) and fall for each other, but their romance is full of thorny complications—he tries to make her jealous and provoke her passions by pretending he intends to marry the beautiful Miss Blanche, and Jane is all set to marry him when his ‘evil secret from the attic’ is revealed.
Love them or hate them, they are a memorable couple—two plain (even “ugly” by the book’s standards) people who find one another and fall deeply, passionately in love, but Jane’s own moral conviction won’t allow them to be together once she discovers he has a secret marriage to an insane woman he keeps in the upper room. Now and again, Bertha escapes to roam the castle and set fires, setting the scene for the inevitable conclusion (haunted by having seen Jane in her wedding dress, his deranged wife sets fire to the great house and then after Edward risks his life to save her, leaps from the roof to her death, leaving him crippled but able to marry Jane).
Many have complained about this version, because it is not strictly true to the morals of the book, but I love it. It differs from the novel in that Jane and Edward are physically affectionate to one another; after their engagement, they sit wrapped up in each other’s arms in the parlor, kissing (before she modestly pulls away and insists upon calling him “sir”). After the devastating reveal about his wife, Edward also comes into her room, lies beside her on the bed, and kisses her, in an attempt to entice her to run away with him. When this fails, he clutches at her and begs her to join him in the Caribbean, where they will have a modest little house and a “platonic relationship… we will live as brother and sister, and come together in the afternoon to play croquet… a chaste peck on the cheek on birthdays and such…” He swears that he won’t tempt her to a life of sin, and he means it, but the audience knows that from the fire and heat between them, that won’t last—and so does Jane, who runs away from him before dawn.
The true genius of the book is its vivid contrast between the passionate Edward, all foul tempers and bluster and deep love, and the emotionally stingy St. John Rivers, her cousin who “has a heart, but refuses to use it.” Though loving a local girl “wildly,” she does not fit into the distinct vision he has for his life (to become a missionary in a “hot place”), so St. John refuses to allow himself to have her. He goes so far as to ask Jane to move with him to Africa, in the true platonic marriage Edward tried to offer her, but she can’t accept this either. If she cannot have Edward, she will marry no one at all.
There are two things I like about this version. The first is the incredible chemistry and sexual tension between the leads, and the second is, how Tobey plays Edward. In every other version, Edward comes across as a loud-mouthed, obnoxious bully, but Toby injects a sense of humor and outright flirtation into his exchanges with Jane. So when he gives her fifty pounds for her journey, takes it back, then gives her ten, and then fears she will stay away too long and demands its return (she refuses), the entire thing is a long flirtation full of twinkling eyes and gentle tones. He alternates between gruff and immature in his emotions to being likable and charming, sullen and then full of love. As Jane says, “his moods are changeable.” It’s the first Edward I too have fallen in love with, thanks to this deliberate choice to make him a romantic hero instead of a perpetual grouch. His mischievous nature makes the scenes before the end, where Jane turns the tables and plays with him a little bit (tit for tat) adorable (she tells him all about St. John and what a fine man he is, provoking him to jealousy and finally, to a reveal that “We are not the platonic sort, Jane”).
One could argue that allowing him to kiss and hold her is not true to Jane’s character. To this, I would agree, it does not fit a prim Victorian sensibility, but it does show the audience, in an appropriate way, the raging fire beneath their skin that the book suggests. If you don’t have that angle on screen, and all you are left with is an enormous grouch who shouts at Jane half the time, it makes it easier for you to dismiss Jane’s enormous sacrifice in abiding by her principles rather than violating them when she chooses to leave. But if you can understand how much she desires him, how the very touch of his hand makes her tremble, the journey she takes out of that house, because she will not become his mistress, is all the more powerful. She has had a glimpse, a taste, of what would await her, and knows what she has left behind, because she cannot betray her beliefs. It makes my heart cry out for them to be together, much in the same way theirs cry out for each other.
Charlotte Bronte could imagine a grand passion, even if she never knew one, and leaves us with a happy ending… of a sort. Our two beloved characters reunited and happy, but not whole; Edward has lost a portion of his sight and been disfigured by the fire. He has been “broken” but redeemed, for it taught him that had Jane stayed with him in sin, he could never have respected her as much as he loves her. But as Jane concludes in the final moments of the musical and the book, the ending shows us how “God has tempered justice with mercy,” and because of their sacrifices, allowed them to find love.
I wrote this as part of the Bustles and Bonnets Costume Drama Blogathon!