On the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth
by Blake Morrison
I grew up not many miles from Haworth, in a vicarage at the top of a village; my mother, like Patrick Brontë, had come from Ireland; the landscape we looked out on resembled the one Jane Eyre wanders through after fleeing Thornfield Hall: “[the roads] are all cut in the moor, and the heather grows wild and deep.” The novel wasn’t on the syllabus at my grammar school; no self-respecting teenage boy would have wanted to be seen with it. But the sense of recognition I felt when I read it was immense. All adolescents feel like victims, and the mistreatment of Jane in the early chapters, first by Mrs Reed then by Mr Brocklehurst, put me firmly on her side. I too knew what it was like to be humiliated in class (the slate-dropping episode) and to lose a close friend (as she does Helen Burns). I too distrusted wealth and finery. Never mind Jane’s gender: it was the two of us against the world! Whether Mr Rochester would prove worthy seemed doubtful. The romantic denouement engaged me less than the impediments along the way: Miss Ingram; mad Bertha (we too had a scary attic); the halting of the wedding ceremony. But I liked the teasing and banter, and there were ideas to grapple with, too, about class and work and beauty. Above all, there was Jane’s denunciation of female servitude. Women, she says, “need exercise for their faculties … they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded … to say they ought to confine themselves to making puddings”.A hundred and twenty years after the book came out, that idea still met occasional resistance, especially in laddish rural outposts. But Jane Eyre showed it was plain common sense. Soon we’d all be reading The Female Eunuch. But Charlotte Brontë led the way.