Evacuating Brontë’s Message; Nineteenth-Century Stage Adaptations of Jane Eyre

Amy Holley is a final year PhD student at Swansea University. Her thesis is focused on nineteenth-century stage adaptations of nineteenth-century novels, including Jane Eyre, East Lynne and Lady Audley’s Secret. After finishing, she intends to pursue a career in theatre, film and television adaptation. She is also interested in Dickens, other novels by the Brontë sisters, Jane Austen and Victorian theatre. You can follow her on Twitter @AmyEHolley and read her blogs here http://amyeholley.blogspot.co.uk/?m=1

Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is a cultural phenomenon. It has been translated around the world and adapted over and over again since it first appeared in 1847. I’m currently studying nineteenth-century stage adaptations of Bronte’s Jane Eyre including both American and British productions. As part of my thesis. I have been keen to explore how two of the nineteenth-century dramatists, John Brougham and W.G. Wills, adapted the original source for stage in very different ways. John Brougham’s interesting take on the Jane Eyre phenomenon is one of the earliest adaptations (1849) to have appeared after Charlotte Brontë published her novel. Brougham was a playwright and actor-manager in the mid-nineteenth-century, who achieved some considerable fame. He was largely involved with melodramas, which mainly appeared at minor theatres. His adaptation of Jane Eyre was very much influenced by class with Jane’s role diluted in order to favour the action of the featuring servants. His production was written for the Bowery Theatre, New York which was in a poor and often criminal area of the rapidly expanding city so his audience would have had little contact with the upper- or more affluent classes so whilst they appear on stage in this version of the Jane Eyre, they are heavily ridiculed and derided. In John Courtney’s 1848 London adaptation, Rochester’s  aristocratic guests, including the Ingrams, never appear directly on stage and this may be because the audience was so impoverished that they would never have had any cause to meet with people in the same class as Rochester’s guests. Henry Mayhew’s work in London Labour and London Poor reveals that Courtney’s audience would largely have been full of costermongers (street sellers of fruit or vegetables) (Stoneman 2007: 21).

Brougham’s focus on class over the original proto-feminist elements of Brontë’s original indicates that for Brougham’s audience portraying gender identities was not an attractive enough draw for the crowds. Brougham, therefore, had to do some serious refiguring to make the story more attractive for his audience including inventing a servant character John Downey to woo Grace Poole in a separate sub-plot. The other, very different, version of the Jane Eyre saga is one of the last nineteenth-century adaptations. Written by W. G. Wills in 1882, it forefronts Jane’s fierce independence, removes her vulnerability entirely and casts her in the light of a ‘New Woman’. As you read it, you can almost imagine Jane striding around the stage in trousers, smoking a pipe and declaring what she is going to do with her life. These very different interpretations of the same source reveal a lot about the changes taking place in the nineteenth-century for women, as well as in the theatre. What those changes were and the impact of them, is the primary focus of my thesis and I examine a selection of novel-to-play adaptations with the use of nVivo, a computer program enabling language analysis and visualising the data in the form of graphs and charts. One enquiry I conducted whilst researching my thesis was looking at the treatment of Levison in the nineteenth-century stage adaptations of Mrs Henry Wood’s East Lynne as a villain in the plays.


With the use of nVivo, as illustrated, I was able to code sections of the East Lynne plays where Levison is treated as a villain and then visualize the data as a bar chart to make the information more accessible.

What nVivo has revealed about the differences between Wills’ play and Brougham’s in their use of language and how they describe Jane and how she describes herself indicates a large shift between their readings. This is because in the approximate forty years between these productions, women’s rights as well as theatrical style changed dramatically. In respect of women’s rights, the Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870  and 1882, Josephine Butler’s campaign for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, the birth of the image of the ‘New Woman’, female doctors, women being permitted to attend university (admittedly only sitting examinations at roughly undergraduate level  as of 1875 as women were not awarded degrees until 1920), etc. This all occurred in a very short space of time rapidly bringing about a re-envisioning of women’s place in the world. Women were no longer confined to the private domestic sphere with a restricted, conservative ideology that kept them both raised on a pedestal, and trapped. As of the turn of the century, women could move about the world; they could work, the corset was slowly being binned with the Rational Dress Movement and they could even wear trousers! It’s possible to see society’s reactions to major historical events such as these when the stage adaptations of Jane Eyre are analysed.

In respect of the change in style in British theatres, Henrik Ibsen’s plays such as Peer Gynt, A Doll’s House and Ghosts raised his profile as ‘the father of realism’ as he examined the reality of life behind the strict propriety and morality of life in nineteenth-century Europe. These plays all appeared in the years leading up to Wills’ 1882 adaptation of Jane Eyre and might be a good indicator for the realism found in the play’s style. One contemporary reviewer from the Times said of Wills’ play:

The story of ‘Jane Eyre’ notwithstanding one or two powerful situations, is so much more psychological than dramatic that its production at the Globe Theatre on Saturday night must be taken to indicate a desire on the part of the management to elevate the tone of the stage rather than to gratify popular taste… It is seldom that a play is presented so simple in its motive, so free from vulgar sensationalism, so pure and lofty in its tone (Times, 25 December 1882, p6, quoted. in Stoneman 2007: 385).

As this reviewer illustrates, Wills’ production built more rounded, complex characters than the dramatic, sensational ones which could be found in some of the other theatres. One of the major contributing factors to the sensational dramatic style, which permeated the British stage throughout the nineteenth-century (we see the offshoots of this today in modern pantomimes), was The Theatre Regulation Act of 1843. The Act restricted the previous powers of the Lord Chamberlain by passing power to local authorities to permit plays to be performed. In addition, the Lord Chamberlain was only permitted to ban plays if they were perceived to jeopardize “the preservation of good manners, decorum or of the public peace” (Goldstein 2009: 273). This Act also controlled the type of plays permitted to be performed in certain theatre houses. Minor theatres, such as the ones where the stage adaptations of Jane Eyre were performed, could only put on plays that were accompanied by music. This was to indicate that they were light works and, therefore, that the plot or behaviour of certain characters should not be emulated by any members of the audience. Theatres such as the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden and the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, both in London, were the only ones permitted to perform serious works such as opera, ballet and the work of major dramatists like Ibsen and Shakespeare. This Act was only overturned fully in 1968 where the Lord Chamberlain finally lost control of the British Stage. Because minor theatres were limited to only producing light, musical works this led to the development of melodrama as a dramatic genre and also fed the growth of sensational literature in turn. So Brougham’s evacuation of Brontë’s original proto-feminist missive might simply be the result of the dramatic style, which was fashionable in both America and Britain at that time, rather than a conscious effort to appropriate and re-write Brontë’s original message. Whilst Wills’ was still writing under the effects of the Act, the work of people like Henrik Ibsen influenced the style of plays which were appearing as the century closed. Whilst Wills’ play is the most realistic, Jane is the most outspoken and fearless in this adaptation. This is interesting because such heightened emotions and reactions are more typically found in characters in a melodrama. Jane is offered help and companionship repeatedly by several female characters but always refuses it. The attitude Wills’ Jane presents is that she does not need any help and that she can make up her own mind. However, despite her independence, she knows that Rochester’s plan to trick her into a bigamous marriage is morally wrong and that it would also be wrong to stay with a married man so she leaves Thornfield, after learning of Rochester existing marriage, with the young clergyman, Mr Prior, who is both a pseudo-father as well as a replacement for St. John Rivers in Wills’ play. Because Jane has young Mr Prior and his mother as pseudo-parents  in this play she is so no longer the vulnerable orphan of the original source who is almost victimized by Rochester and as such she is no longer fighting against Aunt Reed who treats her cruelly, against the hard institution of Lowood School governed by Mr Brocklehurst. Nor does she have a wealthy uncle waiting in the wings to pass on his inheritance. Instead, Wills’ Jane has people who love her and want her to be safe, but she leaves them to pursue her ambition for a better life and for an equality of spirits, as such she does not inspire the audience’s sympathy. Because Jane is so fiercely independent in this adaptation, e.g., fighting against anyone who gives her advice, she could be perceived to be the cause of her own fate and as such is not worthy of the audience’s pity. Thus both plays demonstrate how Brontë’s original proto-feminist missive was evacuated in different ways according to the time and place that they were adapted and that these ephemeral texts are worthy of academic attention.


Goldstein, Robert Justin, The Frightful Stage: Political Censorship of the Theater in Nineteenth-Century Europe (New York, USA: Berghahn Books, 2009)

Stoneman, Patsy, Jane Eyre on Stage, 1848-1898: An Illustrated Edition of Eight Plays with Contextual Notes (Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2007)

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