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.

Further Evidence That Charlotte Bronte Is a Piece of Work

A friend alerted me to the Austen/Bronte-themed podcast Bonnets At Dawn, which recently featured the creator of the marvelously strange web series Black Girl in a Big Dress and referenced a fascinating LitHub article from a few months back, Reading Jane Eyre While Black. Around that time I’d been reading “Villette” and was struck by how much she seemed to deplore Catholics, too. Which does not excuse her handling of poor Bertha Rochester, but does help us set it in a wider context.

By a strange coincidence, I learned of the Bonnets At Dawn podcast at the same time I was reading “The Professor,”  the only Bronte novel I’ve not read before. Continue reading

‘How much of Jane Austen’s story is about sadness?’ A Q&A with novelist Paul Butler

At the recent JASNA AGM in Huntington Beach, Calif., one of the many interesting people I enjoyed meeting and talking to was Paul Butler, whose wonderfully inventive takeoff on “Persuasion” kept me enthralled the whole journey home. After reading “The Widow’s Fire,” (started in the LAX departure lounge, finished on the A train back in Brooklyn), I will never see Mrs. Smith or Captain Wentworth the same way again.  But it’s not a travesty — more of a radical rethinking,  a bit the way Jean Rys flips the narrative in “Wide Sargasso Sea.”

Mr. Butler has in turn done me the honor of reading my book and kindly invited me to answer some questions on his blog. Link here.

 

Reading While Human

This week I read a wonderful essay titled “Reading Jane Eyre While Black”  that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. Not only does it compare two of 19th -century England’s most fascinating writers — Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen — but it hits on many of the issues I’ve been thinking about lately. About authorial intent, and how there will always  be something a little mysterious about it, even to the author. Also how as both readers and writers we bring our own biases, both the known and unknown, to the page.

Tyrese L. Coleman makes many interesting points along the way, but one key theme is how “Jane Eyre” has been ruined for her by Bronte’s depiction of Bertha Mason, whose craziness and evil is inextricably linked to her West Indian origins and implicit blackness. Continue reading

Behold Me Immortal

In honor of the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, a melancholy moment for anyone who wishes she’d managed to live a little longer and write a few more works, I am sharing her “Plan for a Novel, According to Hints From Various Quarters”:

 

SCENE to be in the Country, Heroine the Daughter of a Clergyman, one who after having lived much in the World had retired from it and settled in a Curacy, with a very small fortune of his own. — He, the most excellent Man that can be imagined, perfect in Character, Temper, and Manners — without the smallest drawback or peculiarity to prevent his being the most delightful companion to his Daughter from one year’s end to the other. — Heroine a faultless Character herself, — perfectly good, with much tenderness and sentiment, and not the least Wit Continue reading