‘You are passionate’, says Mrs Reed to the young Jane early on, and the novel conducts an extended exploration of what that could mean. ‘Passion’ (with ‘passionate’ and ‘impassioned’) appears 43 times, with its varied possible meanings surfacing to different degrees at successive moments. Jane is passionate in her resistance to bullying in the Reed family and injustice at Lowood school; she and Rochester are passionate in their relationship with one another; St John Rivers is passionate in his missionary zeal. ‘Passion’ can connote anger, stubbornness, vehemence, suffering, wilfulness, intensity, desire, love, generosity, unhappiness, devotion, and fanaticism. It is a root, perhaps the root of selfhood; yet it also needs to be controlled by ‘conscience’ and ‘judgment’. 

The word’s reappearances throughout the novel work a bit like a pattern of rhyme in a poem. They establish connections between ‘passion’’s multiple meanings and suggest ways of understanding the relationships between them. As with an Empsonian complex word, Brontë’s handling of ‘passion’ implies an argument: passion in the sense of love is connected to passion in the sense of rage; love is a mode of self-assertion and self-fulfilment for women no less than for men. Yet the novel also worries at the word in ways that are too knotted for easy summary: ‘passion’ is exalted, diminished, attacked, and viewed with wonder.

These complexities in the word ‘passion’ were not invented by Brontë, of course, nor are they unique to the English language. Passion is shared with French (passion), Italian (passione), Spanish (pasión), Romanian (pasiune), Portuguese (paixão), and it derives from the Latin passio, itself influenced by translation from the Greek πάθος (pathos). Tracing ‘passion’ in Jane Eyre across these closely related areas of the global landscape of language variation allows us to gauge the distinctiveness of the meaning-making resources of Brontë’s English, and the way she put them to use. Take the French ‘passion’. It looks identical to the English version of the word, and can enable moments of perfect word-for-word translation, as in the heart-rending passage in chapter 27 where, after the failure of the wedding, Jane resolves to leave Thornfield:

Conscience, turned tyrant, held Passion by the throat
ma conscience devenait tyrannique, tenait ma passion à la gorge (F1854)
ma conscience, muée en tyran, saisit la passion à la gorge (F1964)
et la Conscience, muée en despote, tenait la Passion à la gorge (F1966)
la conscience devenue tyranniqueprenait la passion à la gorge (F2008)

But ‘passion’ in French does not correspond so readily to the angrier reaches of ‘passion’ in English. In such cases – as Céline Sabiron points out – the French translations ‘tend to specify what is meant’ using other words, as here in chapter 2 where Bessie is chiding the young Jane:

… if you become passionate and rude, Missis will send you away, I am sure.
si vous devenez brutale et en colère (F1854) [if you become brutal and angry]
si vous devenez violente et grossière (F1946) [violent and rude]
si vous devenez emportée, violente (F1964) [fiery, violent]
si vous devenez coléreuse et brutale (F1966) [quick-tempered and brutal]
vous vous montrez violente et désagréable (F2008) [violent and disagreeable]

The varying translations are interesting for several reasons. First, they can help us imagine our way into the implications of the English ‘passionate’ here. Second, they trace a mini-history of shifts in taste and usage in French across different translators and different times. And, finally, they show that the French ‘passion’ and English ‘passion’ cast different nets across the material of the novel, joining up experience in different ways. 

In other languages, the picture is sometimes quite similar to the French, even though the word that corresponds to ‘passion’ has a different etymology. In Russian – as Eugenia Kelbert points out –  there is ‘a direct analogue of “passion” (“страсть [strast’]”, adj. “страстный [strastnyĭ]”) but it has strong romantic/sexual connotations, as well as religious significance, since strasti refer both to the passions of Christ and to the deadly sins, eight in number in the Russian Orthodox tradition, which include anger as well as lust.’ Nevertheless, the angrier instances of ‘passion’ tend to be rendered by other words. This varies between the translations, though: ‘for example, Stanevich’s 1950 translation uses “страсть” [strast’] twice less frequently than Gurova’s in 1990.’

Other tongues draw in a multitude of words to cover the semantic range of Brontë’s ‘passion’. In Arabic, as Yousif M. Qasmiyeh explains, ‘passion has multiple equivalences, depending on the connotation, context and those involved. At times it carries the meaning of a reaction or a response to a state of being: “انفعال  [infiʿāl]”. At other times it connotes anger and frustration:  “حنق  [ḥanq].”  When it is associated with love and/or having feelings for other people, the words used are: “حب   [ḥobb]” (love) which is conventionally modified by an adjective, “عاطفة  [ʿātifa],” and “هوى [hawā ]” which is a synonym of “حب  [ḥobb]” and conveys the act of falling in(to) another state of being.’ In Persian too – Kayvan Tahmasebian tells us –  ‘ “passion” corresponds to a wide range of diverse words from “شور [shūr]” (literally,“excitement”), “عشق [ʿishq]” (literally, “love”), “تمنا [tamannā]” (literally, “strong desire”) and “خشم [khashm]” (literally, “anger”). Because of this indeterminacy, “passion” is usually translated into redundant structures where two nearly similar words are joined by “and.”’

In the visualisations on the next pages, you can explore the various reconfigurations of ‘passion’ generated by different translations and languages.

List of translations quoted.

Text by Matthew Reynolds.