Our first prismatic expansion of the word ‘plain’ is from chapter 12, not long after Jane’s arrival at Thornfield Hall. She has already got used to her new situation, and is even a little bored of it: often, she climbs to the roof and longs to see beyond the horizon to the ‘busy world’, or walks back and forth along the corridor of the ‘third story’. This ‘storey’ (as we would now write the word) turns out to be a place of stories: here, Jane opens her ‘inward ear to a tale that was never ended—a tale my imagination created, and narrated continuously; quickened with all of incident, life, fire, feeling, that I desired and had not in my actual existence.’
Here too Jane makes the feminist declaration that would inspire many readers of the novel and its translations: ‘Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer …’
The sentence that is our focus joins this play of tensions between stagnation and the freedom that is imagined and desired. For while she is alone and occupied with such thoughts, Jane ‘not unfrequently’ hears the laugh that she thinks to be Grace Poole’s: ‘the same peal, the same low, slow ha! ha! which, when first heard, had thrilled me: I heard too her eccentric murmurs, stranger than her laugh.’ These fascinating sounds contrast with what Jane sees of Grace, and it is this that calls out the word ‘plain’:
‘ … she would come out of her room with a basin, or a plate, or a tray in her hand, go down to the kitchen and shortly return, generally (oh romantic reader, forgive me for telling the plain truth!) bearing a pot of porter. Her appearance always acted as a damper to the curiosity raised by her oral oddities: hard-featured and staid, she had no point to which interest could attach.’
The wishes of the imagined romantic reader align with Jane’s: both hope for more excitement than Thornfield currently provides. The word ‘plain’ seems to describe the way things are, i.e., not engaging enough to satisfy Jane’s desires (earlier in the chapter the same has been said of Adèle and Mrs Fairfax).
Yet there is also a counter-current in the word, for as the novel proceeds it will turn out that the plain truth about Grace Poole’s liking for porter (a black beer) is not the whole truth about the thrilling laugh. There is a hint of this in the address to the reader, which sounds rather knowing, given that what is being read is a novel in which some elements of romance are likely to appear. If readers forgive the narrator for telling the plain truth here, it may be because they are pretty sure that greater excitements lie ahead.
As you will see in the prismatic expansion in the animation, three of the earliest translations skip the whole address to the reader: the feeling seems to be that Jane’s chatty, almost flirtatious relationship with her imagined reader is superfluous, perhaps disconcerting, and can happily be left out. In Elvira Rosa’s 1925 Italian version, on the other hand, the phrase ‘romantic reader’ is itself romanticised, to become ‘anime romantiche’ (‘romantic souls’): this is in line with the generally sentimental tendency of her translation.
Some translators find in their languages words that approximate quite closely to ‘plain’: ‘escueta’ (María Fernanda Pereda, Sp1947); ‘schietta’ (G. Pozzo Galeazzi, It1951); ‘preprosto’ (Borko and Dolenc , Sl1955); or ‘schlichte’ (Melanie Walz, Ge2015). Other translations turn the quality of the ‘truth’ in different directions, such as ‘vsakdanjo’ (‘everyday’, Božena Legiša-Velikonja, Sl1970) or ‘пошлую’ (‘vulgar’, Irina Gurova, 1999); ‘desnuda’ or ‘nøgne’ (‘naked’, Juan G. de Luaces, Sp1943; Luise Hemmer Pihl, D2016); or ‘sin adornos’ or ‘usmykkede’ (‘unadorned’, Toni Hill, Sp2009; Christian Rohde, D2015). When the plain truth is turned into a ‘détail’ or ‘particolare’ (Gilbert and Duvivier, Fr1919; Elvira Rosa, It1925) it takes on a scientific, almost forensic feel; but it can also – in contrast – assume a legal, or even religious tonality, as with ‘la vérité entière’ (‘the whole truth’, Noémie Lesbazeilles-Souvestre, 1954) or ‘la semplice verità’ (‘the simple truth’, Ugo Dèttore, 1974). What all these variants have in common is that they can be set in opposition to the genre of romance; but each one angles the binary slightly differently. What is at stake between the ‘romantic’ and the ‘plain’ can become a matter of adornment vs nakedness, complication vs simplicity, gentility vs vulgarity, or vagueness vs detail.
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.