Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine in Jane Eyre (1944)
Jane Eyre (1944)

Nobody broods like a Brontë.

In Edward Rochester, Charlotte Brontë created one of literature’s surliest heroes.

And a heroine strong enough to go toe-to-toe with him.

Jane Eyre is a nineteenth century classic that pits a brooding hero against an uncommonly feisty woman in a struggle for true love.  The novel is an undisputed gothic masterpiece, adapted again and again for the screen, most recently in 2011 with Mia Wasikowska in the titular role.

Every generation gets its own Jane and Rochester.

The 1944 version starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine was Hollywood’s second crack at a talking adaptation, after at least five silent versions.

I haven’t read the novel in decades, so I can’t pinpoint where the film deviates from the book, but the broad strokes are as I remember.

Jane Eyre is a poor orphan, mistreated first by her rich but uncaring aunt, then by the teachers in an unforgiving boarding school.  She has a stubborn and defiant streak the reader admires but that all her guardians try to metaphorically and literally beat out of her.  When she comes of age, she goes to Thornfield Hall, a large and isolated home, to become a governess.  There she meets Edward Rochester, the mysterious owner of the house.  He is ugly, ill-tempered, and haunted by demons, but Jane softens him up with her honesty and courage.

They fall in love, and all is well until the reason for his secret misery is revealed, threatening their happiness and safety.

The problem with Jane Eyre isn’t adherence to the source material.

It’s that they tore out its soul.

Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine in Jane Eyre (1944)

In the filmmaker’s defense, the relationship between Jane Eyre and Rochester is doubtless one of the trickiest to capture on celluloid.

I would argue that Eyre is a more difficult adaptation than its often-filmed cousins, Wuthering Heights, and Pride and Prejudice.  In Heights, Cathy is no damsel, but nearly as cruel and greedy as Heathcliff.  And Pride and Prejudice is an entirely different animal, an early battle-of-the-sexes story, a gentle satire of the upper class rather than a moody, gothic novel.

In Jane Eyre, Rochester has all the power—he is wealthy, Jane’s employer, and more experienced in the ways of the world.

Jane has no family, no home, no one who has ever really loved her.  She risks starvation if Rochester throws her out.

How can love truly grow with such an imbalance of power?

And yet in the novel, Jane is Rochester’s intellectual equal.  He loves her for her strength, her lack of artifice, and the (correct) belief that she would stand by him through all manner of troubles, unlike the vain and wealthy Blanche Ingram, whom everyone assumes Rochester will marry.

This film, alas, does not capture Jane’s strength.

Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine in Jane Eyre (1944)

Orson Welles captures the brutish and cold side of Rochester, but can’t seem to give him any shades of tenderness.  He bullies Jane, seeming to pull her close and push her away at whim and for his amusement.

When their wedding is disrupted, he offers her no explanation or apology, and comes off cold as ice to his bewildered bride.

Joan Fontaine is little better as Jane.  She is demure, mousy, and completely overtaken by Welles in every scene.

I’m not sure this is entirely her fault as an actress.  This film feels very much as if it is more interested in recapturing the magic of Fontaine’s portrayal of the second Mrs. de Winter in Rebecca than making Jane Eyre.  From the outside, the two characters are similar—both orphans, both submissive women living in big dark castles with brooding men who harbor dark secrets.

But here’s the thing—Jane Eyre is nothing like the second Mrs. de Winter.  Jane has suffered more, and her suffering has given her a shell that protects her without destroying her humanity. 

She does not worship Rochester, as the second Mrs. de Winter worships Maxim.  She doesn’t feel like she has won the lottery when he asks her to marry him.  Jane and Rochester fall in love first, then marry.

With Maxim and the second Mrs. de Winter, it’s the other way around.

I’ve read both novels, and never linked them together in my mind.  But the ghost of Rebecca haunts this film as much as Rebecca herself haunted Maxim and his new bride.

Welles and Fontaine have zero chemistry, and the child actresses portraying a young Jane shows more defiance than Fontaine is ever allowed to.

Other adaptations are better, specifically the one from 2011, but none that I have seen truly capture the essence of Brontë’s heroine. 

I’ve decided not to spoil the ending, for though most will know it, if you don’t, I encourage you to skip all the adaptations and spend a rainy weekend with Brontë’s novel.

And if you do decide, against my better judgement, to watch the film—make sure to take note of Helen, the young girl Jane befriends at her school.  The role is uncredited, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I knew the face.

Young Jane with her friend Helen, a very familiar face….

Eventually I realized I was watching Elizabeth Taylor, in just her third onscreen appearance.

The fact that this was the most memorable moment tells you everything you need to know about this disappointing film.

Jane Eyre (1944) Verdict:  Had Its Day, But that Day Is Done

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine in Jane Eyre (1944)