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

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

Mr. Darcy vs. Mr. Rochester

darcy firth

orson rochester

No one today seeking to write about love, a group I must, however reluctantly, class myself with, can escape the towering shadows of two 19th-century romantic heroes: Jane Austen’s Darcy and Charlotte Bronte’s Rochester.

What has brought this to mind was rereading “Jane Eyre,” a work I had avoided for years; I think I feared it. I recalled from last reading a vague sense of its force, closely connected to the powerful first-person narrator, who grabs the reader by the throat, relates uncomfortable truths, refuses to shut up. The initial account of the cruelty of her life with Mrs. Reed and the early days at Lowood is even more ghastly than I remembered. Continue reading

A Return to Mansfield Park

I felt I did not do full justice to Lynn Shepherd’s Murder at Mansfield Park the last time I wrote about it, and I resolved to go back and do something about that. I should have done so before now, but so many things have gotten in the way.

I wrote my comments at about midpoint in my first reading of the book, shortly before the murder is discovered. The book has 363 pages in the edition I am reading, and the body is discovered on page 158. Once a murder has been discovered, the book takes on a kind of energy it seemed to lack before that. Or maybe it is not the book that underwent a shift, but the reader.

For the things that were troubling me about the book up to that point — how it both was and was not like Mansfield Park, the abrupt shifts in points of view and tone, the moments of foreshadowing that did not seem to fit, my sense of puzzlement about what the author’s aim was — all seemed to fall away. Suddenly, everything made perfect sense, for I found myself in the familiar, forgiving world of an English country house murder mystery, and I understood exactly what the author was doing. And thought she did it very well. The detective, Charles Maddox, is perfect. Mary Crawford, once she steps out of the shadow of  the other Mary Crawford , becomes an engaging and sympathetic character. The mystery plot is taut and engrossing; the language never gets in the way.

And could I have not figured this out before? The title of the book, after all, contains the word “Murder.” There is an image of a corpse on the cover; a tasteful image, sure, but still; I was a bit slow on the uptake. The only thing I can say in my defense was, there was so much of Jane Austen here, I got confused. I was thinking the author was trying to do something else — what? I was not certain. Construct an alternate Mansfield Park, somewhat the way the wonderfully strange Wild Sargasso Sea constructs an alternate Jane Eyre? Certainly Mansfield Park is the novel that Jane Austen fans find the most vexing: the way the people we feel we are supposed to admire (Fanny and Edmund) are so much harder to like than the supposed villains of the piece (Mary and Henry Crawford). Certainly there is a large body of readers who think the main characters married the wrong people, and that a Henry-Fanny and Edmund-Mary match-up would have been a more satisfying result. I do not share these views, but I do understand them. Was this the author’s intent, to at once construct a homage to Mansfield Park and a more satisfying end to it, through the device of murder mysteries and alternate endings?

It’s a good deal easier, and probably more pleasing to readers, to write a good murder mystery than the Mansfield Park answer to Wide Sargasso Sea, and I am happy that this is what Lynn Shepherd did. The main lesson I took away from this book is how truly  elastic the murder mystery is as a form, despite its seemingly ironclad requirements.

SPOILER ALERT!!! And in this retelling, I really did think the heroine married the wrong person! I was hoping Mary Crawford would marry Mr. Maddox and travel around England solving crimes with him. I think this could be the basis for a very promising series. Perhaps in Lynn Shepherd’s next book, he can end up with another overlooked Austen heroine. Charlotte Collins, anyone (after the convenient death of her first husband)?