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Jane Eyre: how I hated that book! For two years we slaved over it at school, reading and rereading it, our set text for O level. It’s strangeness, it’s originality, it’s rich vocabulary, all ground into dust. I can still remember the horror, when we read it aloud round the class and I was handed the midsummer night scene in which Jane and Rochester finally declare their love to one another. I was fifteen: I was scarlet, mumbling the Victorian endearments.

It was thirty years before I could bring myself to read it again. I had remembered the plot, there are still a few passages I remember word for word (“Reader, I married him.”). I had forgotten what an odd-ball Jane is, and what a bully Rochester can be. But I was surprised at what I had misremembered.

Everyone remembers the madwoman in the attic: Rochester’s first wife. Bronte’s nightmare depiction of madness is still haunting, still buried somewhere deep in our collective unconscious. The lunatic, shut away from sight, raving and dangerous.

But though that image had remained vivid, I had misunderstood it. According to Rochester, “it is not because she is mad I hate her.” He hates his wife, he declares, because she has “a nature the most gross, impure, depraved I ever saw”. Had Jane gone mad, he claims, he would care for her tenderly. The madness is an inconvenience, preventing him legally divorcing from a monster. His wife’s former “vices” are rather vague, mixed up with the discovery that her mother was “a Creole”. We are left with the distinct impression that the first Mrs Rochester’s sin was not so much to be secretly mad as secretly black. “Her family wished to secure me because I was of a good race” says Rochester smugly, and Bronte does not bother to discuss this.

It may have been obvious to Victorian audiences – comfortable in their notions of racial superiority – that Rochester’s West Indian marriage was “impossible”, even before his wife went mad. But all that remains to modern audiences is the raving lunatic with her hideous strength and low cunning. In endless dramatisations of the book, this is all that appears on screen: any undercurrents of racism are written out. Perhaps they, like the book’s religious fervour, are too unsettling.

Myths about mental illness are strangely persistent. Downton Abbey, written recently, screened last year, rehashed the Rochester plot line: a character, under pressure to marry his girlfriend, reluctantly reveals the existence of a wife in an asylum from whom he cannot divorce. There is not even a fig leaf of “incompatibility” here: it is clear we are meant to sympathise with this man’s plight. He is, after all, a good chap, and clearly the mentally ill are unlovable and not fully human.

Give me Charlotte Bronte any day. An old unreconstructed racist she may have been, but she did try to give Rochester a better reason to hate his wife than her descent into illness. As Jane herself says: “It is cruel – she cannot help being mad.”

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Remember staycations, when we all stopped going abroad because of the recession? Well I’ve gone one better by not even leaving home at all. In fact two better because I’m still working during the days!

Julie and her dad have set off for Scotland, leaving me to look after Duncan. We get on pretty well, my son and I, but we’re not exactly in each other’s pockets. So once I’ve cooked supper for the two of us I have most of the evening free. Hours! With almost complete and solitary control of both the television and the stereo.

I love Julie so much, but it’s only when she’s away that I appreciate how much time her illness takes up; how much time I spend checking in with her, discussing problems, dreaming up new strategies. Only now I realise how many things I do every day just to make sure she stays OK; how many TV programs I watch that I don’t really Iike, just to keep her company, how much food I prepare just to make sure she eats sensibly, how many emails I compose to the school or her care coordinator. And then there are the many things I don’t do in case she suddenly needs me: get lost in a good book, listen to music I love, phone friends, have a second drink (in case I have to drive).

We all do these things for the people we love; we all have moments when we grumble about it; there are far worse things in life than having to compromise on the television you watch. But oh what a luxury to have a few weeks alone!

So for the next couple of weeks I’m going to spend my evenings watching some operas on DVD, reading lots of books, listening to lots of music, and down a few extra beers. That’s all I need from a holiday at the moment.

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For the last few weeks I have been reading ‘Far From the Tree’ by Andrew Solomon, which is my excuse for not writing a great deal. At 976 pages it is a fairly hefty read! But the pages fly by quite quickly – the writing is simple and vivid – and thank goodness, it turns out that the footnotes take up half the book!

Solomon is exploring what it is like to raise children that are different from you (and, sometimes, what it is like to be those kids). His idea is that we all have multiple identities, and some of those are vertical – inherited from our parents – such as nationality, religion, or red hair. But some are horizontal – unexpected traits that are not shared with parents – such as being deaf, dwarf, or autistic – and some of which, like his own account of being gay, may be rejected by parents. He tackles each of these categories in its own chapter, describing the unique challenges and strengths of the group, and some of the science, intermixed with people he has interviewed at length about their experience. It is the case studies that make the book: some of these characters leap off the page, and there are some extraordinary stories. Solomon makes a very sympathetic interviewer: he spends time with his subjects – not just an afternoon, but returning to visit again and again over years, building close relationships that often become real friendships. He stays in their homes, he keeps in touch, and it does feel as if some of his subjects – especially the most poor, isolated and discriminated against – gained a real sense of validation from his involvement.

Later in the book, Solomon deliberately moves away from what we all think of as “special needs” families. He looks at families where children are prodigies, or the product of rape, or become involved in crime. There were some good points here, and the interviews were thought-provoking, but I’m not sure he made such a good case for some of these categories. The chapter on children of rape, in particular, felt as if it needed a book all of its own. As Solomon admitted, the real connection here was amongst the mothers, not the children, and this group sat uneasily amongst the rest: a story to be told, yes, but perhaps in a different way. It didn’t help that while many of the families in the early chapters were similar to each other (mostly American), in this chapter, Solomon travelled to Rwanda to explore the subject of rape in war. Changing cultures so dramatically is pretty jarring – how can we relate these women’s experience to mothers in New York? This section felt very compressed, awkward and uneven.

But even just for the first half, I’d recommend Solomon’s book to anyone who has found themselves parenting kids who are “different”. Much of the time, parenting odd kids feels isolating and thankless, but this book is full of parents struggling to raise such children. Amongst these pages you find people you recognize, muddling along from day to day, sometimes showing amazing courage and tenacity, sometimes laughing at themselves, sometimes giving up and hiding under the duvet. But for most of these parents, amazingly, once they had got the hang of it, a lot of them seemed to gain from the experience. It was hard, and they grieved at first, but they no longer wanted their child to be any different.

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Is teenage unique to humans? Are there teenage cows? David Bainbridge, in “Teenagers, a Natural History” says that our teenage stage is what makes us human.

Duncan is going through the teenage explosion at the moment. He is discovering the entire world simultaneously – novels, science, girls, music, politics. His world is a bewildering kaleidoscope of new ideas, new sensations, new meanings. Fifteen years old, and his world holds an infinity of possibilities.

His teenage is different from mine. I absorbed everything I could lay my hands on, mopping it up: but he wants to master it, to conquer it. Is this a boy thing? I read books because I wanted to escape to different worlds, he reads books because they are long (The Count of Monte Christo, 1400 pages) or have shock value. But whatever his reasons he does read them, he is amazed by them, he falls under their spell, he talks about them. “What’s a really difficult author to read?” he asks me. “Try Kafka.” I say, offhandedly, and a few weeks later he is insisting on reading yet another bit of Kafka to me, “Mum, you’ve got to listen to this.”

(I can’t tell him how much I loathe Kafka; next time he asks I must swear to him that Jane Austen is widely known to be the most impenetrable of writers; that it is a unique and highly regarded achievement to read all six of her novels and the juvenilia.)

He doesn’t just learn information, he wants to test it, to see if he can break it. There is no subject on which he does not have an opinion, often several opinions, the more outlandish and shocking the better. Next week he will have a different opinion, but he is not likely to have just accepted any given piece of information as settled fact. He will espouse every political shade of the spectrum, sometimes simultaneously, as long as he can provoke an argument. He is furious about quantum mechanics: how can the heart of matter, the truth about the world around us, be so weird, so incomprehensible? Watching television with him is a nightmare: he challenges every statement. (“How do we know his mum is dead? I bet he’s just saying that. Now there’s no way the judges can vote him off, even though he can’t f***ing sing!”)

Some weekend nights I let him stay up a bit later to talk. He’s a night owl – he loves that spooling out of conversations into the late hours. When he’s a student he’ll want to talk through the night with friends. I try to keep any arguments gentle, not too rough – I’m too old and tired for that. Anyway, I want him to learn how to argue, how to spar, how to disarm his opponent, not to bludgeon them over the head. But I also want him to think round and check his opinion is on solid ground, and be able to abandon it. That’s a good point, I say, but have you thought what would happen if…

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