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Written by Sally Cookson

Arts

Jane Eyre, feminist icon

Director Sally Cookson’s devised telling of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 classic is receiving superb notices for its run at The National. She tells us why 168 years on, Jane Eyre is a modern feminist icon.

Madeleine Worrall as Jane in The National's production of Jane Eyre. All photos by Manuel Harlan.

Madeleine Worrall as Jane in The National’s production of Jane Eyre. All photos by Manuel Harlan.

My first experience of Jane Eyre was as a child, watching the black-and-white film version. Orson Welles played Rochester and Joan Fontaine played Jane. I was mesmerised by the dramatic cinematography and the wonderful score by Bernard Herman. As a piece of film noir it was spellbinding.

It wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I actually read Charlotte Brontë’s novel and I remember thinking, “Orson Welles really missed the point of this book: this is a clarion cry for equal opportunities for women, not a story about a passive female who will do anything for her hunky boss.”

Fontaine’s Jane was not allowed to be the extraordinary, indomitable, irrepressible heroine that Brontë intended; instead she became a docile, swooning female without any of the qualities that support the notion of her being a feminist icon.

The novel was written in 1847, a time when women had very little power or opportunity to do anything other than get married and have children. They were barred from university, from entering a profession, from voting. So when Jane Eyre was published, even though it was an overnight sensation, there was a tirade of criticism hurled at it from conservative male and female critics, citing it as a piece of incendiary literature which threatened to shake the patriarchal foundations of family and state.

Jane Eyre speaks out furiously against the plight of women as dependents on men. The Victorian Saturday Review stated that marriage was “woman’s profession; and to this life her training – that of dependence – is modelled”; an unmarried woman has “failed in business”. Jane’s paltry £30-per-year salary illustrates just how worthless the job of a governess was deemed by Victorian society.

Nevertheless, Jane refuses to submit and pursues her path to independence and freedom without apology: “Women are supposed to feel very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; and it is narrow minded to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.”

“I suspect such a novel as Jane Eyre with all its revolutionary ideas about female emancipation might be banned in some countries.”

We’ve included a version of this famous quote in our adaptation and it always triggers a ripple of laughter from the audience, who recognise the absurdity of the notion of women being expected to behave in a certain way. We’ve come a long way since 1847, thank goodness. But there are still many countries where female oppression is commonplace and it is young women like the inspirational Nobel Prize-winning Malala Yousafzai, with her struggle in Pakistan under Taliban rule to ensure all girls receive an education, that remind me of the political power and radical nature of Jane Eyre. I wonder if she’s read it…

Sally Cookson and the company in rehearsal for Jane Eyre.

Sally Cookson and the company in rehearsal for Jane Eyre.

In the UK, living in a democracy where free education for all is part of our ideology, it is easy to forget how revolutionary the book once was and still remains. We only have to turn on the TV to see how women worldwide are still being denied freedom. I suspect such a novel as Jane Eyre with all its revolutionary ideas about female emancipation might be banned in some countries.

I think the idea of individual human rights lies at the heart of the novel. Jane has a fundamental understanding of what she needs in order to thrive as a human: she yearns to be nourished, not just physically, but intellectually and emotionally.

From a very young age she recognises how essential it is to be loved, demanding it as a right. And when it is denied her by her cruel aunt she lashes out with ardent, rebellious force: “I will never call you aunt again as long as I live: and if anyone asks me how I liked you, and how you treated me, I will say the very thought of you makes me sick, and that you treated me with miserable cruelty. You think I have no feelings, and that I can do without one bit of love or kindness: but I cannot live so.”

This is the 10-year-old Jane we are introduced to at the start of the book: a heroine who is prepared to stand up to the bullies, lashing out against injustice and striving for a better life. Just like Malala.

Read our review of Jane Eyre here.
Jane Eyre is at the Lyttelton Theatre, The National, London, until January.
Click here for more info.

@NationalTheatre

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scookson@standardissuemagazine.com'

Written by Sally Cookson