There are many books that I have started and not finished, and many books that I have read part of and do not plan to read all the way through. The book that I have tried to read, and failed, more than any other is Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre”. Throughout the last 20 years I have attempted it many times and never got further than page 100. (Our 1970s Penguin edition and a more recent Wordsworth edition both squeeze the novel into around 400 pages but a more reader-friendly Penguin edition from around ten years ago stretches it past 600 pages.) Earlier this evening everything changed. To paraphrase the novel’s narrator, Jane Eyre herself: Reader, I finished the bloody thing.
As with “Vanity Fair”, which I read last month (and wrote about here), I relied on a “blended” approach to reading: Kindle, Kindle App on a number of other devices, paperback (“on vinyl” as we like to call it) and Audio recordings from Librivox. These recordings are in the public domain and by volunteers from a variety of English-speaking countries, including Jamaica, Canada, the USA and United Kingdom. The volunteers’ range of accents, reading speeds and the level of drama in their delivery help to keep my attention but I don’t use Audio for the whole book. At times I read without Audio, sometimes I read along with the Audio, at other times I go back and re-read parts of the book that I have already listened to. The Audio experience would be very different if I heard 20 hours or more of a book delivered by the same voice (Martin Jarvis or Stephen Fry for example).
Audio books seem an appropriate way to enjoy Victorian novels. I find it hard to read them quickly. Silent reading is usually at a much quicker pace than reading aloud but, for me, even silent reading of these books isn’t much quicker than reading them aloud, so I might as well get someone else to read them aloud to me from time to time. Ten years ago I tried to learn a form of speed-reading but couldn’t get on with it. Perhaps the only things that you should “speed-read” are things that have been “speed-written” and this clearly doesn’t apply to 19th century novels.
More than any other book, “Jane Eyre” is the one that has prompted people to say, “What do you mean you haven’t read it?” None of my friends or family (as far as I know) has read “Vanity Fair” but it seems that many of them have read “Jane Eyre”, though for most of them it was a long time ago. A long time ago (back in the 1980s) was when I read most of the 18th and 19th century novels that I have managed to finish including a few Dickens novels, everything by Jane Austen (apart from “Mansfield Park”), “Tom Jones”, “Humphry Clinker”, “Moll Flanders” and “Tristram Shandy”, 8 or 10 Thomas Hardy books, “Wuthering Heights”, a couple by Mrs Gaskell. I was a teenager when I read most of these books, and can confirm that my eyes were open and passed across every word of every line on every page but I would get more out of every one of these books if I read them again now.
I wrote a piece last month (“Recent Recommendations”) in which I asked the questions, “How do you know what to read next, or which radio programmes to listen to, or what to watch on TV? Whose recommendations do you follow, if any?” It was something that John Sutherland said on “Desert Island Discs” (available from the archive, here) that prompted me to read “Vanity Fair”, and having read it I was encouraged to tackle “Jane Eyre” again. I also read Dodie Smith’s “I capture the castle” earlier this month, in which the narrator is described as being a cross between Becky Sharp (the non-heroine of “Vanity Fair”, the “novel without a hero”) and Jane Eyre. That also prompted me to persevere with Charlotte Bronte’s novel. All being well I will use this new approach to reading classic literature to help me tackle other big novels from before 1900, the ones that have always seemed so daunting: “The Brothers Karamazov”, “Middlemarch”, maybe even “War and Peace”. “What do you mean you haven’t read it?”