We are continuing this week’s Charlotte Brontë feature with a guest post by our friend Denise. Denise is a librarian and an avid reader. She has contributed a number of guests posts to Pages Unbound, including reflections on Robin Hood and Tolkien and reviews of The Doomsday Code and The World Above, among others. See all her contributions here.
Goodreads: The Eyre Affair
Series: Thursday Next #1
Published: January 1, 2001
Set in an alternative Great Britain, where time travel is a completely normal occurrence and forging great literary works is a punishable crime, this book features Thursday Next, a literary detective whose job is to protect literature from theft, fraud, and sabotage. And the works of sabotage can get pretty ugly, as Thursday finds herself in a battle to save Jane Eyre (both the character and the story) from being destroyed by an adversary with fantastic abilities and a penchant for committing crimes for the sake of committing crimes.
Adaptations can be a tricky thing. Usually, they are loved for being clever and on-point with the spirit of the original, or they are vehemently despised for totally missing that point or being little more than imitation. I’m not sure Fforde’s Eyre Affair fits totally with any of these opinions. I found the story as a whole enjoyably clever, though I can understand arguments that Fforde’s treatment of Jane Eyre misses some key points. Regardless, I became hooked on this series the first time I read The Eyre Affair. But then, it was difficult not to, with the world Fforde has created – where serious discussions of literature are both commonplace and heated; where the lines between fiction and reality are constantly being blurred to the point where fiction as a whole begins to have a life of its own, not to mention the puns! And Fforde’s world just gets better and better as the series goes on.
But we’re celebrating Brontë this week, so on with an examination of Jane Eyre’s place in The Eyre Affair…
Despite the fact that the title of the work is The Eyre Affair, Jane Eyre is not dragged into the story (literally) until about halfway through. Fforde’s is a world that loves Jane Eyre, but is unhappy with its ending – a much different one than we are familiar with, where Jane does not go back to Rochester but elects to go with St. John Rivers, though she still refuses to marry him. In a way, The Eyre Affair is also the story of how Jane Eyre got its mostly happily-ever-after ending, with the implication being that some of the things that happen in the novel happen, not because Brontë wrote them that way but because other things entered the manuscript and affected its outcome behind the scenes. “What was Brontë thinking?” is a common sentiment expressed among the characters in the novel. At the same time that some might see something taken from Brontë’s genius with this set-up, I think Fforde is highlighting it. We know the “original ending” is what is really fake, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that no one likes it in the book. I’m sure there are many who wouldn’t like it in our real world either. Ultimately, it’s an interesting thought experiment, like so much else in Fforde’s world. And the changes are still “pure Brontë” as far as this world is concerned; she may as well have originally wrote it herself by the time all is said and done. I do struggle to suspend my disbelief with that claim though, since it is a bit unclear how the structure/understanding of Fforde’s world supports it. It wasn’t the ending in Brontë’s “original manuscript,” after all, and she isn’t shown rewriting her own story. (Though that is, perhaps, a possibility, with all else that is possible in Fforde’s world – the time travel, jumping in and out of book worlds, etc.)
What’s also important to understand about this book is that it is clearly meant to be funny; it is very rare that this world of Fforde’s actually takes itself seriously. I mean – the main character’s name is “Thursday Next”… and the pets everyone just has to have are cloned dodo birds. Even the charming premise that destroying great works of literature is a punishable offense can seem as ridiculous as it is charming within the realms of this text. Just about the only things that are treated with any amount of levity are themes, specifically death – death in the war going on in Thursday’s world, the possibility of losing literary characters, of losing whole stories – and fiction, specifically the ability of story to truly live: an interesting juxtaposition of topics that is brought to the forefront amid the humorous situations and the puns, and all the more so because everything else is funny. Some elements of Jane Eyre’s story are inserted into Thursday’s own story in a comical way, especially pertaining to her love life, but overall Fforde seems to be less interested in the story that Brontë tells for itself. What’s important to The Eyre Affair is Brontë’s impact, which, in turn, provokes several interesting questions. What would happen if we lost Jane Eyre, or any of the great works? If one of our favorite characters ceased to exist, or never existed? And why isn’t literature taken as seriously as it is in this book by the public at large today? Does it deserve to be? Fforde’s world, humor, and passion for literature may have been why I fell in love with these books – but it’s the exploration of these questions, and questions like these in subsequent books, that keep me coming back to the series for more. I highly recommend it to all grammarians, librarians, bibliophiles, science fiction and fantasy enthusiasts, amateur detectives, creative writers, Bronte fans (of course) and everyone else in between.