Howard Jacobson: Why I'm not complaining, even if 'Jane Eyre' is the greatest castration story ever told

A once-proud, licentious man is reduced to a state of sightless dependency so he is fit to marry
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The Independent Online

Reader, she married him. Burned him, blinded him, maimed him, mutilated him, scarred him, marred him, mortified him, married him. Now tell me it's a mystery that Jane Eyre is every woman's favourite novel.

Mine, too. Or at least one of them. Not quite up there with Anna Karenina, but occupying an honourable place in that list of 19th-century novels of female obduracy and principle that includes Mansfield Park and Middlemarch and Little Dorrit. For half my life that was what I believed the novel was - the story of an intelligent, quiet, sometimes plain but always resolute woman's struggle to get the world to notice, accept, and finally love her. I don't know how old I was before I realised that a novel could also be about a man, but I recall the shock. And, in a small corner of my heroine-addicted soul, I am still not entirely convinced that novels should have men in them at all. A sentiment, of course, which many contemporary women readers share.

I do not want to turn this into a gender issue. Which is why I haven't gone so far as to argue that Jane Eyre is the greatest castration story ever told. It's true that, when Rochester shows Jane his damaged arm, he refers to it as a "mere stump" and that Jane declares she is in danger of loving him too well for it, but one can over-psychologise. A once-proud, licentious and forbidding male is reduced to a state of sightless shambling dependency so that he is fit to marry - let's just leave it at that.

BBC1's recent adaptation went a little further and had Jane first tell Rochester his life belonged to her and then assume the superior sexual position, the missionary St John Rivers having been dispatched to India. As modernisations go, this was acceptable. Indeed, everything was acceptable about the production - and what wasn't acceptable was superb.

We don't as a rule praise actors or actresses in this column. They get praise enough. But Ruth Wilson's Jane Eyre wonderfully brought back what transfixed us in the novel when we were young - the ferocious sense of grievance, the burning conviction of right, the meticulous intelligence, the primness alternating with the passion, the terror of actual and spiritual loneliness, and a hunger to be loved so intense we felt we occupied the innermost chamber of the heroine's heart.

Nothing else matters when one is in the grip of a story like this. The whole world can go hang, so long as the heroine's yearning finds a home. And Ruth Wilson engrossed our hopes in just this way; her face registered every change in fortune with a nakedness that was sometimes impossible to bear; she turned plainness into beauty and principle into grace: our happiness depended utterly on hers.

That last sentence, by the by, illustrates - I don't say successfully - what one of our English masters told us was Charlotte Brontë's punctuation system of preference. Two or three semi-colons followed by a colon. He was writing a book on the subject, though whether it was ever finished or published, I do not know. Remembering his enthusiasm for Charlotte Brontë's punctuation makes me shed a tear. Where would you find such disinterested scholarship in a school teacher today? What school would allow it? Charlotte Brontë and female autonomy; Jane Eyre and the economic dependence of women; how to get into Mr Rochester's pants: such are the themes we pursue today, assuming we pursue any.

But in fact the colon is the key to the novel's extraordinary intimacy. Go on, read the novel again with an eye for the punctuation. Is it not the colon, reader, that draws you closer to the heroine? Is it not by the confidential colon that she reduces the distance between her thoughts and ours, engages us a little more and then a little more in the processes of her mind: in short, expands, expatiates and clarifies herself into our hearts?

The other demand our English master made of us when we read Jane Eyre was that we keep a little vocabulary book in which to enter every new word, expression or allusion we encountered. That was a time, you see, when a writer's being educated was not considered an imposition on the reader, or a hindrance to enjoyment. Now, when writers meet their readers they have to fend off complaints that their words are too long. "Look them up in your dictionary and be grateful," I always say, but they don't love you for that. Who has the time? Page-turning is the criterion now. Readability. Never putting the novel down. As though the true aim of reading is to turn the pages like lightning and let nothing like a new thought or a strange word stand in the way of your finishing.

Though I have long since lost the vocabulary book I kept while reading Jane Eyre, I still recall some of its entries. "Eleemosynary", for example, meaning concerned with charity - a medieval church word. And "cynosure", as in the description of Eliza Reed as "the cynosure of a ballroom" - cynosure being the Pole Star, and therefore, by extension, anything attracting attention by the brilliance of its light. And it was from Jane Eyre that I first learnt about Dr Johnson's Rasselas, that great work of moral consolation which Jane's doomed friend Helen Burns is reading when they first meet. And how old is Helen Burns? 10, 11? And what work of spiritual improvement would she be reading today? Heat?

We lost more than we could afford to lose when we decided that study was inimical to the pleasure of reading and, in the process, turned our backs on the novel as a storehouse of language, wisdom, information and ideas.

As for novels as repositories of acceptable attitudes - nothing could miss the point of fiction more. There is no acceptable attitude in the novel: this is its justification and its glory. Which is why I do not complain that Jane Eyre achieves her fulfilment at the cost of an acceptable attitude to men. In literature, there is no such thing. And there is no such thing as an acceptable attitude to women.

Reader, I am not looking for a fight. I cut my teeth on English women writers and remain in thrall to the literary imagination of this country, which is in all essentials female, even when it might not look it. I just want to say that if a man wrote a novel in which the hero made the heroine fit for marriage by burning, blinding, maiming and mutilating her, there'd be hell to pay.