Plain, and Little

We are in chapter 23 and a lot has happened since our last point of focus. There has been the house party at Thornfield, during which Mr. Rochester seemed to woo Blanche Ingram; there has been his appearance in disguise as a gypsy fortune teller; there has been the arrival and mysterious wounding of Mr. Mason, from Jamaica; and then Jane has gone away for a month to attend the death-bed of Aunt Reed at Gateshead Hall. Since her return to Thornfield there has been ‘a fortnight of dubious calm’.

Now, she has encountered Mr. Rochester in the garden, and he – with what must seem extraordinary cruelty – has been goading her with the news that he will soon marry Miss Ingram, and she will have to go away. In response, her love for what she would have to leave behind bursts out of her:

‘I love Thornfield … I have talked, face to face, with what I reverence; with what I delight in,—with an original, a vigorous, an expanded mind. I have known you, Mr. Rochester; and it strikes me with terror and anguish to feel I absolutely must be torn from you forever.’

Startlingly, he then changes tack and tells her that she won’t have to leave after all. Distraught, she reacts again:

‘Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you? Do you think I am an automaton? … Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless?—You think wrong! —I have as much soul as you,—and full as much heart!  … I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh: —it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal, —as we are!’

The word ‘plain’ appears here with the same pained meaning of physical unattractiveness that we saw in chapter 16. Yet Jane’s utterance also embodies the other, more positive senses of ‘plain’: seeing things clearly, and speaking out in defiance of convention. 

Her speech strikes home. Rochester declares that he loves Jane, not Blanche Ingram. He proposes in words that echo hers:

‘You—you strange—you almost unearthly thing!—I love as my own flesh. You—poor and obscure, and small and plain as you are—I entreat to accept me as a husband.’  

In the animation, we show the prismatic diffractions of the first appearance of ‘plain’ in this chapter: ‘I am poor, obscure, plain, and little’. One thing to bear in mind is that the translators are – as always – faced not with the word by itself but as part of a phrase or sentence. In this case, the sequence ‘poor, obscure, plain, and little’ has a marked, emotive rhythm: ‘tum, ti tum, tum, ti tum ti.’ When Juan G. de Luaces leaves out ‘plain, and little’ from his Spanish translation in 1943 it is probably not because he dislikes those words, and not from carelessness, but because he wants to keep a strong rhythm pulsing through the sentence that he writes, helped by a pattern of a alliteration (‘P – p – p – sc – c – c’): ‘¿Piensa que porque soy pobre y oscura carezco de alma y de corazón?’ (‘Do you think that because I am poor and obscure I am lacking in soul and heart’). For Lesbazeilles-Souvestre in 1854, on the other hand, the closeness of French to English enabled her to match word with word while keeping almost the same rhythm:  ‘je suis pauvre, obscure, laide et petite’.

‘Laide’ is an obvious term for a French translator to adopt: it means roughly the same as ‘plain’ in this context, is a monosyllable, and even has three letters in common with the English word. Yet Lesbazeilles-Souvestre’s choice makes a decisive change in the novel’s web of words, for ‘laide’, or ‘laid’ in the masculine, is also used to translate ‘ugly’.

This shift will be explored more fully on the next page. Here, in our prismatic expansion of ‘I am poor, obscure, plain and little’, we can see a similar choice being made by translators who opt for ‘hässlich;’ in German, ‘brutta’ in Italian or ‘grim’ in Danish. Others take a different path, avoiding the conflation of ‘plain’ with ‘ugly’, and further opening up its semantic complexity as they do so.    

List of translations quoted.

Text and animation by Matthew Reynolds, incorporating research by Caterina Cappelli, Andrés Claro, Mary Frank, Jernej Habjan, Abhishek Jain, Eugenia Kelbert, Madli Kütt, Céline Sabiron.