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Jane Eyre, Past and Present

Jane Eyre, d’hier à aujourd’hui
Armelle Parey
p. 1-8

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  • 1 For instance, see “Rewritings” edited by Isabelle Roblin in La Revue LISA /LISA e-journal  Vol. II, (...)
  • 2 Chantal Zabus has done something similar in that she has focused on the rewritings of Shakespeare’s (...)
  • 3 Chantal Zabus sees in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre the interpellative dream-text the twentieth cent (...)

1The present collection of articles along with a few additional contributions contains the proceedings of a conference held at the university of Caen Basse-Normandie, France in May 2004. Entitled “Jane Eyre, Past and Present”, its aim was to study the posterity of Charlotte Brontë’s novel and/or character since its publication in 1847. That two-thirds of the texts studied in this volume were published in the last decade of the twentieth century attests to the fact that rewriting has become a major feature of British postmodern literature and has consequently elicited an increasing number of articles and symposiums1 . Our aim was to study the process, technique and aims of rewriting through a unique source-text2. The number of rewritings prompted by Charlotte Brontë’s novel made it ideal for the experiment3. Hence this collection has a double aim: as a modest follow up to Patsy Stoneman’s 1996 Brontë Transformations, the present volume also hopes to provide an overview of the evolution of the practice and aims of rewriting.

2Rewriting is not restricted to the novel. Included here are studies of transfers of Jane Eyre to a different art form. Adapting Chantal Zabus’s words about dramatizations of Brontë’s novel in “Wreaders”, we will argue that “film (and opera and theatre) adaptations are [...] rewritings in that they adapt and recreate from ‘selective interpretation’ rather than adopt [...] This is precisely that distance which signals rewriting, for that distance allows for the possibility of intervention rather than the reproduction of the existing order” (original emphasis) which a sequel might offer. What is the nature of the intervention? What are the changes made and how do they affect the original story? Fiction rewriting in the last third of the twentieth century is akin to the practice of re-vision advocated by Adrienne Rich for feminist studies. Indeed, “the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction” (35) is ― more or less consciously ― accomplished by every author of a rewrite, thus critically taking on a dominant narrative.  The present volume examines the nature and the effect or end result of diverse re-visions of Jane Eyre.

  • 4  For an example of contemporary plagiarism, see Emily Eells, “The Mystery of Kitty Bell: A Possible (...)

3Because no text can be written without referring to previous texts or, in other words, because every text stands in relation to others, the practice of rewriting is as old as fiction itself. Yet it has undeniably changed, acquiring a particular edge and notoriety in the second half of the twentieth century, challenging official history and discourse from within, often filling in the blanks so as to give a voice to the oppressed. So when Elise Ouvrard discusses “Lucy Snowe: the First Rewriting of Jane Eyre”, suggesting that Charlotte Brontë herself picked up her character and rewrote it in the guise of Lucy Snowe in Villette in 1853, in this context, rewriting has obviously none of its late twentieth-century self-conscious, subversive dimension or “honorific irony”(Calinescu, 243) . In the case of the rewriting in Villette, it is more likely to attest to the strength of the character created, a strength to be noticed in the influence Jane Eyre and its characters had on their contemporaries: indeed, Elaine Showalter refers to a “post-Jane heroine” (122) to be found in novels by George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell as well as a new male character cut after Rochester (139)4. In her analysis, Elise Ouvrard first underlines the existing continuity between Jane Eyre and Lucy Snowe, in terms of physical likeness as much as of character, who both undergo a pilgrim’s progress. However, these similarities strikingly come to an end with the closure of the novels: Jane Eyre’s happy ending is transformed in Villette, in which the heroine’s beloved dies at sea. Lucy Snowe’s salvation is thus secure insofar as she is no longer in danger of loving the creature more than the Creator. In this case, rewriting is certainly not revisionist since what Villette offers is a reinforcement of the belief in the existence of a celestial city.

4Daphné Du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938) boasts of the link with Jane Eyre, no more than Villette does, yet it undoubtedly offers a transposition not just of the heroine but of most of the story. Rebecca rewrites the Thornfield episode and simultaneously develops the part of the first wife, to the extent that she, and not the narrating heroine, provides the novel with a title. Indeed, for Bernadette Bertrandias in her article entitled “Daphne Du Maurier’s Transformation of Jane Eyre in Rebecca” the obvious similarities often pointed out between the two plots in previous studies must not lead one to overlook a displacement of the major problematic from the hero/heroine relation in Jane Eyre to the heroine/Other Woman relation in Rebecca. Both are novels of initiation of the innocent heroine who must expose a hidden secret and find the key to the knowledge of human experience held by the masters of both dreamlike and nightmarish houses. This quest, limited to the Thornfield episode in Jane Eyre, occupies the whole of Rebecca in which the Other Woman appears as a complex figure of power. Indeed, B. Bertrandias shows that in Daphné Du Maurier’s novel, the Other Woman acts as a disruptive but eventually empowering and liberating force on the narrator once she has assimilated the Other Woman’s power.

5Du Maurier’s novel was famously dramatized by Alfred Hitchcock in 1940, but for Paul Marchbanks, Charlotte Brontë’s famous governess lost some feathers in this adaptation. In “Jane Air: The Heroine as Caged Bird in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca”, P. Marchbanks underlines an image or metaphor that both ties together and differentiates Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Alfred Hitchcock’s rewriting of the novel in his Rebecca. P. Marchbanks first points out the usual associations made between women and birds, notably in the Victorian era, before turning to Brontë’s own use of this liberating metaphor. The Victorian writer also introduces a positive connection between the wind and the heroine whereas in Du Maurier’s novel and Hitchcock’s movie, the identification with birds does not help change her status as a victim. Jane Eyre breaks free from the glass cages in which convention and society’s disdain would place her. At the end of the novel, she settles not for a cage but for a nest but, P. Marchbanks argues, Hitchcock’s film favours the idea of the caged heroine over the empowered one through the repeated use of imprisoning shadows on the screen hovering around the heroine.

6Rebecca was not the first rewriting to develop the other female character of Jane Eyre. Patsy Stoneman informs us in Brontë Transformations that “(f)rom the 1890s onwards, [...] a fascination with the figure in the third storey led to an increase of sympathy - both in the sense of an extension of kindly feeling and, more importantly, of identification” (178). She gives the example of a stage adaptation of Jane Eyre by Phyllis Birket that was produced in 1929 and 1931. It appears that this play includes a scene which “provides not only cause for sympathy with the madwoman, but a ‘rational’ explanation for her resentment and violence against Rochester and, more particularly, her brother” (179). It anticipates Jean Rhys’s influential Wide Sargasso Sea published in 1966. As we know, “not all stories and not all identities are given equal weight: they exist in a world of unequal power relations. Some stories are passed over, or not told [...] Other stories, more powerful, exclude or ignore, or use part of their power to disempower others” (Eaglestone, 198) and Jean Rhys’s novel famously shifts the emphasis from the major character to secondary ones in Jane Eyre. It partly contradicts the portrait of Rochester as a victim in relation to his mad wife and famously gives, if not power, at least a voice (and a full name) to the Other Woman in Jane Eyre, that is to the colonized, the oppressed, the peripheral. Shown in a more compassionate light, no longer merely savage and bestial, she acquires a past and a human dimension, more or less at the expense at Rochester who loses much of his glamour, as he embodies oppressive patriarchal order. Bertha, Rochester’s first wife, becomes Antoinette Cosway.

7In her analysis entitled “Of Father Figures and Gardens”, Anne-Marie Baranowski examines the triangular relationship between gardens, heroines and father figures in Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea.Even though there is no father as such in either novel, father figures play a crucial part in the fates of the heroines. The author argues that father figures find an echo in the description of gardens while these gardens reflect the fate of the heroine. In other words, she points out that in both novels the garden reflects the material and psychological state of the heroine, brought about by the mainly negative father figures.

8Patricia Gott chooses to examine Jean Rhys’s Antoinette in relation to Charlotte Brontë’s creation and Du Maurier’s transformation. In fact, in “There is always the other side…”: The “Other Women” of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre”, P. Gott deliberately juxtaposes the three novels in a synchretizing gesture. She thus shows that in the three Gothic classics, the women move from freedom to captivity, when they are considered as children by the male protagonist, before eventually recovering some power and ultimately asserting their will.

9It is important to stress here that Jean Rhys’s novel had a lasting imprint both on Jane Eyre and on the practice of rewriting. In fact, when looking at Jane Eyre rewritings, there is a before and after Wide Sargasso Sea. Indeed, Jean Rhys initiated a new type of rewriting. In Sally Shuttleworth’s words, her novel is “one of the first in a long line of texts which has sought to open up the silent spaces of history or classic literary texts. The impetus for these growing numbers of novels comes now both from feminist and post-colonial theory, as writers seek to give voices to women, or the racially oppressed who have been denied a voice in history” (256).  With Wide Sargasso Sea, rewriting thus entered a new phase: it acquired a postmodern dimension with its concern for “redressing certain wrongs [...] a re-righting gesture” (Zabus, 191), a dimension that permeates most rewritings discussed in the present volume.

10In Wide Sargasso Sea, Bertha, alias Antoinette, thus acquired a place centre-stage, which she has kept in most end-of-the-century rewritings. Such is the case for instance in the opera studied by Jean-Philippe Héberlé in “Jane Eyre by Michael Berkeley and David Malouf: The Operatic Rewriting of a Great Classic English Novel”. His analysis focuses on the similarities and differences between the two works. J-P Héberlé points out some strategies used by the authors when turning the novel into an opera (with a reduced number of protagonists). He shows how the music picks up on some great themes in the novel while discrepencies between the two works lead to a modern characterization of madness and introduce a metafictional dimension. In the wake of Rhys’s novel, Berkeley and Malouf’s rewriting of Jane Eyre humanizes Bertha and underlines a clear transfer of compassion from Jane to Mr Rochester’s wife.

11This is also a feature of Debbie Shewell’s play. In “The Spectre of an ‘Empty Bed’: Debbie Shewell’s More Than One Antoinette”, Sue Thomas focuses on a play produced in 1990 by Monstrous Regiment, a feminist theatre company. The author examines how the play psychologizes Antoinette. She points out how political struggles are transformed into the psychological dimension through the theme of the double enacted on the stage in various manners and shows the demise of marriage as happy ending.

12Shewell’s play is “a writing back to both Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea”, for not only does it rewrite Jane Eyre but it also includes material from Wide Sargasso Sea, taking up as its major motif the idea of sisterhood between Jane and Antoinette (to the extent that Shewell’s Jane utters some of Rhys’s Antoinette’s words). We touch here on an interesting phenomenon: Wide Sargasso Sea has literally wound its way into other texts, subsequent rewritings of Jane Eyre. The logic of postmodernism, as Fredric Jameson puts it, is such that it “ceaselessly reshuffles the fragments of pre-existent texts” (Zabus, 203) and in due postmodern fashion, many works studied in the present volume have integrated Jean Rhys’s rewriting of Jane Eyre.

13Emma Tennant’s Adèle (2002) seems to be a case in point of this postmodern piling up or interweaving of intertexts insofar as it takes up elements invented by Jean Rhys (the red dress, the honeymoon on the island, the name Antoinette) but also others created by Du Maurier in Rebecca (her Mrs Fairfax echoes Du Maurier’s Mrs Danvers). In “Adèle : an “Addled” Version of Jane Eyre?”, Claire Bazin studies a novel which, just like Wide Sargasso Sea fifty years before, gives a voice to a character confined to the margins in Jane Eyre.  Antoinette’s is not the only voice to be retrieved over the years, consequently challenging the existing order. One expects the Feminist concerns mentioned by Shuttleworth to lie at the heart of a rewriting like Tennant’s, which departs from the plot to favour such or such a character in the postmodern “tradition” of retrieving forgotten voices, consequently challenging the existing order. The voice of the little girl Jane looks after dominates Tennant’s polyphonic novel that also develops ― and transforms ― two other secondary women characters, namely Grace Poole and Mrs Fairfax. However, Claire Bazin argues, in spite of this ability to tell her own story, Adèle’s centrality announced in the title of the novel is only apparent as  the novelist condemns her to being only a copy of her mother Jane, and Bertha, as, just like all the other women in the novel, she depends on “Rochester’s good or ill will”.

14The flagrant postmodern weaving of intertexts is equally a major aspect of Lin Haire-Sergeant’s The Story of Heathcliff’s Journey Back to Wuthering Heights studied by Isabelle Roblin in “A Two-in-One Rewrite”. I. Roblin suggests that the novel is interesting insofar as it attempts a double rewriting of both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Offering an account of Heathcliff’s three-year disappearance in Wuthering Heights, the 1992 American novel depicts him as Bertha and Rochester’s abandoned son. In typical postmodern fashion, the novel offers a variety of narrators and thus new points of view of facts established by the original texts as well as a touch of sex, and blurs the distinction between the real and the fictive with the introduction of the Brontë sisters as characters.

15D.M. Thomas’s Charlotte (2000) also blurs the distinction between fact and fiction as well as acknowledging Wide Sargasso Sea as an intertext to its own particular rewriting of Jane Eyre (and particularly of its ending). Charlotte is in many ways typical of its (postmodern) times. For instance, it illustrates a major trait of end-of-the-century rewritings: the emphasis on the characters’ sexuality. One remembers that at the time of its publication, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre shocked its contemporaries. D.M. Thomas seems keen on his Brontë Revelations eliciting the same response for its times. He rewrites the ending contradicting Jane’s happiness as announced by Brontë by giving the heroine an impotent husband and frames the narrative with another set in the twentieth century. In her study “And they didn’t live happily ever after”, Armelle Parey studies the transformations introduced and the place of the twentieth-century narrative. Utterly deprived of nostalgia for the Victorian era it depicts, the novel challenges not only the source-text and its ideology but also its own reader, taken in a dizzying narrative spiral.

16As several contributions in this volume show, the end of Jane Eyre has seemed problematical to many late twentieth century writers, because it is the point where the heroine seems to conform to the norm but also where she is rewarded for all her troubles. This Anita Brookner signals as a delusion, as Eileen Wanquet points out in “Re-Vision of Jane Eyre as Philosophical Metacomment in the Novels of Anita Brookner”. Charlotte Brontë’s novel definitely appears to be a pervading intertext throughout Brookner’s work. The typical Brookner heroine takes the virtuous Jane as her life model but never meets, let alone marries her Rochester who always prefers somebody less virtuous. The fact that, in Brookner’s novels, virtue is never rewarded plus the portrayal of the negative effects of the model on the heroine questions and challenges the Cartesian and Christian moral values and rules transmitted by nineteenth-century fiction and Brontë’s novel in particular.

17More generally, Linda Hutcheon explains that “Postmodern fiction suggests that to re-write or to re-present the past in fiction and in history is, in both cases, to open it up to the present, to prevent it from being conclusive and teleological” (77). Such may well be the aim but it is not necessarily achieved: indeed when filling in the blanks, rewritings sometimes block off or inflate a text. Indeed, our studies show that Jane Eyre has had her wings clipped in Hitchcock’s film and that new representations of the story and the character are sometimes quite conservative or less stimulating than the originals (H, Adèle, Charlotte).

18It also appears that different authors choose to revise and amend the same aspects of Brontë’s novel. As said earlier, hypertexts lay an obvious emphasis on the characters’ sexuality, on Bertha and on the ending as contrived. These rewritings are in fact testimonies to the contemporary world whose preoccupations often find their way into the new texts. Therefore, if what comes out of rewriting is the often criticised ideological dimension of the hypotext, the ideological dimension of the times in which the rewriting is produced is also obvious. As Kate Flint points out about some retro-Victorian novels, Jane Eyre is “re-fashioned [...] to serve the critical needs of the present” (302). In other words, when engaging with the original text and challenging it, rewritings are also undeniably informative about our present times and literature.

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Works cited

Calinescu Mattei. “Rewriting”. International Postmodernisms, Theory and Literary Practice.  in Douwe Fokkema and Hans Bertens (ed.). Amsterdam: Philadelphia:  John Benjamins Publishing Company. 1997. 243-248.

Eaglestone  Robert. “The Fiction of Angela Carter: The Woman Who Loved to retell Stories”. in Richard J. Lane, Rod Mengham and Philip Tew (eds.). Contemporary British Novel. Cambridge: Polity Press. 2003. 195-209.

Flint Kate. “Plotting the Victorians: Narrative, Postmodernism and Contemporary Fiction”.  in J.B. Bullen (ed). Writing and Victorianism. London : Longman. 1997. 286-305.

Hutcheon Linda. “Historiographic Metafiction”. in Mark Currie (ed.). Metafiction.  London : New York : Longman. 1995. 71-91.

RICH Adrienne. “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Revision” (1971). On Lies, Secrets and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978. New York: London: Norton and Company. (1979) 1995.

Showalter Elaine. A Literature of their Own. Revised and expanded edition. London: Virago Press. 1999.

Shuttleworth Sally. “Natural History: The Retro-Victorian Novel”. in Elinor Shaffer (ed.). The Third Culture: Literature and Science. Berlin and New York: De Gruyter, 1998. 253-268.

Stoneman Patsy. Brontë Transformations. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf.  1996.

Zabus Chantal.Subversive Scribes: Rewriting in the 20th century”. Anglistica 5: 1-2 (2001): 191-207.

Zabus Chantal. “Wreaders. On the Practice of “Rewriting” at the End of the Twentieth Century”. Alizés 20 (2001). <>

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1 For instance, see “Rewritings” edited by Isabelle Roblin in La Revue LISA /LISA e-journal  Vol. II, n°5, 2004 <>, “Writing as Re-Vision” edited by Eileen Williams-Wanquet, Alizes 20, July 2001, <> and an international conference “Rewriting/Reprising- La Reprise en literature” held at Université Lumière-Lyon 2, France (13-14 October 2006).

2 Chantal Zabus has done something similar in that she has focused on the rewritings of Shakespeare’s plays. See Tempests after Shakespeare. St. Martin’s Press (Palgrave), 2002.

3 Chantal Zabus sees in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre the interpellative dream-text the twentieth century has selected to rewrite the nineteenth. “Wreaders. On the Practice of “Rewriting” at the End of the Twentieth Century”, <>.

4  For an example of contemporary plagiarism, see Emily Eells, “The Mystery of Kitty Bell: A Possible Solution?”, Bronte Studies, 30: 2,  2005, 113-123.

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Armelle Parey, « Jane Eyre, Past and Present », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. IV - n°4 | 2006, mis en ligne le 20 octobre 2009, consulté le 05 avril 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Armelle Parey

Dr. (Caen University, France)
Armelle Parey is a senior lecturer at the University of Caen, France. She presented her doctoral thesis on representations of the Victorian era in a selection of British novels (1969-1995) in 2000. Her current fields of interest include the rewriting of canonical novels and the question of closure in contemporary British novels.

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