It is true that even weary, book-learned literary critical detectives were young once. Many years ago I attended a fine and respectable school in the south of England. I was a diligent and purposeful student, prone to over-seriousness and anxious to achieve good marks. There was always something about the image of the scholar to which I aspired.
My usual diligence forsook me when, aged about 14 years, my fellow pupils and I were asked by our teacher to read Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. The fact that I was unsure at first which of the two names on the cover belonged to the author and which to the central protagonist did not augur well. This initial confusion was slowly replaced by apathy. I rarely read the passages we had been set; I contributed little to class discussions. I think that I finally stopped reading the text after about one hundred pages.
My failure to finish this novel had always concerned me. I had been left with a vague sense of having failed to meet the high standards that I set myself. Worse, I felt that I owed something to the text: it deserved better.
Then, a few months ago, I saw a copy of Jane Eyre on the bookshelf in a local charity shop. It was on sale for a mere £1. Seeing the volume there, abandoned and slowly awaiting its fate in stock rotation, my conscience was piqued. I would buy this book and I would finish it.
Two weeks ago I set about reading the novel. And what a wonderful novel it is. It has accompanied me on the many journeys I have since undertaken. As Jane travelled from the fictional Thornfield to Morton I travelled to the very real Nottingham by train; as she arrived at Ferndean to find Rochester I returned home on a dark rainy evening – my experiences as reader neatly mirroring those of the characters in the text.
Then, last night, I finished it. A wonderful piece of writing, without doubt, superbly Romantic and touchingly romantic.
As I finally shut the covers I felt that I had at last repaid my debt to this text. And, I didn’t doubt, with interest – for wasn’t my reading of it now so much more sophisticated than it ever could have been all those years ago? I began to recall the different things we had once been taught to say and think about the book at school. Yes, I was sure that I now disagreed with many of them. However, my mature analysis of the text will have to wait for another day.
The book that had, until last night, been my most embarrassing DNF (‘did not finish’) is now one of my most cherished novels.