- 1 J. Sellars, “Paula Rego’s Jane Eyre Prints: Exhibition at the Brontë Parsonage Museum 7 August – 1 (...)
- 2 V. Thorpe, “New Stamp on what happened to Jane Eyre”, The Observer, Sunday February 20 2005, <www. (...)
- 3 C. Kaplan, “Heroines, Hysteria and History: Jane Eyre and her Critics”, Victoriana – Histories, Fi (...)
- 4 A. Ferreira, “Paula Rego’s visual adaptations of Jane Eyre », in Margarete Rubik and Elke Mettinge (...)
- 5 <www.britishcouncil.org/arts-literature-activities-creative-reading.htm>.
1In 2002, Portuguese-born artist Paula Rego produced a series of twenty-five Jane Eyre lithographs which enjoyed almost immediate popularity. Jane Sellars, a former curator of the Brontë Parsonage Museum, considered that Rego had “taken the power of the text and transformed it into its absolute visual equivalent1”. As proof of their success, Rego’s pictures were chosen by the British Post Office to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the death of Charlotte Brontë. A set of six stamps was issued by the Royal Mail in February 2005, and it was then noticed that they gave “an unorthodox image of the book’s eponymous heroine2”. Indeed, Rego’s prints have been called “anti-illustrations3”, a phrase which I find it hard to endorse since it implies that there exists a consensus about what “illustration” must or must not be. Aline Ferreira calls them “metapictures, pictures about the images that inevitably take shape in our mind while reading the book4”. As there is no such thing as a universal definition of “illustrations”, I would rather speak of a graphic form of “creative reading”, a practice commonly described as “a highly creative act, a journey of personal discovery that involves the reader in an intimate relationship with the text that brings to it meaning and life5”. Though biased, Paula Rego’s reading of Jane Eyre is undeniably creative. She might be suspected of having in fact misread the book, but I would like to show that, in her relation to previous texts, Charlotte Brontë herself was an adept at misreading, or rather at misleading the reader.
- 6 V. Thorpe, op. cit.
- 7 T. G. Rosenthal, Paula Rego, The Complete Graphic Work, London: Thames and Hudson, 2003, 166.
- 8 K. Kellaway, “Rego Meets Mr Rochester”, The Observer, Sunday April 14 2002, <www.guardian.co.uk/th (...)
2There seems to be some disagreement about the exact origin of Paula Rego’s interest for Jane Eyre. In an interview published at the time the stamps were released, the artist declared: “I love Jane Eyre. I read it when I was little and came back to it after reading Jean Rhys’s novel, Wide Sargasso Sea. [...] When I read it again, I thought, what a heroic person Jane was6”. But we learn from other sources that, more interestingly, she actually discovered Charlotte Brontë’s work only after having read its modern prequel: a few years earlier, she gave a different version of her relation to the book. In November 2002, she said “I came to Jane Eyre from Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea7”, which was confirmed in an interview, the same year: “She read the novel for the first time recently (she is in her sixties and Portuguese—the book did not come her way naturally)8”. This suggests that, contrary to most English-speakers, she only approached the book as an adult.
3This discovery (or rediscovery) coincided with Rego’s decision to explore a medium of which she had had little practice till then: lithography. Having mainly used etching and aquatint for her graphic work, Paula Rego received an invitation from Stanley Jones, the director of the Curwen Studio, near Cambridge, an institution founded in 1958 to help artists learn the art of printmaking. Using a variety of techniques, Rego eventually produced twenty-five lithographs, including a huge triptych, almost two metres long, Getting Ready for the Ball, and a diptych entitled The Fearfulness of Night. The twenty-five pictures are thus subdivided into five units, depending on the technique used. A group of seven prints was given the intriguing name “The Sensuality of Stone” because they were the result of her direct work on the litho stones at the Curwen Studio. “The Guardians” bring together nine bigger drawings she made in her studio onto transfer paper with lithographic chalks, which were then transferred onto lithographic plates; the name is a reference to a Portuguese custom of having tiles representing the “guardian” of the house, big cut-out figures sticking out on the whitewashed walls. In “Poetry and Story”, we find six narrative images more explicitly related to moments of the novel. In addition to these, Jane Eyre was also the inspiration for various prints, pastels and paintings, which allowed Rego to elaborate still further aspects of her reading of the novel.
- 9 T. G. Rosenthal, op. cit., 172.
- 10 C. Brontë, Jane Eyre, R. Dunn (ed.), London and New York: Norton, 2001, 104. All parenthetic refer (...)
4One thing which is immediately noticeable is the almost complete disappearance of one key element in the novel: the presence of nature, in Rego’s vision of Jane Eyre, is limited to a leafless tree or a starry night. Most of her scenes take place in a vague indoor space. The reason may be very simple: as an artist, Rego does not seem to care for landscapes. She is a painter of figures, generally gathered in a room. The prints obviously do not try to preserve the equivalence between the heroine’s states of mind and natural settings, unless we consider that this aspect of the book is encapsulated in the lithograph entitled Up the Tree. Rego comments thus on the picture: “I don’t know what she’s doing there. I thought she might have got up there to safety. This is Jane trying to escape. She goes on the heath at night to get away from the Hall. She’s also a bit of a witch there9”. Rochester not only calls Jane a fairy who belongs with the green men, but their meeting reminds him “unaccountably of fairy tales”, as if she had “bewitched” his horse, so wizardry is indeed one of her various attributes10.
5Another important “misreading” which might be regretted is that, like so many others before her, Paula Rego has jettisoned one third of the novel: the last of the three volumes, that is to say the whole Rivers plot. None of the prints bears any explicit relation to this part of the book, the only work linked to the Riverses being a painting entitled The Material from which Nature hews her Heroes, which refers back to the following passage from chapter 34:
As I looked at his lofty forehead, still and pale as a white stone—at his fine lineaments fixed in study—I comprehended all at once that he would hardly make a good husband: that it would be a trying thing to be his wife. […] I saw he was of the material from which nature hews her heroes—Christian and Pagan— her lawgivers, her statesmen, her conquerors; a steadfast bulwark for great interests to rest upon; but, at the fireside, too often a cold cumbrous column, gloomy and out of place (JE, 334-335).
6Thanks to the expression of intense boredom and exhaustion one can read on Jane’s face, we do get a sense that “it would be a trying thing to be his wife”, but St. John is here submitted by Rego to the same treatment as most of the characters: his physical beauty is totally annihilated. A gloomy column he may be, but this thickset figure with oversized clothes does not correspond at all to the depiction of Jane’s excessively handsome cousin.
7 This ugliness was a cause for wonder for all those who discovered Rego’s work with the set of stamps. Newspaper comments included the following: “A startling portrayal of the governess looking middle-aged and almost mannish will appear on the first-class stamp11”. Connoisseurs of Rego’s painting know that she is not interested in beautiful faces. For Jane, she chose as a model her old friend Lila, a chiropodist who came to nurse Rego’s husband, painter Victor Willing, when he was dying of multiple sclerosis. After Willing’s death in 1988, Lila started modelling for Rego, with whom she seems to have a very special relationship.
- 12 S. Miller, “Fashioning subversion: clothes and their meaning in Paula Rego’s paintings”, Apollo, v (...)
- 13 K. Kellaway, op. cit.
8The ill-fitting quality of St. John’s frock-coat may also be due to the fact that the costume had initially been rented for another model, Paula Rego’s partner Anthony Rudolf (who is, among many other things, the English translator of Yves Bonnefoy’s poetry). These Victorian clothes were especially tailored for Rudolf, and Rego “found the result ‘stunning’: ‘All men should wear early-nineteenth-century costume’12”. Anthony Rudolf modelled for Rochester in various other scenes, and more particularly for a pastel triptych in which he occupies the central (and slightly smaller) panel: “his hands haughtily inside the rims of his boot, his legs are open. ‘He is showing off his crotch,’ Rego says dismissively13”.
- 14 The same phrase appears later as the unquestionable proof revealing the gender of Céline Varens’ u (...)
9As we shall see further on, sexual desire is very much present in those lithographs, but first I would like to focus on a role of Rochester’s nineteenth-century costume. Besides being historically accurate, the costume includes top-boots as an important element. Jackboots are indeed a recurrent accessory in Rego’s work, as a symbol of military oppression and more generally of patriarchy. One of her best-known paintings is The Policeman’s Daughter (1987), with its strangely inverted phallic imagery of the girl’s arm thrust into her father’s boot, inspired by a photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe of an arm rammed up a man’s anus. In The Interrogator’s Garden (2000), a work commissioned by the Foundation for the Victims of Torture, the booted soldier’s oppressive manliness is ridiculed by his wearing no trousers (and also by the fact that he is most likely a woman in drag). Rochester’s omnipresent boots therefore relate him to a whole series of half-fearful, half-ludicrous characters. Several prints show him with boots on, which is not unfaithful to the novel: Rochester’s clothes are never described in detail, but we hear of his “spurred heel” (JE, 98)14. His “boots” are mentioned twice, in relation with his anger (“he arrested his step and struck his boot against the hard ground”, JE, 121) or with his role as the virile helper of a poor female (“You can’t do without me, that is evident. Step on my boot-toe; give me both hands: mount!”, JE, 237), but the Victorians used the word “boots” as a synonym for shoes, so this may not really be significant.
10On the print which seems to correspond to his initial meeting with Jane Eyre, Rochester is seen as a dominating figure. Though it includes a vaguely threatening Pilot and a distant view of Paula Rego’s parents’ house in Portugal standing for Thornfield, the lithograph entitled Mr Rochester gives a much more triumphant image of the hero than could be expected from such an artist. Using a fibreglass horse and a stuffed dog rented from BBC props, Rego seems to deny herself the opportunity to depict a fallen, helpless man. While Brontë deliberately reverses the usual pattern of the damsel in distress rescued by a valiant knight, Rego shows an assertive male although some critics have discerned “an ironic play on power and wealth15”.
- 16 T. G. Rosenthal, op. cit., 171.
11 We find the top-boots again in two prints which apparently send us back to the same passage in the novel (JE, 119), when Adèle performs in front of her tutor: Dancing for Mr Rochester and Pleasing Mr Rochester. The former shows us Mrs Fairfax standing on the left, with a spectral Jane in the background (unless this ghostly figure is to be interpreted as Bertha or Céline Varens). The latter is a slightly more complex scene: Rochester towers over the other characters, the cast being limited to Adèle and a fawning Jane who pushes an armchair towards the master. On the wall at the back is “a picture done by Jane, one that’s described in the book [ch. 13, 107]; there’s the sea, and the body floating and the boat with a mast and on the mast is a cormorant with a bracelet in its beak16”.
12The importance of clothes in the novel is underlined by the print Dressing Him Up as Bluebeard. This echoes several aspects of the book: there is of course an explicit reference to Bluebeard (JE, 91), but the disguise hints at the scene of the charades, when Rochester is seen “costumed in shawls, with a turban on his head”; as he then appears as “the very model of an Eastern emir” (JE, 156), this may also suggest a later passage when Jane details her project to conduct a rebellion in the seraglio (JE, 229-230). We might also read this image as an undressing, when Jane helps Rochester get rid of his disguise as an old gipsy fortune-teller (JE, 172).
- 17 K. Kellaway, op. cit.
- 18 Ibid.
13 Another lithograph echoes Rego’s statement that Rochester is “just a dummy17”: Scarecrow. Rochester is now bootless, reduced to a limp figure, almost made of old rags like the “Pillowman” to which Rego devoted a series of paintings in 2004, shortly after the Jane Eyre prints. Interestingly enough, the only occurrence of the word “scarecrow” in the novel comes in relation with little Jane’s doll, “shabby as a miniature scarecrow” (JE, 23). The doll is an important inspiration for Rego, who has included it in several works, giving a special twist to the usual image of this transitional object. “It was made in 1840; I found it in a doll shop in Camden passage. It is a little lucky monkey. Is it a voodoo doll?18”. Rego generally associates it with Jane, as in Jane in a Chair with Monkey, a print which does not belong to the Jane Eyre series, but she has elaborated a more complex story about this doll, making it Bertha’s only link with her West Indian past, and perhaps as a substitute for Rochester’s first wife, as in the painted triptych Jane/Rochester/Monkey (2002).
14The way Bertha is represented in Rego’s prints might also be perceived as a misreading of the novel. Far from being a repulsive, nightmarish creature, Bertha is shown according to the feminist doxa, as Jane’s “sister” (Lila modelled for both, and Jane’s ugliness might well be a way to bring her closer to Bertha, as Marina Warner has suggested). Rego says: “Bertha and Jane are two sides to the same woman. She can set fire to things”. Together, they are trying to hang Rochester, in a crucifixion scene which was explained by the artist as something that Jane herself might have imagined. The union of Jane and Bertha against Rochester seems to be the subject of a painting entitled The Good Wife and the Bad Wife, where we see a prostrated Rochester being shouted at by Jane (or is it Bertha?), while Bertha appears as a very small figure at the far end of the room. Bertha is the subject of no less than four lithographs, which corresponds to her importance in the plot more than to her actual presence in the book, where she remains hidden in the wings for most of the time.
- 19 P. Coldwell, op. cit.
- 20 T. G. Rosenthal, op. cit., 177.
- 21 Ibid., 175.
15Two prints show her lying on the floor, either alone or in the company of Grace Poole and observed by Jane. Stylistically, those two pictures stand out from the rest: “this process is ideal for the accurate rendering of washes, which Rego clearly exploits in the liquidity of the drawing in Bertha19”. Rego herself has underlined the parallel between the sexual potency of Bertha and the various paintings done in 1994 and gathered under the collective title Dog Women. This assumed animality is that of the “clothed hyena” mentioned in the novel (JE, 250). Keeper was the name of Emily Brontë’s violent mastiff, whom she once beat savagely for having slept on a white counterpane, but the print entitled The Keeper insists on mothering and nurturing: “It’s a tenderness really. It’s about tenderness. Grace is looking after a mad person and Jane is probably envious20”. This aspect of Grace, which one would be hard-put to find in the book, reappears in another lithograph, Undressing. Finally, Bertha is the protagonist of Biting, one of the most violent scenes depicted by Rego, who proudly observes: “That’s what […] you can’t see in the book but you can see it here21”. The incestuous content of Bertha biting her own brother is emphasized by the artist.
16Obviously, the heroine of the novel is the character most frequently present in Paula Rego’s work, either as a solitary figure, or participating in scenes which are more or less closely related to specific passages in the book. Most of these crowded scenes follow closely the unfolding of the story: to the first page of the novel thus corresponds a print entitled Girl Reading at Window, a simultaneous picture which shows Jane reading and being hurt by the book thrown at her by John Reed (it also includes Bertha’s Monkey, doubling as Jane’s doll). Refectory reflects the unpleasant atmosphere at Lowood, where the pupils look like fat giants if compared with the tiny Jane. An even more frightening vision of Lowood is provided by Schoolroom, with Jane on her pedestal while Miss Scatcherd whips Helen Burns, in a wildly tilting decor reminiscent of German expressionist movies. Inspection seems to offer a close-up on the same scene. Jane and Helen brings to four the number of scenes inspired by the Lowood episode, but it is a much more complex, simultaneous scene, as it also includes other moments of the novel: “Mrs Death turns up […] And the man with her is the doctor. And then behind is a whole scene of a horse falling […] and on the right there is the mad wife setting fire to the Hall22”.
- 23 T. G. Rosenthal, op. cit., 169.
17The TriptychGetting Ready for the Ball refers to the party at Thornfield, but it can also remind us of a scene in Gateshead when Cinderella-Jane is only allowed to look at the step-sisters being dressed up for Christmas. Apart from Blanche and Lady Ingram on the right, the main characters are Rochester’s various guests, ugly and dwarfish, plus two Janes, an adult one and a little one drawing pictures, in the bottom left corner. “In the doorway you see Rochester screwing Bertha on the sly. When nobody knows, Rochester goes up there and has a go at her23”.
18Isolated representations of the heroine go from the most classical-looking to the most unexpected ones, from a backside view which might have been engraved in the nineteenth century (JE) to a defecating Jane which reminds us of that bodily existence which Victorian novelists tended to eschew. The latter lithograph (Jane), which accompanied the De Luxe version of the Enitharmon book published in 2003, shows Brontë’s heroine apparently sitting on a chamber-pot, or even aborting, as it is also reminiscent of the notorious “Abortion series” produced by Rego a few years before.
- 24 Ibid., 172.
- 25 Ibid., 173.
- 26 Ibid., 172.
- 27 Ibidem.
19While the artist has explained that Jane Eyre showed the child going to the red-room24, In the Comfort of the Bonnet corresponds to the beginning of Jane’s adult life (JE, 70, “I sit in my cloak and bonnet”), when she is kept waiting at the George Inn at Millcote before she actually gets to Thornfield. “Jane is very sad and she has this hat and she has to nuzzle up inside it in order to feel more secure. […] We called it Hangover at the Curwen Studio25”. After the drunk Jane, we get the raped Jane, or at least that is what one might suppose in front of Crumpled, the picture of a dislocated puppet that has just been brutally handled: “She’s having a fit and she’s been thrown away like a used newspaper”, commented Rego26, even if the title refers to a technical problem more than to any mistreatment undergone by the heroine (“When I re-drew it, taking no notice of what was underneath the drawing, I re-drew it again and it looked rather crumpled27”). Night shows Jane leaving Thornfield hiding under her skirt.
20I now come to the most famous prints in the series: Come to Me and Loving Bewick. Come to Me obviously refers to Rochester’s telepathic appeal, twice told in the novel, from Jane’s point of view (JE, ch. 35) and from Rochester’s point of view (JE, ch. 37), but Brontë never actually uses the words “Come to me”; the reader only gets Jane’s answer: “I am coming: wait for me” (JE, 358 and 381). Rego has condensed several episodes into one: the fire at Thornfield is the reason for the crimson background, and her Jane seems far less convinced than Brontë’s of making the right decision.
21Loving Bewick is probably the most often reproduced work in the whole series: it relates to the equally famous passage in which Jane explains her interest for Bewick’s History of British Birds. Much has been written about the disturbing mixture of sexuality and religious symbolism in this picture. Rego’s reinterpretation of the myth of Leda and the swan, conflated with the nurturing presence of the self-sacrificing pelican, is almost entirely founded on the sentence: “With Bewick on my knee, I was then happy: happy at least in my way” (JE, 7). We might also detect an echo of another passage from the novel: “the vulture, hunger, thus sank beak and talons in my side” (JE, 279).
22Loving Bewick offers the most striking example of the artist’s creativity when reading the novel. This is what Rego herself declared in an interview: “I love stories; I can only read books with stories but while your attention is taken, this liberates other bits of your mind, and what gets out often has nothing to do with the story. Subverting seems to go on constantly; subversion is a pleasure28”. One should not frown at this enjoyment of deliberate misreading since this appropriation and deformation of Brontë’s text is after all exactly what Charlotte Brontë inflicted on previous texts. As noted by Francis Spufford in his study of the British fascination for the North Pole, Bewick is deliberately misquoted in the first chapter of Jane Eyre:
Other parts of the World -- the bleak shores of Lapland, Siberia, Spitzbergen, Nova Zembla, Iceland, Greenland, &c with the vast sweep of the Arctic Zone, are also enlivened in their seasons by swarms of sea-fowl, which range the intervening open parts of the seas to the shoreless frozen ocean. There a barrier is put to further enquiry, beyond which the prying eye of man must not look, and there his imagination only must take the view, to supply the place of reality. In these forlorn regions of unknowable dreary space, this reservoir of frost and snow, where firm fields of ice, the accumulation of centuries of winters, glazed in Alpine heights above heights, surround the pole, and concentre the multiplied rigours of extreme cold; even here, so far as human intelligence has been able to penetrate, there appears to subsist an abundance of animals, in the air, and in the waters: and, perhaps, it may not be carrying conjecture too far to suppose that every region of the earth, air, and water, however ungenial the clime appears to us, is replete with animals, suited, each kind, to the place assigned to it.
23Comparing Bewick’s full text with the parts that Brontë chose to include (in bold type), we see that she carefully deleted all its “positive” elements, and more precisely the swarming animal presence interpreted as a sign of divine Providence. Strangely enough, the birds are erased from Bewick’s History of British Birds! On the same page, the (unidentified) quotation from Thomson’s Seasons, also taken from Bewick, only preserves its bleak setting, removing the poet’s questioning about the innumerable populations of birds which migrate there:
Or where the Northern ocean, in vast whirls,
Boils round the naked melancholy isles
Of farthest Thulè, and th’ Atlantic surge
Pours in among the stormy Hebrides.
Who can recount what transmigrations there
Are annual made? What nations come and go?
And how the living clouds on clouds arise?
Infinite wings! Till all the plume-dark air,
And rude resounding shore, are all one cry.
24Rego also manifests a surprising interest for a very minor detail of the novel, which leads us to reconsider it: one of her prints is entitled La Ligue des Rats, the La Fontaine fable recited by Adèle to show how well her mother taught her the art of play-acting. A huge cat is seen holding a dead mouse in its mouth, and a framed picture hanging on the wall shows rats in a schoolroom.
Cependant le chat, plus fin qu’eux,
Tenait déjà la souris par la tête.
Ils s’avancèrent à grands pas
Pour secourir leur bonne amie :
Mais le chat, qui n’en démord pas,
Gronde et marche au-devant de la troupe ennemie.
A ce bruit, nos très prudents rats,
Craignant mauvaise destinée,
Font, sans pousser plus loin leur prétendu fracas,
Une retraite fortunée.
Chaque rat rentre dans son trou ;
Et si quelqu’un en sort, gare encor le matou !
25Perhaps we must interpret this in the following way: Rochester is “le matou”, Bertha is the mouse which has already been caught, and Jane is the cowardly rat who prefers “une retraite fortunée”, as confirmed by Rego’s statement: “Jane Eyre is actually a bit of a rat, although noble and very proud29”. And of course, John Reed calls her “you rat” (JE, 8).
26Another case of deliberate misreading by Brontë appears in the third volume, when St. John Rivers brings Jane “a book for evening-solace” (JE, 316): Sir Walter Scott’s Marmion. Strangely enough, the opening of Scott’s poem is quoted at the beginning of the following chapter as though it were a quiet scene, to be opposed to the storm outside. The narrator says: “I soon forgot storm in music”, but in reality, the music of the poem is far from peaceful. It is a violent landscape, with fighting warriors and blinding light, but once again the text has been carefully edited by Charlotte Brontë:
Day set on Norham’s castled steep,
And Tweed’s fair river, broad and deep,
And Cheviot’s mountains lone;
The battled towers, the donjon keep,
The loophole grates where captives weep, [a line omitted by Charlotte Brontë]
The flanking walls that round it sweep,
In yellow lustre shone.
The warriors on the turrets high,
Moving athwart the evening sky,
Seemed forms of giant height:
Their armour, as it caught the rays,
Flashed back again the western blaze,
In lines of dazzling light.
- 30 A. Ferreira, op. cit., 298.
27Freely inspired by the words of a Victorian woman, Paula Rego’s pictures have in turn inspired another woman’s words. In her latest collection, entitled Pure Lizard (2006), Indian poet Sujata Bhatt (born 1956) included “Nine Poems in Response to Lithographs by Paula Rego”, referring to the prints discussed here. This comes as an obvious tribute to the astonishing confidence with which Rego distorted Brontë’s words in order to reflect her own (mis)reading of the novel. As I hope to have shown, Paula Rego took with Brontë’s text the same liberties as Brontë herself took with the texts of her predecessors. This is indeed a brilliant case of artistic appropriation. Aline Ferreira considers that Rego has thus created “a new universe of representation and an alternative narrative which, while at times touching and converging with that of Jane Eyre, simultaneously engenders its own verbal and visual set of reference frames and plotline30”. To conclude, I would like to quote an excerpt from Marina Warner’s praise of Rego [which seems to me particularly relevant in the context of the Capes and Agrégation]:
her images do not realise Jane Eyre or other figures as in the literal enactments of contemporary full-colour cinema: they retain dreamlike qualities. In the typical realist television adaptation, there are so many historic locations and vehicles, props and costumes, such heaps of furniture and whole archives of ornaments, but drawing out of the mind straight on to the plate or the stone doesn’t need the half of all that paraphernalia: in its grasp of mood and atmosphere, of the dream feeling, just a minimum of external detail is necessary.31
28What should be especially admired in Rego’s creative (mis)reading of the novel is that, with less than thirty pictures, she has managed to offer a truly original and enriching vision of Brontë’s work, which cannot be said of some film-makers in spite of their 24 images per second, that is a total of more than 160 000 images for a two-hour-long film...