Sunday 13 July 2014

Reading Jane Eyre

The Jane Eyre Reading Day, 5th July 2014

The third ‘Drama of Costume’ reading group discussion was held on 5th July. We talked about Charlotte Brontë’s novel, Jane Eyre (1847), and most participants welcomed the opportunity to read the novel (or reread it) and watch some of the many screen adaptations.  

We focused on the ways in which Charlotte Brontë depicts Jane’s clothing when she is a pupil at Lowood School, ‘uniformly dressed in brown stuff frocks of quaint fashion’ (Chapter 5), and Jane’s wedding clothes when she looks at herself in the mirror and sees ‘a robed and veiled figure, so unlike my usual self that it seemed the image of a stranger’ (Chapter 26). Of course, we also mentioned Bertha, Mr Rochester’s ‘mad’ wife, who tears Jane’s expensive veil, leaving Jane to wear ‘a plain square of blond’ (Chapter 26).

We considered three well-known screen adaptations of Jane Eyre. Firstly, the 1943 film, Jane Eyre directed by Robert Stevenson, starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine.
We agreed that the costuming of this film reflected the 1940s much more than the nineteenth-century context of the novel. 

Quite a few participants appreciated the 2006 BBC series directed by Susannah White, particularly the way in which the costume designers dressed Jane in the unglamorous clothing of a governess:

The third adaptation we considered was the 2011 film directed by Cary Fukunaga:

While some participants did not enjoy this film as much as many other adaptations, most people felt that the costumes were very effective.

The camera often focused on close-ups of Jane’s clothes. Particularly memorable is the moment when Jane attempts to take off her wedding gown and we see her fumbling with the complicated lacing at the back of the dress.

The costume designer, Michael O’Connor, has helped to convey the distress of Jane’s position and her feeling that in her wedding dress she is ‘so unlike my usual self that it seemed the image of a stranger’ (Chapter 26). Without a lady’s maid to help her undress, Jane’s solitary condition is emphasised here very dramatically.

I asked participants what they would say to an 18-year-old student who asked ‘Why should I bother to read Jane Eyre?’ and there were many interesting comments offered such as:
  • ·       The novel has a powerful feminist message, for Jane is independent and determined to remain so, even after marriage;
  • ·       Jane Eyre has hauntingly gothic elements, from eerie landscapes to strange mad laughter in an apparently ‘haunted’ old mansion;
  • ·       The novel is a classic love story, where the hero and heroine are not presented as glamorous and beautiful, but as plain (even ‘odd’); yet they are presented as intellectual equals and well-matched;
  • ·       Jane Eyre depicts Jane’s childhood in a memorable way, for Jane suffers abuse and humiliation, yet manages to overcome this. She undergoes an interesting moral development during her years at school;
  • ·       Jane Eyre can be read over and over again, and readers can find something new in the novel every time.

We ended with a quiz and the prize was won by Lynne Hampson.

The next Reading Group meeting will be held on 21st February 2015 and our set text is Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth.

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