In the preface to the second edition of Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte took it upon herself to rebuke the "timorous or carping few" who dared to criticize her art.
"Conventionality is not morality," she wrote. "Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last."
In essence she was saying: If you think my book is offensive, you can stick it up your bloomers.
As it turns out, in the long run, she needn't have been so defensive. For school children and adult readers the world over, Jane Eyre remains a classic that can be found on class syllabuses, nightstands and well-stocked e-readers to this day.
An excellent new film, starring a stern-yet-beguiling 19-year-old Mia Wasikowska ( Alice in Wonderland, The Kids are All Right) and the chiselled Michael Fassbender as Rochester, opened Friday in the United States (next week in Canada). But the arrival of a new film version will be no surprise for diehard fans, since Jane Eyre might well be the most adapted novel ever. Since its first publication in 1847, the novel has inspired no less than 18 films, nine made-for-TV movies and eight major stage shows, including a dance version by the Kalamazoo Ballet Company. There is an old joke in the entertainment industry that, by official Hollywood decree, Jane Eyre must be remade every five years.
Literature is also awash in Jane's babies: At last count, the novel and its characters had spawned 20-odd books by contemporary writers, most of them published in the last quarter century. Notable among the five sequels, five reworkings, six retellings, three spinoffs and a prequel, are Rebecca (loosely based) by Daphne du Maurier, a synopsis for a novel about Jane's stepdaughter, Adèle Varens, the British writer Angela Carter was working on when she died, and finally, Wide Sargasso Sea by the Anglo-Dominican novelist Jean Rhys - a book that, since its publication in 1966, has been hailed as a modern classic and adapted into film not once but twice.
Like many melodramatic young girls, I spent the better part of my childhood imagining myself as the lost Bronte sister - actually there were two, Elizabeth and Maria, and they died of tuberculosis, but this was before Wikipedia so I didn't know that yet. I read and re-read Jane Eyre as well as its more sexually implicit cousin, Wuthering Heights, and cursed my parents for furnishing me with an unforgivably dull suburban childhood, devoid of wind-whipped moors, itchy petticoats and brooding men on horseback.
So what was it about Jane's character in particular that captured my fancy, as well as the hearts and minds of so many young women like me?
I can tell you what it wasn't - and that is the single most important characteristic any movie producer will tell you is necessary to make a character attractive to a wide audience: likeability. Having just re-read the novel this week (downloaded for free on my shiny new Kindle), I can assure you that the plucky Jane you might remember from countless films and Masterpiece Theatre adaptations is nothing like the creature in the original book who compares herself to "an infantine Guy Fawkes," and is "always suffering, always browbeaten, always accused, forever condemned" and cultivates "a habitual mood of humiliation, self-doubt and forlorn depression."
Jane is bit of a pill, and a self-pitying pill at that, but it's not entirely her fault. She is surrounded by injustice, ignorance and cruelty - nasty people dog her at every turn! Whether it's a pious headmaster serving up burnt porridge or an abusive aunt cutting her off from her rightful inheritance, Jane spends the first half of the book trying - and largely failing - to catch a break.
And yet in spite of all this misery there is undeniably something timeless and compelling about Jane - a quality that reportedly inspired the young Wasikowska to cast about for any remakes after reading the book as a teen a few years ago - a quality that keeps on attracting talent from Zeffirelli to Orson Welles to Aldous Huxley (who co-wrote a 1944 version of the film).
It boils down to this: In times of austerity, Jane is our most enduring literary heroine. Her sense of justice, her moral fortitude (don't forget she turns Rochester down when he asks her to run away to the south of France and live in sin to escape his mad wife), her stubborn insistence on substance over style and principles over playfulness, are exactly the qualities audiences crave in times of uncertainty, when we are suffering from the hangover of decadence past.
The Jane Eyre cottage industry is often compared to that other corseted cash cow: Jane Austen. But in fact the two have little in common apart from ringlets. ( Pride and Prejudice was published three decades earlier than Jane Eyre.) Where Austen is arch and witty, Bronte is earnest and anguished - which explains why the former lends itself well to contemporary irreverence (the movies Clueless and Bridget Jones's Diary are modelled on Austen's Emma and Pride and Prejudice, respectively), while the most famous updated remake of Jane was the 1943 cult horror classic I Walked With a Zombie, directed by Jack Tourneur.
Another cold and miserable March day, another Jane Eyre, it appears. And in my melodramatic opinion, we're all the better for it.