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JANE EYRE and “Poor Orphan Child”

Jane Eyre graphic for FBWhen the playwright is also a musician and sometime composer of incidental music, it should surprise no one that she has strong ideas about the music for her own play.

One thing that struck me when I re-read Jane Eyre just before beginning to write the play, was a ballad that Bessie–a servant of Aunt Reed, and Jane’s nurse of sorts–sang to the young girl at a time when Jane had been especially mistreated.  Oddly enough, though I had read the book a score of times before, I had no recollection of reading the lyrics to that song previously!  I find it true in all my reading, that different aspects and scenes of a book will speak to us at different times in our lives. This is one

my first JE book cover

The cover of my first (paperback) copy of “Jane Eyre”–read until it fell apart.

reason I relish the chance to revisit a favorite book after a few years.

I hunted online to see whether “The Poor Orphan Child” was an actual ballad of the time (popular folk ballads were printed as cheap sheet music and sold on street corners or shops).

All evidence points to Charlotte Bronte herself as the author of the lyrics. Whether she had a melody in mind when she wrote them is anybody’s guess, as no tune is listed. But the words were quite evocative to me, and I found myself compelled to write a melody for them. The result will be heard in the opening moments of the play. Although the song’s origin (and singer) are not explained in the context of the play, they have a mournful quality which is appropriate to Jane’s orphan state. Indeed, orphans are a recurring theme, since not only Jane but Adele is (possibly) parentless; the school where Jane teaches later in the story also includes orphans (notably little Alice, Jane’s attendant).  Not only children but adults are without parents:  Rochester’s father died when he was a young man (no mention is made of his mother); the Rivers siblings have lost their parents. 

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JANE EYRE and the playwright

Jane Eyre graphic for FBThis blog post is a perspective on the adaptation of Jane Eyre being used by all for One. It has been common knowledge since our season was announced that I (artistic director Lauren Nichols) wrote it. But I haven’t published any explanation here of why I felt compelled to create my own version, since so many others exist.

Adapting Jane Eyre began as a bit of whimsy, nine years ago. I had been experimenting with non-linear storytelling in another play I was writing at the time, and I was appreciating its many benefits, especially in telling a familiar (perhaps too familiar) tale.  It occurred to me that my favorite novel of all time would work well being told in this way, and I sketched an outline which pleased me.  I promptly filed it away and half-forgot about it.

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JANE EYRE and the Arts

Jane Eyre graphic for FB

It is often instructive to look at what else was developing and popular at the time of a book’s publication. I asked two cast members to research literature, music and art of the 1840s, to better put Jane Eyre in context. Deborah Dambra and John Dunlap, both of whom play multiple roles (see cast list), provided the background information for this post.

(c) Watts Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

“The Wounded Heron” (1837) by George Frederick Watts (c)Watts Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The 19th century saw the rise of romanticism, whose strong association with the natural world  was frequently used in symbolic ways to express abstract ideas.  Some notable British painters of the first half of the 1800s are George Frederick Watts, J.M.W. Turner, and Edwin Lapseer–a notable painter of animals, including dogs, horses and stags.

Art has the strongest ties to Jane in the novel:  Jane herself is an artist of some skill, who prefers rather bleak landscapes and somewhat macabre subjects. As a child she is drawn to the paintings of birds in their native habitat found in a book of naturalism in her uncle’s library.  When trying to persuade herself out of her growing feelings for her employer, she decides to do a portrait in pure, soft pastels of the beautiful Blanche Ingram, and a plain charcoal portrait of herself, in order to underline the contrast between them.

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JANE EYRE’s author

Jane Eyre graphic for FBIt is not always quite so evident that an author has drawn from her own life in writing a piece of fiction. But in the case of Charlotte Brontë, there are many facets of her personal history which find their way into Jane Eyre.  This brief biographical post was researched by our youngest cast member, Lydia Ramsour, who plays Young Jane in several flashback scenes.

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A brief biography of Charlotte Brontë–by Lydia Ramsour

Charlotte was born in Thornton, Yorkshire on April 21, 1816. Her mother, Maria, and father, Patrick, had six children–five girls and one boy. Patrick was an Anglican clergyman at St. Michael and All Angels church in Haworth, Yorkshire. Maria died of cancer on September 15, 1821, leaving the six children with their father to be cared for by the oldest sister, Elizabeth.

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JANE EYRE and Women’s Clothes

Jane Eyre graphic for FBIf you have seen any of the myriad film or television adaptations of Jane Eyre, you have seen poor Jane wearing black or grey gowns…but do you know why?  The servant class might own only two or three gowns total–dry cleaning did not exist, and the heavy, voluminous fabric made washing difficult. So a dark color was practical and serviceable: simply put, it hid dirt. Plus, its plainness was suitably humble, as well as generally less expensive.

But no matter what color gown was worn, there was a steady progression in the style of gowns at this time, which was vastly different from the styles of the Regency just twenty years earlier.  Here to tell us a bit about it is Jen Rothenbush, who plays Blanche Ingram, likely to be the best-dressed woman in the room at Thornfield Hall (if she has her way).

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JANE EYRE and Feminism

Jane Eyre graphic for FB“It is a truth universally acknowledged” (to quote another Jane) that Jane Eyre is a strong heroine.  Indeed, for her time, she has no equal in independent spirit, self-possession and an integrity that we might call grit.

Tackling this subject is Sarah Hobson, who plays the little French ward, Adele Varens. Sarah is a high-school student whose love of theater and small stature made her ideal for this pivotal role.

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JANE EYRE and Childhood Disease/Mortality

Jane Eyre graphic for FB There are many happier themes in the novel and stage adaptation of Jane Eyre, but it is unarguably true that some very serious events are a part of its plot and its backstory.  The first third of the novel is devoted to Jane’s childhood, including several harrowing years at Lowood, a charity school primarily for orphans. There her first really friend, Helen Burns, dies, echoing an event from Charlotte Brontë’s own experience (see the brief biography elsewhere on this blog).

This article has been researched by Abigail Ramsour, a student at Grace College, who plays the role of Helen Burns in a brief flashback scene. (Her younger sister, Lydia, plays young Jane in that scene!)

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JANE EYRE and Mental Illness

Jane Eyre graphic for FBOur second article comes from Stacey Kuster, who plays Bertha. Since her character is mentally ill, and that illness is pivotal to the plot, Stacey has researched how the mentally ill were treated in Victorian England.

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Mental Illness in Victorian England by Stacey Kuster

18th century insane

treatment of insane in 18th century

Before the mid-1800s it was the common belief that people with mental illnesses were tainted by the devil. Patients were treated poorly, most lived in unsanitary conditions–often caged—and received minimal food (which might be rancid). Mentally-ill patients were treated like animals by their caretakers and facilitators, many of whom believed that this was all they deserved. Women could find themselves labeled insane and locked up in madhouses for a range of conditions – from postnatal depression to alcoholism or senile dementia, and even for social transgressions such as infidelity (‘moral insanity’).

In the Victorian era, there was a shift in attitude towards mental illness. People in general began to realize the importance of paying attention to the conditions of mental institutions. Compared with the early asylums–rough, brutal places where the most disturbed patients were chained in windowless rooms with straw bedding–the mid-Victorian era was positively progressive. Theories that still hold today, such as the value of occupational therapy, were becoming fashionable. At this time, there was a shift away from the idea of control from without (via chains and shackles) and towards control from within, via treatment or cure.

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