The Heroine’s Journey in “Jane Eyre”

The 1943 adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre opens with the title character’s grim assessment of life during the early-19th century. “Money and position seemed all that mattered,” Jane (Joan Fontaine) soberly states. “Charity was a cold and disagreeable word. Religion too often wore a mask of bigotry and cruelty. There was no proper place for the poor or the unfortunate.” One could easily make a case that not much has really changed some 200 years later. Director Robert Stevenson (who helmed Mary Poppins and many other Disney films) welcomes us into this harsh reality, with young Jane (Peggy Ann Garner) moving from one cold, unfeeling home to another. She initially lives with her child-unfriendly aunt (Agnes Moorehead), but soon relocates to the Lowood Institution, a home for (supposedly) troubled girls.

What’s immediately most striking about this Jane Eyre is the heavily gothic atmosphere, almost evoking the mood of early horror films. The North Yorkshire, England setting (all filmed on effectively-dressed sets) is a spooky landscape of shadows and fog. Controversy has persisted over the years regarding how much of the film was a result of director Stevenson’s vision and how much was possibly contributed by star Orson Welles. Whatever the case, it’s a visually arresting film. At Lowood, Jane is psychologically abused and harshly disciplined. She survives, which is more than can be said of her best friend, Helen (an uncredited Elizabeth Taylor).

As a grown, but painfully naïve, woman, Jane strikes out on her own after turning down a teaching position at Lowood. She winds up at the Thornfield estate, where she has secured work as governess to a young child, Adele (Margaret O’Brien). Initially it seems the foreboding property and its personnel, all of whom are fearful of the owner Edward Rochester (Welles), aren’t much of a step up from her time at Lowood. But Jane forms a tentative, peculiar bond with Rochester, glimpsing—through sheer intuition—something warm beneath his steely, authoritative exterior. There are mysteries lurking within Thornfield, not the least of which being who, exactly, would like to see Rochester dead (his bed is set aflame one night while he sleeps).