Everybody reads Jane Eyre. Charlotte Brontë’s story of a rebellious orphan who survives a harsh school, becomes a governess in a mysterious mansion and falls in love with the owner, only to discover a secret that forces her to escape and forge a new life before returning to him, has gripped a remarkably diverse audience from its publication in 1847 to the present day. Queen Victoria (1819–1901; reigned 1837–1901) read it, recording in her journal that it ‘is really a wonderful book very peculiar in parts, but […] such a fine tone in it, such fine religious feeling, such beautiful writing. The description of the mysterious maniac’s nightly appearances awfully thrilling’.1 The young American poet Emily Dickinson (1830–86) pronounced it ‘electric’.2 The all-male crew of HMS Discovery on the polar expedition of 1901–4 led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott (1868–1912) borrowed it repeatedly from the ship’s library. The literary historian Prince Dmitri Mirsky (1890–1939), fighting in the Russian Civil War in 1918, remembered coming across Jane Eyre in an Armenian town during the white army’s retreat and experiencing ‘the intense thrill of the first reading’.3 In 1947, a speaker to the Brontë Society recalled that Jane Eyre had recently been serialised on the radio and had attracted more than 6,000,000 listeners for eleven successive weeks: in the sombre post-war climate ‘the tale shone through these grey days, when we seem almost afraid of emotion, like […] a live coal.’4 More recently, in 2004, listeners to the BBC Radio programme ‘Woman’s Hour’ voted Jane Eyre second in an all-time list of books that had changed their lives.
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