Jane Eyre Laid Bare | Charlotte Bronte and Eve Sinclair

In the wake of the enormous success of E.L. James’ Fifty Shades series, it has become unnecessary to explain, or apologize for, the buoyant category of literature known as fanfiction. Still, for the sake of clarity, a recap: Fanfiction is writing based on published sources—books, films, TV shows, and often even real events or people who make news—produced by fans, to be read by other fans. Some of it, like James’ books, which were originally written as fanfiction for Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, is pornographic, while much of it is not. Some of it, unlike James’ writing, is so good that it makes you wonder why these artists aren’t paid and rewarded for their literary talent and keen eye for critical interpretation.

As the meme states, per Rule 34 of the Internet, anything and everything has been made into porn. But this is merely a smaller subset of the truth that everything on the Internet has its own fanfiction (don’t argue. I’ve seen Google Plus-on-Facebook anthropomorphic sex stories). In this ecosystem, it should come as no surprise that the beguiling, frustrating, heartbreaking literary corpus of the Brontë siblings has acquired its own band of speculative re-writers. There is fanfiction about everything, from Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, to the relatively obscure fantasia about the fictional kingdom of Gondal, Emily and Anne Brontë’s juvenilia, of which only fragments now survive.

Of these reinterpretive projects, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre has enjoyed the most attention, not only from writers dreaming up stuff on the Internet for the love of it, but also from professional publishing. Jean Rhys’ landmark Wide Sargasso Sea, perhaps the single most famous contemporary example of a transformative work of literature, is Jane Eyre fanfiction, which interprets key elements of the novel from the perspective of its “other" woman—Rochester’s mixed-race wife, Bertha Mason, the mad woman locked up in the attic as he pursues his ghoulish affair with Jane.

Then there is the porn. A cursory glance at the record shows several energetic efforts to recast Jane Eyre in the mould of something from the pages of Pearl. There is Rochester and Rochester: Consummation, Reader, I Married Him and— stand back, E.L. James—Disciplining Jane. As the blogger Cristina, who runs Brontë Blog (Bronteblog.blogspot.com), says, “…those are probably not the first ones either."

So Eve Sinclair’s Jane Eyre Laid Bare has precedents which cannot be fully sidelined by the obliterating spotlight of the Fifty Shades phenomenon, and deserves to be read in this context, and not just as a me-too entrant.

And Sinclair knows her place in the tradition all right. When the Jane Eyre of this novel investigates the library at Thornfield Hall, she comes upon a copy of Pamela, “which, as I picked it up to examine it, disgorged from between its covers a pamphlet entitled An Apology for the Life of Mrs Shamela Andrews." Jane is looking, of course, at Richardson’s famous early English novel, a legendary bore written to impart moral instruction to 18th century readers, and its equally famous satire by Henry Fielding, in which the starchy Pamela of Richardson’s novel is parodied as a wicked bawd. Sinclair knows her place in the tradition all right.

The big literary problem with sexing up Jane Eyre is that the original novel is already full of sex. Volumes of scholarship have been written about its insights into female desire; no adult reader who picks it up can fail to discern its ferocious, complicated attitudes to sex and romantic intimacy. Yearning suffuses Jane Eyre—when its early reviewer G.H. Lewes described it as “suspiria de profundis", or “sighs from the depths", it should be completely reasonable to understand it in the context of the novel’s erotics.

Jane Eyre Laid Bare wants to make this erotic subtext explicit. It retells only a small part of the novel, beginning, unlike the original, with Jane’s arrival at Thornfield Hall, and ending the story, with a twist, soon after Jane and Rochester’s marriage is prevented at the altar. The characterization sticks close enough to the original that there are very good moments of recognition in the sombre, self-controlled, first-person narrative. But this is a Jane with sex very evidently on her mind. Her time at the repressive school Lowood is told in enjoyably titillating flashbacks about lesbian initiation, with a dark subplot about child abuse. Her attraction to the growling, overwhelmingly male Rochester is almost instant, and the original story’s sequence of events becomes, here, episodes that foreground her desire to have sex with him.

Reader, she does; although not before a rather clever episode involving Macguffin Blanche Ingram (the woman Jane thinks is Rochester’s future wife, early in the book) and a group of Rochester’s young friends whose singular interest in life seems to be giving each other orgasms.

Sinclair’s obvious interest and delight in mid-19th century sexual mores gives the book much of its weight and interest. The erotica is well-written and engaging, and full of pleasantly steamy bits, although it is unclear whether some scenes, like an early sequence where Jane pleasures herself with a candle (happily unlit), are intended to make us sweat, or giggle.

But in the end its raison d’etre is the sex, not the text. Erotica can and should exist on its own terms, of course, but here Sinclair is cheekily sharing title credit with Charlotte Brontë. As a comment on the source text, Jane Eyre Laid Bare minimizes, rather than elevates, its original. Jane’s single-minded pursuit of sexual fulfilment narrows the novel’s perspective without really saying anything new or exciting about it. Rochester, who has always been a polarizing sort of hero for all his Byronic magnetism, comes off as little more than a lout whose problems are located almost entirely in the realm of the sexual (which, granted, is a valid reading of the text). The novel’s end, brought about by Bertha Mason’s appearance, could only have been written by someone with a real, if subconscious, hatred for Jane Eyre, and all the disruptive, really troubling power of its narrative. Bertha, so unforgettable in Brontë, is granted the most predictable destiny of all, which it would be a spoiler to give away—suffice to say that sex is involved in her own particular degradation in the most boring, obvious way.

By hacking off anything in the novel that comes directly in the way of the erotica, Sinclair leaves precious little to the imagination, which diminishes its ambitions considerably. Jane Eyre Laid Bare is a quick, entertaining read if you’re looking for a few hours’ diversion. For something more heavyweight, you could do worse than look online. The Internet has 99 flaws, but sex ain’t one. This is one area in which mainstream publishing is going to have to do all the work to catch up.

supriya.n@livemint.com

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