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.