Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair describes Jane Eyre’s title character as “a living national embodiment of England’s literary heritage“ whose kidnapping, in revealing her popularity, offers “the best piece of news we could have hoped for“ (300). Yet Fforde’s characters concern themselves more with the crumbling narrative plot surrounding Jane Eyre than with the character herself. Jane Eyre, title character to one book and eponym to the other, physically occupies only a brief space in The Eyre Affair, her presence evoked more by the discussion and drama surrounding her than by her words, her actions, or her countenance. She serves Fforde’s novel as a mere starting point for drama, as an opportunity to interact with other more engaging members of Brontë’s cast. The dislocation of Jane from Jane Eyre seems to derive from a literary hierarchy that places plot over personality, that identifies prose and poems alike by their formal “components — words, punctuation, grammar and so forth“ rather than their content (133).
Thursday’s brief retelling of Brontë’s novel not only excludes plot points that expand beyond the most basic factual structure of the story, but also drastically oversimplifies Jane as a character and implies that Jane’s dynamic personality, which drives Jane Eyre, need not be included in the general cultural legacy of Brontë’s novel. True, in a way, Thursday maintains Jane by echoing her: as a first-person narrator; as “a woman with somewhat ordinary features...her hair [a] plain mousy color and of medium length“ (19); as a smart and honest woman unable to express emotions clearly; and as a woman willing to pine for the man she loves rather than make herself vulnerable to him. Yet the similarities between the two protagonists are never underscored and seem more incidental than intentional, more factors of a good narrator than allusive inherited traits. Indeed, Thursday’s retelling of “the story“ of Brontë’s novel demon-strates a lack of respect for or understanding of the strong, loyal, kind, witty, complex Jane.
I told him the story of Jane Eyre over the next hour, starting with the young orphan Jane, her childhood with Mrs. Reed and her cousins, her time at Lowood, a frightful charity school run by a cruel and hypocritical evangelist; then the outbreak of typhus and the death of her good friend Helen Burns; after that of how Jane rises to become a model pupil and eventually student teacher under the principal, Miss Temple.
Jane leaves Lowood and moves to Thornfield, where she has one charge, Rochester’s ward, Adele . . . Thornfield is a pleasant place to live, if not slightly strange — Jane has the idea that there is something going on that no one is talking about. Rochester returns home after an absence of three months and turns out to be a sullen, dominating personality, but he is impressed by Jane’s fortitude when she saves him from being burned by a mysterious fire in his bedroom. Jane falls in love with Rochester but has to witness his courtship of Blanche Ingram, a sort of nineteenth-century bimbo. Jane leaves to attend to Mrs. Reed, who is dying and when she returns, Rochester asks her to marry him; he has realized in her absence that the qualities of Jane’s character far outweigh those of Miss Ingram, despite the difference in their social status.
A month later the wedding ceremony is interrupted by a lawyer who claims that Rochester is already married and his first wife — Bertha — is still living. He accuses Rochester of bigamy, which is found to be true. The mad Bertha Rochester lives in a room on the upper floor of Thornfield, attended to by the strange Grace Poole. It was she who had attempted to set fire to Rochester in his bed all those months ago. Jane is deeply shocked — as you can imagine — and Rochester tries to excuse his conduct, claiming that his love for her was real. He asks her to go away with him as his mistress, but she refuses. Still in love with him, Jane runs away and finds herself in the home of the Rivers, two sisters and a brother.’“ (270)
How does this summary of the first half of Jane Eyre, which leaves out the main character’s emotional arc and reduces the complex relationships between all of the characters mentioned, function for The Eyre Affair? Who is the summary’s audience? Jane Eyre is, as Fforde writes, quite popular in the England of Fforde’s novel; why, then, is a summary necessary? Does Fforde assume that Jane Eyre is not sufficiently popular in the reader’s (our) present day? Would Fforde’s story hold interest for someone who hadn’t read Jane Eyre? How would that person’s view of Brontë’s novel and characters be affected if they met with Fforde’s description before reading the original? What would a more authentic summary of Jane Eyre include and exclude?
In the latter half of The Eyre Affair, characters (Fforde’s and Brontë’s alike) traipse in and out of Brontë’s original manuscript. Some of Brontë’s characters are aware that they are in a novel and understand the sudden appearance of strangers, but others — most notably, Jane Eyre herself — have no self-awareness and no sense of themselves as written characters. Rochester, who has left the novel in the past, is immensely aware of the confines of his own world and thinks of Thursday’s world as “that place, that other place“ (298). In between his parts in the novel, he speaks freely and knowingly to Thursday, and he goes so far as to wink at her in the middle of a scene with Jane (319). Even the dog, Pilot, is aware of the literary structure in which he operates, and “must have known, almost instinctively, that the little girl who had momentarily appeared at the bottom of page eighty-one was unfettered by the rigidity of the narrative“ (67). Yet Mrs. Fairfax and Rochester insist that Jane be protected from the knowledge that a dog can handle: “Miss Eyre must never know we are watching and guarding her“ (324). Jane is not privileged with any awareness of her place within the text (or perhaps, I should say, we are never granted insight into Jane’s perspective that would lead us to believe that she is self-aware). Why must Jane be protected? Does the structuring of self-awareness privilege other characters over Jane? How does this trend of staging Jane as a secondary, uninformed character, link The Eyre Affair with Wide Sargasso Sea? Does this trend have causal origins in Jane Eyre?
Since Jane’s story is a first-person narrative, the plot ends with her disappearance. How does this compare with Thursday’s narrative voice? Thursday narrates her story in the first person, but there are many narrated moments (dialogue, interior thoughts of other characters) to which Thursday would have absolutely no access. How does Thursday the narrator compare with Jane the narrator? Do the epigraphs to each chapter, which cite journals, articles, textbooks and testimonies written by other characters, legitimate Thursday’s retelling of her own story? How might her summary of Jane’s story give us insight into what’s missing from her own?
How does Fforde’s novel affect our view of Neo-Victorianism? Must a work simply gesture to a nineteenth century text in order to qualify as Neo-Victorian, or should a Neo-Victorian approach attempt to complicate the characters, themes, plot points and politics of the original text? Does The Eyre Affair do Neo-Victorian work?
How does it compare to The Wide Sargasso Sea in supplementing (or subtracting from) our understanding of, for example, the “mad Bertha Rochester,“ who appears in Fforde’s novel as a cackling, dancing, scraggly witchlike woman?
Fforde, Jasper. The Eyre Affair. Penguin, 2001(?).
1 March 2010