Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Lookout, Eno, Bull City), and a pair of well-regarded literary magazines out of UNCW, it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literary publishing. More so, it shows the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.
Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title and an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.
“The Eyre Affair”
Penguin Books, 2001, pgs. 374
Holiday gifts can be a very difficult thing to wrangle. One of my gift-list recipients, Rachel, and I share a lot of similar reading interests: The Ameilia Peabody books by Elizabeth Peters, Diana Wynn Jones’ work, Neil Gaiman, Sarah Addison Allen’s magical realism books, old-school British mystery novels, etc.
Last year Rachel scored a win by gifting me “The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter.” It was the first book I read by Theodora Goss, and I fell so immediately in love with her work, we now have a whole display dedicated just to her at the bookstore. I struggle with finding books that Rachel hasn’t read yet to gift her for holidays and birthdays. This year we went through about seven different possibilities before I finally settled on her gift.
Apparently, according to both her and Jock, I am incredibly difficult to get a book for as well. I personally do not believe that, but I guess I am blind to just how difficult I really am. Rachel, however, has scored a hit yet again with Jasper Fforde’s “The Eyre Affair.” Now, I have been aware of this book for some time; plenty of copies have cycled through the bookstore and people come in asking for it. But I had not yet read it. Rachel kept asking leading questions to figure out if I had read it and was surprised to discover I had not.
Set in an alternative reality in the 1980s, in a Britain where the Crimean War has been going on for over a century, “The Eyre Affair” is narrated by Thursday Next, a Crimean War veteran now working as a literary detective. She is haunted by the death of her brother in The Charge of the Light Brigade—which she survived among a few others. A decade earlier she ended her relationship with the love of her life over a disagreement about The Charge and her brother’s role in it. Her current assignment involves tracking down a master criminal who used to be one of her lecturers at Oxford. He has never forgiven her for not succumbing to his romantic charms.
She is smart, resourceful, kind and has a moral compass made of iron. Her father is a rouge Chrono Guard (time-traveling cop), and her crazy Uncle Mycroft is an inventor who has created a “Prose Portal” that allows one to step into a work of literature—literally (all puns intended). The two men accidentally lose her Auntie Polly in a Wordsworth poem, where she becomes the hostage of the Master Criminal who is trying to kill Jane Eyre.
One of the ways I determine how much I enjoy a novel is by how much of it I read aloud to Jock or recite to him over dinner. In this universe the “authorship question” (i.e., Did Shakespeare write all of his own plays?) is a very serious one. The people who argue for Francis Bacon are like Jehovah’s Witnesses: going door-to-door, passing out tracks and trying to convert people to their viewpoint. “Richard III” is the “Rocky Horror” of this world—an interactive play with a new cast selected from the audience every night.
I love this.
(Also, how do we not have this production of “Richard III” in Wilmington of all places? We have three Shakespeare companies in a town of 120,000 people for crying out loud!)
But a couple of world-building tropes do not an entire novel create. “The Eyre Affair” really works because the world-building and story blend so perfectly. Without “Jane Eyre,” there is no mystery, no romance, no conclusion to an incredibly well-crafted suspense thriller. But mapped over each other, it’s an action-adventure story: “Jane Eyre” mixed with “James Bond” (but with a female protagonist), filled with literary allusions and jokes.
Unfortunately, this experience outed Jock as having never read “Jane Eyre.”
“So do I have to have read ‘Jane Eyre’ to like this story?” he asked as I was sputtering in disbelief. I mean one of us had a British Common Wealth Education.
“No, you don’t have to have read ‘Jane Eyre,’ but it certainly helps … and I mean, you’ know the story, right?”
He shook his head.
I took a deep breath and gave him the basic plot outline of “Jane Eyre,” overlaid with remarkably little commentary and correlations to the plot of Fforde’s book.
“I see why you like this so much,” Jock noted in self-defense at the end of my summons. “Did you say this is a series? There’s more joy to come?”
“Brace yourself, sweetheart—he even handled the authorship question with time travel.”
Needless to say, I am now a Thursday Next convert.