Picture of Passion

We are at the end of Chapter 1 where the young Jane is attacked by her cousin John Reed, and fights back. He ‘bellowed out loud’ and Mrs Reed arrives with the servants Bessie and Abbott. The fighting children are parted, and Jane hears the words:

‘Dear! dear!  What a fury to fly at Master John!’
‘Did ever anybody see such a picture of passion!’

This is the first appearance of ‘passion’ in the novel, and ‘picture’ is an interesting word to attach to it. Jane has just been reading the illustrated Bewick’s Book of British Birds, in which ‘each picture told a story’; and later in the novel the pictures she draws will be similarly revealing. The phrase ‘picture of passion’ feels as though it might be proverbial; but it seems to have appeared only once in English-language literature before this moment.[1] In context, it sounds like a colloquial idiom, more likely to be uttered by Abbott or Bessie than by Mrs Reed. And in fact the lady of the house chimes in next, in her commanding tones: ‘“Take her away to the red-room, and lock her in there.”’ So a brief social drama unfolds in response to the little Jane’s act of resistance: the startled observations of the servants creating the conditions in which a member of the gentry lays down the law.  

In the translations, the idea of the picture sometimes remains and sometimes drops away. In French it tends to morph into the slightly less material ‘image’; in Dèttore’s 1974 Italian translation it becomes more dramatic, a ‘scena’ or theatrical scene. Almost all the translations continue the idea that what is happening here is something that strikes the sight, that has never been ‘seen’ before.

On the other hand, almost all are required by the habits of their languages to break the link between this moment and Jane’s later passion (in the sense of love):  they render ‘passion’ with words that can be back-translated as ‘anger’, ‘stubbornness’, ‘impertinence’, ‘mad’, ‘fury’, ‘rage’, and suchlike. The startling consequence is that this moment becomes connected, not to amorous passion, but to the anger, pain and madness of Bertha Mason. As Ana Teresa Marques dos Santos points out, this tendency is especially marked in the Portuguese translations by ‘Mécia’ (1943) and Ferreira (1951) which use ‘monstro’ (monster) and ‘ferazinha’ (little beast’). Bar’s 1986 Hebrew translation makes a more subtle gesture in the same direction, using a word , ‘משולהבת [meshulhevet]’, which derives from [shalhevet] (flame).

Only Dèttore takes a different tack, making the words express the emotion of whoever it is who speaks them, rather than attributing feeling to Jane: ‘Si è mai vista una scena così pietosa?’ (Have you ever seen such a pitiful scene?) Paola Gaudio points out that ‘pietosa’ here connotes miserable, pathetic and embarrassing.  Yet it also perhaps – as Jane is held and then carried off – brings with it a hint of a Pietà, the scene of Mary holding Christ’s body and mourning him, which follows the passion of Christ on the cross in traditional narratives of the crucifixion. This thread of suggestion cannot be said to be visible in the English alone; but it is latent in the weave of language(s) and culture(s) from which Jane Eyre is formed. It becomes more prominent in translation.

In this animation, you can see the variants unfolding over three successive screens:

Next: a passion of resentment.

List of translations quoted.

Text and animation by Matthew Reynolds, incorporating research by Eugenia Kelbert, Céline Sabiron, Ana Teresa Marques dos Santos, Andrés Claro, Paola Gaudio, Adriana X. Jacobs, Matthew Reynolds, Yousif M. Qasmiyeh, Jernej Habjan.

[1] In James Fenimore Cooper’s Home as Found (Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1838). Literature Online.