“Jane Eyre is a book about ugly people” – Casting period dramas


Jane Eyre is a book about ugly people – Casting period dramas

According to this light-hearted article in The Toast, “Jane Eyre is a book fundamentally about ugly people” and a plea is made to cast “ugly and weird-looking in period dramas”:

If I accomplish one thing in my life, let it be the increased acceptability in casting the ugly and the weird-looking in period dramas. We would all be the better for it. Interesting things happen to people with bad bone structure

The piece made me chuckle, but also pause for thought. Does it matter that every leading literary character needs to be glammed up when adapted for TV or film?

Keira Knightly as Elizabeth 2005_11

It seems everyone has to be glamorous in the TV and movie world, even when the characters have been carefully described physically, such as Marian Halcombe from The Woman in White (twice described as ‘ugly’) and Dracula (with his massive eyebrows, extremely pointed ears, hairy palms and long nails cut to a point).

We know it is done for a reason; costume dramas are expensive to make and Gwyneth Paltrow and Eddie Redmayne will attract more eyeballs than the average Joe and Josephine in the street. We’re only human. Except that it isn’t only humans, apparently. Monkeys are willing to exchange food (bananas) for photographs of lovely looking monkeys. It may be more information than you want to know but monkeys are particularly keen on looking at photographs of lovely looking monkey bottoms. And just like the monkeys, it seems we are more willing to exchange our hard won pieces of silver to see tales of plain folk if they are portrayed by the super-glamorous.

TWIW and SaS_1407B_12

Actually it is even stranger than that. When it is wholly unacceptable storywise for a literary character to look delightfully winsome, it is usually time for a famously glamorous star to bravely “ugly up”, and thereby put themselves in the running for a BAFTA/Oscar.

Human nature isn’t going to change any time soon. It seems we only want to look at beautiful monkeys. And until that changes I suppose casting directors will carry on as usual. I ask only that a character isn’t glammed up when to do so would distort the story, or relationships within the story. By all means cast Emma Woodhouse, Tess D’Urberville and Helen of Troy – or Sir Lancelot, Dorian Gray and Jay Gatsby as raging beauties, that is more or less expected (in our heads, if not in the texts). However, please be careful about casting the likes of Elizabeth Bennet, Edward Rochester, Jane Eyre and Marian Halcombe. Their physical appearance is directly connected to the carefully constructed characters and to story relationships. What might seem like a good idea in a pre-production meeting with the Head of Finance and the Marketing Director, might not look so wise when all’s said and done. But what do I know, it’s 2am and I’m blogging about monkey bottoms while they’re casting literary blockbusters!



7 thoughts on ““Jane Eyre is a book about ugly people” – Casting period dramas

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  1. Charlotte Bronte is very clear that Jane Eyre, and to a lesser extent, Mr Rochester, are plain looking people – their relationship is in some ways about unattractive people settling for one another, particularly after Rochester’s accident. Their relationship is in some ways more like nurse and patient than a grand romance – but of course Hollywood could never film that version of the novel!

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    1. Yes, it’s interesting. Of course you can be plain looking and still a very attractive person. Jane and Rochester were remarkable people. Plus at the end of the story Jane gets “upgraded” by inheriting a fortune and respectable relatives and Rochester gets “downgraded” by his injuries and the loss of his stately home.

      Much changed with the BBC’s 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice (with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle) – it became clear that by glamming up a classic story you could get big numbers watching – in the UK and around the world. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Emma (movie) was the next year.

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  2. Hey there! Here I am. Followed your blog this time!
    Relevant article. Very interesting fact about the monkeys there. Where did you even find that? I’ve never heard about it.
    But you know, I can’t quite say I got the idea that Marian was ugly, in particular. I get that she was not pretty, and certainly not “romantic material”. But by the end of the story, when she did become somebody’s love interest, she was described as being attractive. So that you know she is not the looker, but definitely not ugly. You just have to look for her beauty to find it. It’s not immediately there.
    But that might also be due to the fact that for me, Marian is one of my favorite characters in all Victorian literature. She is just SO COOL. I’m thinking I should reread and write a blog post about her. Good idea. I’ll note it down 🙂

    By the way – silly question. How did you know I linked your blog? Is there like a plugin for that?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello, thanks for following my blog 🙂 (I’m keeping an eye on yours!) When I said you “linked to the blog” I only meant that you had linked to my blog piece on Dorothea Brooke and Edward Casaubon on your site at: http://avalinahsbooks.space/middlemarch-and-miscalculation/

      Alas, I can’t remember exactly where I read the monkey information (I might be able to dig something up) – I read a lot about evolutionary psychology, it’s a long time interest – books and articles, research reported in the “Times Higher”, documentaries etc. And I have various theories that I don’t usually burden the world with.

      First I should say that Middlemarch and TWIW are two of my all time favourite novels. I agree with you about Marian completely. I always say that if I had a dinner party [of characters] then Marian would be at the table. I also love the fact that there is a close friendship between her and Walter (non romantic), such female/male friendships are not that common in Victorian literature.

      Appearance seems a highly important topic for the TWIW. It is no surprise that Walter is an artist – and presumably v visually aware. You can, of course be thought aesthetically “ugly” from a conventional point of view and still have people find you attractive. Fosco was certainly v attracted to Marian.

      The word “ugly” (in reference to Marian) is twice mentioned in TWIW. [Try doing a search on the full text via Gutenberg] Walter says “The lady is ugly!” – and there is a lot of description of the sort you might expect from an artist. I think, perhaps, the main issue is that he thinks her physical appearance masculine [make of that what you will]. Marian describes herself as follows: “I have got nothing, and she has a fortune. I am dark and ugly, and she is fair and pretty. Everybody thinks me crabbed and odd ..

      Wilkie Collins was a good friend of George Eliot. It is my belief that Collins – in his description of Marian – goes someway to describing Eliot’s physical appearance and personality (I could be wrong, of course). Worth studying Eliot’s photo.

      You said [of Marian] “you just have to look for her beauty to find it. It’s not immediately there.” That reminded me of what Henry James said about George Eliot: “Now in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes, steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end, as I ended, in falling in love with her. Yes, behold me in love with this great horse-faced bluestocking.” – Perhaps James could have said the same about Marian?


  3. I have always thought PBS productions from Britain have more realistic casting than American casts and I have always appreciated that!

    And this is a very good point, “Their physical appearance is directly connected to the carefully constructed characters and to story relationships.” Because I fear that people who only see the films will not quite ‘buy’ the original in book form.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting :-). It reminds me when I went to see the classic British romantic film “Brief Encounter” (1945) at the National Film Theatre in London. When leaving, I heard a couple behind me say it was a struggle to watch because the “main couple were so plain looking” [presumably Trevor Howard & Celia Johnson] – hardly plain, but even if they were would it matter? “Interesting things happen to people with bad bone structure”. The movie was filmed/set in wartime Britain, so not many had fine clothes, posh make-up. But it mattered to that couple, and they were paying movie-goers.

      Liked by 1 person

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