Tuesday, February 17, 2009

BY THE CHAPTER: THE EYRE AFFAIR: A World In Which Everyone Cares About Literature

When I first read The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde, I was absolutely seized with the idea that there could be a world in which everyone cares about literature even more than I do. I mean, that's a lot. Let me give you some examples.

The protagonist of The Eyre Affair is Thursday Next, and in her world, instead of old video game and bubblegum machines in the untidy corners of transport stations, there are Will-Speak machines, officially known as Shakespeare Soliloquy Vending Automatons--the one in her hometown is of Richard III: "It was a simple box, with the top half glazed and inside a realistic mannequin visible from the waist up in suitable attire. The machine would dispense a short snippet of Shakespeare for ten pence. They hadn't been manufactured since the thirties and were now something of a rarity; Baconic vandalism and a lack of trained maintenance were together hastening their demise." (Baconians are the most vocal about the "who-wrote-Shakespeare" quandry in Thursday's world, as in ours; she surprises one by suggesting it could it have been de Vere.)

Thursday has been working as Litera Tec (literary detective) in London under "Area Chief Boswell" who "never seemed happier than when he was on the trail of a counterfeit Coleridge or a fake Fielding. It was under Boswell that we arrested the gang who were stealing and selling Samuel Johnson first editions; on another occasion we uncovered an attempt to authenticate a flagrantly unrealistic version of Shakespeare's lost work, Cardenio." (Yes, Cardenio is a lost play in our world, too, although there's a new production of it here.)

In the course of her day, Thursday passes a Crimean war veteran who is reciting Longfellow for pennies on the street corner, boys who are swapping bubble-gum cards with pictures of characters from the novels of Henry Fielding, a hotel receptionist who discusses the works of John Milton, and a bar called The Cheshire Cat where the barman is dressed like a hatter and asks her "why is a raven like a writing desk?" to which she answers "because Poe wrote on both." In her hotel room, Thursday finds not only a Gideon Bible in her bedside table, but also "the teachings of Buddha and an English copy of the Koran. There was also a GSD volume of prayer and a Wesleyian pamphlet, two amulets from the Society for Christian Awareness, the thoughts of St. Zvlkx and the now mandatory Complete Works of William Shakespeare." In the course of her work as a literary detective, Thursday deals with "a lot of gullible people out there buying first ediitions of Byronic verse at knockdown prices, then complaining bitterly when they found out they were fakes." She works in an office with people who "keep an eye on forgery, illegal dealing and overtly free thespian interpretations" and operate a machine called the "Verse Meter Analyzer" which "breaks down any prose or poem into its components--words, punctuation, grammar and so forth--then compares that literary signature with a specimen of the target writer in its own memory. Eight-nine percent accuracy. Very useful for spotting forgeries."

The plot of the detective story revolves around Thursday's involvement in the investigation of the theft of the original manuscript of Martin Chuzzlewit from the Dickens museum at Gad's Hill, out of a supposedly theft-proof case where it is kept constantly under guard. In the course of pursuing an armed suspect, Thursday is shot, and it turns out that the mysterious stranger who kept her from bleeding to death is no other than the fictional Mr. Rochester, from Jane Eyre. How does a fictional character save a Litera Tec? Well, it turns out that in Thursday's world, certain people can go into works of fiction. Thursday's Uncle Mycroft invented a device called a Prose Portal and sent his wife Polly into a Wordsworth poem, where she is still trapped at the end of Chapter 14.

But here's an important point. In Thursday's world, people don't love the novel Jane Eyre as much as people like me love it, and there's a good reason for that: "the rather flawed climax of the book was a cause of considerable bitterness within Bronte circles. It was generally agreed that if Jane had returned to Thornfield Hall and married Rochester, the book might have been a lot better than it was." (!!!) If you've read Jane Eyre, you know that this is, in fact, how the novel ends. In Thursday's world, the novel evidently ends with Jane going off with her cousin, St. John Rivers, to live chastely and do good works for the rest of her days.

That's the set-up. That's what I love most about reading The Eyre Affair--imagining what might have been. As you think about novels that didn't go exactly where you wanted them to--characters who didn't marry, dynasties that died out, castles that fell, disused, into ruin--can you think of any, in particular, that you'd like to go into, if you could change the outcome? (One of my choices is always Little Women, as I've said before.) What novel would you pick? What would you change?


FreshHell said...

Maybe Wuthering Heights. Eliminate a bit of the melodrama so that some good can come out of it all. Not sure how I'd change it. It's one thing to take revenge on Catherine and her generation, but the next? All the kids? That seems a bit much to me. I'd let them escape the clutches of Heathcliff. It would be nice for SOMEONE to have a decent, happy life.

Marcia said...

The first one that comes to mind is 'Gone with the Wind'. Even though the relationship between Scarlett and Rhett is tumultuous I loved it when the sparks flew between the two of them. I could feel the passion simmering right beneath the surface just waiting to explode. Even though he walked out on her in my GWTW world they keep coming back to each other. For me these two are like magnets - they have an attraction for each other that can't be denied. And the results - watch out!

Jeanne said...

FreshHell: Oh, yeah. I think modern readers, especially, don't see the point of the class divisions that separate the first Catherine and Heathcliff. I might suggest giving Catherine some kind of modern drug so she gets well after her temper tantrum/brain fever thing.

Marcia: Oh yes, who doesn't want to see Rhett cool off and come back? Maybe a character could fill him on about how hard it's been for Scarlett, a sort of twinkie defense, and then he could come sailing back in to rescue her once more.

Harriet M. Welsch said...

When I was younger I would have said little women, but I wouldn't actually want to change it. Mostly the ones I'd want to change would be the kinds of books that start out like gangbusters but fail to deliver on their initial promise. Unfortunately, because of their failures to hold my interest, I can not think of a one this morning. I will, however, check out the Eyre Affair. It sounds like great fun.

Jeanne said...

Harriet: books that start out like gangbusters--maybe The Golden Compass? I loved that one. Then I merely liked the second one. And I found the third one little more than an attempt to tie up all the loose ends. I was so disappointed. Maybe a Litera Tec could act as a deux ex machina towards the beginning of the second book!