The [Jane] Eyre Affair & Wide Sargasso Sea

I haven’t posted about book group for a while as the last two books we’ve read are connected and I wanted to write about them together. Jane Eyre is one of my favourite classics, though not one that I’ve reread frequently, so reading two books that owe their existence to Charlotte Bronte’s best-known novel was a real treat. (SPOILER ALERT – I’m assuming that if you’re reading this you know what happens in Jane Eyre, whether you’ve read the book or not. If you don’t know you should either read it or watch this adaptation as soon as possible.)

The main excuse reason for the delay in posting my thoughts is the fact that I decided to reread Jane Eyre as well. I’d forgotten how long the novel is, particularly the section recounting Jane’s time away from Rochester, and I’d forgotten how much I disliked all the male characters, even the ‘goodies’ like St. John Rivers, even (sometimes) Rochester himself. Considering how important the novel has become in feminist theory and criticism, perhaps this shouldn’t be much of a surprise. More interestingly, I didn’t care much for the female characters either, including (sometimes) Jane herself. The first time I read the book, I was younger than the protagonist and found both her love for Rochester and her refusal to be his mistress incomprehensible, but I admired her bravery in running away. Reading it as an adult, Rochester’s appeal and the necessity of ensuring a formal commitment are clear, but the melodramatic disappearance with no plan, no money and no hope seems rather silly. That said, I very much enjoyed immersing myself in Jane’s world and worldview. It’s essentially a great love story (quality chick-lit) and given the first person narration, I still find it astounding that anyone ever believed that Currer Bell was a man!

eyreaffairThe Eyre Affair – The first novel in Jasper Fforde’s ‘Thursday Next’ series is set in an alternate reality where the Crimean War is still going on, time-travel is not only possible, it’s heavily regulated and there are frequent brawls over who wrote Shakespeare’s plays. The great thing about this world is that people REALLY care about literature and reading… so much so, that there are cracks in the wall between the real and fictional worlds. The heroine, Thursday Next, is a literary detective who follows her own advice – time travel – to move to Swindon and buy a new car. The villain is Acheron Hades, who is impervious to bullets and can disguise himself as a sweet old lady. Ostensibly less evil, but far more detestable is Jack Schitt, who works for the shady Goliath Cooperation. And of course, at the end of Jane Eyre, Jane accompanies St. John Rivers to India as his companion – arguably a stronger feminist ending than the real one – but this changes once Thursday and Hades make Thornfield Hall the site of their showdown…

This is an incredibly clever book but hard to describe – it’s satire, fantasy, sci-fi, romance and a thriller, with a few other genres thrown in for luck. It also makes the reader feel clever because although you could enjoy it without even knowing Jane Eyre, there are so many literary puns and references that most readers will recognise some. (When I suggested the book, I told my book group that Miss Havisham makes an appearance as Thursday’s mentor – this actually happens in the sequel, which is also well worth reading.) My favourite moment is either the Rocky Horror style performance of Richard III or the revelation that nobody wrote Shakespeare’s plays (though Thursday’s dad threw in a few of the best lines).

rhysWide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys’s prequel to Jane Eyre is a classic in it’s own right and an ‘important text’ in feminist and postcolonial writing. It tells the story of the Bertha Mason/Rochester before she became the madwoman in the attic, when she was just Antoinette Cosway. How you react to the disparity in the name may well shape how you react to the book as a whole. There was a strong feeling at our book group meeting that this novel could (and perhaps should) stand in it’s own right. The story of Antoinette’s slide into madness (if she is ever really mad) doesn’t need to be grafted onto Jane Eyre. The last section, set in Thornfield Hall during the time-frame of Jane Eyre, is certainly jarring. On the other hand, your name represents your identity, represents your self. In my opinion, the cruellest thing Rochester does is insistently refer to his new wife as Bertha: she laments “I don’t know what I am like now…who am I?” as she searches for the ghost of a woman rumoured to haunt Thornfield.

The book is short, practically a novella, but the shifting narrative perspective means it’s not an easy read. The switches between the two narrators come without warning or marker, leaving the reader feeling lost, alienated and ‘Other’, like the two protagonists. Pleasingly the first and last words belong to Antoinette/Bertha, giving her the voice she never has in Jane Eyre. This is also the voice that Jane (a pale reflection of her predecessor) herself learnt to suppress to get her happy ending…

Two very different books, both great in their own way. If you enjoyed Jane Eyre, read at least one of them. I wonder which Charlotte Bronte would prefer – any thoughts?

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2 thoughts on “The [Jane] Eyre Affair & Wide Sargasso Sea

  1. Having re-read “Jane Eyre” recently, I share your view of it. Rochester, St. John, and even Jane are difficult to like as people, but we have to keep the historical context in mind. What I do like about the story is how the pieces fall together. I’m planning to revisit “The Eyre Affair” at some point. I’m looking forward to reading it again!

    1. You’re right, they’re very much of their time. I think it’s a mark of the author’s skill in creating rounded characters that we can simultaneously find them admirable and irritating. Have fun with ‘The Eyre Affair’ – I think I’m going to try his other series (Nursery Crime) next.

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