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School reading: Daisy Hay on 'Jane Eyre'

October 28, 2010 | 12:18 pm


Daisy Hay is the author of "Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry's Greatest Generation." The book, which came out this spring, focuses on Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, John Keats and journalist Leigh Hunt, along with less-remembered names, as young, passionate intellectuals in the early 1800s. She answered our questions about the book that meant the most to her in school -- never mind that it was extracurricular, she says, Charlotte Brontë's "Jane Eyre" made the biggest difference in her reading life.

Jacket Copy: What was the most interesting book that you were assigned in school?

Daisy Hay: It wasn’t assigned, precisely, but when I was 13, a wonderful English teacher suggested I might like to read Charlotte Brontë’s "Jane Eyre."

JC: What class was it for, and what was the name of your school?

DH: I was in the eccentrically named Lower Transits, at Wychwood School, Oxford, in the U.K. 

JC: Did you read the book?

DH: You bet. I went home, found it on my parents’ shelves and devoured it in a single weekend. I had a nightmare about Grace Poole on the Saturday night and felt privately furious when some cousins turned up on the Sunday afternoon to show off their new baby. I was right in the middle of Jane’s reunion with Rochester and couldn’t believe my parents were actually making me put the book down to be sociable.

JC: What did you learn from it? Why did it stand out?

DH: It stands out because it was the first time I’d read a "proper" literary novel, and I’d expected to find it a bit of a slog. But instead I was completely gripped, as I’d never been by a book before. Or at least, I’d been gripped by books before, but once read they were easily forgotten. I’d re-read them happily, but the experience didn’t stay with me, or change me, like reading "Jane Eyre" did. I can honestly say that it was that weekend which switched me on to English literature and that it was then that I decided English was my thing. I can date a whole set of subsequent decisions -- to study English at advanced level at school, to read English at university -- from that moment. It showed me the huge possibility of literature, that there was a world out there waiting to be discovered. I learned I loved literature because of it.

JC: Who was the teacher who suggested it? Did he/she assign lots of good (or bad) reading?

DH: It was suggested by the one and only Ms. Crawford, one of the great English teachers of all time. She assigned terrific reading and had no time for the idea that her students should only read "accessible" texts. Under her aegis, we read "Paradise Lost," "Twelfth Night," Greek myth, and poets galore: Donne, Marvell, Wyatt, Heaney and countless others. And she also made you think about what you read, and about how you articulated your response: no sloppy commonplaces for her. This training stood me in excellent stead when I went off to Cambridge at 18.  

JC: If you were teaching a class like hers today, what book would you assign your students?

DH: I’d make sure they read the books you only read if someone makes you as a teenager: 19th century novels and poetry and drama of all kinds. This is the philosophy I follow as a university teacher of English. When I teach the literature of the long 18th century, I make my students read Samuel Richardson’s magnificent "Clarissa" for precisely this reason: You might never get round to reading it in your everyday life, but you will never, ever regret having done so. Like "Jane Eyre," it’s a novel that stays with you for life.

-- Carolyn Kellogg