Jane Eyre’s Daughter by Elizabeth Newark
While I haven’t had an uninterrupted string of glorious reads for my Jane Eyre research this summer, I’m still pretty pleased with what I’ve got so far and aim to read a little bit into the semester. (Which I hope is kosher for my senior thesis, in terms of the class. Huh.) I’ve got the beginnings of a thesis worked out, which Jane Eyre’s Daughter definitely helped with. Plus, I think I’m going to contrast this sort of thing with traditional fannish practices, which will definitely boost the page count. (And hopefully be relevant!) In any case, Jane Eyre’s Daughter did not suck! In fact, I rather enjoyed it, especially after some of the stuff I had to read.
Jane Eyre’s Daughter follows the titular character—Janet Rochester—through her coming of age, as narrated by herself. While Janet enjoyed an idyllic childhood adoring her father, she’s always felt a bit distant from her mother, whom she admires. Shortly before her sixteenth birthday, her parents and elder brother, Oliver, reveal that they have decided to sail to Jamaica to settle the last accounts of the Mason family, a journey that will take them at least two years. Young Janet is shipped off to school and must navigate society, suitors, and the strict guardianship of Colonel Dent. As the time passes and Janet begins to despair of her family ever returning home, she soon realizes that there are plenty of mysteries at Highcrest to occupy her time.
Now this is what I’m talking about when it comes to my thesis, people. Jane Eyre’s Daughter isn’t the most transformative of derivative works; we get no sad tale of Bertha’s true life (Wide Sargasso Sea) or… whatever happened in Thornfield Hall. (And then Mrs. Fairfax was a murderer? I don’t even know, people.) But it is a work that’s highly intertextual with the original, and that’s what I’m looking for. Jane Eyre’s Daughter looks at Jane Eyre as a gothic novel and appreciates it in order to be its own book. There are plenty of similarities (including one that’s too similar, but I’ll get to that in a moment), but they’re used to explore other avenues that Jane Eyre didn’t. Even Colonel Dent’s mystery is different, bookending Bertha’s story with a theme prevalent in Jane Eyre fanfiction. (I’d say what it was, but then I’d spoil it, and it is quite a little nice surprise that mildly corrects the original novel.) Moments from Jane Eyre are echoed, but not for the sake of “remember that from the original novel that you liked?”; rather, Newark is aware of it and plays on the audience’s expectations. Plus, it can actually stand on its own—Janet briefly sketches important plot points of Jane Eyre where necessary, but never tries the audience’s patience. What a relief!
I really can’t help comparing these books against each other—after all, that’s what my senior thesis is practically on! Part of the problem of writing a derivative work of an older novel is the language. Where Thornfield Hall focuses too much on the embellishments of Bronte’s writing, Newark manages to make a neat compromise by focusing on the clarity of Bronte’s writing. Janet is clearly her own woman, although her relationship with her mother is a central conflict of the novel. Janet can be a smidge too modern here and there, but, for the most part, Newark manages a nice balance of sympathetic character and historically accurate young lady with her and with Jane herself. In fact, Newark sneakily adds in another character arc for Jane that occurs while Janet is trying to keep her head above water. There’s a real fondness and thoughtfulness here, which I loved.
But now, the one similarity that is too similar. Where Jane Eyre picks up the Gothic standard of female madness, Jane Eyre’s Daughter picks up the standard of incest. For the most part, it works; it gives Janet a moral obstacle similar to her mother’s, and it’s ultimately (if a little melodramatically!) literalized as a threat to Janet. Again, Newark has definitely put a lot of thought into this and came up with something organic and believable. Where I step back (or, rather, where I screech “yurgh” at the book) is the handful of moments where Janet wonders if her mother’s distance is because her mother sees her as a rival, especially now that she’s a young woman. This is compounded by the fact that early in the novel, Janet talks about how her parents taught her what true love and devotion looks like; she then fantasizes about lying in bed with her father in a very sexual manner. Awkward. I, obviously, did not care for it, although, technically, it could be foreshadowing (if I hadn’t tried to scrub it out of my brain immediately). You have been warned.
Bottom line: Jane Eyre’s Daughter is a fond and thoughtful riff on Jane Eyre, expanding characters and playing with the audience’s expectations of the novel without being slavish to it. Worth a read if you enjoyed Jane Eyre, although watch your step—there’s a smidge too much incest about.
I bought this book from Amazon.