Plain, Unvarnished, Poor and Plain

After the nocturnal fire in Mr. Rochester’s bed, which Jane puts out with a water jug, the pair share a tender moment holding hands. Jane is left ‘feverish’ with emotional confusion, and passes a sleepless night. The next day is described in chapter 16, which, in the first edition, was the start of the novel’s second volume. Jane longs to see Mr. Rochester, but it turns out that he has gone to stay at another house, miles away, where a party of gentlefolk is assembled. Mrs Fairfax tells Jane of the beautiful young ladies who will be there, especially the much-admired Blanche Ingram, with whom Mr. Rochester once sang a beautiful duet.

Later, alone, Jane takes a stern view of the ‘hopes, wishes, sentiments’ about Mr. Rochester that had been budding inside her, and the word ‘plain’ pops up to express it:

‘Reason having come forward and told, in her own quiet way, a plain, unvarnished
tale, showing how I had rejected the real and rabidly devoured the ideal;—I pronounced judgment to this effect:—
    That a greater fool than Jane Eyre had never breathed the breath of life …’

The judgment continues, getting fiercer and fiercer: ‘your folly sickens me … Poor stupid dupe! … Blind puppy!’ — and it culminates in a punishment where ‘plain’ appears again: 

‘Listen, then, Jane Eyre, to your sentence: to-morrow, place the glass before you, and draw in chalk your own picture, faithfully; without softening one defect: omit no harsh line, smooth away no displeasing irregularity; write under it, “Portrait of a Governess. Disconnected, poor, and plain.”’

(According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘disconnected’ means ‘without family connections of good social standing; not well connected.’ You will see that other possible nuances emerge in the translations.)

Jane is also to paint, as a contrast, a beautiful fantasy portrait on a piece of ivory, to represent Blanche Ingram.

Here we have the first use of the word to describe Jane’s physical appearance (in chapter 14, as we have just seen, it is used of her clothes and hairstyle, but not her face). So here, at this moment of emotional distress, she stamps the word on her body: someone who looks like this, she tells herself, is never going to be loved by Mr. Rochester. It is a despairing, decisive act of self-definition.

Yet that is not all that is happening. Because of its previous appearances with different meanings, ‘plain’ has become charged with other energies, and their traces are latent here. Plain is not only about how you look: it is also about speaking plainly, about hearing clearly, about maintaining dignity, about seeing things as they are. As she tells the plain truth about her own, plain looks, Jane makes it possible for her readers to understand that there is more to plainness than meets the eye.   

Physical plainness is not only an addition to the other kinds: it also helps them to come into being. Jane’s unremarkable physical appearance makes it easier for her to see and say things as they are. Beautiful, rich creatures like Blanche are caught up in a world that is in many ways not ‘real’: privileged, idealised, puffed with compliments and romantic possibilities. Condemned to – or blessed with – plainness, Jane must stand outside those gossamer realms, and therefore can see through them, as when, later in the novel, she understands that Rochester does not really love Blanche, however much he might be acting as though he does.

In the animation, you will see that only two of the translations – Božena Legiša-Velikonja’s Slovenian of 1970 and Ugo Dèttore’s Italian of 1974 – use the same term for these two instances of ‘plain’. Dèttore also makes the connection back to ‘the plain truth’ in chapter 12, and two other translators use the same word for that utterance and reason’s ‘plain, unvarnished tale’: Marie von Borch (Ge1888) and Elvi Kippasto (E1959). The two Italian translations published in 2014 perform a switcharound: Monica Pareschi chooses ‘semplice’ (‘simple’) here and ‘nuda e cruda’ (‘nude and raw’) back in chapter 12, while Stella Sacchini does exactly the reverse.

Overall, though, it is again the semantic plurality bursting out in the translations that is most striking. Beyond ‘simple’, the ‘plain’ of ‘plain, unvarnished tale’ is rendered by words approximating to ‘sobriety’, ‘unadorned’, ‘as they really stood’, ‘without spices’, and more; while the ‘plain’ of ‘poor, and plain’ morphs into words that roughly correspond to ‘ugly’, ‘simple’, ‘dull’, ‘insignificant’, ‘ordinary’ and ‘unimpressive’. One especially surprising and suggestive shift is created by Irinarkh Vvedenskii’s Russian translation of 1849. It renders the second ‘plain’ as безпріютной, ‘shelterless’, thereby bringing in the sense of ‘plain’ when used as a noun: a flat expanse of landscape. It is as though Jane is anticipating her later wanderings on the moors around Whitcross: disconnected, poor, an outcast on the plain.

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.