The Shape in Jane’s Bedroom

Our second prismatic scene is from near the end of Chapter 25: Jane’s narration to Mr. Rochester, on the eve of their planned wedding, of a strange and threatening incursion into her bedroom the night before, by a figure whom she does not yet know to be his current wife, Bertha.

This scene has always been one of the most provocative in the book. It was omitted from the 1849 French version by ‘Old Nick’ (Paul Émile Daurand Forgues), which served as the basis for several later translations into Spanish, German, Swedish and Russian. It nourished some of the novel’s most influential interpretations: Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s, which reads Bertha as Jane’s double, and Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak’s, which critiques the racism by which her portrayal is afflicted.

And, as we will see, translators – those who have not gone so far as to cut the scene – have tended to veil it in various ways, perhaps not wanting (or not managing) to match the breathless vividness of Brontë’s style here, while also demurring at the means by which Bertha is dehumanized. When we look at these translations closely, we get a detailed, fresh impression, both of the challenge of this passage, and of how it has been received by readers in different places, languages and times.     

Feeling that the word-cloud style of animation, created by Paola Gaudio, is more effective in this case than the linear video, we present this passage in that mode alone. The translations are into Spanish, by Juan G. de Luaces (1943), María Fernanda Pereda (1947), Jesús Sánchez Diaz (1974) and Toni Hill (2009), selected and back-translated by Andrés Claro; into Estonian, by Elvi Kippasto (1959), selected and back-translated by Madli Kütt; into Slovenian, by France Borko and Ivan Dolenc (1955) and Božena Legiša-Velikonja (1970), selected and back-translated by Jernej Habjan; into Arabic by Munir Baalbaki (1985), selected and back-translated by Youif M. Qasmiyeh; into Polish by Emilia Dobrzańska (1880), Teresa Świderska (1930), selected and back-translated by Kasia Szymanska; and into Greek by Polly Moschopoulou (1991) and Maria Exarchou (2011), selected and back-translated by Eleni Philippou. 

Here is the animation, created by Paola Gaudio. See our previous prismatic scene page for an account of how it works.

‘The second time in my life’ – in the last sentence of this passage – points to the first time Jane had lost consciousness from terror:  almost a decade, and 23 chapters, earlier, in the red-room (coincidentally the location of our first prismatic scene). There are some similarities between the episodes: enclosure in a bedroom, and a vividly imagined threat. But the style of the two passages is quite different.

In the first, the mature Jane employs all the sophisticated resources of her written language to render the impressions of the child, with complex sentences and words like ‘consternation’, ‘vassalage’ and ‘cordiality’ which few ten-year olds would know. In the second, Jane as a young woman is shown speaking in her own urgent, colloquial tongue, with short, simple sentences and everyday words: ‘I thought – oh, it is daylight!’ One way in which translators tame her energy here is by constructing the syntax in more formal ways – as Madli Kütt has remarked of the Estonian translation of this phrase by Kippasto (1959), which can be back-translated, not as ‘I thought—oh’, but ‘I thought that…’ (similar things happen in this and other translations throughout the passage).   

Jane has been very frightened, and she reaches for varied means to express her terror. One is the language of racial othering: the ‘savage face’, the ‘red eyes’, the ‘blackened inflation of the lineaments’. Another is the imaginary figure of ‘the Vampyre’. In the prismatic animation we can see translators emphasising this second aspect of the description (Baalbaki, for instance, adds explanatory words that can be back-translated as ‘the sucker of people’s blood’), while downplaying the first. Andrés Claro points out that both the 1940s Spanish translators, Luaces and Pereda, avoid the word ‘savage’ – and in his essay for the book of the project he traces the reasons in their historical moments and political commitments. In such cases, the translators’ muzzling of an aspect of their source can become a form of ethical critique.

Another feature of the text that Brontë wrote to represent Jane’s speech is its wavering as to whether what Jane has encountered is human, or not; a ‘she’ or an ‘it’. What first emerges from the closet was not a person but ‘a form … it was not Leah, it was not Mrs Fairfax’; then ‘it seemed … a woman’ and becomes a ‘she’; but then again, via the description of the face (‘it was a discoloured face’), the figure becomes an ‘it’ again: ‘it removed my veil’; only finally to veer back into humanity and gender: ‘her lurid visage flamed over mine’.

Translators vary in their handling of this variation, depending on their choices and also on how pronouns work in the languages they are using. Reading them together, we find a vivid record of the haunting, goading quality of this scene. It has that quality in the novel Brontë wrote: right at the start of Chapter 25 Jane tells us that something strange has happened, and also that she will not explain what it was until later. We are also given an oddly charged description of the ‘closet’ in her bedroom, and the ‘wraith-like apparel’ it contains (ie the wedding dress), together with the weighted comment that Mrs Rochester is ‘not I … but a person whom as yet I know not’. Until the scene of the invasion of the bedroom has been narrated, none of this makes full sense; and yet, by the time that narration happens, these puzzling details may well have been forgotten – and indeed the scene itself is not fully explained until later again. Where then does this scene belong? In Brontë’s text it floats, eery and ungraspable; and it continues to haunt the translations that encounter it.

Text by Matthew Reynolds, incorporating research by Andrés Claro, Madli Kütt and Yousif M. Qasmiyeh. Animation by Paola Gaudio.