Feb. 3 - 16, 2006
Vol. 36, Issue 2
Back Issues
Faculty recruitment, diversity initiatives, South Lawn project top BOV agenda
Bhangra night

Nursing gets largest gift ever

R&D prospects
Senate focus may shift
Athletics gives $25,000 to graduate student research and $25,000 to marching band
Hands-on J-Term class
Urban designer lends expertise to national initiative on New Orleans
New LGBT coordinator keeps the door open for U.Va. community, whether gay, straight or questioning
Artists share 'green' visions
U.Va. launches Society of University Families

Wayward Christian soldiers

Study correlates perceived ball size with batting average
Walter Ridley speaker series
Pinkett to discuss black intellectual entrepreneurship
Women's Center Events
Poet Carol Muske-Dukes Stars at two events on Feb. 15
Feb. 6 forum marks release of Reagan Oral History Project
Suite Jane


Suite Jane
The many faces of Brontë’s famous heroine

barbara heritage
Photo by Dan Addison
Barbara Heritage, co-curator of the “Eyre Apparent” exhibit.

By Mary Carlson

As she approaches her 160th birthday, Jane Eyre is still remarkably resilient. Since the first edition of Charlotte Brontë’s novel appeared in 1847, Jane has remained one of the most beloved and compelling figures in English literature. “Eyre Apparent,” an exhibit sponsored by U.Va.’s Rare Book School and currently on display in the Rotunda’s Dome Room, celebrates the enduring appeal of this literary classic.

The exhibit, which opened in early November and runs until May 1, marks the 150th anniversary of Brontë’s death and provides a lively, thoughtful, sometimes irreverent look at the novel that has inspired a multitude of spin-offs, rip-offs, sequels, prequels and paraphernalia.
“Eyre Apparent” features some 400 items, including various editions, translations and adaptations that range from the quirky to the downright odd. There’s an illustrated comic book version in modern Greek and a sci-fi version called “Jenna Starborn,” with Jane as a space-traveling nuclear technician. There’s even an adults-only version — “Disciplining Jane” — that gives Brontë’s story a sadomasochistic twist. The exhibit makes clear that the book’s audience reaches far beyond what the author could ever have imagined.

Jane Eyre as she’s been imagined on book covers, comic book covers and movie posters from 1900 on.

As any reader of the novel knows, Jane Eyre is no beauty. She commands respect and love for her authenticity and uncompromised principles, courage, keen judgment and warmth, not for her stunning good looks. Indeed, Brontë emphasizes Jane’s plainness. When Mr. Rochester, Jane’s employer, falls in love with her and expresses a desire to shower her with fine jewels, she counters by saying, “Don’t address me as if I were a beauty; I am your plain, Quakerish governess … [p]uny and insignificant.”

But most book publishers, like most movie producers, never let what authors actually write stand in the way of trying to boost their product’s consumer appeal. “Eyre Apparent” features an entire section of book covers dedicated to what Barbara Heritage, the exhibit’s co-curator, calls the “prettification” of Jane. Here we see a range of makeovers, from the subtle to the extreme.

“The first illustrated editions,” said Heritage, “focused on landscape scenes and Brontë herself.” However, later editions focused more on Jane, and she’s seen as anything but plain. One edition, published around 1900, shows Jane as a Gibson girl with blonde hair and bright red lips. Another cover depicts her as a pre-Raphaelite figure, a wistful beauty with windswept hair. There’s also a 1940s starlet Jane, glancing longingly over her shoulder.

“Things accelerate in terms of ‘pretty,’” Heritage said. “So by the 1940s, you have a souped-up Joan Fontaine on [the] cover. This edition was designed to send off to soldiers overseas.” An even later edition shows Jane in a hooded cape, bearing an uncanny resemblance to actress Barbara Billingsley, who played June Cleaver in the 1950s sitcom, “Leave It to Beaver.”

Clearly, our notions of beauty — particularly feminine beauty — are neither timeless nor universal. They are continually being revised. But despite the changeability of cultural ideals of beauty, “Jane Eyre” has left its mark on how English literature portrays love.

According to Karen Chase, a U.Va. professor of English who writes and lectures about the book, “Jane Eyre” and “Wuthering Heights,” written by Brontë’s younger sister Emily, “form the basic structure for almost every romance in the 20th century.” But Brontë intentionally plays with our expectations about romance and beauty. “We see romance as ideal, not real,” Chase said. “Brontë wants to write a romance that can be lived by ordinary people.” Jane’s plainness draws us to her and allows us to lay imaginative claim to what she gains by the novel’s end — a happy mix of self-knowledge, true love and great wealth.

Prettified Janes are not the only things inspired by Brontë’s novel. “Eyre Apparent” features sewing thimbles, cigarette cards, paper dolls, miniature versions for a dollhouse, even a designer blouse. Impressive as it is now, though, the collection will only grow over time. “We’re building the collection, and we’re not stopping,” Heritage said. “It will be our living example of what happens to a book when it becomes a classic.”

As “Eyre Apparent” seems to suggest, one of the hallmarks of a classic is its pervasiveness. As of October 2005, there were 518 editions of “Jane Eyre” currently in print or forthcoming. Among novels, it ranks second only to Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” of which there are 548 editions.
With “Jane Eyre” and other widely known works, it’s as if there are two texts: the original printed version and what Chase calls a “culture text,” which is a novel apart from the print version. “Everyone has heard of ‘Jane Eyre,’” she explained. “Everyone feels they know about it, even if they had had no direct contact with it.”

As a “culture text,” “Jane Eyre” is not just pervasive; it’s also proven to be highly adaptable. In showing the novel’s many transformations, “Eyre Apparent” seems to suggest that no genre — whether it’s the modern romance or the gangster film as popularized by American cinema — remains static over time. In its early stages, a genre is consistent in terms of plot, setting, tone and characterization. But once it reaches full maturity and audiences become familiar with its conventions, a genre becomes ripe for experimentation, often to the point of parody. In this way, the romance genre — represented by “Jane Eyre” — is not unique. “The Sopranos,” for instance, shows how far the gangster genre has evolved since the 1920s and 1930s.

Purists may be put off by the creative license that publishers and others have taken with “Jane Eyre.” But as “Eyre Apparent” makes clear, the novel doesn’t just invite new forms; it thrives on them. Now, nearly 160 years after its first appearance, Brontë’s story is alive and well, with an ever-expanding audience eager for new iterations of her famous heroine.


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