There is a very specific kind of delight in delving into a novel that retells a favorite story.
We know that Elizabeth and Darcy end up together, but what’s this I hear about zombies wandering around in regency England? What do you mean Maria is a vampire and merrily turning the Von Trapp children into the undead on a whim? Mansfield Park with a mummy curse?
Yes please. Any of it. All of it.
And to these hallowed halls of lovingly upended classics, Mimi Matthews brings us John Eyre, a retelling of Brontë’s Jane Eyre with several delicious inversions. The gender swapping is the obvious one, we have Bertha Rochester and John Eyre rather than Edward and Jane of the original. We have two silent boys of unknown origin for John to teach, rather than the precocious little French girl who was Jane’s charge. And lastly, delightfully, where Charlotte Brontë only hinted at the vampiric nature of the spouse chained up in the attic (see Anatol’s The Things That Fly In The Night if you’re curious about that), Matthews takes the concept and runs with it.ews
And when I say she runs with it, I mean she runs with it.
We’re back to classic vampire lore here: wolves, mist, silver and sunlight—there’s not a sparkle to be seen and no fixing this vamp with love.
Where the examples listed in the opening of this review all light heartedly melded supernatural elements with the original stories for largely comedic effect, Matthews is telling us a straight up vampire horror, with all the supernatural spooks, classic vampiric powers, and peril that entails.
Fitting, since the original Jane Eyre isn’t exactly a comedy to begin with and trying to make it one might cause some tonal issues.
For me, when reading a retelling like this, half the delight comes from comparing it to the original story. What changes did the second author make to the first’s work? What did they do that works better?
One of the great strengths of John Eyre comes from the dual narrators. Where Jane Eyre is told in the first person “I” and exclusively from Jane’s perspective as the events of the story happen to her, Matthews switches things up. John Eyre maintains a third person “he/she/they” perspective on our main storyline with a focus on the titular character, interspersed with old letters and journal entries from Bertha giving readers her backstory and crucially, slowly unveiling her first husband.
Where Brontë leaves Rochester a gruff enigma, giving readers only hints of how he became the man he is until the final big reveal at the climax, Matthews helps us know both of her leads. We watch Bertha grow from a relatively naïve, if intelligent and well-travelled, heiress into the strong, commanding woman that John meets when he comes to Thornfield Hall over a year later. We learn about both halves of this developing relationship and are more invested in the relationship because of it.
I’m a firm believer that there are no stories so sacred they can’t be retold should the right person attempt it, and with John Eyre Matthews has proven herself to be the right person. If I hadn’t had to eat and do a load of laundry, this would have been a finished in one sitting kind of book. As it is, it’s still a finished in one day book.
Excellent, all the way around.