On the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth
by Teresa Hadley
Saturday 16 April 2016 08.00 BST
Jane Eyre is so built into the shape of my imagination that I can hardly think about it critically; I’m always in among its trees – the sturdy, northern, low-growing hawthorn and hazel bushes of its terrain – and can’t dispassionately estimate the size of the wood. The novel touches not one responsive note in me, but a whole sequence of them, each quite distinct. There’s the little girl Jane, reading and dreaming in her window seat behind the drawn curtain, looking through the glass at the dreary November afternoon outside. There’s Jane the governess at Thornfield, knowing she ought to be grateful because she is employed and fed and sheltered, yet still divinely discontented.“Anybody may blame me who likes … I longed for a power of vision which might overpass that limit.” There’s Jane after she has inherited her fortune, joyously and fervidly domestic, cleaning down Moor House from chamber to cellar, getting ready for Christmas. And then there’s the dreamlike reconciliation with Rochester at the end of the novel, dark with the “small, penetrating rain” of overgrown Ferndean.
I do have my reservations; I’ve never been able to believe in Mr Rochester and his ponderous teasing courtship, no matter how hard I try. I don’t think Charlotte Brontë had met enough worldly men – he sounds like an unworldly woman’s idea of one. But the novel entrances me, literally – there are any number of passages that induce a submission in me that goes beyond critical appreciation: they have a dream-like power. Its symbolism, woven into the textures of its realism, transports me each time to the familiar ritual place, with its secret life that doesn’t fail. The morning after Jane’s coming together with Rochester in the orchard at Thornfield, “the great horse chestnut at the bottom of the orchard had been struck by lightning in the night, and half of it split away”.