A friend gave me Jasper Fforde’s novel The Eyre Affair as a little literary escapism last week, and I’m glad to report what a treat this highly original, highly unusual book is. It’s set in a sort of alternate world where the UK is still fighting the Crimean War and time travel is possible, but those are hardly the main points of the book; what is so delicious about this world is that it is one in which literary classics are at the center of the culture. Little boys swap not baseball cards but Henry Fielding cards, and special departments of the police force are responsible for protecting original manuscripts of Dickens and yes, Bronte. This is a world where characters can step freely into the stories of classic novels — and can do grievous harm to their plotlines.
The book is written in a bouncy way and could be for young adults, but there’s plenty to enjoy for any book-loving adult reader. It is modeled in the crime genre, and our hero, Thursday Next (great name), is a hardboiled cop trying to solve a series of mysteries that could have dire consequences for the books she loves. At times I wished the literature I love best, that of the twentieth century, could have been featured, but then I wondered if copyright laws had necessitated a focus on the nineteenth century. Could you create a fantasy world about leaping into Hemingway’s books, or would a disgruntled heir stop you?
Either way, another benefit of this book was that it got me remembering Jane Eyre the novel, which I recall only fuzzily from the seventh grade. I remember finding it slow, but being powerfully fascinated by parts of the story. Even now, the boldness of Bronte’s story choices — madwoman in the attic, half-killing her love interest — seem impressive and daring.
For anyone looking for a playful gallop with some old friends, The Eyre Affair is a great read.