On the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth
by Sarah Waters
Sarah WatersSaturday 16 April 2016 08.00 BST
I first read Jane Eyre as a teenager, but have returned to it many times since; it is one of those novels that, with each rereading, only seems to grow richer. My favourite lines come just over halfway through, when Jane is engaged in one of her many wrangles with the teasing Mr Rochester. “Do you think,” she asks him, “because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!” The lines capture part of the appeal that the book has always had for me: the small, unglamorous, passionate figure staking her claim to equality, insisting on her right to feel, to act, to matter. Meanwhile, however, up on “the fateful third storey” of Thornfield Hall, the inconvenient first wife gives her “goblin ha! ha!” … What I love most about Jane Eyre is the way it combines vastly different narrative registers, with mad Bertha Rochester prowling just below the realist surface and occasionally erupting though it to start a fire, bite a shoulder or rend a wedding veil. With her, Brontë created the sort of gothic icon – like Dracula or Mr Hyde – that it is now hard to imagine the world ever having been without. Just like Jane herself, Bertha lives on in many forms – and gets her own story, of course, in another inspiring novel, Jean Rhys’s prequel to Jane Eyre, a brilliant bit of post-colonial revisionism Wide Sargasso Sea.