Once, when my daughter was about nine, I was driving her and one of her friends through a suburb of Sydney, just a stone’s throw from where I live. Being geographically challenged to an extraordinary degree, I couldn't find my way out of there. A little frazzled and, as usual, impatient, I instructed the girls to start looking for a motel for the night (unbelievably bad; a stone’s throw, I’m telling you), which is when my daughter piped up with:
“Mum, you drive like Mr Rochester’s mad wife.”
“Mum, you drive like Mr Rochester’s mad wife.”
In that moment, I knew two things:
1/ I really was a Jane Eyre tragic (as though reading the book 50 times wasn't enough to confirm that); and
2/ I better stop making my daughter sit down with me every rainy day to watch one of my store of Jane Eyre DVDs.
Oh, yeah, and...
3/ I probably did (and still do) drive like Mr Rochester’s mad wife! Or at least how that poor lady would have driven, if they’d had cars back in 1847 and she was allowed out of Thornfield Hall.
I was reminded of this episode recently when I threatened my husband with divorce should he not get the upstairs DVD player working pronto, so I could watch Jane Eyre. I was desperate to watch a very particular adaptation following a lively Facebook conversation about go-to shows – the ones we watch when we want to reward ourselves – which ended up being a discussion about Jane Eyre. Very specifically, Toby Stephens in the role of Edward Fairfax Rochester.
My husband, with his infamous divorcing-me-again? eye-roll, got me sorted, and I settled in for the night, wondering if it was just a little bit nuts that every discussion/debate/fight I have ever had about Jane Eyre film and television adaptations always came down to the portrayal of Rochester rather than of Jane herself – the heroine for whom the book is named and who actually narrates the damned thing.
But you know what? I don’t really care all that much. So if you think you’re about to get a treatise on why heroines are not the linchpin in romantic novels, as evidenced by my obsession with Edward Rochester, sprinkled with examples of readers wanting to slap my heroines for not swooning immediately into my heroes’ arms…? Well, sorry, but no. I’m using my word count on Rochester.
Now I don’t claim to have seen every single adaptation of Jane Eyre*, but I've seen more than a sane person should admit to. For this column, I’m going to name just a few of the most famous portrayals, in order of my least-to-most favored, and include my un-scholarly two cents’ worth about their Rochesterness…
- William Hurt (1986) – adored him in Children of a Lesser God, but what a pale, wimpy, polite Rochester. One hundred percent not.
- Orson Welles (1944) – seriously great actor, but a little too Frankenstein in his overtones. And all right, I know Jane Eyre has a touch of the Gothic about it but that’s not what we want to be thinking of in the proposal scene.
- Ciaran Hinds (1997) – all the pieces were there, and how fabulous was he in Persuasion? But alas, he came across as a bit of a shouty, surly, grumpy hulk.
- Michael Fassbender (2011) – quite possibly the best-looking Rochester, which is a nice side benefit, but Rochester isn't supposed to be classically handsome. Honestly, aside from the almost unnatural beauty of the guy, I can barely remember his portrayal and had to refresh myself with a quick squizz at the bed-on-fire scene. A little too moodily reserved and subdued.
- Timothy Dalton (1983) – he looked ideal, and in my opinion comes closest to the character as written by Charlotte Bronte. Rochester’s imperiousness, his broody world-weariness, and his desperate passion – Dalton had it all in spades. A worthy contender for the best-ever Rochester crown – but the pace of the production seems a little stilted 20-plus years on.
- Toby Stephens (2006) – when he first appeared on his rearing black steed**, I thought to myself, ‘Well this is going to suck’, because he just did not look like Timothy Dalton – but a scene or two later when he snapped at the hapless Jane, shooing her off with a snarly ‘And my foot hurts like the blazes’, I was captivated. His portrayal was a wonderful mix of old world and modern – a Rochester for our times. Intelligent, irascible, haunted, lonely, mischievous…and he really seemed to get that Rochester never shuts up! Rochester is, in fact, positively garrulous.
I was so crazy about Toby Stephens in this role, I once flew to London just so I could see him live on stage. Side benefit – Matthew Macfadyen was also in a play in London at the same time so I did a full-on theatre weekend and went to work a starry-eyed, jet-lagged mess after it all. (Matthew is another serious crush of mine – thank you Pride and Prejudice – and actually prompted me to write a book, but that’s another story…)
I’m going to finish off with my two ‘I wish’ Rochesters:
- Alan Rickman – how fabulous would he have been? Does anyone remember the utter heart-wrenching wonderfulness of him in Truly Madly Deeply? And don’t get me started on the voice.
- Richard Armitage – I would beg for this. Even though I’m not sure my hormones could take it!
* Click here if you want to see the full Rochester list – and I kid you not, even Charlton Heston is on there. ** Click here if you'd like to compare, for yourself, Timothy Dalton, William Hurt and Toby Stephens and their 'black steed' meeting with Jane.
So okay people, hit me with your own preferences or tell me to pull my head in. I’m up for it. Do you have a favourite Rochester? Is he the same as mine or different? Is Rochester even your guy? Speak to the PHS gang nicely and I'm sure they could arrange a similar discussion for Darcy...