One of the most distinctive one-liners in English literature, bested perhaps only by it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife, and for my money a few bob higher in the romance stakes of nineteenth century chick-lit. For me, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë has somehow passed into myth. Like Arthurian legend, it's a story I've assimilated, picked up through osmosis, and now know inside out, even though - and here I curse, as ever, the drawbacks of a foreign language degree which left gaping holes in my education - I've never read the book.
I tried, once, when I was much too young to appreciate it. I was about ten, and I'd been pillaging my parents' bookshelves, which I fondly remember as being populated with obscure children's books (Make Way For Ducklings by Robert McCloskey), North American travel guides and old cloth-bound editions with the corners chewed up by our rogue standard poodle Ginny. My mum had a beautiful old brown leather-bound edition of Jane Eyre tucked away on the shelves, with what probably attracted me to the book in the first place: a sweet little bookmark with a wooden owl fastened to the top of a thin strip of leather, marking a random page.
My mother is one of those long-term, dedicated Eyreites - they're a rarer and less transient breed than the Pride & Prejudice fanatics, and I've always thought that it's a classier kind of lady who falls for a Rochester over a Darcy. Anyway, for whatever reason, her enthusiasm didn't rub off on me and I couldn't get to grips with it, and that was that. An impatience for stroppy gothic whingeing and howling ghostly apparitions meant Wuthering Heights was firmly off-limits (although I do enjoy the condensed version by Kate Bush: Heathcliffe, it's me, it's Cathy, I've come home, I'm so cold, let me in your window tells you all you need to know if you ask me), and ever since then the Brontës have remained uncharted territory for me.
Fast forward fifteen years or so and we find ourselves in the age of book to film adaptations. Like most of the fairer sex, I'm partial to a period movie here and there, especially when it's a tale as old as time like Jane Eyre, and when there's a genius at the helm of the casting decisions that means you won't be staring for two hours into faces that have splashed the tabloids so often you know them better than your own, trying to pretend that they're fictional characters speaking universal truths.
I heard somebody's mum once say, "You never forget your first Mr Rochester." Well, I disagree. I've seen countless Rochesters grace the screen, and I really can't remember which one came first. Overplayed as the role may be, though, Fairfax really is one of the few bad-tempered, brooding, awkward, strutting, horse-riding, breeches-wearing, misty-moor-tramping, secret-keeping, mad-wife-in-the-attic-hiding literary screen heroes I can appreciate, and the most recent Rochester (Michael Fassbender, 2011) does a stellar job. What's more, the film feels just as it should, dark and austere: the only glimmers of warmth for two hours come from the dark amber glow of an evening fire and Jane's sparkling little frightened eyes (I think the mark of a good nineteenth century novel-to-film adaptation is how often it makes you wonder whether those women were actually warm enough in those thin dresses, in those big stone houses on those wild, windy moors).
But the thing is, though, I can't get away from the niggling feeling that I'm a big old fraud - no matter how much of a chord the film struck, I don't really have a right to comment until I've appreciated the story in its original form. My colleagues were horrified when I told them - our exchange on Thursday morning went something like this. Lottie: "I saw Jane Eyre last night." Natasha: "Ooh, was it good?" Lottie: "Oh my god, it was so good." Catherine: "How was Mr Rochester?" Lottie: "Oh my god, he was really fit." Catherine: "Oh my god, yeah, I know." Natasha: "What did you think of the way the film sort of plays around with the structure?" Lottie: "Erm... well, I don't know - I haven't read it." Sharp intake of breath from all in earshot. My boss, with no hint of sarcasm or hyperbole: "Lottie! Oh my god! That's terrible!" I think she considered sacking me.
Natasha said she'd lend me her copy, but she forgot to bring it in on Friday. I started to get a bit antsy - I'd suddenly got the Brontë bug and was itching to get my teeth into this one (if only because, like any self-respecting woman, I'm now a little bit in love with a fictional man). I had to take action, and spent the early afternoon today scouring every library and bookshop in the Balham area for a copy. My favourite second-hand bookshop, My Back Pages, came up trumps with a battered and rather ugly Everyman's Library edition for £1.50. I'm nervous, though - I tried it on for size once before - what if I don't like it this time? Nothing for it but to just take the plunge.
Reader, wish me luck.
Reader, wish me luck.