Over on the Stuck In A Book blog there was a little poll to discover whether readers preferred Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights. I voted for the latter but we Emilys were heavily outnumbered by the Charlottes. Simon himself says that he favours JE although WH is the better book. What is the perennial hold of Jane Eyre on the imagination? Personally I loathe the wretched book, yet every now and then I just have to read it again. I think it makes a difference when you read it. I was given a copy, the very one shown here, when I was really too young for it. These Regent Classics were sold in Woolworths (eheu!) for 2/6d, so we had quite a few of them.
It certainly grabbed my imagination then. The Red Room! Lowood! Mr Brocklehurst! The noises in the night! I found it quite frightening and imagined I could hear mad cackling right outside my bedroom door. Reading it again when I was older I found that Jane was such an irritating child that I began to sympathise with Mrs Reed; Mr Brocklehurst was a cardboard cut-out villain; Jane had a massive ego; Mr Rochester was cruel. I understood Virginia Woolf’s comment on Charlotte Brontë that ‘she writes of herself when she should write of her characters.’ It is probably the most referenced book in English literature. Sometimes it’s just a throwaway line, like Harriet Vane saying to Lord Peter Wimsey, ‘Oh, Mr Rochester’, when he gives her a mink cloak. Sometimes a whole book; The Brontës Went to Woolworths or Tea with Mr Rochester. Reader, I married him is quoted everywhere. There is an assumption that absolutely everybody who reads, has read this book.
This is true even of children’s books and I want to share with you the wonderful running critique of Jane Eyre in Hilary McKay’s The Exiles in Love.
(This is the third Exiles book and let me tell any intellectual snobs out there that Hilary McKay is a very good writer indeed and that her books can be enjoyed by people of all ages.) The four Conroy sisters are all avid readers and Ruth, the eldest at fourteen, is reading Jane Eyre. She writes in her diary, Burnt porridge is not half as bad as she makes out. Then she inconveniently falls in love with the school bus driver so escapes back into JE. Helen Burns is dying at Jane Eyre’s school but Jane hasn’t noticed. Alas for Ruth! ‘Forty pages after Jane hadn’t noticed the illness of poor Helen, Mr Rochester arrived, tumbling from his horse at her undeserving feet and Ruth…was flattened again.’ She is now in love with Mr Rochester. There’s a lot more but I won’t spoil it.
Wuthering Heights is quite another matter. F R Leavis wrote, ‘There is, of course, only one Brontë,’ and he meant Emily. I don’t need Leavis to tell me what to think but I do agree with that judgement. It’s a tremendously powerful novel which is at once gothick and modern. The characters seem doomed in the tradition of classical tragedy and there is a Shakespearean plot device in chapter IX which is the equivalent of the handkerchief in Othello. Jane Eyre is chicklit in comparison.