Women, as I understand it, are endlessly impressed by jerks and bounders, especially if called on to be the means of reform and general salvation.

"I saw it in your eyes," the fellow commonly says, "that you would be the means of my return to something more noble, more innocent, zub, zub, zub."

At this point the lady swoons away, taking care to collapse in the general direction of the cad's arms.

Now whether this is the usual case in real life I hardly know, but it certainly works well enough in Victorian fiction by Charlotte Bronte , notably in her masterpiece, "Jane Eyre," which came out in 1847 and has been a tremendous favorite of the gentle gender ever since. I well remember hearing girls talk about it when I was in school, and always wondered what or who the hell Jane Eyre was.

Then many of us heard it read aloud at one point on public radio, with great effect. Bronte is a gripping writer, always luring the reader along with the promise (adequately fulfilled) of something new going on.

At 8 tonight you may see the story dramatized on Channel 26, the first of four hour-long segments produced by the British Broadcasting Corp. in living, as they say, color that allows the hero to sing the praises of a cold gray house (before us in warm tawny Ham stone, I would guess) and a steel sky that looked fairly suitable for bluebirds.

But the audience for which Miss Bronte wrote has never been known to care a fried fandango whether a house is gray or scarlet as long as the love story moves with all deliberate speed; and (allowing for 1847) it certainly does.

Jane is played by Sorcha Cusack, a young woman of dandy articulation and considerable beauty. It is an odd sort of beauty, suggesting the Mona Lisa touched with Orphan Annie and this may be the place to say the owner's hound is far too handsome to be left outdoors all the time.

Jane is an orphan--though I do not think that is why Orphan Annie came to mind--who for some years has attended a charity school and has wound up as governess for the the young ward of a Mr. Rochester. All this goes on in Yorkshire in a grim-looking house with a fine fireplace worth admiring.

The hero, this Mr. Rochester, frequently drops broad hints of a previously dissolute life, the main feature of which (thus far) was a fling with a Parisian opera girl. Perhaps that is the same as an opera singer? No matter, she lured good English gold out of Mr. Rochester's honest English breeches, which the actor, Michael Jayston, calls breaches as in breaches of faith.

It is known that the Brits, especially in their lower reaches, are impossible to understand; nevertheless, every word of the hour is beautifully delivered and comprehensible, a rare thing on television.

"Is there a flood?" cries Mr. Rochester, waking suddenly in his bedroom as Miss Eyre throws a bucket of water on him.

"No, but there is a fire," she cries and sure enough, the bed hangings are ablaze. Rochester notes that Jane has saved him from a horrible death and the hour ends with a beautiful, tender "Jane," spoken softly and with skill by Jayston.

Long before this, however, you will have little doubt that things are going to warm up in a most wonderful way between the squire and the governess, and we shall not be disappointed in our surmise as later hours unfold. The intonations of Jayston, by which he virtually makes love while delivering rather cool lines, are notable and effective and probably are rolling the author about in her grave. But maybe not. The strong current of sex was apparently not only felt but rather carefully channeled by Charlotte Bronte .

The dialogue is not, of course, the sort we are used to in the theater today. It is artificial--it is hardly conceivable an 18-year-old orphan raised any which way should speak rather like Dame Judith Anderson--and is designed to reveal character. It does, I confess, get rather in the way of the hot love story people are patiently waiting for, but then art has its price.

At its best, it sounds like Jane Austen through a glass darkly and that is very good indeed. The hero's ward (identified as the child of the unmarried opera girl, from "the mud and slime of Paris," don't forget that) is fetchingly played by a charming child, Isabelle Rosin, though there are times one joins with her curator, Mr. Rochester, in wishing to pitch her in that handsome fireplace. The point is she is believable, as infant actresses rarely are. Furthermore, old Mrs. Fairfax, the housekeeper, and the other minor characters are agreeable. I suppose the dog is a deerhound.

You have surely noticed that novels sometimes have an interior power that is evidently independent of their surface mannerisms and (to us) hilarities. "Jane Eyre" has leapt the time barrier far better than most novels. It seems to me girls were about 15 when they had fits about it, and maybe they still do.