Tag Archives: Charlotte Bronte

One for the clever kids: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

Until Jane Eyre was kidnapped I don’t think anyone – least of all Hades – realised quite how popular she was. It was as if a living national embodiment of England’s literary heritage had been torn from the masses.

theeyreaffairI recently recognised in myself a wild affiliation with, and taste for, the absurd. After all, I ended up getting a whole circle of friends to watch the televisual debacle that is Craft Corner Death Match via my enthusiasm for it alone. As dismayed as they were, I quietly praised whatever maniac dreamt that puppy up and managed to get it to air to a bewildered public for 10 full episodes before it was canned because, unsurprisingly, ratings were poor.

Perhaps this is why I ejoyed The Eyre Affair so much. Everything about this novel, from the title, to the plot, to very names of the characters is absurd. Absurd to the point of being fairly ballsy on the part of its author.

Set in an alternate 1985, the Crimean War rages on, cloning has brought back pet dodos for the middle class, and art and literature is the central foundation on which all society rests. Militant Baconians heckle Shakespearean productions, rioting Raphaelites chant Renassaince slogans during celebration of the legalisation of surrealism and forging Byronic verse is an offence. Our hero is Thursday Next, she is an operative with the Literature division of Special Ops called LiteraTec. After an original Dickens manuscript is stolen, Next is drawn into hunt for a remorseless, homocidal megalomaniac called Acheron Hades. On the way she travels through a distortion in time, her aunt is lost in a Wordsworth poem and Jane Eyre is abducted out of the pages of Bronte’s original manuscript sparking nationwide panic.

Within twenty seconds of Jane’s kidnapping, the first worried member of the public had noticed strange goings on around the area of page 107 of their deluxe hidebound edition of Jane Eyre. Within 30 minutes all the lines into the British Museum library were jammed. Within two hours every LiteraTec department was besiged by calls from worried Bronte readers. Within four hours the president of the Bronte Federation had seen the Prime Minister.

This novel is hilarious. Every line reads like an inside joke, Fforde delivers every new character, every plot twist and turn of phrase with a sly smile to the reader. “See what I did there?” he says. “We are all so clever.” Something like a literary version of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, if it were written like a hardboiled detective story, it’s full of so many bizarre side notes that you will bore your friends with at dinner for weeks. I loved the names like Braxton Hicks, Bowden Cable, Victor Analogy. I loved the weekly Rocky Horror Picture Show-esque performances of Richard III, complete with audience participation. It is ridiculous and unnecessary and completely wonderful. Even Mr Rochester turns out to be a fairly decent guy in the end. And I always thought he was a jerk.

Braxton waved his own copy of Jane Eyre at us.

‘You’ve read it, of course,” he said.

“There’s not much to read,” Victor replied. “Eyre was written in the first person; as soon as the protagonist has gone it’s anyone’s guess as to what happens next. My theory is Rochester becomes even more broody, packs Adele off to boarding school and shuts up the house.”

Of course, for every person who totally gets into this there will probably be about five who are just plain irritated by it. And the novel isn’t without its faults. The pacing gets pretty wobbly in the middle there, it takes until two thirds into the novel for the titular Eyre Affair to even begin. The ending quite improbably wraps up a series of loose ends in a few pages. But who cares about the specifics when you’re having this much fun? Besides, I’d kind of like to live in a world where people would picket Members of Parliament over a novel.

The Eyre Affair, Jasper Fforde: three and a half stars.

Read it if: you’re after something light hearted, you’re willing to have some fun, you’re not going to bore everyone with too many details.

Voice and prejudice: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë and Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

A double review! These two don’t necessarily need to be read together but they are a satisfying couplet. As I read them together I was struck by the theme of voice. To have voice, to be deprived of voice. Who may speak and how. But, as always with my book reviews, this is a discussion, not a lecture. You yourself must have a voice here too, dear reader. Find yourself somewhere comfortable to sit. Put your feet up. Fetch yourself something lovely to drink and enjoy a little booky love with me.

jane_eyre1I read these together after the latter was featured on ABC’s First Tuesday Book Club. There were comments made about how rich and complex Jean Rhys’ 1966 novel was, particularly in context of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 classic. Dedicated bibliophile that I am, I was aghast to discover while familiar with Jane Eyre from about approximately a thousand television adaptations I hadn’t actually read it. I went straight to the naughty corner with a brand new deadtree copy (and later an e-book too, just to mix it up). No doubt my wonderful readers are far more intelligent and better educated in the classics than I, but I found it a terrible drag to read. Long interminable descriptions of Jane’s state of mind, her thoughts being interrupted by meals and conversations seemed overly laborious to my 21st Century mind. After all when are you and I not composing a blogpost, email or planning several different things in the back of our minds while doing the same? Honestly, my brain needs a task manager. But I’m distracting myself. I’m still convinced it could probably be about half the length. Nevertheless it’s a fantastic novel. Victorian sensibilities combined with gothic suspense are a perfectly enthralling literary cocktail and even though I knew the basics of the story, I was still affected by the creeping horror Brontë manages to evoke. Even the lengthy and wordy narrative has its significance, in that as a novel written by a woman, in first person by a female character, it was a rare opportunity for a strong-willed woman to be given a voice. Jane might be a little finicky and long-winded, but let her have her say. Although I confess, I wished several times she’d kick Mr Rochester in the shins and run away. What a jerk that guy is.

Which brings me to Bertha Rochester. Who has no voice. Who is so deprived of agency she uses bared teeth and stolen blades instead. Though I knew what was going to happen in the novel, I was surprised by how horrified I was by and on behalf of Mr Rochester’s poor wife, locked in an attic and forgotten. Both that he could lock her away upstairs & live with that and that she was so devoid of hope, outlet, comfort and, of course, voice make Brontë’s novel just as powerful even more than a hundred years later.

Jane Eyre is out of copyright in the US and Australia and as such is available to download for free at sites like Project Gutenberg.

Jane Eyre by Charolotte Brontë: three and a half stars.

Read it when: you’re on a long holiday, have a bit of time and a fair bit of patience.

Don’t read it when: you’re alone at night in a creepy old mansion. That happens a lot, right?

sargasso seaIn writing Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys gives Mrs Rochester voice. And so we discover that her name isn’t Bertha, but Antoinette. We discover her childhood in the Caribbean, the early days of her marriage, the subtexts of ownership, colonialism, race and language that put her under the power of one Mr Rochester. Who isn’t named. There’s power in naming and voice. Antoinette’s husband is deprived of his name even as he assigns her a new, better behaved, more English one. Having been genuinely disturbed by Eyre, Sargasso Sea was exactly what I wanted to read. I wanted to hear the wife’s side of the story. Sargasso Sea is equally disturbing, in a heady, intoxicating way. And through Rhys’ novel we have the subtext of voice and telling one’s own story that Brontë started in Eyre come full circle. However powerful it is to tell one’s one story, from one’s own point of view, there’s always someone else’s version that is crushed in the process. Finally, and with a sigh of both grief and relief, in Sargasso Sea the “mad” woman in the attic gets her turn.

I know these novels are old hat to many of you, but read as a couplet they are two sides of the same coin. Also, to put my femnazi hat on, they also show the ways in which women’s stories, their fears and concerns, have changed so little. While Jane has a powerful voice in a Victorian era, and given the similarities between her life and Brontë’s one assumes the novel carries a slightly autobiographical realism, Antoinette has very little control over the course of her own fate, and is ultimately silenced. Wide Sargasso Sea carries a much more interesting intersection of race, ethnicity and colonialism. However, the ideals of freedom, choice and independence have always been and will perhaps always have to be fought for by women, against (sometimes) well-meaning but ultimately oppressive social power that centres the wealthy, the white, and the male. And in among it all, we strive to tell our own stories.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys: four stars.

Read it if: you want another side to the story, you want to delve into rich scents of tropical fruit, rum and dense foliage gone slightly sour in the humidity.

Don’t read it if: you haven’t read Jane Eyre. Well, you can, but I enjoyed the juxtaposition immensely. You probably should read Jane Eyre anyway.

Think you’ve seen this before? A version of this post was first published on my old blog A Shiny New Coin. But it’s still good.

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