Thursday, July 19, 2007

Jane Eyre on Stage, 1848-1898. A Review

Ashgate Publishing kindly sent us a copy of Jane Eyre on Stage, 1848-1898. After reading it carefully, this is our review.

Jane Eyre on Stage, 1848–1898
An Illustrated Edition of Eight Plays with Contextual Notes

ISBN: 0 7546 0348 2
Patsy Stoneman
Series: The Nineteenth Century Series

Jane Eyre on Stage is a carefully researched book that presents, as the subtitle says, eight different stage adaptations of Jane Eyre dating from the sixty years after the first edition of the novel appeared in 1847: John Courtney's Jane Eyre or The Secrets of Thornfield Manor (1848), John Brougham's Jane Eyre (1849), an anonymous Jane Eyre (1867) more or less plagiarized from the Birch-Pfeiffer's version, Charlotte Birch-Pfeiffer's Jane Eyre or the Orphan of Lowood (in the bilingual 1870 edition translated by Clifton W. Tayleure), Mme Heringen von Hering's Jane Eyre (1877) (a variation on the Charlotte Birch-Pfeiffer's piece), James Willing's Jane Eyre or Poor Relations (1879), T. H. Paul's Jane Eyre (1879) and W.G. Wills's Jane Eyre (1882).

Patsy Stoneman has edited the texts - sometimes with considerable difficulties - has researched the playwright, the original theatre and performances as well as the critical reception of the play, whenever possible. Everything is presented, as Heather Glen says in her praise, with the highest standards of scholarship. The book includes 21 illustrations - some of them for the first time - showing contemporary playbills, the theatres where the plays were taking place...

The work of Patsy Stoneman can be addressed as an extension of the first chapter of her previous book Brontë Transformations(1), where some of these plays were described and discussed in the context of how Jane Eyre was culturally 'disseminated', in Jacques Derrida's definition.

The result is a fascinating account of the history of the 'popular' theatre of the late nineteenth century (especially in London) in general and of how Jane Eyre was perceived and assimilated by Victorian society in particular. The introduction discusses the plays taking into account two different contexts: the evolution of popular theatre, and the social and political context of the different versions of Jane Eyre that the plays present.

The first element describes how the plays were evolving: from the first ones (Courtney(2) and Brougham, particularly) clearly addressed to a very popular audience where the melodramatic elements of the play were highlighted, to the late plays (Wills) appealing to a more middle-class audience(3).

The second element is the real pièce de resistance for the Jane Eyre aficionado. Stoneman contextualizes the first plays of the collection (Courtney and Brougham) in the political and social background of their audiences. The introduction of comical elements, of new characters (servants) with whom the audience could identify, the mockery of the 'dominant classes' surround a Jane Eyre who is described as an 'articulate rebel, holding the centre stage', clearly connecting with their target audience, using a nowadays terminology. This contrasts with the Birch-Pfeiffer plays where the emphasis is put on the virtue of both Jane and Rochester (where even the madwoman in the attic is no longer Rochester's wife but his brother's!). The popularity of these plays coincides with the edition of Gaskell's Life and the subsequent transformation of the coarse Charlotte Brontë into the Victorian angel-in-the-house(4).

Two of the latest plays in the book are particularly interesting. James Willing's 1879 Jane Eyre is a fascinating display of the way in which Jane Eyre was made 'morally legible'(5). In this play Blanche Ingram is not only 'mocked' by Rochester but she is seduced by John Reed(6), she is considered a 'fallen woman', is rescued by Jane herself who treats her as her 'sister' and shares her newly acquired fortune (also intended by John Reed) with her. In Patsy Stoneman's words: 'Instead of representing Jane's painfully ambiguous stance, Willing's play sharply divides the signifiers of the fallen woman, which it gives to Blanche, from those of virtuous woman, which remain with Jane.' Willing's play even softens Mr. Brocklehurst, turning him into a comical figure wishing even to marry Jane (!). W.G. Wills's 1882 play is also noteworthy, changing completely the way in which Rochester was addressed. From the virtuous nobleman (Rochester is ascended to Lord in Birch-Pfeiffer's play among others) to the 'dishonourable, despicable, unprincipled' man described by Blanche Ingram in Wills's play(7).

Stoneman argues that these plays 'act as readings of Jane Eyre which incorporate current discourses, whether they be class consciousness, or debate about the financial and sexual situation of women. (...) In literary terms, these plays are debased versions of Charlotte Brontë's novel. Their very distortions, however, may shed light on their famous pre-text'. Now, in the light of a century of literary criticism, we see the novel as an intersection of many readings: class, gender, racial... 'The Victorian plays', says Stoneman, 'by contrast, simplify and narrow the novel's focus. In place of a subtly ambiguous Jane we have the stereotypes of melodrama -orphan victim, spotless maiden, 'astounding woman'. In place of Rochester dilemma we have the stainless hero of the Birch-Pfeiffer's plays or Wills's culpable deceiver'(8).

For such a studiously researched and interesting book, there are a few, almost testimonial, drawbacks that we would also like to summarize: there is some confusion with the Birch-Pfeiffer plays. Three of the plays included in the book are variations of the original play (first performed in Vienna in 1853), which - given that it is in German - is not featured, but more variations are mentioned (Charlotte Thompson's one, for instance)(9). Maybe a chronology of some kind would be useful. An obvious mistake is made in the presentation of James Willings' play where it is stated that Mr Brocklehurst doesn't appear in the prologue of the play (and he does appear). And finally, we don't know exactly why J.S. Houghton (1874) and Anna Dickinson's (1876) Jane Eyre adaptations, mentioned in the JE derivatives index of Brontë Transformations are not discussed or even mentioned (as far as we can remember) in the book.

(1) Stoneman, Patsy. Brontë Transformations. The Cultural Dissemination of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Hemel Hampstead: Harvester Wheatshead/Prentice Hall, 1996. And also an extension of the seminal work of Donna Marie Nudd, "Jane Eyre and What Adaptors Have Done to Her". PhD thesis, University of Texas at Austin.
William Smith Williams wrote to Charlotte Brontë informing her of the representations of John Courtney's play. Brontë's reply to the description of the performance is well-known: 'you (...) have shewn me a glimpse of what I might call loathsome, but which I prefer calling strange. Such then is a sample of what amuses the Metropolitan populace!' (Quoted by Stoneman on p. 31)
According to Stoneman (p. 3) 'This group of plays thus spans, and demonstrates, that period of significant change in theatrical history called the 'gentrification' of the theatre'.
Stoneman argues in Brontë Transformations that 'it is no accident that the sudden flowering of the sensation novel should coincide with an intensification of ideological prescriptions of femininity. (...) In contrast to the women's sensation novels, the stage plays, produced in the theatre, which was of course dominated by med, increasingly emphasized Jane's saintly virtue and her vulnerability, which calls out manly goodness'. See also, Miller, Lucasta. The Brontë Myth, Jonathan Cape, 2001 (Chapter 4).
(5) As quoted by Stoneman in
Brontë Transformations from Brooks, Peter, "The Melodramatic Imagination", New York and London, Yale University Press, 1976.
(6) In the Birch-Pfeiffer's group of plays the Reeds take the place of the Ingrams. In Willing's (and in several others) the Reeds reappear in Thornfield Hall with the Ingrams.
(7) Stoneman argues in
Brontë Transformations that in the first 1880's 'the debate over the Contagious Diseases Acts altered people's perceptions so that women's chastity became important not just to the man who might possess her, but to herself, as a safeguard against the diseased inroads of unscrupulous men'.
(8) This evolution can be summarized in how the image of the snared bird of the novel was changing from Courtney's 1848 'I am no bird, no net ensnares me' to Heringen von Hering's 1877 'the net is around you - now you are caught', uttered by Rochester. See
Brontë Transformations, p. 38-39.
(9) Although mentioned in passing, we really would like to know more about the Italian and Spanish translations of the Birch-Pfeiffer play. Are they faithful to the text? Do they introduce some local 'colour'?

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