The Literary Diaspora of Jane Eyre
Jane Eyre / Charlotte Brontë
When the novel Jane Eyre: an Autobiography by Currer Bell, was published in 1847 it caused a sensation. Some readers were enthralled by its downtrodden but feisty heroine and fascinating gothic setting and plot. Others were scandalized by what they perceived as an insult to the religion of the realm, and by the shocking subjects discussed by its characters such as the origin of Mr. Rochester’s ward, Adèle Varens, born without benefit of clergy. Why would Mr. Rochester discuss this scandalous matter openly with an eighteen-year old female employee? Mislead by the author’s pen name some felt that if the book had been written by a woman, it never would have discussed such things. Nevertheless, the novel established itself in the canon of English literary classics, and even the arbiter of taste in the Victorian age, the Queen herself, praised it. If imitation is the sincerest of flattery, then the novel and its characters have been well flattered since then. Here are two works which use elements of the novel in different times and in places far from England.
Wide Sargasso Sea / Jean Rhys
When Wide Sargasso Sea was first published in 1966, it surprised many readers who thought that the author was dead. She was one of the expatriate writers living in Europe in the aftermath of the Great War. Her last novel had been published in 1939, when the continent was about to experience a second great war. Unlike her previous novels that were set in contemporary Europe, Wide Sargasso Sea was a historical novel set in the British West Indies after the end of slavery in the 1840s. It is a prequel Jane Eyre, the story of Edward Rochester's first wife, a Creole beauty whom he calls “Bertha.” It is not a name that she likes, her name is Antoinette. Her mother’s name was Bertha. Her mother’s reason collapsed after her plantation home was burned down around the family by an angry mob of former slaves. It’s a vivid memory Antoinette wished that she didn’t own. Nevertheless, after their arranged marriage in Jamaica, the couple sails to the island of Dominica, and to Antoinette’s home village of Massacre for a briefly passionate and ultimately tragic honeymoon.
Like Jane Eyre the prose is polished, the feelings intense, and there is a brooding atmosphere of the supernatural surrounding the characters. There are cultural and class misperceptions that lead to conflict. To dramatize the turbulent emotional legacy of slavery and race, Rhys sets her story a few decades after Brontë set her book, but the story is emphatically the same in its conclusion.
Jenna Starborn / Sharon Shinn
Instead of moving the story a few decades forward in time Shin has moved the entire tale centuries into the future and to planets far, far away. I realize that the thought of a science fiction version of Charlotte Brontë’s classic, may strike many potential readers as about as appealing as listening to a Bach fugue played on an electronic synthesizer accompanied by an Electro-Theremin. Others may be intrigued by the novelty (pun intended) of the task, and may give it a try. They will be rewarded. It’s audacious task to attempt a rewrite of Jane Eyre. But Shinn has attempted and succeeded. Keeping close to the plot and characters of the original, she’s produced a novel that retains the emotional power and much of the style of Brontë’s original. At the same time she’s incorporated elements of science fiction that fans of the genre will enjoy, interstellar travel, social criticism, and integrated it into key elements of the plot, so that it is not just background scenery.
Part of the fun is seeing what Shinn has kept and changed and how skillfully and wittily she’s integrated the changes into the story. It’s not unlike watching a Shakespeare play done in modern dress, so Hamlet wields a handgun instead of a sword. For example when the eponymous heroine of Jenna Starborn (the stand-in for Brontë’s Jane Eyre) arrives at Thorastone Park (Thornfield), her job is as a generator technician, not as a governess, a position that is already occupied by a character named Janet Ayerson. Brontë’s Jane, characteristically addresses the book’s reader directly, as in the concluding chapter, “Reader, I married him.” Shinn’s Jenna owns “an 865 Reeder Recorder/Player,” into which she records her diary. So Jenna’s climactic line is, “Reeder, I married him.”
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