I was a very square teenager, out of step with the 1980s. I have no embarrassing photos of Diana-inspired flicks or Kylie-inspired bubble perms to look back on, because I never experimented with my hair, preferring instead to allow it to grow long down my back. I only rarely wore make-up, and only mascara, so I’ve no photos of the frosted pinks or heather shimmers I remember loving on others. And I had eczema. On occasion really bad, really embarrassing eczema, when my sober, navy blue girls’ grammar school uniform was set off by jazz hands – jaunty, unwantedly attention-seeking white gloves smothered on the inside with steroid creams; when my socks stuck to the open, oozing mess on my feet and had to be peeled away painfully every evening; and when the corners of my mouth cracked and bled slightly when I smiled.
As a distraction from near-constant itching, I always read a lot, turning my attention as a young teenager to the Victorian classics that were to hand both at home and at school and, no doubt in common with many young girls over the past century and a half, I identified with the Bronte heroines in particular. Jane Eyre became a firm favourite: I, too, was small and plain with, I fancied, righteous rage at injustice burning quietly inside. Perhaps my own adventures, perhaps even my own Mr Rochester, would be out there for me somewhere in the big, wide world.
A few months ago, my beautiful, hip thirteen-year-old daughter was mooching about the house declaring herself finally bored of the diversions afforded by her phone. ‘Read something’, I suggested, to sighs and shrugs that she had read everything she had, several times over (probably true, as she is an avid reader). So I suggested we read Jane Eyre together. I was not sure she would be interested in such an anachronism of a book, or indeed whether she would agree to being read to, but she was touchingly keen to experience something different from her usual fare, and to do it with me. For many evenings in the past winter’s months, therefore, I have had the absolute pleasure of her curled up next to me in my bed, as the wind howled and the rained lashed in appropriately Bronte-esque fashion against the windows, her golden hair fanned across the pillow and her pale, thoughtful, freckled face nestled against my shoulder, listening to the tales of Jane, Helen Burns, Mrs Fairfax, Blanche Ingram, Mr Rochester et al with rapt attention. Though the chapters seemed to me sometimes over-long and verbosely Victorian on this re-reading, the first for me in over twenty years, she was gripped and absorbed, giving the timeless story an entertainingly twenty-first century twist when she exclaimed of the rocky road to romance for Jane and Mr Rochester
‘OMG, Jane is TOTALLY friend-zoning Mr Rochester! She needs to stop it!’
Last week, I took her to the touring National Theatre production of Jane Eyre. Watching her being entranced by the play, and talking to her afterwards, adult to almost-adult, about its feminist interpretation, was as satisfying to me as the wonderful production itself.
It turns out you don’t need to feel plain to identify with Jane: the character speaks just as well to a beautiful, well-adjusted teenager, inspiring her to speak her mind, fight against injustice and cruelty, and unlock her full potential to make the most of her life.