On the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth
by John Mullan
Saturday 16 April 2016 08.00 BST
I did not read Jane Eyre until I was in my 20s and fancied I was an educated judge of the means by which novels achieved their effects – but I still found it simply overpowering. The novel’s first readers, either appalled or enraptured, thought that they had never heard a narrative voice like Jane Eyre’s, so truculent and dissatisfied. And that voice is still the thing. Jane’s dissatisfaction is magnificent – a deep hunger for warmth and love, but even more for truth and freedom.
I love the book for refusing to trick you into loving it. Jane Eyre takes the reader into her confidence like no narrator before in English fiction, yet does so in order to correct you, or wrangle with you, or even admonish you. “Oh romantic reader, forgive me for telling the plain truth!” What daring! To invent a narrator who demands our intimacy but remains so intelligently suspicious of our sympathy. She will not charm us: so, though often sardonic, she is almost never humorous (“Do you never laugh, Miss Eyre?” asks Mr Rochester).
Above all, she is weirdly eloquent. I love her strange, elevated language, distilled from religious texts and literary romance – the Bible and Byron stirred together: “Something of vengeance I had tasted for the first time; as aromatic wine it seemed, on swallowing, warm and racy.” This is Jane recalling how, at 10 years old, she defeats her cruel Aunt Reed in dispute. As everywhere else in Jane Eyre, her highly wrought words make experience fresh and intense once again.