“Like Jane Eyre But Without the Crazy Wife”

21st February 2013

Twitter is a fascinating beast for many reasons, and I find some really great articles and stories there. Last week, though, I found something that piqued my interest…and led me to bemoan the “retelling” of classics yet again.

Jane Eyre is one of my favorite novels of all time, partly because it’s the first “big book” I read, way back in 4th grade, and though I had no clue how to pronounce rendezvous, I did know an epic story when I read it. From time to time, I read about retellings of Jane Eyre, and I cringe and look away, vowing never to pick up said book. Inevitably, these books will not live up to the original, and honestly, why should I waste my time if that’s the case? Don’t even get me started on the erotic retelling…Jane Eyre Laid Bare. [Just typing this makes me ill.]

I much prefer novels that may be reminiscent of certain novels or themes while having intrigue and beauty all their own. For example, Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca has been compared to Jane Eyre with some pretty obvious and interesting differences.

So what did I see last week? A tweet about a writer who has retold the story of Jane. Read the post if you like, but my reaction was much like the takeaway from diet soda advertisements: “Same great taste! Fewer calories!” Similarly, my take on the author’s post: “Like Jane Eyre but fun! And without the crazy wife!”

You can imagine my consternation. One of the most problematic aspects of Jane Eyre is that poor, crazy wife, Bertha. So much so that Jean Rhys wrote Wide Sargasso Sea in an attempt to give Bertha a bit of screen time herself. Bertha Mason lends the novel its horror and its complexity. She is also the reason so many rail against it and why many cannot understand the allure of Mr. Rochester. Without her, without the obstacle of Jane and Rochester’s union, it’s just another romance novel. Jane isn’t a typical Harlequin heroine, ripped away from the one she loves because of a misunderstanding or a silly fight over his possessiveness. She tears herself away out of a sense of right and wrong, leaving the only place where she has ever felt at home.

And you want to make Jane Eyre fun? Well, ok, I guess, but could you stop the references to a heartwrenching novel that chronicles the actual problems of a young woman with no family and no home? Just call it a novel, and be done with it.

In the meantime, I’m going to go read my novel that’s like Jane Eyre in every way except the English countryside, an orphan, a crazy wife, and a hunky man. Excuse me.

  • David Fuller

    Well said! To “update” a classic takes skill, depth and wit, and always raises the question: why was it needed? (In the case of Jane Eyre Laid Bare, I suspect the reason was something like “Because ZOMG 50 Shades is making a bazillion dollars right now!!!!”) Writers would do better to forge on with their own stories.

    • Haha! Yes to the “ZOMG!” But it just makes me shake my head. I realllly don’t want to hear about Rochester in that scenario.

      • David Fuller

        Oy. Now I have a “You brought’er, you Rochest’er” rattling around in my head…

  • Jane Eyre is one of my favorite books as well and I haven’t able to read any “updates” of it. I’ve read Wide Sargasso Sea and really want to read Rebecca. Sometimes I like twists on novels, I was a pretty big fan of the Quirk Classics versions of Sense & Sensibility and Pride & Prejudice, but those actually got people reading the classics. To say Jane Eyre but fun implies that there is no point to read the original, and those who don’t miss out on an amazing, amazing novel. I will never forget the first time I read Jane Eyre. It was magic.

    • It really is a magical experience. I still regularly re-read my favorite scenes, and I still feel a little thrill.

      I love what you say about the implication that the original isn’t worth reading. I’ll take it further and say it seems to imply that “not fun” books have something wrong with them. Is reading all about fun? I consider reading Jane Eyre a fun experience in terms of watching her come into her own. Is it a barrel of laughs? No, and I like it that way.

  • Violet

    I’m with you on this, even though JE is not my favourite Bronte novel. I read the post about the book set in Newfoundland, and I can’t see any actual similarities between that and JE in the characters or the plot. What I see is a book that has a romance between a male and a female, so hey! let’s say that it’s inspired by Jane Eyre: that will make all the JE fangirls want to read the book. I think it’s just a jump-on-the-bandwagon marketing ploy. It’s sad the way people use classic novels as a hook to sell their own books. I don’t think they even know or appreciate the original novels at all.

    • Agreed. When she talked about re-reading and realizing how different it was from her recollection, I wondered if she had ever read it at all. So strange.

      I think, yes, there is a good amount of bandwagon jumping going on here and in all the Darcy spinoffs, etc.

  • heidenkind

    Jane Eyre is my favorite novel, and I have read a few adaptations. Some were fun, some pissed me off, and some were like, “Meh?” I like adaptations as an exploration of different ideas–more of an “inspired by” I guess–and Wide Saragossa Sea is a perfect example of that. But when an adaption is super-derivative of the original, I don’t see the point. Why do that unless you honestly feel like you can add to the original story? And I REALLY don’t like it when the author of the adaptation either disregards or apparently doesn’t get the point of the original novel. Jane Eyre without the crazy wife and only happy stuff indeed.

    • I just have to shake my head. Why even mention Jane Eyre if you really don’t like it all that much? If you don’t understand and respect it, I can guarantee I won’t read it.

  • Charlie

    That’s the title of the erotic, Jane Eyre Laid Bare? That’s almost worse than the idea of it. I like retellings/inspired bys to an extent, Rebecca being one of them and a book that was in turn inspired by Rebecca, but there’s reworking the text in a fair way and then producing something that’s just bad.

    • Isn’t it HORRIBLE? Just, no.

  • I love this post and I have to confess something so terrible you’ll never talk to me again. I hate JE.

    I KNOW, I know, as a book lover, how can I hate JE but I doooooo! To be fair, I haven’t done an adult reread — I read it in high school and hated Jane, hated Rochester, hated the lot of them. Like Darcy, I fail to see the romance or the appeal of Rochester.

    BUT, I am planning to reread it this year as part of my classics club list and I’m excited. So many people I like, admire, and trust love JE so obvi it is me and not them/the book. (Maybe.)

    • This absolutely shocks me, but not for the reasons you mention. It shocks me because you and I are such the bookish soul mates. We almost always love/hate the same books. That you would hate Jane makes me think that honestly, it was the reading of it in high school. Fastest way to kill a book.

      Let me know when you plan to re-read it. I may have to join in. 🙂

      • I’m aiming for late summer/autumn so when I know for sure I’ll tell you — I’d love some co-readers!

  • I’ve never understood why Pride and Prejudice is so much more preferred to Jane Eyre (as if one can compare the two…I’m just saying). I haven’t read it in over 10 years so need to do so and I haven’t yet read Wide Sargasso Sea but you REALLY have me wanting to re-read Jane Eyre and then re-read Rebecca. I hadn’t heard the connection before and obviously didn’t make it myself.

  • Yvette

    I’m with you, Jenn. I fell in love with Mr. Rochester when I read the novel (I was in my late teens or early twenties, I think) and never fell out. Every single romance novel ever written owes hero props to either Mr. Rochester or Mr. Darcy. That’s who they must be for the novel to work. At least, for me.

    What else was the man to do with the crazy wife? Throw her into one of those Victorian hell holes known as an asylum? At least he kept her at home.

    And there’s no discussing whether she was or was not a looney – she was. Check out what she did to that guy from Spanishtown, Jamaica. And by the way what the hell was it his business if Rochester chose to ‘marry’ Jane or not? It isn’t as if Bertha was gonna’ know anything one way or the other. Just sayin’

    While I never read pastiches directly related to JANE EYRE (though I do see every movie based on the book AND I can’t help but think that my love of romance novels springs directly from Jane and Rochester) I do read the ones related to PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. So far the few I’ve read based on P&P have been pretty terrific. But I’m like you, Jenn, I’m pretty picky.

  • Ugh, an erotic retelling???? Do people really read this kind of stuff? I once got a review solicitation for an erotic version of Pride and Prejudice. It still ranks as the weirdest solicitation that I’ve ever gotten.

  • Better Domains

    Your post caught my eye as I run the website JaneEyre.net, about my favorite book. In addition to notes on the novel itself and reviews of many film versions of it, I’ve posted my thoughts on several alternate versions, and I plan to read more.

    Frankly, my favorite retelling thus far is the irrepressibly spunky yet surprisingly faithful comic parody called “Air Jane” (viewable at http://hankinstein.deviantart.com/gallery/27549404, though for some reason the pages are shown in reverse order).

    I’m almost done reading Pride and Prejudice for the first time, and while it’s often delightful, it’s no Jane Eyre. On the other hand, it may lend itself better to whimsical treatments, due to many characters’ foibles. (For example, compare Mrs. Bennet to Mrs. Reed – laughable scatterbrain vs. monstrous mother figure.)

  • Virginia

    I was looking for ideas for an audiobook to download for my trip back to Dallas. Of course I googled “if you liked Jane Eyre read this ” and your blog came up in my search !!! Love it, my intelligent and famous friend. I realize this has nothing to do with the intellectual comments about Jane Eyre Laid Bare…guess I should not plan to read that one…ha!