With little spare money for books when I was growing up, I haunted the local library (using my mother's ticket) and begged everyone for book tokens as presents.
An early birthday treasure was Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, with its introduction to the moody, broody Fairfax Rochester and his collision (I use the word advisedly) with a disadvantaged young governess who astonishes him by considering herself his spiritual equal.
Jane has had a hard life, by being orphaned and taken in by an aunt who lacks the charity to give her a loving home, and subsequently sends her to to a remote boarding school run by a clerical hypocrite. Daunted but not crushed, she emerges some years later as an educated young woman eager to explore the outside world. Advertising for a position. she finds herself in a grand house which conceals a secret of gothic proportions. She also finds herself presented with almost irresistible physical temptation.
The story of Jane Eyre is widely known, from films as well as from the book, but for those who have somehow missed it, I will refrain from any further spoilers - except to say that this book, written in a Yorkshire parsonage in the days of Victoria, has much to say to a modern reader. It maintains that a young woman is equal in intellect to any man and that even in those repressed times, she can be swayed by desire.
I have read the book at different times in my life and on each occasion found my attention caught by something fascinating in the text.
'Miss Eyre, are you ill,' said Bessie, highlights our heroine's awkward place in her aunt's house: she is not a servant, yet nor is she mistress of anything except herself. Young women 'of the middling sort' in Victorian England had few opportunities other than marriage, teaching someone else's (often spoiled) offspring, or becoming companion to a demanding dowager. Yet Jane uses her experience of loneliness and cruelty to strengthen her natural independence of spirit.
The scope of the book is tremendous, from first-hand experience of a harsh, even cruel, school for girls, to the sufferings of a governess and the daydreams of a woman with nothing but her wits and education. The language, too, is exceptional:
"Jane, be still; don't struggle so like a wild frantic bird, that is rending its own plumage in its desperation."
"I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being, with an independent will, which I now exert to leave..."
It is her strength of character that help her to make a heart-wrenching decision after falling in love with someone beyond her reach, finding that love returned, but then discovering the man has an impossible secret. Jane's courage and aspirations remain an example even in the 21st century.
Charlotte Bronte sounds happy with her own eventual marriage to The Rev. Arthur Nicholls. Yet she discovers a cost: her husband may be loving, but turns a disapproving eye on her correspondence with a female friend:
'Arthur has been glancing over this note. He thinks I have written too freely...'
If I am left with any sadness about the book, it is because I cannot imagine the spirited Jane allowing Rochester to censor her correspondence.
You will be able to borrow Jane Eyre from your local public library, buy one from a good bookshop, or find a second-hand one on the internet for less than the price of a coffee.