Source: The Telegraph UK of 9 October 2006
In the wake of a new BBC adaptation of Jane Eyre, Judith Woods asks, who's the best in breeches?
So, ladies, pray tell - how was it for you? If last night's corset-shuddering episode of Jane Eyre hasn't left you aching for next Sunday's installment then you must surely be singularly in want of romantic sensibility.
Toby Stephens's Rochester carries with him the unmistakable, intoxicating whiff of sex
Can Jane's broken heart ever heal? What of lustful Mr Rochester, furiously tending to mad Bertha in the attic? And does this (praise be!) mark an end to the tiresome lionisation of Mr Darcy? I say Mr Darcy, but of course we all know I mean Colin Firth.
That's the thing about literary adaptations: no matter how we try to fight it, as soon as an actor pops up sporting snug breeches and an ambiguously furrowed brow, he supplants the carefully constructed mental image we have nurtured since our sensitive teens, like some unwelcome froak-coated cuckoo.
Classic serials are what Britain does superlatively well - possibly our finest export. Our food may be flavourless, our public transport system woeful and our government rent by internecine struggles worthy of I Claudius, but we can sleep content in our beds knowing that Disraeli's workshop of the world does know how to make great telly.
From Bleak House to Mill on the Floss, The Barchester Chronicles to Jude the Obscure, there's proof that our licence fee hasn't always been frittered on fancy new programme idents and Jonathan Ross's £18 million salary.
But we, the reading public, feel mightily possessive of our favourite novels, and woe betide the writer who takes too many liberties, obviously the sainted Andrew Davies aside. Shoehorning capacious classics into one-hour chunks is an excruciatingly difficult undertaking.
No sooner has the Sisyphean task been accomplished comes the inevitable ingratitude from truculent pedants who write in to complain about the teacup handles in Clarissa, or how that unforgivably out-of-date saddle utterly spoiled their enjoyment of Middlemarch.
Author Wiliam Boyd, who adapted Scoop for television, once likened writing a novel to swimming in the sea. Adapting a novel, he wearily observed, was more akin to swimming in a bath.
So let's make it plain: although Ruth Wilson instantly chimed with my reading of Jane, I was initially deeply suspicious of Toby Stephens as Mr Rochester; he wasn't nearly as saturnine nor as sinister as he ought to have been. In fact, he was disconcertingly flirtatious from the get-go, looking Jane in the eye and wantonly indulging in picnics and the like.
As Emma from Lancaster indignantly put it on the BBC's Jane Eyre review web page: "Rochester was not a letch, but a tortured soul. No sideways glances whilst fishing for compliments for him, please."
Penny, from Reading, was otherwise preoccupied, fretting that Mr R's breeches were so tight they might affect his sperm count, and mused if perhaps they were sewn on afresh, every morning?
advertisementIn Leicester, AC was witheringly dismissive: "Too posh, young and ginger" came the ****ing indictement of Stevens.
I must confess that the opening episode of Jane Eyre set my teeth on edge, as vast tracts of the text were excised, characters axed and the interior shots of (a preposterously palatial) Thornfield Hall filmed in such stygian gloom, as to require the viewer to deploy infra-red night vision.
The script was also peppered with all manner of metachronistic language. It was wrong, all wrong. But I continued to watch because on Sunday nights, as in times of national crisis, one instinctively tunes into the BBC. And I was amply rewarded.
The slow burn ignited, and up in flames went effigies of Rochesters past; William Hurt (impressive sidewhiskers, but a bit bland), Timothy Dalton (rather shifty, but not in a good way), George C Scott (not dishy enough) and of course, Orson Welles (impressive, but I've never forgiven him for Citizen Kane, surely the most over-rated movie ever made).
So what if it had been sexed up for modern audiences? We haven't got all evening to hang about decoding elliptical 19th century demonstrations of drawing room concupiscence.
Admittedly Stephens is on the short side, and there's a touch of the cut-price Hugh Grant about him. His hair is also quite silly. But his Rochester carries with him the unmistakable, intoxicating whiff of sex, and a dark undertow of danger.
Add to that an emotionally-damaged psyche, a tormented sense of responsibility to a crazed, imprisoned wife and what right-thinking woman could possibly resist? Apart from Jane Eyre, it would appear. But she was only 19, so her biological clock wasn't yet ticking.
All of which brings me back to the disagreeable cult of Mr Darcy, who in recent years has been consistently voted the greatest romantic hero in literature.
advertisementLast year a survey of heroes (romantic or otherwise) by the literary website Books.co.uk saw the aloof incumbent of Pemberley Hall triumph over the likes of Romeo Montague, Heathcliff and Rhett Butler, with Mr Rochester languishing very unfairly, I feel, at 15th - just ahead of Mr Pickwick.
It doesn't take a Nostradamus to predict malign forces at work; Mr Darcy's position has rather more to do with Colin Firth than Pride and Prejudice. How else can one account for the fact that Mark Darcy, of Bridget Jones' Diary - also played by Firth - somehow managed to insinuate his way into seventh position.
But why? Charlotte Bronte's Edward Rochester is a passionate, powerful man, by comparison to whom Jane Austen's Fitzwilliam Darcy appears not merely repressed, but sexually continent to the point of constipation. Yes, he's proud and insufferably arrogant, which - shhh! don't tell the feminists - always goes down well with us career girls, but there's something rather unmanly about his ************
Toby Stephens is lazily beguiled by Jane Eyre's wit. Colin Firth, however, always seemed peeved by Elizabeth Bennet's clever ripostes. Firth may have dazzled us as he emerged, shirt dripping, from the pond, but that's all a bit old hat now, as demonstrated by the fact that Ambridge milksop Nigel Pargetter recently emulated him in The Archers to impress his wife, Elizabeth, and contracted an effete chill.
Rochester, on the other hand is altogether more complex, and therefore infinitely more fascinating. Call it a fatal weakness, call it multi-tasking, but women love nothing better than the challenge of mending a broken man.
Ireful and thwarted, with a murky hinterland and now with a broken heart to boot, who among us doesn't yearn to clasp Bronte's damaged hero to our collective heaving decolletage?
Cometh the hour (8pm, Sundays, BBC1), cometh the man, and Mr Rochester's moment is most surely upon us. Mr Darcy, like Mary Bennet's piano playing, has delighted us long enough.
Top 10 literary crumpet
Mr Rochester, Jane Eyre: irresistably high ******* factor.
Sydney Carton, A Tale of Two Cities: cynical romantic who makes the ultimate sacrifice for love.
Mr Darcy, Pride and Prejudice: paradigm of repressed emotion - just add water.
Rupert Campbell-Black, Riders, Polo and assorted other Jilly Cooper novels: yestosterone-charged stallion of the shires.
Rhett Butler, Gone with the Wind: handsome, dashing and gloriously perverse.
Yuri Zhivago, Dr Zhivago: sensitive soul who loses his love in a cold climate.
Tom Jones, Tom Jones: rambunctious combination of virtue and vice.
Heathcliff, Wuthering Heights: bad and mad - what more could a woman want?
Sharpe, Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe series: Napoleonic swashbuckler with a gleam in his eye.
Daniel Cleaver, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason: wolfishly seductive, should have got the girl
Thanks for bringing this article to our attention, it was rather amusing. Though I cannot agree with the Author, you see I am enjoying Jane Eyre, I do love the book and the adaptation, I am looking forward to next week's conclusion....BUT...I dont find it romantic. In case anyone reading this dosent know how it all ends I wont say, but the whole thing does not seem romantic to me and Rochester is not appealling. In last night's episode he was willing to force Jane into a bigamous marriage (by not telling her he was married). Which for the first time last night struck me as a seriously bad thing to do to someone you claim to love. It goes against society and against God, according to the words in the aborted marriage ceremony. I dont feel sorry for him, I dont admire him and I dont think the story is romantic. Hence my opinion that Rochester is not a romantic hero, rather a tragic one. Darcy wins hands down. That said, he does look rather dashing with that sly smile and I cannot wait for the conclusion. Jane Eyre, romantic or not is a brillient and exciting story.
Thanks again for highlighting the article, and then giving me the oportunity to rant!
Ps. Did you spot that one of the BBC's digital channels is showing a prequal to Jane Eyre, showing Rochesters first marriage?
Lisa, thanks for your comments! I understand your objections and I'll be the last to ever justify bigamy, it goes against the western culture I'm part of and therefore not surprising that it's against the law, then and now...
That said, I understand his motives, at least how I see them. His terrible sufferings, and the glimmer of hope of a normal, loving relationship Jane offered made him forget himself. It was wrong and unforgivable to conceal a situation in which a young innocent woman who's passionately in love with him, who's yearning for love she never had in any form, is hurt in such a way. And that's a very bad and selfish thing, regardless whether he's as much in love with her as she is with him. He guessed of course that she would never consent to be his mistress.
His wife with whom he obviously hasn't a marital relationship at all, is a dangerous lunatic. He was lured into the marriage to begin with and, the motives of his wife's brother to prevent his new marriage is as mercenary as Rochester's marrying Jane illegal.
By moving to Thornfield he hoped to hide himself, his wife and this black chapter of his past for the outside world. In vain as we know. And as you know already, it will appear to be a fortunate thing in the end.
Let's not run ahead of things, but the tragedy, the passion, his enigmatic person... as far as I'm concerned all aspects that makes a heroe a romantic one.
Can you tell I'm enjoying it?
Can you post a picture of this Mr Rochester for us poor Latin Americans? We have no idea of what you are talking.
At your service ma'am!
And the link to the official BBC Jane Eyre website
Ha ha, oh yes I can tell you like it, and I love it too, and I do watch it and swoon, its just, it all seems so dark to me, I dont want to be Jane, I wouldnt want to work for Rochester, let alone fall in love with him so I cant see him as a romantic hero, then again, it is heap big powerful stuff and it does make me kind of gasp so I do see where you, and hundreds of thousands of others are coming from. I'm just a bit to sceptical, a bit to practical and not enough romantic I think.
While im typing away, am I correct in thinking that you Renee are Mrs Darcy and this is your site? If that is the case, just wanted to say a huge thanks, its a great site with some top class fanfiction and what I have seen from the boards very friendsly visitors. So thank you for making it happen, I hope to spend some quality time here. Of course if I have that wrong. Thanks to the elusive Mrs Darcy anyway!
Indeed, Lisa, you're correct in thinking I'm the administrator of this site, calling herself so arrogantly Mrs Darcy!
Thank you, my dear, for your kind words and I'm glad you're enjoying the stories posted here. I hope to see you often!
Aghh!! What can I say? I am shocked! How can anyone compare this clown with gorgeous Mr Darcy? Unless There IS something about his breeches ... Nay, even then I would stick to my dear Mr Darcy a thousand times[Tiger. Those eyes are beyond comparison.
Mr. Rochester is definitely not a clown, my dear, (I highly recommend Charlotte Brontë's book), and Toby Stephens is a great actor. It's one of the most passionate love stories I know actually, together with her sisters book "Wuthering Heights".
Sorry. I did not mean to hurt your sensibilities.I was only joking. I agree with you that CB's stories are very good, although too tragical for my taste. All that misery I suppose is worth telling, but I prefer to have it in a history book rather than in a story. I like to read and watch thinks that are appealing to the eye and mind. Death, misery and sorrow I have enough in real life. Of course, this is the way I see things. Now talking about the actor. I assume he is a well known actor over there.I will find out about him. No more judging until I can watch the serie in Argentina.
A lovely person like you could never hurt me, don't worry! I thought you didn't know the character.
Anyway, perhaps you remember Toby Stephens from the James Bond movie "Die Another Day" and as an assistant to a professor in one of my fav movies "Possession", after A.S.Byatt's book with the same title.
Apart form Colin, there are so many British Actors I adore: Rufus Sewell, Matthew Macfadyen, Damian Lewis, Toby Stephens, Rupert Penry-Jones, and and older guys such as Ian Holms, Nathaniel Parker etc. etc.
There's a lot of hardship indeed in the novels of the Brontë sisters, but there's always hope in the end, if not a happy ending.
Jane Eyre was my first (aged 11) classical romance novel and then came the rest. I love that story - tragic(~) but beautiful. I have missed the first 2 parts of the drama but watched the episode yesterday. Toby Stephens does look very good as Mr Rochester but..... young .....maybe my mind is still shadowed by William Hurt as Mr Rochester!!
Thanx for the article, i will make sure i inspect Mr Rochester's breeches thoroughly in the next episode!
I do not know whether to explain my objection to Miss Bronte's Stories since many people are watching JE on TV and perhaps do not know how it finishes. So those who enjoy angs please do not read this.Take for example WH. I believe it would have been alright if the story had finished with Heathcliff and Catherine'S story. But, no ohohoh. Miss Bronte had to take the misery to the next generation.Or even Jane Eyre. If the story was meant to be a tragedy,let it be. But no ohophoh, Miss Bronte decided to raise the blind from darkness. Quite unconvincing.
I agree with you, the lady who enjoyed WH's version, I loved the scene in the garden when they got engaged, or the scene in the night when she saved him from the first fire.Very sensual, indeed.Which reminds me. SLO as Heathcliff, carrying Cathy in his arms when she died.Do you remember Heathcliff calling out Catherine in the moors? Very Romantic. But so scary when she comes out from the coffin to haunt him!!(In the modern version I mean)."Haunt me, Catherine, but do not leave me alone!"Too scary and sad. You see. I am crying. Moreover,I could never persuade my students to enjoy Miss Bronte's novels(I teach literature and beg sts to pick classics) They merely read them for a sense of obligation.I confess I could not finish WH (the whole thing) myself.I resourced to an abridged version in the end. I simply got terribly bored.
Even though I have no inclination for the macabre, I do like those novels, and I think WH is one of the strangest stories I've ever read. Such passion, such resentment, such bitterness... more for one human being to bear, so indeed drag other, innocent persons into your sufferings!... The human mind works in mysterious ways, and the Bronte sisters knew how to express the black sides of it, all right!
Fascinated I am, certainly, and I loved reading the Brontes in the past, but if I were to choose, it'll be Jane Austen's more intellectual enlightment rather then the Bronte's morose Romanticism. Absolutely.
Oh yes! I remember now.THE GUY THAT COULD NOT GET TO SLEEP!!! Now I can definitely say, nop. I do not like him. No matter how tight his breeches might be.Not my cup of tea.I'd much rather have dear old what's his name? The guy that plays James Bond.That guy is defin. yummy. My favourite actors, well...For the looks: On top of it Hugh Jackman (shirtless if possible)and Colin Firth (as Mr Darcy oc). Second Sean Conery (thirty or twenty years ago)and John Travolta (Grease)I do not like blond guys.I like them dark and hot. Oh, Gregory Peck (To Kill a Mocking Bird)and this gorgeous man in "The River of no Return" with Marylin Monroe, what was his name? I also love this gay guy, Rock Hudson in a film with Doris Day,whose title I onlyknow in Spanish:Si tu Alcoba Hablara. I am a bit old fashioned , aren't I?
Indeed. I like them too. I cry my eyes out, need tons of tissue. But I object to the endings.
Gregory Peck and Cary Grant are my heroes too!
Did I tell you I own all Colin Firth movies, except for his most recent ones? There are but a few though I really like. But it's fun to have such a collection, together with all the paraphernalia I collected through the years.
Apart from P&P, I like Fever Pitch, Wings of Fame and My Life so Far best, I think.
I am yet to see Pitch Fever. Belen P, who is my neighbour(can you believe it?)is going to lend it to me one of these days. I have seen "Girl with a Pearl Earring"( SO SENSUAL), Love Actually(SO SWEET), What a Girl Wants (lovely and paternal), PP(Ahh!), The English Patient( SO BETRAYED). Unfortunately, DVDs here are terribly expensive. I wish I could see Valmont or the Secret Garden. But it is very difficult to find ant of them for rent for they are rather old. Is "My Life so Far" really Good? I can rent that. What about "THe Importance of Being Earnest?" The last time I bought a DVD through Amazon the tax was so high I ended up paying more on taxs than on the DVD.
This is too funny, we're so off topic!! Ah well, that's what Colin Firth is doing to us moonstruck girls, right?
Anyway, I was at the premiere of GWAPE in The Hague, but Colin wasn't there, couldn't make it. Because I was so disappointed, a photographer I was talking with provided free tickets for me and my daughter and I had a chance to speak to the director and the actress who plays Tanneke. Apart from that we got a chance to ask questions afterwards.
Later I actually got to speak to Colin privately and 'professionally' in Amsterdam where I was officially allowed access to the press conference of BJD2 because I represented a fansite. That was such a nice experience. He was still very handsome at the time. (Sorry, I don't think so anymore, isn't ageing that well I'm afraid...).
I have a thorough dislike of his character in the EP. and don't even want to see Where the Truth Lies! That ghastly seventies look, yuck! Liked the book though.
Say hello to Belèn when you see her. I LOVE her stories, all of them.
Oops, forgot! Valmont is one of my favs too. And TIOBE is delightful, just like Relative Values.
"The human mind works in mysterious ways, and the Bronte sisters knew how to express the black sides of it, all right!"
When I first read this sentence, I read "back sides" instead of black sides. Talk about a Freudian slip!
I am so jealous that we can't see Jane Eyre here in the states yet. I much prefer Jane Austen, but I will watch any adaptation of works done by the Bronte sisters (and not just for the back sides).
I have seen some pictures of CF lately and he does not look so bad, to me. Of course,when you see an actor or actress in the flesh it is always disappointing.A few days ago, I went to the theatre to watch "Adios Hermano Cruel", (Julio Bocca's ballet) Mr Bocca is only 39, but he looks 49 and he is a ballet dancer!I mean he is supposed to have led quite a healthy life! Mr Firth smokes, doesn't he? Most probably that is killing him!
I noticed Rupert P-J mentioned as a favorite actor (couldnt agree more. Yummy!) Does that mean that you are looking forward to the latest adaptation of Persuasion with the lovley Rupert as Wentworth? Me, im on tenderhooks and advidly watching Spooks while I wait for a new Austen hero incarnation to fall in love with!
Does that mean that you are looking forward to the latest adaptation of Persuasion with the lovley Rupert as Wentworth?
Oh absolutely, Lisa! I didn't like the one with Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds at all, even though it received a lot of acclaim because of its faithfulness to the book. I mean, they're both very good actors, but didn't think them appealing in that particular movie. But with Rupert as Wentworth, I'm sure I love it! Watched another episode of Spooks last night on the BBC, and even though I couldn't imagine a worthy substitute for Matthew's Tom Quinn, I like Adam as much.
Like minds in this. I too do not get on so well with the Pesuasion you mentioned, I think it not lively enough for Jane Austen. I hope that Rupert does the job I think he can in this new one.
Also love spooks, and loved Tom, couldnt belived anyone could replace him.....till Adam made his place in the team.
Strangely enough though I loved Tom, and think Mathew McFayden is fantastic, I didnt like him at all as Darcy.
MM is a fantastic actor indeed. I recently saw him in a TV series about young traumatised soldiers (forgot the name) and in Wuthering Heights. I liked him very much as Mr. Darcy too, but opinions vary a lot in this matter! Actually, I liked both Colin and Matthew; they both give very different interpretations of the character but both are appealing as far as I'm concerned.
Another movie MM is fabulous in, is In My Father's Den. Great story, great acting!
How very disappointing that we do not get the BBC over here in the U.S. Eventually the series will wend its way over, perhaps on PBS, but till then we'll have to wait.
Meanwhile, I cannot disagree more with the writer's assessment of Mr. D, or CF's performance thereof: "not merely repressed, but sexually continent to the point of constipation," indeed! What of the internal struggling, the smouldering, the longing sighs...? Hmph! Obviously, tens of thousands of smitten women can't be wrong!
I must say that I have read and enjoyed Wuthering Heights, for the sheer strength of the love between Heathcliff and Catherine. (Although I must admit that the second generation did take it a bit far, and was rather confusing. My edition came with a family tree, so one could tell one generation from another!)
Eli, when you come to the U.S., we'll make sure we load you up with DVD's (unless of course there are any system differences that would make that impossible).