One afternoon, when I was about 11 years old, I came home with a school library book and showed it to my mother. It was a very slim volume that I expected to get through that evening, and it had attracted me because of the promise of a mad woman in an attic. My mother looked at it in horror. “You are not reading that!” she insisted. “Take it back to the library tomorrow. I’ll read you the proper book.” And she took from her bookshelf a copy of Jane Eyre, about 20 times the size of the abridged edition I had brought home, and that evening she began to read it to me. For night after night I lay on her bed as she knitted and read, and I was totally entranced. So many readers have shared my raptures at first encountering Charlotte’s wonderful novel. The first ‘reader’ at the firm which published the book cancelled all his engagements and stayed up all night until he’d finished the story. It is a great and gripping book.
This month, on 21 April, it is Charlotte Brontë’s 200th birthday. There are plenty of good ways to celebrate this important anniversary. You could read Claire Harman’s excellent new biography Charlotte Brontë: A Life, you could listen to an audio version of Jane Eyre which will help you find things in it that you have never noticed before, or you could try some of Charlotte’s other novels. Many critics think that her greatest work is Villette. I find it an intriguing novel, with one of the strangest heroines in fiction, and an even stranger hero, but it is a masterly study of loneliness. The use of French is inconsistent and odd, but Lucy Snowe’s plight does grip you and it is a book you must read if you want to really understand Charlotte herself. Shirley, which was written while her sisters were dying, is an uneven novel, but it has a lovely beginning: “Of late years an abundant shower of curates has fallen upon the north of England: they lie very thick on the hills, every parish has one or more of them; they are young enough to be active, and ought to be doing a great deal of good.” I love the idea of “a shower of curates”. I’m not keen on The Professor which was published posthumously, but you might like to give it a try. You could also consider joining the Australian Brontë Association or you could come along to some of the talks I am giving this year about Charlotte’s life and works.
Soon after his only last child Charlotte died in 1855, the Reverend Patrick Brontë requested her friend and fellow novelist, Elizabeth Gaskell, to write his daughter’s biography. The result was The Life of Charlotte Brontë, published in 1867, which has long been regarded as a classic. However at the time it caused a furor. Read about this in my Literary Snapshot.
I am grateful to my mother for saving me from a bastardised version of Jane Eyre (I do wonder how much was left of Jane’s story in that very thin volume?) and for making sure that my first experience of such a great classic was so fabulously memorable.
What are your memories of your first encounter with Charlotte Brontë? Visit my Facebook page and join in the conversation.
Happy 200th birthday, Charlotte!
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