Kay Woodward has worked in children's publishing since text was pasted on to acetate and the screen on an Apple Mac monitor was the size of a Penguin classic. First, she edited illustrated non-fiction, then fiction. And then she did what she'd wanted to do all along - she became an author. Her most recent titles are Stars on Ice and Jane Airhead, which is the story of a girl who just LOVES Jane Eyre – the subject of this post.
Kay Woodward on Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
I love Jane Eyre. Not for any grand literary reasons - of which there are many - but because it's simply the best book ever. I first read it when I was eleven, which was... um... ages ago. And since then, I've read my three copies (one 1983 Penguin, one lime-green Penguin and one classy Waterstone's hardback) countless times and watched every film and TV adaptation. Occasionally, whenever I come across a really fabulous book, like William Boyd's Any Human Heart or Graham Swift's Waterland or Julian Barnes's Love, Etc, I'm briefly tempted to say that it's my favourite book, but I know deep down that it isn't. That's still Jane Eyre.
Jane Eyre is the story of a poor, unloved orphan who's been reluctantly raised by relatives that are officially despicable. As soon as possible, Jane is offloaded to Lowood Institution - a charity school that's a hotbed of 19th-century disease, cruelty and death - where she survives thanks to her supreme gutsiness.
After completing her education, Jane Eyre's lack of funds means that she's forced to stay on at Lowood as a teacher. But she has an escape plan and secures a position as a governess to a Mr Edward Fairfax Rochester's young ward. With relief, she sets off to the gorgeously gothic Thornfield Hall to begin her new life.
And then Jane meets Mr Rochester.
I could wax lyrical for weeks about this, without coming close to describing the drama, humour and pure wow of the complex relationship between Jane and Rochester. But Charlotte Brontë does it so much better. Suffice to say that Mr Rochester is charmed by Jane, who manages not to faint with delight in a billowing heap of 19th-century skirts. She is no pushover. In the end, Rochester does win her over. And soon afterwards, his mysterious past catches up with him, everything goes horribly wrong and he loses her again. Jane leaves - her principles allow her no other option. It's all very complicated and totally gripping and I'm not going to go into it further for fear of spoiling the rest of the book for anyone who hasn't read it yet.
Jane Eyre does not star the archetypal heroine. At the beginning of the novel, she's small, plain and very feisty. And by the end, she might be a little taller, but she's still plain (there's no let-your-hair-down-Jane-and-take-your-glasses-off-and-wow-how-beautiful-you-are moment) and she's still feisty. She doesn't suffer fools and she stands up for herself. Jane Eyre is, quite simply, great.
Mr Rochester is larger than life. Loud and unfeasibly grumpy, he's verging on ugly (although I am sure Charlotte Brontë must have been mistaken on this point) and his closet is rammed with skeletons. But he has a wicked sense of humour and a habit of emerging from the mist on a rearing horse. In short, he's fantastic. Step aside, Darcy.
[Am I allowed to digress very slightly by mentioning the BBC's 1983 version of Jane Eyre, starring Zelah Clarke as Jane and Timothy Dalton as Rochester that I taped on cassette - that's audio, not even Betamax - every Sunday evening? Hmm. Thought not. But it made me love the book even more.]
In Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë has written a book that is rich with description. The northern setting is beautiful, yet dark and real. Thornfield Hall is magnificently gloomy. I adore the opening scene where Jane is squirrelled away on a windowseat - I still have serious windowseat envy - reading secretly, while the rain batters on the windowpane.
The author whisks her reader through pretty much every emotion in the spectrum. I remember sobbing over Lowood, gasping over Rochester's first dramatic appearance and wailing 'nooooo' over the wedding that never was. (I also remember being seriously puzzled over why everyone kept slurring Sinjin instead of St John in TV adaptations. Why is that?)
Jane Eyre is a book to curl up with on a rainy Saturday afternoon. It's unconventional (and remarkably so for the time it was written), it's filled with surprises, it's bristling with villains and the star is a girl who should probably have been content to sit back and do as she was told. Thank goodness Charlotte Brontë's character didn't do that.
Reader, it's smashing.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]