It was a rainy summer’s day and I was ten and bored. I’d raced through all my holiday library books and read my own books three times each. In desperation I peered at the dull-seeming volumes in my parents’ bookcase. There was a little red leatherette book at one end, smaller than the others, almost the size of a children’s book. It was called Jane Eyre. I picked it up and opened the first page.
There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. I was hooked from that beginning. I read on, learning that Jane was ten like me and horribly bullied by her cousins. They were early nineteenth century children but they seemed extraordinarily real. I read on, becoming increasingly indignant on Jane’s behalf. By teatime I’d read about her experiences at a hateful boarding school and was already certain that Jane Eyre was my favourite book ever.
It still is! I’m not sure that I read about Jane’s adult romance with Mr Rochester at that time, but when I was fourteen we were given Jane Eyre to read in English at school. We took it in turns to read passages of the book in class. I was a shy girl, but I loved reading aloud. Our English teacher had me read the whole of chapter 35, the thrilling part where Rochester calls Jane’s name desperately and she hears him, though she’s hundreds of miles away. I shivered with excitement as I read, and it’s still one of my favourite passages.
Jane’s such an unusual heroine, poor, small and plain, but with such a fiery and determined spirit that she makes a marvellous feminist role-model
I don’t know how many times I’ve read Jane Eyre since. It’s such a powerful, passionate book, and startlingly original. It’s the first English novel to begin with a child narrator. Jane’s such an unusual heroine, poor, small and plain, but with such a fiery and determined spirit that she makes a marvelous feminist role-model. There’s not a dull chapter in the book. Each forms an important link in Jane’s autobiography, forging it into a perfect satisfying whole.
Of course Charlotte Bronte wrote other novels too. Villette is another masterpiece, but not as intense and extraordinary. She also wrote Shirley and The Professor, various poems and an enormous amount of juvenilia. I’ve read Mrs Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Bronte and at least a dozen more recent biographies
I’ve visited Haworth Parsonage many times, always thrilled to see the ‘little books’ Charlotte wrote as a child, her writing desk, her tiny dress, her wedding bonnet. You can easily conjure up images of Charlotte and her siblings cooped up in the dark Parsonage and rambling on the wild moors that stretch for miles.
I’m so proud that the Bronte Society has made me a Charlotte Bronte ambassador in this, her bicentenary year. I look forward to doing an event in Haworth in October, and I shall be taking part in readings and discussions at the Sir John Soane’s museum and the British Library on Thursday 21st April. I shall make it my mission to encourage as many other people as I can to discover the joys of reading Jane Eyre too.