Jane Eyre for radio? It's a far cry from "Reader, I married him"

BBC Radio 4's adaptation made it sound like Jane and Rochester were in different rooms - and worse, they changed the lines.

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“So, there you are, listener – not reader – she married him.” Jenni Murray attempted to make sense of the final episode of a ten-part dramatisation of Jane Eyre (Friday 11 March, 10.45am) by the novelist Rachel Joyce, made for the bicentenary celebrations of Charlotte Brontë’s birth, and occupying the 15 Minute Drama slot of Woman’s Hour over the past couple of weeks.

The euphoric “Reader, I married him” had become “And so I married him” for the radio, a line with no tractor-beam whatsoever. Altogether, the end of the adaptation lacked welly. Though earlier episodes retained such incandescent Brontë phrases as “I longed to be his; I panted to return” and “Far better that crows and ravens . . . should pick the flesh from my bones”, Rochester and Jane’s reunion, pushed into the closing five minutes, came over weirdly unsexy.

How well I remember first reading Jane Eyre at my super-intense convent school in Manchester, the entire class of girls flushed purple over the book’s incomparable erotic magnetism (“to be my second self”). Hoping to encourage us to embrace Jane’s “feminism” – her thriving on resistance (“Speak I must”) and her high bar for female happiness (“a vigorous, an expanded mind”) – the nuns showed us the 1983 TV miniseries. It backfired horribly. When Jane refused to go and live in the south of France with the bigamous Timothy Dalton, we turned to the nuns, who were unable to supply a credible rationale from what seemed an inexplicable error by a woman far madder than the one in the attic. Timothy Dalton! And did you see the size of his house!

One of the strangest things about the ultimate radio episode was that Jane (played by Amanda Hale) and Rochester (Tom Burke) didn’t even sound as though they were in the same room together. It was as if the parts had been recorded on different days. This was surely not a couple looking each other in the eye. “To be privileged to put my arms around what I value,” keens Brontë on the page, “to press my lips to what I love . . .” The clinching adapted moments were too polite, too full of unspoken resentments. One sensed silences across breakfast tables to come. “And so I married him” sounded almost like an apology. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 17 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Spring double issue