On the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth
by Helen Simpson
Saturday 16 April 2016 08.00 BST
I was 10 when first I read Jane Eyre, thrilled that this heroine of a grown-up book was the same age as me, for the first 100 pages at least. The book itself was small, crimson, second-hand, its print fascinatingly spidery on very thin paper. I asked for another one like that when my 11th birthday came round and received a Brontë bargain bumper-pack. More than three inches thick and almost 3lbs in weight (I’ve just checked), three sisters for the price of one, it lumped Emily and Anne in with Charlotte.
Having said thank you, I returned discreetly to the little second-hand edition. The child heroine’s first-person centrality, her super-sensitivity to injustice and her impassioned yet powerless state all commanded my readerly identification. Jane and I were one as we defied Aunt Reed, rubbed our chilblains, revered Rasselas-reading Helen Burns, raged at the headband marked “Slattern”. Ah, the solace of Miss Temple’s seed cake! And how rousing were Jane’s regular Miltonic blasts against tyranny; though I find on recent rereading that she was not quite the revolutionary I took her for (domestic endearment and household joys are “the best things the world has”, she declares to refrigerator suitor St John Rivers somewhere in Jane Eyre’s remaining four-fifths). Even so, who could resist a novel where the heroine sets her course by the moral compass of Bunyan’s pilgrim while her passions blaze with Byronic ardour from beginning to end? I took it to heart when I was 10, and there it has stayed.