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Not-so plain Jane

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As a new version of Jane Eyre is released, columnist Hannah Betts looks at why Hollywood can’t resist a makeover

After a long, not-so-hot summer, September promises solace in the celluloid form of one of literature’s most cherished creations. Reader, I give you Charlotte Brontë’s haunting, emancipatory heroine Jane Eyre.

This tale of the original plain Jane is not merely loved, but lived – inspiring generations of women with its heroine’s unprepossessing yet plucky example and spinning fresh fictions in its wake from du Maurier’s Rebecca to Jean Rhys’ lyrical Wide Sargasso Sea.

However, fiction fans still reeling from Anne Hathaway being cast as One Day’s Emma, may take exception to this re-working of the feminist classic. Jane has been given a Hollywood makeover, with the ethereally pretty Mia Wasikowska taking the lead and the dashing Michael Fassbender as her supposedly equally aesthetically challenged love interest, Mr Rochester.

After a promisingly robust start with his gutsy immigrant drama Sin Nombre, director Cary Fukunaga has already had to defend his casting, saying, “I wouldn’t describe her as being plain, but I think she can be played down...” On the evidence of the film’s trailer, all this amounts to is bad hair and dreary frocks without a single blemish in sight.

THE UGLY TRUTH

Eyre’s lack of beauty is one of the narrative’s main pivots, the other being that she is poor, but spirited. Its publication date puts it a year before the continental revolutions of 1848 and it reads as a raw, proto-feminist manifesto of a woman alone in the world, devoid of the twin powers of beauty and wealth.

Her lack of looks is charted on almost every page. As a tortured child she resembles a “little toad”. On her first day at Thornfield, she concedes, “I sometimes regretted that I was not handsomer: I sometimes wished to have rosy cheeks, a straight nose, and small cherry mouth.”

And yet she is a realist regarding her appearance. Attempting to wean herself off Mr Rochester, she makes drawings: first herself, then Blanche Ingram, her ravishing rival, then him; warts (ringlets) and all. She has the opportunity to compare herself favourably with a string of more beautiful and more ugly antitypes: Blanche, Bertha Mason, Grace Poole, Eliza and Georgiana Reed and the flighty Céline Varens. Significantly, her deficit allows her to speak openly and equally with her employer, something that inspires one of literature’s most ardently flirtatious non-flirtations.

Unlike protagonists such as Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet, we know that her protestations of ugliness are not modesty, but fact – a fact crucial to her character. Most heroines conform to the Gone With The Wind dictum: “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realised it when caught by her charm.” Jane boasts no charm until she meets a man who sees her for what she is: plain but coruscating. He sees himself in her. For Mr Rochester too is tarred with the ugly brush, as Jane informs him. His rival, sadistic milksop St John Rivers, may have the face of a Greek god, but Mr Rochester is a “gnome”.

Jane’s magnificent, “Do you think because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless?” This climaxes with her declaring them, “equal – as we are!”, causing Mr Rochester to proclaim, “My bride is here because my equal is here, and my likeness.” They become more equal still after she acquires financial independence and he is blighted by injury, something Fukunaga also sanitises.

PICTURE PERFECT

It’s not the first time Jane Eyre has been remodelled with higher cheekbones and whiter teeth. Never mind the countless theatrical reworkings since its 1847 publication, there have been 12 TV adaptations and 15 big screen interpretations. And from the too-beautiful Joan Fontaine (1943) to the unable-to-disguise her sex appeal of Charlotte Gainsbourg (1996), all of the Janes have been anything but plain.

Fuelled by the desire for box-office success rather than staying faithful to the lack of dental hygienists in the 19th century, Hollywood has never been keen on a less-than-picture-perfect poster girl. Was there ever a bigger miscast than Demi Moore as Hester Prynne – the victim of religious hypocrisy – in 1995’s The Scarlet Letter? We’re not sure, but hey, her breasts looked awesome in a corset.

On the flipside, Vivien Leigh is Scarlett O’Hara, despite fans of Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 tome initially protesting the English rose’s casting as the ultimate southern belle. And it seems Wasikowska’s ‘pretty-plain’ Jane could work to Hollywood’s advantage. Brontë blogs are giving it the thumbs up and early reviews even talk about an Oscar nomination. If only she’d ‘uglied up’ more, that Academy win would be a certainty.

Follow Hannah on Twitter @HannahJBetts; Jane Eyre is in cinemas from 9 September

Picture credits: Rex Features

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