Review: John Eyre

 

I love 19th-century British literature, and lately I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the world and the works of the Brontes in particular. So I was honored to be invited to write about “John Eyre” as part of a virtual book tour for its author, Mimi Matthews.

 As the title suggests, “John Eyre” is an homage to “Jane Eyre,” a novel that created a sensation as soon as it came out in 1847 and has kept readers enthralled ever since, with its mystery and danger, its hints of the supernatural, its romance and coming-of-age elements. It is a story narrated by a woman, in an age where women were not seen as fully human, and I think most of all it is that voice of the first-person narrator – at times outraged, passionate, snarky, wry, defensive, confessional – that elevates it from an entertaining story to something extraordinary.

Such a book is not easily forgotten, and we see that afterlife in novels it has inspired. Probably most famous is “Wide Sargasso Sea” by Jean Rhys, which imagined how the first Mrs. Rochester might have seen things. There’s Daphne du Maurier’s spooky retelling, “Rebecca”; Sarah Shoemaker’s “Mr. Rochester,” offering us Edward’s version of events. “Re Jane” by Patricia Park imagines Jane as a modern orphan, half-Korean, whose journey of self-discovery starts in Flushing, Queens. But no author I’ve yet encountered had asked the deceptively simple question Mimi Matthews poses here in her latest novel: What if Jane were a dude?

Moreover, what if nearly everyone’s gender were flipped? In “John Eyre,” Mrs. Fairfax, the old housekeeper, has become Mr. Fairfax, the old butler. The strangely well-paid Mr. Poole fixes furniture when he’s not off somewhere in the upper reaches of the house laughing his sinister laugh. Mrs. Rochester, a mercurial yet mysteriously alluring widow, is John Eyre’s employer in his role as tutor to two little boys from parts unknown.  And the dangerous lunatic imprisoned in the attic? Why, that would be Mr. Rochester.

It’s a fun thought experiment, and you feel that Matthews had fun writing it. She also – playfully, I think — takes names from the original novel and repurposes them. Helen Burns is the married lady whose love John Eyre cannot return, prompting her suicide before the action of the book opens. (Unlike in the original, we do not see his childhood.) Mrs. Rochester’s maiden name was Mason; first name, Bertha. Blanche Ingram, while still a member of the local gentry, is no longer a beautiful mean girl, but Bertha’s BFF.

Reading “John Eyre” has made me think about how central gender dynamics are to the plot of the original. It is hard to set a story in 19th-century England and make any man (any moderately educated white man, at least), however poor and orphaned, as powerless as Jane was. Even though John struggles with a laudanum problem and deep guilt over the Helen Burns thing, he’s still a man, with those fundamental advantages of manhood in the 19th century. This presents even a writer who’s just trying to have fun with a major problem. How does she solve it?

Reader, I’ll tell you, but spoilers lie ahead.

“John Eyre” does not try to recreate the narrative voice of Jane Eyre in the male lead. His sections are in close third person, written in short, choppy sentences that I think are meant to show his distance from his own feelings. But we have not lost the first-person view entirely. Entire stretches of the book are told from the perspective of Mrs. Rochester – narrating not the current action, but events of a few years earlier, poured out in letters to her dear friend back home, Blanche, as Bertha has a series of increasingly alarming experiences while living abroad.

So despite the title, this is as much Mrs. Rochester’s book as John Eyre’s. While he gets the obscure-orphan part of the source material, she gets the intimate first-personal confessional and the struggle to be an autonomous woman in a world set up for the convenience and pleasure of men.  

But that’s not the only misdirection: The second thought experiment of “John Eyre” owes nothing to Charlotte Bronte and everything to Bram Stroker.

Perhaps how you feel about vampires, or at least the literature of vampires, will determine your reaction to this important aspect of “John Eyre.” What does it do to the thought experiment already underway?

“Jane Eyre,” for all its Gothic elements, is ultimately rooted in both rationality and faith. Ghosts, gytrash and other spooky things are not real, even if Jane and Rochester do communicate telepathically at one point.  Jane fulminates against religious hypocrisies, yet her own conduct reflects her Christian morality. Not simply in the obvious way that she refuses to become Rochester’s mistress, but also in the radical notion that each person is of equal worth and value before God.

In the world of “Dracula,” spooky things are very much real, and can even kill you. A holy object, like a cross, might rout a vampire, who is essentially a satanic being,a sort of Antichrist , but this has more to with magic and superstition than with faith.

And John Eyre, in a sharp contrast to Jane, has no religious convictions — the trauma of Helen Burns’s death has ended such illusions for him.

Thus we start with one kind of story and find ourselves in another, in this playful yet gripping homage to both. I enjoyed how smoothly this work unfurled once underway, its creepy atmospherics, and how the unlikely pairing of elements harmonized together. Truly, reader, something to sink your teeth into.

The Hidden Palace by Helene Wecker

 

 

It was great to be back.

I read The Golem and the Jinni not long after it came out in 2013 and at least once again since. Though I don’t remember every detail now, what I can’t forget is how it gave me the feeling of dwelling in an an entire and completely realized world, one that felt rich with historical details but also intimate and outside of time, one I was sad to leave. Chava and Ahmad were greenhorns in 1900 New York, and the novel was both a slow-burn love story and an immigrant tale of learning to adapt and fit in. The narrator was omniscient and a little at arm’s length. There were other story lines and secondary characters, but the focus was firmly on golem and jinni.

The Golem and the Jinni didn’t end on a cliffhanger — fortunate for the reader waiting eight years for this continuation, but not offering an obvious sequel path for the writer. And sequels/continuations are harder than they appear. Since they already have characters and a world, they seem like they should be easier than starting anew. But they need to explain things to people who never read the first volume yet not bore those who know it very well. They need to create the experience that readers loved the first time, but do more than just repeat it. And this case, there’s the weight of thousands of readers’ expectations. So how does this compare?

What soon becomes apparent is how differently time is handled here. The books are the same length, roughly 480 pages, but The Hidden Palace covers about 15 years, a much greater span of time than G&J. The action ranges beyond Little Syria and the Lower East Side: to Morningside Heights, to Brooklyn and even the Ottoman Empire.

Also, there’s more people, some with only a tenuous connection to Chava or Ahmad, doing stuff of their own, including, spoiler alert, constructing a golem in their tenement apartment (as one does). There is more History: the Odessa pogroms of 1905 get a mention, as does the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. We meet Lawrence of Arabia before he was famous, and Gertrude Bell when she already was. The sinking of the Titanic and the Lusitania both move the plot forward. And we see the city itself changing before the eyes of its residents, as the Manhattan Bridge is built, the first skyscrapers spring up, cars start replacing horses, women start demanding the vote.

So the feeling of The Hidden Palace was very different for me from The Golem and the Jinni: less cozy, but no less compelling. Chava and Ahmad were less at the center of the action, as their differences drove them apart, and they began to pursue divergent paths in this new New York, though events will bring them back together.

The plot is a thing of wonder, as the different story lines start to converge in ways both logical and surprising, and there are many delights along the way. I particularly enjoyed the stubborn orphan Kreindel, the wisecracking bicycle messenger Toby, and that Chava managed to put herself through college and become a teacher of Home Economics, which seems both absurd and completely right.

Will there be a third installment? It almost seems like…maybe?

Primeval and Other Times

Primeval and Other Times by Olga Tokarczuk




This amazed me, one of those books that enlarged my idea of what fiction could be and what it could do.

I read most of it in a single night because I could not stop, even as I knew I should read more slowly to better understand and appreciate the spell the author is casting here. Stayed up too late reading and then could not fall asleep because my mind was so inflamed thinking about scenes and people from the book. As a reader I was just blown away; as a writer I kept going, how did she DO that?

Primeval reminded me in some ways of 100 Years of Solitude, if that book had been set in Poland and covered only about 80 years of recognizable history and had actual scenes instead of narrative summary. The sense of sweep, the magical realism, the godlike view and the way that one small place is used as a microcosm for the world were all familiar. It’s the 20th century in Poland, so lots of specifically bad things happen, along with the usual tragedies of unrequited love, growing older and dying. Yet somehow the book is not horribly sad, even though I felt for the characters and worried about what would happen to them. I think it is because of the godlike perspective — compassionate yet distanced — that the narrator maintains throughout. Although “godlike” is a somewhat charged term here, because God, too, comes under narrative scrutiny, and doesn’t fare all that well.

Being married to a Polish immigrant has made me more familiar with Poland’s history and culture than would otherwise be the case, and it’s possible this novel speaks more clearly to me because of that. Much here that is never spelled out because its original readers would have known without being told: how this part of Poland would have been in Russia before the first world war, occupied first by Germans and subsequently by Russians during the second, how the wealthier people of the story, like the Squire, would have lost all their property in the Communist era, and the casual corruption of that era. Vodka, mushroom-picking. The murder of the local Jews is efficiently disposed of in a few horrifying pages that is neither sensationalized nor sentimental. And like everything else that happens, is not belabored or over-explained or dwelt on. It just happens. Yet somehow it all feels very real and gripping and personal.



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Jane Austen House in Peril

I’ve been lucky enough to visit Chawton, and the Jane Austen House museum, just once in my life. I’d always hoped to return. But Covid-19, which has made international travel look rather daunting for now, has now posed another threat to the museum, according to this article in The Guardian.

I know the world is on fire, and there are many deserving causes for people still fortunate enough to be able to think about giving money away. But please help out if you can. Her works are immortal. Her house, not so much.

The Thrill of Encountering an Ideal Reader

“The Jane Austen Project” has been out in the world for two and a half years now, and I’ve given up thinking that anything else will ever happen involving it. (Though I suppose Andrew Davies could call at any moment wanting to follow up on the critical and popular acclaim of “Sanditon” by making “Project” into a mini-series, for instance, the chances seem small. )Two and a half years later, having published a novel feels quite a lot like not having published a novel. I am struggling to write a second and wondering what I think I am doing.

So it is gratifying when something happens to remind me that the book still exists out in the world. Continue reading

Dramatizing the Brontes: “The Art of Sisters”

Jane Austen and the Brontës had a lot in common, as clergymen’s daughters, educated but poor, geniuses in a world with little use for brilliant women. Charlotte was famously dismissive of Austen – “the Passions are perfectly unknown to her.”

But what would Austen have thought about them?

The theater-lover in her at least probably would have enjoyed a recent performance I saw: “The Art of Sisters: Tales & Letters by the Brontës,” which dramatized scenes, real and imaginary, evoking their turbulent lives.

One early one, based on a diary paper, hints at their unconventional childhood. Emily (Miriam Canfield, who also directed and adapted) gleefully summarizes a most un-Victorian domestic chaos: “It is past twelve o clock and Anne and I have not tidied ourselves, done our bed work or done our lessons and we want to go out to play …The kitchen is in a very untidy state…”

A decade later, Charlotte (Alida Rose Delaney) is back from Brussels and writing to Constantine Heger, her teacher and unrequited love object. Charlotte’s powerful feelings would soon be channeled into fiction, as we see in the proposal scene from “Jane Eyre,” with Delaney transformed into Jane.

There’s the momentous 1845 episode when Charlotte happens across Emily’s poetry. Emily is outraged by this invasion of privacy, while Anne (Katrina Michaels), ever the peacemaker, pipes up: “Charlotte! I’ve written some poems, too!”

Their novelistic imaginations take flight as Canfield becomes Cathy from “Wuthering Heights,” explaining to a hilariously unsympathetic Nelly Dean (Michaels) why she’s marrying Edgar Linton despite loving Heathcliff.  Michaels, as Mrs. Graham of “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,” decries the double standard of how sons are raised versus daughters.

Back in the real world, their father, Patrick (Stuart Rudin), relates how he was oblivious to the literary goings-on in the parsonage until Charlotte reveals she’s secretly the author of the biggest novel of 1847 and gives him a copy to read. “Children, Charlotte has been writing a book!” he informs the presumably amused Anne and Emily.

But happiness is brief: Emily succumbs to tuberculosis, then Anne. Their deaths are harrowingly dramatized through one of Emily’s poems and Anne’s letter expressing a wish to live longer and do some good in the world. The tall and versatile Marshall Taylor Thurman – already a silent Heger, a scowling Heathcliff, a manipulative Mr. Rochester and a mansplaining Gilbert Markham – reappears in bare feet and a holey sweater to personify Death, brutally claiming Emily and sweeping Anne off gently.

The performance’s intimate setting, a Beaux-Arts townhouse owned by the American Irish Historical Society, brought home an aspect of the Brontës often overlooked but useful to understanding them: the Irish thing.

Early in the performance, Patrick outlines his remarkable story. Growing up on a farm in Ireland, with a love for books, he started his own school at age 16, worked as a tutor in a gentleman’s family, and went to Cambridge University at 25, becoming a minister in the Church of England. This rise from rural obscurity testifies to his intellect and energy, traits his daughters inherited.  Yet as a gentleman by education but not birth, in an England that regarded the Irish askance, he remained an outsider always. This was part of his daughters’ legacy too. Charlotte would go through life with a chip on her shoulder, while Emily was indifferent to what people thought, and Anne blazed with quiet outrage at the world’s injustices.

It’s all very far from Austen’s evasive irony, her decision to let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. But I have to think she would have admired their courage at least, so different from her own yet breathing something of the same air, faced with the same sort of obstacles.