Maggie O'Farrell describes 'Jane Eyre' as a perfect novel and recalls how 'Earthly Powers' by Anthony Burgess helped her pick her husband.
Maggie O’Farrell is an author from Northern Ireland whose novels include After You’d Gone and The Hand That First Held Mine, winner of the 2010 Costa Novel Award. Her latest book Instructions for a Heatwave came out last February.
This is the most perfect book ever written. The plot is faultless and every sentence has been thought through in such a way that, even as a writer prone to wondering what I might have done differently, there isn’t a single thing I’d change.
When I first read it, aged 13, I was swept away by the incredible story. As an older teenager coming to it again, it was Jane’s indomitable spirit that appealed. Although feminism has come a long way, it’s not a bad thing for girls to realise they’re going to need real pluck to fight their battles. And when I studied the book in detail at university, I came to appreciate Charlotte Brontë’s technical brilliance, too. Jane Eyre is a heroine for every age.
Locked away in a room by her doctor husband, the narrator, with her “temporary nervous depression”, is forbidden to work and urged to rest. Aged 17, this struck me as a horrendous state—I’d always had the urge to write, and couldn’t imagine a way this could be taken from me. The power of this terrifying story in urgent, clean prose at only 6,000 words long, is incredible. I remember being amazed at being back in my own life when I’d finished it.
My friend Will gave this to me and said, “It’s my favourite book, and I think you’ll love it too.” From the unbelievably good first line—“It was the afternoon of my 81st birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me”—onwards, I was gripped. I rang Will in the middle of the night from my holiday in Spain to tell him that he was absolutely right. It was during that conversation that I realised, in an eureka moment, that he was the person I was supposed to be with. Now we’re married with three young children.