Plain, Too Plain

In chapter 14 there are successive appearances of ‘plain’; and as they are more tightly linked than in chapter 12 we will consider them together.  First, Mr Rochester summons Adèle and Jane to join him after dinner:

‘I brushed Adèle’s hair and made her neat, and having ascertained that I was myself in my usual Quaker trim, where there was nothing to retouch—all being too close and plain, braided locks included, to admit of disarrangement—we descended.’

Then, down in the dining room, after Mr. Rochester has asked if Jane thinks him handsome and she has replied ‘no, sir,’ Jane’s Quaker look, together with the idea of disarrangement, reappear in his speech to her. He says she has ‘the air of a little nonnette’ (a word, meaning ‘little nun’, that dictionaries describe as French, though since Jane and Mr. Rochester both mix French and English in their language-use it is not marked as foreign in Brontë’s text); and he elaborates with words that echo the ‘qu’ of ‘Quaker’: ‘quaint, quiet, …’. But this reserved exterior, he says, conceals disruptive energies: ‘when one asks you a question … you rap out a round rejoinder, which, if not blunt, is at least brusque. What do you mean by it?’ In her reply, Jane reaches for the word ‘plain’:

   ‘Sir, I was too plain: I beg your pardon. I ought to have replied that it was not easy to give an  impromptu answer to a question about appearances; that tastes differ; that beauty is of little consequence, or something of that sort.’      

Rochester feels there to be a contrast between the modest look and assertive speech; but Jane conceives of both as manifesting the same quality: plainness, which scorns both ornament and circumlocution.

Just as with chapter 12, none of the translators find it possible to use the same word for both these occurrences of ‘plain’. In some cases, their choices make Jane seem to share Rochester’s view, as when Aslaug Mikkelsen (D1957) presents Jane’s dress as ‘ordentlig’ (‘decent’), in contrast to her speaking  …  ‘så ligeud’ (‘so bluntly’). In others, the English Jane’s idea comes through more fully: both Elvira Rosa (It1925) and Ugo Dèttore (It1974) see Jane’s dress as ‘simple’ (‘semplice’, possessing ‘semplicità’), while her speech is ‘sincere’ (‘sincera’). Though obviously not the same as exact repetition, this pairing does suggest a continuity of values.

Overall, these two new instances of ‘plain’ give yet more evidence of the enormous semantic productivity of Brontë’s repeated use of the word. Just occasionally you can find an equivalent that has appeared before: for instance, Dèttore (It1974) chooses ‘semplice’ both for Jane’s clothing here and for ‘the plain truth’ in chapter 12, while Monica Pareschi (It2014) and Stella Sacchini (It2014S) both employ ‘schietta’ for Jane’s speech, a word that had also been used for ‘the plain truth’ by G. Pozzo Galeazzi in 1951. It is all the more striking that Pareschi and Sacchini both sought other terms for ‘the plain truth’, while Pozzo Galeazzi chooses a different word for Jane’s plain speech here.

List of translations quoted.

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