There are many challenges to the suspension of one’s disbelief in the disreputable arts: wonky digital art; rubber suits; foolish decisions; uncertain physics; unlikely biology. But it has seemed improbable that Timothy Dalton’s hotness should ever be an obstacle to the suspension of disbelief. Still, it has happened. I have seen the comments and the takes. You can, too, if you but search. I’m not talking about current Timothy Dalton as my favorite Niles Caulder in Doom Patrol, Doctor Who‘s Rassilon or the sinister Sir Malcolm Murray of Penny Dreadful. I am talking about the Timothy Dalton of the 1983 BBC production of Charlotte’ Brontë’s 1847 novel, Jane Eyre. Dalton plays Edward Rochester alongside Zelah Clarke’s Jane. I suppose we can have arguments about whether Clarke is attractive now or would be attractive in the 1840s, but she has not provided the challenge* that Dalton has to viewers’ suspension of disbelief.
Dalton was a dashing if weary Bond. And he and his mustaches were swashbuckling in a Dino De Laurentiis’ produced 1980 adaptation of Flash Gordon and as a debonair villain in The Rocketeer (1991). The initial response to Jane Eyre miniseries in online comments and essays is often that Dalton is too handsome to play Rochester. This argument tends to ignore some of the Romantic antihero smolder** that was popular at the time of the Brontës–or at least preferred by 2 out of 3 Brontës in this comic by Kate Beaton.
I was thrown by his casting until I watched the miniseries. Now those arguments seems less important to me than the fact that Dalton manages to play an appealing and vulnerable Mr. Rochester in a faithful adaptation of the book. And that’s something worth suspending your own disbelief over because Rochester is, at his best, a difficult man and a hard one to capture.
If you haven’t read the novel or watched an adaptation, the story concerns Jane Eyre, an orphan sent to a shoddily run religious boarding school by her wealthy aunt when Jane proves headstrong, passionate, and too honest. Jane later becomes a teacher at the school and then takes a position at Thornfield Hall to be the governess to a young French girl, Adele Varens, the ward of Edward. Rochester. Jane loves her life at Thornfield Hall. Rochester falls for Jane and her own self-possessed, difficult ways. Not being able to tell how Jane feels about him, and probably prefering to be pursued rather than pursue, Rochester sets up an overly complicated plan to see if she likes him too, including; pretending to become engaged to someone else who he does not love; dressing up like a fortune-teller to see if Jane will spill her secret love to an older woman; and pretending he’s found Jane a new position as a governess to “the five daughters of Mrs. Dionysius O’Gall of Bitternut Lodge, Connaught, Ireland” (Jane Eyre, 296). I give him points for the specificity of his storytelling in this last. I am sure he debated with himself about having the housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax ask Jane if she was into him. But he was wise not to ask. Mrs. Fairfax has concerns. Jane is 18 and Rochester is twenty years older than her–an age difference that alarms Mrs. Fairfax. Jane works for him, which again alarms Mrs. Rochester who fears Rochester will sleep with Jane without marrying her and ruin her life. Rochester eventually gets Jane to admit she likes him, too, and proposes. Jane accepts. Rocheter promises to tell her what his secret up in the attic is after they have been married for “a year and a day,” because Rochester has also probably been cursed by fairies.
But Rochester’s secret is a sketchy, Gothic one. He keeps his “violently mad” wife, Jamaican plantation heiress Bertha Mason*** in a secret room hidden behind a tapestry on the top floor of his mansion. Sure, I mean, it’s probably better than, say, Bedlam, but not a great look when you are wooing your second wife. According to his Rochester, when he was 18, his father, brother and the Masons had conspired to arrange this marriage to bring money into the Rochester family. By the time he discovered who Bertha really was and that he did not love her, he could not divorce her because her mental illness had fully revealed itself as well.
When Jane learns this story, she leaves, telling him he already has a wife. There is moor-wandering and finally the discovery of a new home. Jane also receives an inheritance and becomes an independent woman. She’s then pursued by St. John Rivers, who invites her to join him in a passionless marriage and travel with him as his missionary wife in India. He feels certain that work suits her more than love. Sadly mulling over this offer, Jane seems to hear Mr. Rochester calling to her across the moor and decides to go to Thornfield Hall. Turns out, Bertha finally managed to set the house on fire, but was the only one who died in it. Rochester lost his hand and sight as he ran into the building to try to save everyone, including Bertha. And now that he is free, Jane is financially indpendent and he can’t be so bossy anymore, reader, Jane married him.
Or as Kate Beaton tells it in Hark, A Vagrant (Drawn & Quarterly, 2011)…
And Kate Beaton is right. Part of why it’s so difficult to find Edward Rochester’s sweetspot in adaptations of the novel is that he does weird and sketchy things.
There have been a variety Rochesters played by many actors–Michael Fassbender, John Hurt, Toby Stephens, Michael Jayston, Colin Clive, Ciaran Hinds and Orson Welles among them. And many I might have expected would be better Rochesters than Dalton. Colin Clive plays him in 1934 as a straight up romantic not Romantic hero. Jane has beautiful platinum blonde hair and a hoop skirt. She channels the very essence of Deanna Durbin. Mrs. Rochester, when she finally appears, is, to use the words of Screen Editor alex, “vague” rather than violently mad. And I am here for the whole thing. In the 1997 film adaptation, Ciaran Hinds looks like the character in the book, though with a mustache, and brings the “thundering.” Probably too much “thundering” and “blue blazes”-ing. “What about Charleton Heston?” you might say. He played Rochester, too, I reply. George C. Scott’s own creepy past seems to come through in his performance. Michael Fassbender and William Hurt’s pasts don’t seem to come through. Patrick Macnee plays Rochester as a retired pirate, werewolf or Rochester as his own Mr. Hyde, which is strangely appropriate.
It’s a much better secret than a secret mad wife. Macnee’s Rochester, while entirely rapey, captures the emotional truth of Beaton’s Rochester. He has so much going on that the bigamy is hardly a problem. Instead it is his drinking and his creepy abusiveness. Still, this Rochester easily has several wives in several attics, as well as in crawl spaces, root cellars, secluded forest groves just off the highway and probably in the Seine. I would love to see Beaton draw all this, too.****
So is the problem really that Dalton isn’t unattractive enough to play Rochester? And how important is it that actors cast look like we imagine their characters from books or comics to be? Readers do a lot of fantasy casting based on the appearance of the character or criticizing an actor for not being their idea of the character before they see the performance. But there is a lot we don’t know about what an actor can do till we see them do it. Chris Evans became an iconic Captain America, but he also does a great job at playing skeevy, awful characters in movies like The Iceman (2013) and Knives Out (2019).
It isn’t so much about how much or how little Dalton resembles the description of Rochester in the novel, though on rereading he does better than you’d think. It’s about the performance. I am looking for someone who is presents the emotional truth of the character—even in unfaithful adaptations. Despite his smolder, Dalton finds a sweetspot in which Rochester is appealing and vulnerable, while thundering around and doing the sketchy things Rochester does. His Rochester is more complicated than a shouting, petulant man or even a pirate werewolf. Dalton conveys a longing that is unusual, a vulnerability in a character that is rarely portrayed as vulnerable, and a fear not as much about as losing the life he believes he is entitled to as a fear that Jane does not reciprocate his love when he is feeling love for the first time late in life. And this raw performance is what keeps me in the narrative when there is lying, manipulation, and a wife in a secret room. It is not an easy thing to do, but Dalton does it. And it’s a feat easy to ignore not only because he is not considered ugly enough to play Rochester, but because the acting talents of leading men in the prime of their prettiness can be easily ignored. But Dalton accomplishes it, his appearance be damned. Dalton’s hotness becomes an argument for actively working to suspend your own disbelief. It is an argument for being open to something new, something we could not have imagined. Even if it means something as simple as accepting for the purposes of this story, Timothy Dalton is ugly. Yes, there are things that can catch and make the suspension of disbelief difficult or, sometimes, even impossible. But the unexpected and wondrous, the amazing and fantastic is out there waiting for us. We just have to be open to it. It is worth doing the work of suspending our own damn disbelief.
*I am thankful that so few adapations embrace casting actresses who successfully play 18. There are complaints about actresses looking too old, but I am thankful for every age-appropriate-looking actress and kind of creeped out by that complaint.
**Jay Patrick, a friend and scholar of all things James Bond calls Dalton, “The Smolder.”
***Bertha / Antoinette Mason is the protagonist of Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), which, strangely enough, I read in a college course on Caribbean literature before I read Jane Eyre. I read Jane Eyre afterwards because it seemed like I should.
****More werewolves drawn by Kate Beaton please.
As for Carol Borden’s thoughts, they are elfish.
The edition I quoted from is Jane Eyre (New York: Doubleday, 1997).
This essay was originally published by The Cultural Gutter on Jan. 23, 2020.