NADIA Clifford plays Jane Eyre in a touring production of Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel, directed by Sally Cookson. Sensitive yet headstrong, troubled but passionate, Jane Eyre has become one of the most influential characters in modern literature. Clifford tells EDWIN GILSON about the pressures and joys of playing the role.

MOST readers will remember the book, or books, that sparked their lifelong love of literature. Happily for Nadia Clifford, the novel that she was infatuated with as a teenager happens to be the story she is now portraying on stage every night – Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.

“I’d never read a book prior to that where it felt like someone was in your head and describing emotion the way you feel them,” she says. “To be acknowledged in that way by another human being is a really gratifying thing; it makes you feel like you’re not alone. Jane felt the way I did.”

The central character of Bronte’s masterpiece, published in 1847, experiences woe throughout her life, from her mistreatment at the hands of cruel aunt Mrs Reed, to schoolteacher Mr Brocklehurst’s barbarism and selfishness, to the book’s shocking twist.

Throughout her hardships, however, Jane tries to stay true to her heart and moral conscience. She’s been celebrated as a feminist icon in recent literary criticism. In Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Bronte, she writes of a conversation between the author and her two literary sisters Emily and Anne. When they suggested to Charlotte it was impossible to make a heroine interesting if she wasn’t also beautiful, she replied: “I will show you a heroine as plain and small as myself, who shall be as interesting as any of yours.”

For Clifford, coming upon Jane Eyre in her teenage years was a revelatory experience. In another interview she described herself as having a “nerdy fan relationship with the Bronte sisters”.

“The emotions in Charlotte’s writing are so physical you can almost feel them in the pit of your stomach – the way she writes transports you to the eye of the storm of that emotion. Before Jane Eyre I had never realised literature had the power to transform; that you could start reading a novel as one person and finish it as someone slightly different. Now I know that fiction and characters can change you as a person.”

Just as Clifford holds Jane up as a role model she accepts others do the same and this can make for a fairly demanding audience. So far on the tour, though, the National Theatre cast have been given the stamp of approval – not least by the members of the Bronte Society.

“They were all in floods of tears at the end,” laughs Clifford. “If the Bronte mafia enjoy it you must be doing something right. It’s like giving a bottle of wine to a wine connoisseur.” While the actor was “nervous” about the role, because “Jane lives and breathes in the minds of so many people”, she says it’s harmful to let the responsibility get the better of you. “You have to acknowledge that the legacy exists, but, in the same way Janes does, you have to stay true to yourself.”

The novel’s locations almost become characters in themselves, such are their descriptive depth and centrality to the plot. There’s the gothic, oppressive Lowood School where Jane befriends Helen Burns and goes on to teach at, the grand manor Fairfield where Jane starts to fall in love with Mr Rochester, and of course the Moors on which Jane sleeps rough at one particularly terrible time.

That’s not to mention the “red room” scene which sees Jane locked in, well, a red room. “When you re-read that chapter the trauma of it is palpable,” says Clifford. “Because it’s such an iconic part of the novel you don’t bring it back to the fundamental of ‘this is child abuse’. But that’s what it is.”

The diversity of these settings is rendered in the National Theatre’s production in a set that resembles a climbing frame. At one point in the book Helen Burns says “there are no wicked people, only wicked deeds”. Clifford reckons that is an “incredible mantra to live by”.

She adds: “Things are so bad and divided now – we’re almost going back to Thatcherite, if not Dickensian times. But if Jane had become eaten up by resentment of disenfranchisement it would inhibit her from pursuing her interests and she wouldn’t succeed. Anger can be important but also corrosive.”

All of this goes towards Clifford’s belief that Charlotte Bronte’s work has much to teach a modern audience. Her strong final words reiterate her passion for this timeless novel. “Jane Eyre is like a bible for living life.”

Jane Eyre, Theatre Royal Brighton, July 24 to 29, 7.15pm (2pm matinee on Thursday and Saturday), from £15.90, call 08448 717650