Friday, November 23, 2012

Why an Erotic Retelling of "Jane Eyre" Doesn't Make Sense

A few months ago, I was rather horrified to read in article on the Guardian by a new publisher who was in the process of doing erotica versions of several classics, starting with "Jane Eyre". Their contention was that they were writing that novel that Bronte secretly wanted to read but couldn't due to convention. What they were really doing was defiling classic literature to cash in on the "Fifty Shades" fad. Anyway...

A couple of months ago, and sure enough Tesco had the eagerly-awaited (yeah, right) "Jane Eyre Laid Bare", taking pride of place in amongst the rows of mummy-smut books that now infest their displays. Last month I got around to reading "Jane Eyre" (the original, of course). And yesterday I stumbled across reviews of JELB - reviews that were considerably more entertaining than it seems the reviewers found the book itself.

(I am, of course, shocked that JELB could be anything other than a stellar achievement. After all, if "Jane Eyre" is one of the best novels ever written, and they've written the novel Bronte really wanted to write but couldn't, then surely it must truly be the greatest thing ever? No?)

I haven't, and won't, read JELB. In fact, I was never going to read it, any more than I'll ever read "Fifty Shades" (and how I hope I don't feel compelled to update The List any time soon...). Which makes it rather unfair for me to review the book, so I won't. However, what I can say with certainty is that any erotic retelling of "Jane Eyre" is inherently doomed to failure. It simply does not, and cannot, work.

Problem the First: "Reader, I married him."

Unconventional or not, "Jane Eyre" is written as an autobiography, and intended to be read. But the truth is that people just didn't, and by and large still don't, write the sort of sexual detail into autobiographies. Even people who want to court controversy, or who want to impress with their liberality, will be open and frank about who they've slept with and when, and may shock with some details about where they've done the deed, or mention many-in-a-bed romps. But that's as far as it goes. If "Mamma Mia" has taught us nothing else*, it is that the proper handling of such scenes is with the abbreviation dot dot dot.

* Which would be an unfair characterisation. It also taught us that Pierce Brosnan really can't sing.

In order for JELB to work, that iconic line of literature must, in effect, be changed to "Dear Penthouse..."

(And, likewise, because the book is written from Jane's point of view, and description of Rochester's time with his mistresses are also off-limits. Oddly enough, guys are generally reluctant to talk about their sexual history with women to whom they are attracted, and certainly don't do so in lurid detail.)

Problem the Second: The Core of the Book

The simple reality is this: when doing an erotic retelling of "Jane Eyre", the relationship you're actually interested in is that between Jane and Rochester. I mean, certainly, you can insert various encounters between other characters, but those are entirely extraneous. Indeed, they would mostly have to be invented whole-cloth, and inserted purely for titilation. It would be the equivalent of starting "Dirty Dancing" with a 20-minute scene of the cheerleaders from Baby's school taking a shower - it's a bunch of characters we don't care about, and won't see again. It would be entirely gratuitous.

So, you're basically limited to encounters between Jane and Rochester for your eroticism. The problem here, though, is that the core of the book is the unrealised sexual tension between these two characters. She wants to be with him, he wants to be with her, the readers want them to be together... but they can't be together.

But, as everyone who has watched TV knows, whenever you have unrealised sexual tension between two characters, the very moment the two characters get together, the tension disappears and the story immediately falls flat. Jane and Rochester absolutely must not get together until the very end of the book, or it kills the book.

(Indeed, one of the reviews I read commented that it was a good thing that JELB added a kiss to the "burning bed" scene. The contention there was that that scene desperately needed a kiss. But the reviewer is wrong. It's a strength of the book, and that scene in particular, that it doesn't have that kiss - Bronte has her readers on the edge of frustration, without tipping over into the point where they throw the book across the room in disgust. Adding the kiss doesn't improve the scene - it robs it of its potency.)

So, you can't have encounters between Jane and Rochester. And any other encounters are irrelevancies added for no good reason. There's nothing here to hang an erotic retelling on.

Problem the Third: the Power Dynamic

The copy of "Jane Eyre" that I read included an introduction by a Dr Sally Minogue. As advised by the introduction to the introduction, I read the novel first, and then read the introduction (which, frankly, seemed to render the concept of having that introduction rather questionable - isn't it supposed to introduce the book?). And I found reading the introduction spectacularly annoying.

See, Dr Minogue correctly recognised that the key scene in the book comes just after the failed wedding, in which Rochester attempts to persuade Jane to run off with him - they'll go to a foreign land, he'll introduce her as his wife, and they'll live happily ever after. Dr Minogue also correctly, and rather insightfully, notes that in this scene Jane is actually arguing against her own desires - she wants to go with Rochester, but forces herself to refuse.

At this point, Dr Minogue is rather critical of Bronte for having Jane refuse Rochester. She says that it is unfortunate, that having previously said "conventionality is not morality", Bronte then has her heroine make the conventional choice. This was a rather spectacular facepalm moment.

The problem with Dr Minogue's comment is that she failed to identify something that both Bronte and Jane did recognise. It would have been a spectacular mistake for Jane to go with Rochester at this point. Not because it would defy man's law, nor even because it would defy God's law (which both Bronte and Jane would have considered significant, even if they chose to reject it). It would have been a mistake for Jane even in it's own right.

See, the problem is one of power. If Jane went with Rochester, she would forever be in his power. If he ever turned her out, she would be left with no money, no reputation, no friends, and in a foreign land. She would, in short, become Fantine.

And Rochester could turn her out at any time. Worse still, it isn't actually a matter of whether he would do so, it's a matter of when he would do so. It's made very clear in the novel that Rochester despised his mistresses. In fact, it's worse than that - at that point in the novel, Rochester is an angry misogynist. He despises his mistresses, he hates his wife, he is contemptuous of his ward, he uses Blanche Ingram, and he isn't even particularly nice to Jane. He blames the world for his being 'tricked' into marriage and thus being trapped (when, presumably, it was actually his choice, made in haste and repented at leisure). He is not a nice man, for all that Jane loves him.

If Jane went with Rochester at that point, it wouldn't be to live happily ever after; it would be for six months of bliss followed by poverty, disgrace, and death. Yay!

(I'm not entirely sure how Dr Minogue managed to miss this. Jane lays all this out, in detail, in that very scene.)

Instead, Jane leaves, suffers significantly, and is symbolically reborn. She is empowered by adding to her education. She is empowered by living independently. She is empowered by taking responsibility for running a school. She is empowered with wealth. And she is empowered by her resistance to St John. Conversely, Rochester is brought low at the same time; when we see him again his fortune is greatly diminished, he is maimed, and he is blinded.

At the end, the balance of power of their relationship is changed. Now, it is Jane who holds the whip hand. She marries him because she chooses to, and on her own terms. And even when Rochester's sight is restored, they continue as equals - and that gives them the basis for an actual happily ever after.

And that is the very point of the novel. Throughout, Jane Eyre has been faced with a great many characters, mostly men, who have sought to control her - her cousin, the governor of her school, her employer, Rochester, St John - and over the course she faces this adversity, resists their control, and in the end makes her own choices.

So, what does this have to do with an "erotic retelling"?

Well, the point is exactly the same - in order to have an erotic retelling, Jane Eyre must have sex with Rochester without first being married to him. She has to give in to her desires and go with Rochester (literally or figuratively) without them first becoming equals. She has to place herself in his power - and everything I said above about him eventually abandoning her remains true.

In order to have an "erotic retelling", you have to gut the point of the book. And you have to gut the key thing that makes Jane Eyre a worthwhile character.

Conversely, of course, a retelling of "Jane Eyre" in which she is some sort of crazy vampire slayer... that makes perfect sense!

1 comment:

Kezzie said...

This is a blog post of sheer brilliance! I hadn't heard about said book but nevertheless, I would have not gone near it with a barge pole! What you write it so so true! The reason we identify with such classics, is because of the way they were written! You are sooo right, totally cashing in on that horrid book (5sog)
Thanks for yours and LC's congratulations!