Jane Eyre was the novel that opened my eyes to literature. It was the first classic I picked up that I couldn’t put down. I read it from cover to cover in one heady weekend when I was 13: I had a nightmare about Grace Poole on Saturday night, and a sulk on Sunday afternoon when my mother made me put it down to talk to some cousins who’d come for tea. By Sunday evening I was done and I knew, with a certainty I still remember vividly, that literature was my thing . . .
In the months that followed I devoured Villette, Shirley, The Professor, Wuthering Heights, Agnes Grey, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, the juvenilia – any scraps of Brontë I could get my hands on. I joined the Brontë Society, ploughed my way through each issue of the Brontë Journal, Transactions, and made my long-suffering parents take me to the Parsonage at Haworth.
More recently, a few months ago, I was at a dinner at an Oxford college where the subject of life-changing books came up. Over half the literary women present cited Jane Eyre as their revelatory book. This got me wondering why it has had such an impact on multiple generations of readers and why it inspired quite such obsessive teenage devotion to all things Brontë in me. So I’ve been rereading it to see if I can locate the source of its extraordinary power.
Trying to do so is, of course, a bit like trying to be funny while writing about comedy: any attempt seems doomed to fail, and has stumped far more eminent commentators than me. From the moment of its first publication Jane Eyre was a sensation, widely praised by its original critics for its freshness and energy. G. H. Lewes, reviewing the novel in Fraser’s Magazine, thought it was ‘reality – deep, significant reality’ that made it so extraordinary. Virginia Woolf – no slouch when it came to literary criticism – wrote that rereading it paralysed her critical faculties. ‘We open Jane Eyre; and in two pages every doubt is swept clean from our minds . . . Nor is this exhilaration short-lived. It rushes us through the entire volume, without giving us time to think, without letting us lift our eyes from the page.’
Angela Carter testified to the novel’s compulsive readability when she wrote that ‘of all the great novels in the world, Jane Eyre veers the closest towards trash’ – a compliment, if ever there was one. Writing in 1997 Heathe
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