Everyone is writing about Charlotte at the moment as it is 200 years since she was born and, as I have been fascinated by the Brontes since a teenager, see my last post, I am remembering my first reading of Jane Eyre.
I was a frequent visitor to my junior library and such an avid reader that Mrs Collins, the librarian, let me take out two books on each ticket instead of one. Probably to keep me away for a day or so but whatever the reason I was grateful to her. I was there when she put out a new batch of books and there, in the pile, was a little book with a red cover, Jane Eyre. It fitted into my hand and I loved the fresh new pages and the compact size of it and decided it was for me. Mrs Collins tried to deter me pointing out that it was probably a bit old for me and a bit difficult (so what is it doing in a junior library then was my response) and I took it home determined to prove her wrong. It was a Classic and made me feel very grown up.
And I struggled with it. Of course I did. But the story of the wicked stepmother, as I saw Mrs Reed, her ghastly children and their treatment of Jane got to me and by the time she was sent to Lowood I was hooked. I will admit to finding Helen Burns a bit much to take, bit too saintly and long suffering (Esther in Bleak House another one) but she was good to Jane and they loved each other and oh how I cried when she died.
The second half of the book passed me by - after all I was only eleven but I remember finding it rather overwhelming and came back to it a few years later and then, oh my goodness, I was pinned to my sofa or bed or wherever I was reading at the time, and could not put it down. The scene in the orchard in the evening when she cries out to Rochester that just because she is poor and plain does not mean she does not have feelings or a soul like he and claims equality with him.
I got goosebumps all over when I read that and I still do no matter how many times I have read the book, and I have read it many many times throughout my life (am planning another read very soon) and, to me, it is one of the most powerful moments in all literature. At the time of my early reads it did not really sink in just how empowering that cry was and just how shocking it would have been at the time of publication. It was classified as a 'naughty' book and mothers kept it away from their daughters, not so much because of the fact that Jane was in love with a married man, but I suspect more because of the dangerous precedent set in that she believes she is equal to a man.
Of course, when you read more of Charlotte's work you realise that she is Jane, that the anger and frustration of being a woman and circumscribed by her life and status comes pouring out of her while writing. Her own love for Paul Heger in Brussels which brought her to the edge of a nervous breakdown, the return to her bleak home full of heartbreak and sorrow, well how anybody cannot be affected by her life and her writing is difficult to understand.
Jane Eyre brought her fame and fortune and access to the wider life she yearned for and yet, if you read further about her life and her letters, it seems to me that she never really found happiness. It always eluded her until the very end with her marriage to Arthur Bell Nicols which seemed a very sober affair with very little expectation of the married state. But as the months passed and she came to appreciate her loving husband, contentment entered her life and it is simply heartbreaking to read that when she was so ill and dying she woke one night to find her husband praying and weeping and said:
'Oh I am not going to die am I? Not when we have been so happy'
I have a lump in my throat when writing this. It always affects me.
This was the book that really started my adult reading life and remains firmly as one of my favourite books - ever.