On the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth
by Samantha Ellis
Saturday 16 April 2016 08.00 BST
The trouble is that I read Wuthering Heights first. I lost my heart to Cathy Earnshaw (and, to be truthful, to Heathcliff), and next to her passion, her wildness, her rage, Jane seemed dull. Why would I read about her stoically suffering at school, plodding through her teaching jobs and marrying her boss when I could rock out with my hairbrush microphone, pretending I was Kate Bush? I was banging on about this when we made the pilgrimage to the moors for my book How to Be a Heroine, and my best friend Emma made me reconsider. She argued that Jane was independent and principled, a woman who stayed true to herself, didn’t suffer fools and fought her way to a hard-won happy ending.
Reading Jane Eyre again as an adult was a revelation. I loved how Jane addressed me boldly from the first page, how she challenged the injustices of her aunt’s household (a place where books were used as weapons), how she raged at Rochester that “women feel just as men feel” and how she rejected her cousin’s passionless proposal, because she wanted love and she didn’t see why she shouldn’t get it. Plus, with Jane Eyre, you get two heroines in one: angry, misunderstood Bertha is much, much more than just a madwoman in the attic, and nothing in the novel is as powerful as her final moment, standing on the battlements of the house she has set fire to, “black hair … streaming against the flames”.
I am still grateful to Wuthering Heights for encouraging a shy and awkward teenager to be a little wild. I still find Rochester bullying and creepy. And I have started to see how much Charlotte owes to her little sister Anne, who got there first with her portrayal of a plain, poor governess, in Agnes Grey. I think I’ll be reading (and arguing about) Jane Eyre for the rest of my life.