Friday, 7 October 2011

Spiced butternut squares (and two Jane Eyres)

I went to see the new film of Jane Eyre at the cinema last night. The novel I enjoyed immensely, but, like several other Victorian novels, it was only truly brought to life for me by a TV adaptation (another example being the splendid TV adaptation of Dickens's labyrinthine novel Bleak House). The adaptation in question is the fairly recent BBC version starring Toby Stephens and Ruth Wilson as Mr Rochester and Jane.

What don't I love about this version? I think it is possibly the best attempt to capture the spirit of a novel that I have ever seen, excepting perhaps Bleak House. None of this could have been done without the brilliant acting and the excellent script. What I think is really important about the BBC version is that it modernises the dialogue between Jane and Mr Rochester. Not much, barely even perceptibly, but it adds a level of banter and flirtation that isn't really there in the book, whilst still retaining the archaic feel of the speech. I love the bit where Jane, by now clearly smitten with the inscrutable Rochester, has to return home to visit her dying aunt. She must ask Rochester for her overdue wages in order to fund her journey, and there follows a charming exchange where he jokingly accuses her of being a "mercenary girl" and refuses to hand over all she is owed in order to ensure she returns to claim the rest. This exchange doesn't jar with the 19th-century setting, but it, to me, transforms Jane and Rochester into real people, the kind of people a modern audience can identify with.

Another excellent quality of the BBC version is that, to me, it perfectly portrays the blossoming of romance between two people. It excels at capturing the tension inherent in stolen glances, chance meetings, casual phrases loaded with meaning. One must almost stop and remember, watching it, that one is not Jane Eyre, and not falling in love with Rochester themselves (although the handsome ruggedness of the rather dashing Toby Stephens does little to help them). Consequently, the scene where Jane is finally made aware of Rochester's feelings towards her is an emotional triumph. So easy to sound trite and stilted, Jane's speech,

"Do you think that because I am poor, plain, obscure and little, that I am soulless and heartless? I have as much soul as you, and as much heart, and if God had blessed me with some wealth or beauty I would make it as hard for you to leave me now as it is for me to leave you."

is fully believable, the perfect culmination of the emotional tension that has built up over the episodes. Rochester's proposal, uttered in a hoarse, urgent growl, is in no way a crass attempt to turn Victorian novel into romantic comedy. Rather, it is almost entirely unromantic in its sheer desperation and hurriedness. The only concession to Hollywood-style overload is when a torrential rainstorm appears out of the blue as Rochester kisses Jane, forcing them to seek shelter after running back to Thornfield. Perhaps this wasn't entirely necessary, but it doesn't ruin the perfect interaction that has preceded. 

Finally, the scene where Jane is reunited with Rochester is enough to make anyone weep. Its portrayal of the solitary, irascible Rochester demanding his candles - "Do you think that just because I'm blind I don't need them?!" - is quite within character, and again reminds us of that very human ill-tempered streak that has proved so charming in him thus far, when it has been directed at, and softened by, Jane. His desperation as he clutches Jane's proffered hand and realises "these are Jane Eyre's fingers" is pitiable and adorable, and the sheer emotion in his sightless eyes immensely touching. Then, of course, in true Rochester style he goes and cracks some self-deprecating joke. 

This, for me, encapsulates what is so brilliant about this adaptation. It allows us to believe fully in the love shared by Jane and Rochester. It's no use taking for granted that all the viewers know that Bronte's novel is a great love story, and hoping that will suffice regardless of the chemistry between the actors and characters on screen. The BBC version allows us to identify with the star-crossed pair; it brings the love story into the modern age, fleshes out Bronte's original dialogue with banter, joking and flirtation, and allows us to see Jane and Rochester as we might see one of those great modern couples: Jack and Rose from Titanic, or perhaps Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew from the hugely successful One Day (as you may suspect, I also loved this novel). We can empathise, relate, understand, which means we can fully appreciate Jane and Rochester getting it together, as much as we can mourn their separation and rejoice in their final reunion. This version, for me, is the definitive Jane Eyre

I also think Ruth Wilson is an excellent choice for the role. Her Jane is, just as Bronte specified, plain. The grey dresses and harsh hairstyle the BBC have placed her in for most of the screen time don't do her any favours, yet you can see flashes of a potentially beautiful woman every now and again, usually when she is happy after something Rochester has said or done. She has a charming little smile that cannot help but make her look like a naughty child, which appears in her flirtatious interactions with her master. It is the perfect expression for a timid young woman who, deprived of love and comfort for most of her life, finally stumbles upon a kindred spirit. We can fully identify with the girlish Jane's embarrassed little grin, the grin of one who is in the first flush of romance. 

So the new film, starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fasssbender, had a lot to live up to. I'd love to say it did this admirably. One of my good friends who shares most of my views on literature and cinema, told me that it was the best Jane Eyre she'd seen, that it surpassed the BBC version and that she found herself weeping at the end. I went with high hopes. 

Unfortunately, the film did not live up to those hopes.

There are several major differences between the film and the TV series. Obviously, the film is shorter. This, I think, accounts for many of its defects. With four hours to play with, the BBC had plenty of time to drag out the initial interaction between Jane and Rochester, to add in all those little quirks of romance that make it so realistic, so charming, and so emotive. A film that isn't even two hours long can hardly hope to do this. There was none of the banter, none of the flirtation, none of the blossoming romance between Jane and her master. The first glimpse of attraction came, as in the TV series, when Jane saved Rochester from a fiery death courtesy of the mad Bertha Mason. They stand there in the smoky room, silhouetted against the embers, lips barely a centimetre apart, before Jane remembers her place and leaves, remarking that she is cold. 

In the BBC version, this scene doesn't seem at all out of place; there has been a previous scene between Jane and Rochester by the fireplace at Thornfield that sets up the initial attraction, and - I can't quite put my finger on why - the closeness between the characters doesn't seem odd or jarring. In the film, I turned to my friend and said "Well that's a bit forward, isn't it?" Their lips were practically touching. It seemed totally out of character, totally bizarre, for the cold and reserved Jane to be doing such a thing. Especially because she had spent the previous scene, her first real conversation with Rochester, looking thoroughly bored and unaffected by his harsh mannerisms and his obvious desire to elicit some sort of reaction from her. I wouldn't have been that surprised had Wasikowska's Jane let him burn in his bed.

The next thing you know, Jane has come back from her visit to Aunt Reed and thinks Mr Rochester is making plans to marry Blanche Ingram. There follows the speech, the "poor, plain, obscure and little" speech that I await with bated breath every time I watch the BBC version. It didn't have the same effect, not at all. For a start, in the TV series Jane's agony at thinking Rochester in love with Blanche is long drawn out. He does nothing to assuage her worries, making her think he is going to marry Blanche (and even discussing sending Jane to Ireland as she won't be needed once he sends Adele to school) before, at the last minute, breaking the news that it is Jane he loves and is preparing to marry. The relief of this tension accounts for the emotional and touching scene between the two as he proposes. In the film there was no such tension, no sense of Jane's pain as she falls in love with a Rochester whom, she presumes, loves another. In fact, her display of emotion when she gives her speech comes as rather a surprise. Since when is she in love with Rochester?

Having failed to set up this romance, the film cannot hope to redeem itself. There is just no emotion or power behind any of the words. I don't want to confuse this with bad acting; I think Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender are excellent as Jane and Rochester. As excellent as the constraints of a very limited script and time frame can possibly allow them to be. Fassbender perfectly captures the enigmatic Rochester's character, the fine line he seems to be treading constantly between rage and despair. Jane is quite the plain, reserved, guarded creature Bronte - I'm sure - intended her to be. Yet I feel she is too guarded. Wilson was brilliant because she perfectly captured that intense hunger for love and affection that Jane, shown nothing but spite for most of her childhood and adolescence, would no doubt evince in every part of her life. You can't imagine Wasikowska's Jane passionately loving anyone at all.

Another interesting feature of the film is its focus on Jane. When watching the BBC version, the viewer is undoubtedly encouraged to identify with Jane. I may think this because I am female and therefore obviously going to align myself with Jane, especially if it means ogling the exquisitely rugged Rochester, but I don't think that's the only reason. The novel is, after all, called Jane Eyre, not Edward Rochester. We travel with Jane throughout life; we experience her pain, anguish, joy and passion. The film, I felt, did the opposite. The focus was always on Jane, but Jane as Rochester might see her. This might just be its way of capitalising upon what is obviously a very attractive female lead, but I found the constant focus on Jane rather tedious. There was little chance for Rochester to express himself; there was no real mention of his dark past in the Caribbean, or in France where he met the mother of Adele. We did not feel, along with Jane, the intense moods of her capricious master; rather, we felt Jane's cold, guarded exterior as Rochester might. I almost wanted to yell at the screen "HE MADE A JOKE! SMILE, FOR GOD'S SAKE!" but she never did. 

This, I think, is another problem of the film. It completely sapped the story of humour. Whereas the viewer of the TV series can enjoy Rochester's banter and the contribution it makes to the budding romance, the film just felt dark and oppressive. This is exacerbated by the camera work; everything is always dark, barely lit by a single candle, with most scenes taking place in close rooms or bad weather. Contrast this with the BBC scene in which Rochester points out a dragonfly while on a springtime walk with Jane, a reminder of the love of nature they both share, and a scene that shows there were, indeed, happy times in the courtship of Jane and her master. In the film there are no such happy times. I don't think Jane smiles at all in the entire thing, nor Rochester. It is grave, humourless, and consequently entirely incomprehensible why these two end up together. How can a couple fall in love if they can't have fun?

On a positive note, I think Mia Wasikowska, visually, is a wonderful Jane. She manages to be plain yet beautiful, to seem small and reserved as Bronte's Jane does. Her acting is excellent; she plays the part she has been given very well. It's just a shame that the part she is playing is not, for me, what Jane Eyre is all about. Michael Fassbender is equally good in the acting sense, but again, I think there is something missing in his portrayal of Rochester. I know what should be missing in his portrayal of Rochester - those ghastly sideburns.

Which brings me on to the ending of the film. Firstly, entirely ruined by a ridiculous beard sported by Fassbender. Yes, this is totally shallow and not really in keeping with the rather serious 'film critic' tone I have adopted hitherto, but it must be said. He looks like a caveman. When he and Jane kiss, instead of thinking "aww", all I am thinking is "how can she even FIND his mouth?" Fortunately, Jane then lays her head against his chest, hiding the beard so that we can only see Rochester from the nose upwards. As I whispered to my friend "That's better - now we can find him attractive again". I wonder if this was done on purpose to ensure the cinemagoers left on a high, rather than on a note of revulsion. I think Gillette definitely missed a trick here by failing to capitalise upon an excellent opportunity for some subliminal advertising. 

On a more serious note, I did not like the ending. The general formula is the same as the TV series, but all the emotion was missing. I found it hard to care that Jane had been reunited with her lover, and that he was sadly blind. He thinks he is in a dream; she tells him, "awaken, then". Then the credits roll. My friend shouted rather loudly, "Surely not?!" as the screen went dark. It felt unsatisfactory somehow, even corny. I was expecting a flood of emotion; instead, I just looked at my watch and was glad it wasn't even 10.30pm yet, and I had time for a cup of tea before bed.

I hope I am not being too unfair to the film version. As I mentioned before, I think a lot of its faults are down to it having only half the time of its TV counterpart. But a single scene like the dragonfly one mentioned above, a single joke shared between the lovers, may have redeemed the whole affair. Yet we were not to have one. Instead we had a lot of sullen looks, a tiny amount of sexual tension, an exhausting amount of candlelit faces (I think I broke my contact lenses straining my eyes trying to see properly) and a film that, to be perfectly honest, seemed a little bit pointless. It brought nothing new to Jane Eyre, a statement which cannot be said for the TV version. The BBC brought modern romance to Bronte's classic; it brought it into the 21st century, it made us realise why we should care about a love story set in Victorian times, and it provided something truly compelling and touching from start to finish. The film is, in my opinion, entirely forgettable. 

As this is a blog about food, and I have yet to mention the subject, I thought about coming up with some tenuous link between Jane Eyre and this recipe. I considered the following:

a) Well, no wonder Jane and Rochester looked so miserable in the film. They clearly hadn't been eating these BUTTERNUT SQUARES OF SUNSHINE.

b) I just couldn't stand how gloomy the film was. Every scene was so dark. If only they'd had some of these BUTTERNUT SQUARES OF SUNSHINE in each scene.

c) Odd that the Jane in the TV series was a brunette, and yet Mia Wasikowska's Jane had auburn hair. Hair the colour of these BUTTERNUT SQUARES!

d) If only Rochester had made Jane a batch of these BUTTERNUT SQUARES after his deceit and bigamy necessitated the abandonment of their wedding. I'm sure she could have forgiven him his treachery and raving wife if she'd had enough pumpkin goodness in her stomach.

e) This recipe is almost as yummy as Toby Stephens.

None of them seemed quite fitting, in the end, so I abandoned the idea. Instead, I present you with a recipe that has nothing at all to do with Jane Eyre. I just had to get the above rant off my chest, and thought it might inspire some interesting discussion.

Back to cooking.

For a while now I've been nursing a severe craving for pumpkin pie. This is odd, because I have never had pumpkin pie. It's a distinctly American thing, one which we Brits don't really embrace, so I don't even know what it tastes like. However, I remember eating an incredible sort of pumpkin 'flan' in Venice a couple of years ago. It had a smooth, creamy texture, and an intense richness of flavour redolent of butter and spice. It was served with a scattering of grated ricotta salata, a wonderful cheese rather like feta in its saltiness, and one that I absolutely cannot find over here (a fact that pains me greatly). In my mind, I imagine pumpkin pie to have that wonderful texture and depth of flavour, but with added sweetness. It's one of those things that I just know I would like, were I to try it.

Mind you, I also thought I would like liver, but my first experience of that was a deeply unpleasant one. However, my faith remains in pumpkin pie. It will save me.

I'm going to have a go at making my own soon, but in the meantime these cake squares are the perfect thing to sate my pumpkin craving. I was going to make pumpkin scones, which I keep seeing everywhere on food blogs (again, I think it's an American thing...apparently they sell them in Starbucks over there, which is probably why I've never seen one because I hate Starbucks and refuse to enter its premises), but then I found a recipe for pumpkin cake bars which looked so delicious and intriguing that I just had to try it. After the success of my courgette and cardamom brownies, I'm always ready to rise to the challenge of including vegetables in baked goods.

It's quite hard to imagine the flavour of a cake whose main ingredient is butternut squash. I assure you, however, that these are delicious. They taste rather like gingerbread, thanks to my heavy-handedness with the mixed spice, with a sweet, caramel note that you can't quite place - that's the squash (I tend to use squash rather than pumpkin in cooking, because its flesh isn't as watery and it makes a better purée). They have a really moist texture thanks to the squash, and I added some pumpkin seeds for a bit of contrast. To bring the whole thing together, a drizzle of orange icing. 

If you passed these off as 'gingerbread' to friends and family, they'd never know. My mum asked me what they were, and I tried this, but she was persistent. "What's the secret ingredient? I know there's some sort of vegetable in there". Fear not, readers - this is only because she knows me and she knows my penchant for including something rather weird in nearly everything I cook. However, she liked these very much, as will anyone you bake them for.

They're also pretty healthy, as baked goods go - spelt flour, lots of butternut squash, agave nectar to replace some of the sugar, only a tiny bit of fat, plus pumpkin seeds which are pretty good for you. In fact, they're probably the healthiest thing I've ever baked. Again, don't let this put you off - it just means you can eat more of them. You wouldn't guess from the taste, which is really moist and delicious, despite the absence of butter.

Incidentally, I always think it's odd that something with the name "butternut" can be so good for you. Perhaps it was a marketing gimmick designed to make people eat up their root vegetables. 

I reckon these would be great with a cup of Chai tea, if you're feeling the need for a warming spice overload. Though normal tea is a good accompaniment too. Eat, sip, snuggle, and embrace the onset of autumn.

Spiced butternut squares (makes 16):
(Adapted from 'Chocolate Covered Katie', here)

300g butternut squash, cubed, roasted until soft then puréed in a blender
100g spelt flour
3/4 tsp cinnamon
3/4 tsp mixed spice
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 egg
3 tbsp agave nectar (or light brown sugar/honey)
2 tbsp light brown sugar
2 tbsp milk
1 tbsp rapeseed (or other flavourless) oil
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
3 tbsp pumpkin seeds
Icing sugar (about 100g)
1 tbsp fresh orange juice, for icing

Pre-heat the oven to 180C/fan 160C. Grease and line an 8x8in traybake tin with baking parchment.

In a large bowl, mix together the flour, spices, baking powder, salt and sugar. Add the squash purée, egg, agave nectar, milk, oil and vanilla. Mix well until the mixture is thoroughly combined, then fold in the pumpkin seeds.

Pour into the prepared tin and bake for 20 minutes. Allow to cool in the tin for a few minutes before turning out onto a cooling rack. When cool, slice into 16 squares.

To ice, mix the icing sugar with a little orange juice to form a fairly thick icing (you might not need all the juice). Drizzle over the cooled squares.

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  1. Love Jane Eyer:) Not watching without box of tissues:)

  2. NOOOOO! You are so wrong! I am going to have to watch the Toby Stephens version now to compare. I really am deeply upset you didn't like it. And the ending was PERFECT! Simplicity at its best. I was weeping. (Though admittedly the beard was a tad too far)

  3. How funny! I just wrote a post on Jane Eyre as well! I am in the States, but I've wanted an alternative fall-flavored (flavoured) treat and I think I will convert this to standard measurements!

    I must disagree about the Jane Eyre interpretations though--as a tot, the Timothy Dalton-Zelah Clarke version on BBC is what introduced me to the Brontes, and it is the best :)

  4. I've not been to see the new Jane Eyre yet...and not sure I'll bother now! But would love to try your spiced butternut squares...they look like perfect comforting autumnal baking :-)

  5. chewingthefat - love your blog and the Victorian literature references! I haven't actually seen that BBC version, shamefully - I might have to hunt it down!

    littleloaf - it's interesting to see as a comparison point, but I don't think it's a particularly great film in its own right. However I wouldn't want anyone to miss out because of me...!

  6. Went to see Jane Eyre last night and loved it (but I totally agree with you about the beard and ending)! For me it was a visual treat and really brought out the gothic aspect of the story.

    Re pumpkin pie, I've had it in Canada and here in the UK and frankly don't get what the fuss is all about. Hope you try it sometime though and manage to find/create THE very best recipe.

    Moving on to your Butternut Squares, definately a recipe to save! Looking at the ingredients I thought it might be a good one to veganise (I'm not a vegan, just interested in the challenge) then saw that your starting point inspiration was indeed vegan.

    Found you via twitter and now following....


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