Brooding about the Brontes: The Eyre Affair

Posted April 22, 2016 by Lory in reviews / 22 Comments

Jasper Fforde, The Eyre Affair (2002)

EyreAffairWhen The Eyre Affair first came out, I was doubtful. It sounded like an overly cutesy idea to me: in an alternate universe, agent Thursday Next (ugh, that name!) is after criminal mastermind Acheron Hades (ugh, again) who’s figured out how to enter books and capture fictional characters, such as Jane Eyre. Can Thursday save the world from this dastardly plot, and find her own happiness in the process?

This didn’t sound appealing at all, so I passed on it and all the wildly popular sequels that Mr. Fforde — if that really is his name — has concocted since. But with Girl with Her Head in a Book’s Brooding about the Brontes event coming up, I became curious again about this book that dared to play havoc with the characters and plot of one of my favorite works of fiction. Susie had liked it a lot, so it seemed worth giving the old 50-page try at least. (If I can’t get into a book after 50 pages, I feel justified to stop reading.)

Well, The Eyre Affair passed the 50-page test, and in fact I ended up enjoying it very much. Yes, there are those stupid names — in addition to Thursday and Acheron, we’re subjected to Braxton Hicks, Runcible Spoon, and — oh, please! — Jack Schitt. Even Warner Brothers cartoons were a bit more subtle in this department, I feel. There are also awkward point-of-view shifts and some other infelicities that a good editor could have helped this first-time novelist to avoid.

But the sheer exuberance of the book’s imaginative world won me over: an alternate reality where the fashion for cloning extinct species has resulted in a surplus supply of Dodos, nuclear weapons have never been invented but the Crimean War has been dragging on for 130 years, and Wales rejoices in its status as a separate country. It could have been too whimsical for words, but somehow it managed to hold the balance between sublime and ridiculous well enough to keep me reading, and smiling too.

The most fantastic thing (in several senses) about this fantasy world is that people care about literature, art, and culture as matters of life and death. Instead of sports heroes on their trading cards, kids covet Henry Fielding characters (“I’ll trade you my Sophia for your Amelia”). Surrealist artists who want the right to melt clocks and Raphaelites upholding the banner of realism battle in the streets. A Rocky Horror-style version of Richard III is performed every week at a Swindon theater, taking all its actors from the raucous audience who have participated in it countless times. And of course, there’s the little matter of a device being invented that lets us enter into the world of a favorite book, interact with the characters, and maybe even alter that ending that has always been so unsatisfying…for us bookworms, it’s the ultimate in wish fulfillment, and Fforde makes our dreams come true.

Though I think that some of the jokes will be best appreciated by English majors and others who know their Sophias from their Amelias, there’s plenty here to raise a chuckle from all kinds of readers. (Just make sure that you either have already read Jane Eyre, or don’t mind having the entire plot revealed beforehand, because otherwise the experience will be seriously spoiled for you.) The world itself is the main attraction; none of the characters is well-rounded enough to hold our interest independently, and even Jane and Rochester come across as cardboard-cutout versions of their “real” selves. Still, though as a booklover’s treat The Eyre Affair is not terribly deep or serious, it turned out to be a substantial enough concoction to satisfy me.

Brooding about the Brontes: The Eyre AffairThe Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
Published by Viking in 2002
Format: Hardcover from Library

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22 responses to “Brooding about the Brontes: The Eyre Affair

  1. I stalled on this too after first picking it up but hung on to it in the hopes of being in the right mood at some stage in the future. It’s helped now that last year Fforde was a speaker at our local inaugural literary festival where I’d volunteered as a steward, and I attended a writing workshop he gave. He was an engaging speaker, which encouraged me to give The Eyre Affair another go, and it’s on my list for later this year. I suppose as this is one of his earlier books the awkward bits might be a given — I expect he’s refined his style by now.

    By the way, the Fforde spelling is not an affectation: he’s of Welsh extraction and, as ‘f’ in Welsh is pronounced ‘v’ (Vord, anyone?), ‘ff’ was seconded to represent the softer fricative sound. Many Welsh names start with ‘ff’, such as Ffion (‘foxglove’), Fflur (= ‘Fleur or flower’) and the surnames ffoulkes and ffrench. (You’ll note that sometimes the initial F is a capital, sometimes not.

    • I actually knew that (having first encountered Fflewddur Fflam in the Prydain books in childhood) so I was being rather facetious. I’ve no doubt that Fforde’s Welsh blood encouraged his penchant for wordplay and literary flights of fancy, which I do hope you will enjoy when you get to reading him.

      • Sorry, Lory, my irony antennae were only intermittently receptive when I read your post — they’re switched on now! Yes, Fflewddur Fflam, I’d forgotten him from Prydain; pause for heavy sigh; reminds me I should really search out Lloyd Alexander again. Soon. Sometime. (Ooh and look, there’s another Welsh double consonant in his forename!)

  2. I love this book so much, mostly because of what you say about literature mattering to the people. The silliness got to be too much for me two or three sequels down the line, but this first one hits all the right notes–even the silly names do have shades of meaning.

    • They do, but they were too obvious for me here – to me it’s more fun to have names with subtle layers of meaning that have to be teased out (Chris L. is so great at that), than to be hit with them like a sledgehammer. Anyway, it didn’t prevent me from enjoying the book as a whole.

  3. I’m so glad you liked this! I do think it’s incredibly clever. Similarly to the above comment, I think that the series does lose focus but at its best it’s just superb. There’s the bit where Thursday has to attend a therapy session with the characters from Wuthering Heights who are having difficulty managing their anger, then the time she gets trapped in an Enid Blyton novel – it’s brilliant. But the first is definitely the best. Please do link up – I’ve so enjoyed this week! 🙂

    • Fforde does have some pretty terrific ideas. I have the second volume out from the library now, and though it’s good to know the first one is the high point I expect there will still be some chuckles in store.

      • I think it’s more that the first one is the most complete and after that it is more of a long-running thing. I don’t think that The Eyre Affair is the sole high point by any means – I also agree that Fforde is one of the most inventive and creative writers that I have ever come across. Enjoy!

  4. I’m as hesitant as you about picking up books like this, but now I will feel more confident if I ever come across it. Come to think of it, why haven’t I? A quick check tells me that it’s not even at the library…

  5. I remember really enjoying this one when I read it – it’s been years now, and I think I should revisit. So happy that you ended up enjoying it too! I remember loving how literature-nerdy this book is. Wish-fulfillment for bookworms is a perfect way to describe it!

  6. I really enjoyed this book–and the whole series. I think my favorite joke is the Shelley who mugs a Keats, leaving an atheist tract behind him. Ha! It’s all just very fun, to my mind. 🙂

    • It is super fun if you like books, especially the classics. I’m not sure what non-bookworms would make of it, but who cares about them?

    • I think you’d like it, C.J.! It’s not without flaws, as I mentioned, but it did have so much imaginative pizzazz that I didn’t mind.

  7. I don’t think I will ever get all of the literary references in this series but on each reread I catch something new because of knowledge I’ve gained in the meantime. And I find the world so amazing that I ignore the flaws in the prose and just enjoy myself!

    • There is so much packed into that world! I’m sure I was missing some references as well, so it will be fun to hunt for more on a reread.

  8. I read and reread this book (and the Thursday Next series) so many times! It never gets old. And I hope to someday grow up to be as cool as Thursday.

  9. I’m glad you ended up enjoying this! I actually liked the funny names, especially hearing them read in an audiobook, but I could see them being a bit much. I hadn’t yet read Jane Eyre when I read this, but I felt like I was able to enjoy this anyway and the original was still enjoyable when I got to it later 🙂

    • I could see this being especially entertaining as an audiobook with a good narrator. Glad you enjoyed it — and Jane Eyre as well.

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