Charlotte Bronte didn’t like Jane Austen. It’s only the veil of years – and the tedium of high school – which makes them seem the same. The spirited heroines might look synonymous, and the brooding heroes might sound alike, but no-one ever hung a dead dog from a tree in Jane Austen; Mr Darcy wasn’t hiding a mad woman in the attic; and no-one ever feared for their mortal soul in Pride and Prejudice. Charlotte wrote of Jane that her writing was “carefully-fenced”, which is a nice way of saying “bullshit”. Fair enough, I’m projecting here, but if the Brontes had ever met Jane in a dark alley, I’m pretty sure they’d have wrinkled her crinoline. The Bronte sisters didn’t write about etiquette; they wrote about the jungle.
You know those Henri Rousseau paintings of the wilderness? They’re primitive scenes, with tigers, and foliage that’s like a dream. Well, here’s the model for Jane Eyre; a love story between a young governess and a wild animal, named Mr Rochester. Never mind the britches and the fine china; this has far more to do with Beauty and the Beast. Two outcasts meet in a decaying house. Jane Eyre is an orphan, who thinks the best way to avoid Hell is to: “Keep well and not die.” Edward Rochester is an aristocrat with a terrible secret. Both Jane and Edward have been mauled by the world. They live in the north of England, in a savage place, called Yorkshire. Their love is a thing with talons; a bodice-ripper.
Now, I might be setting up expectations that director Cary Fukunaga’s adaptation can’t quite fulfil, but the essence of what I’m saying – that “lawless passion” rules Jane Eyre – is true. This isn’t a dainty story about a girl who’d blush at the sight of a man’s undershirt; it’s a riot of suppressed guilt!, and shame!, and ravening loneliness. As Jane says herself: “You think because I am poor, plain, obscure and little, that I have no heart?” Hell no! (…is her implicit answer). Jane is a feminist. She ain’t afraid of the mad woman in the attic (i.e. the woman who likes sex; the woman who frightens men). She wants to marry an equal, not a slave master, or a moralising stick-in-the-mud. There might not be much sex in Jane Eyre; but Mr Rochester – a man who’s lived in “Jamaica” (Victorian code for: sex fiend) – is hardly going to want a frigid bride with a perpetual headache.
The casting of Michael Fassbender is crucial to realising the movie’s undercurrent of lust. His Rochester has the kind of baleful sexiness that lures women to cliffs. He can’t look at Jane without undoing her Christianity. As an actor, Fassbender might as well give up on ever playing a convincing priest. He’s a bad bad man, and there lies the attraction. Even when he talks of angels, it sounds licentious. Little wonder Jane cries “God help me” when Rochester tells her, “It’s your soul that I want.” Fassbender has the kind of sexual charisma that could melt a crucifix. With his square jaw and ferocious smile, he looks every inch the cad. George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman comes to mind – excluding Flashman’s cowardice.
From the outside, Mia Wasikowska looks like a pregnancy-waiting-to-happen around Fassbender; she the shy school girl next to his jaded roué. But right from the start, it’s clear that this is a Jane with a robust sense of self. Those who’ve already seen the actress go toe-to-toe with Gabriel Byrne (in HBO’s In Treatment) will know she’s capable of holding her own with Irish sex symbols. As Jane, she’s like a skilled hunter around Rochester; never letting her guard slip; always conscious of his strength. She’s wounded and barely-healed in a way that no-one sees, except him. It’s to Wasikowska’s credit that Jane comes across as a survivor, not a victim; the woman who beguiles her husband by not being afraid.
When her sisters died, Charlotte Bronte burned a lot of their manuscripts. There’s no doubt, she torched some crazy shit. Emily and Anne Bronte had been working on an epic saga set in the South Pacific since childhood. The imaginary kingdom they created was called Gondal – and given all the dog-killing and pyromania in the Bronte’s “realist” fiction, God only knows what they wrote about in their fantasies. One thing’s certain: it wouldn’t have been anything Jane Austen would have liked. Jane Eyre and Mr Darcy come from different worlds. The Bronte sisters – even Charlotte, the respectable one – loved the wild. Jane Eyre is Beauty and the Beast, set in Yorkshire. Some girls adore a freak.