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Diary

Why I will never read Jane Eyre

Susan Hill’s diary: on taking against a book, the death of dear friends, and writing by speaking out loud

12 March 2016

9:00 AM

12 March 2016

9:00 AM

Have you ever set your face against a book? This year sees Charlotte Brontë’s bicentenary and the novelist Tracy Chevalier has edited a short-story anthology each based on the climactic line of Jane Eyre — ‘Reader, I married him.’ Everyone knows it. I agreed like a shot because the brief fitted something I had been mulling for a while, and yesterday the handsome finished volume arrived. In the notes about contributors, it says: ‘Susan Hill has never read Jane Eyre.’ Lamentably, that is true, and now I suppose I never can. But the fact is, I have set my face against it, as my daughter has set her face against Animal Farm. Neither of us remembers where or why it started but we’ll never give in. But oddly, I actually believe I have read Jane Eyre, I know so much about it. Mr Rochester, the blindness, the mad wife in the attic…There are a lot of books like that, Oliver Twist being a standout (‘Please sir, I want some more’, Fagin’s gang, Bill Sikes the woman-beater). The reasons for setting one’s face against Animal Farm, however, remain obscure.

Royals have traditionally steered clear of controversy even when supporting charities. That is changing. Women who have been raped then suffered from lack of police and public sympathy — ‘she must have asked for it’. Young men who committed suicide rather than confess to being gay. Schoolchildren bullied both physically and, worse, psychologically. Members of the armed forces struggling with PTSD and depression. Royal patronage of a charity and royal voices speaking out do help in bringing the issues to public attention. The press may report what recycled coat or new haircut the Duchess of Cambridge was wearing, but that she was raising awareness about bullying or children’s mental health problems gets noticed too. The charities that do well financially are those that are easy to support — cruelly treated animals, terminally ill children wanting to go to Disneyland or swim with dolphins. Those are for an ‘awwww’ and a tear. Young gay men killing themselves because they feel admitting to depression is admitting to being a wuss, prostitutes being raped and not as ‘part of the job’ — who wants to support them? So good for the Duchess of Cornwall, the Cambridges and Prince Harry. There’s more to royal patronage than wearing a fancy hat.


Cancer research, cancer care and hospices are high-profile. In 2014, four good women friends of mine, in their sixties and early seventies, died of different cancers — lung, melanoma, brain and pancreatic. They left four widowers. Usually, it’s the other way round. One of them is Rupert Lycett Green, husband of my beloved friend Candida, who died in 2014 of the cancer with the lowest survival rate, pancreatic. I have never missed a friend more than her. I think of her every day. That is why I want to support Rupert, who, with Cand’s beloved Jack Russell terrier Spot, is walking 140 miles in aid of Official PCA. This is not a medical research charity; it focuses on highlighting early diagnosis to improve survival rates. Pancreatic cancer is notoriously late to present symptoms. Please look at their web page, www.spotandrupert.co.uk. I hope you will then donate.

Every writer will tell you that the most common questions asked of them are: 1. Where do you get your inspiration? and 2. Do you use a computer to write? I have no answer to the first. ‘It just comes’ never cuts the mustard, in spite of being the simple truth. The second is easier. I always wrote by hand, never used a typewriter, because they were noisy and clunky and got between my thoughts and the page. Then along came laptops and I took to one. More recently I have returned to pen and paper but this means typing up later, a tedious business. Then I discovered voice-recognition software. It was a little clumsy at first but the latest versions are superb — barely an error and you can read quite fast. So now I write it, then speak it and bingo! Recently I was reading a ghost story in my office. A friend in the spare room next door drifted to sleep to the sound of my quiet voice. Fortunately, she could not hear exactly what I was saying, or she might not have slept at all. I do recommend the software. It gives me the best of both worlds.

Don’t you love weather? North Norfolk is known for its big skies, the cloud formations, the extraordinary weather lines, the night skies. You have to go to remote corners of Scotland or Wales to get such a glittering tent of stars and planets over your head. Weather helps to form you. It affects your mood. It makes you thoughtful. Philosophical. Imagine living where weather comes in big blocks and is entirely predictable. Weather here may be uncomfortable, but it is never boring. Let’s drink to that…

Susan Hill’s books include The Woman in Black and the Simon Serrailler mysteries, most recently The Soul of Discretion.


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