Growing up I was only interested in 20th century literature. I read "the classics" only when I had to, which in my case was in junior high, perhaps once in an English class in college. The only ones I remember were A Tale of Two Cities, which had incessant knitting in it, the rest dull to me, and Edgar Allan Poe's "Telltale Heart." But Poe was fascinating, and because the story was thrilling it almost didn't count. I may have read Madame Bovary, but I remember nothing. In high school, I avoided all the traditional literature classes and took Folktales and Mythology instead. What I remember most about that class was that we watched films, Fred Astaire movies, and in particular, Top Hat.
So what has possessed me now, in the 21st century, to go back to the 19th? Curiosity more than anything. Probably teased out because several years ago I went back to school and realized there were so many cultural references I did not know and so many books other people did. I started by raiding my sister's abandoned college bookshelf, starting with Jane Austen. Hilarious! Wonderful! Takes getting used to the language, but after than, how funny it is!
When we go visit my mother-in-law I need only something to entertain me on the plane because, once there, I find she has bookshelves full of books I aspire to read, some modern, some classics. I first read Nabokov, Look at the Harlequins! there. I read Sebald's The Emigrants, and it was possibly there that I read Tóibín's Brooklyn. This visit I chose Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, which talked about the Brontë sisters and Jane Austen as well. My mother-in-law reported that she was reading Jane Eyre. I wasn't sure I had ever read it. (Maybe I had seen the Wishbone TV version but was distracted by the Jack Russell Terrier in clothes.) I had loaded the original 1847 text, a free electronic book (Bookbyte Digital edition with illustrations by F.H. Townsend), onto my iPad mini within the past couple years, so I began. I had never read it. The language was easy to read, the descriptions romantic.
I didn't know the story or its twists and turns. I was captivated. I really cannot remember being so annoyed when interrupted reading a book. On Saturdays, when I do not turn on electronics, I had to get a copy from the library. Where were the Teen Classics? (Hidden behind the Info desk not in the Teen Section.) And why was it shelved there and not in fiction???? This paper copy had an introduction by Joyce Carol Oates. I would read it later. Dear reader, if you have never read Jane Eyre, do NOT, whatever you do, read any notes or introductions or anything. Just read the book. When I finished and went back I found that the intro was stitched together with spoilers.
Needless to say, I enjoyed the book. The characters are complicated. They accept convention, but also challenge it. Thinking back on how I was completely clueless about the story, I realize that in this age of letting one's fingers do the googling, somehow the info went on around me, and I was thankfully allowed to experience the book for myself. I say no more.