Yorkshire, 1843. When disgraced former schoolmaster John Eyre arrives at Thornfield Hall to take up a position as tutor to two peculiar young boys, he enters a world unlike any he's ever known. Darkness abounds, punctuated by odd bumps in the night, strange creatures on the moor, and a sinister silver mist that never seems to dissipate. And at the center of it all, John's new employer—a widow as alluring as she is mysterious.
Sixteen months earlier, heiress Bertha Mason embarked on the journey of a lifetime. Marriage wasn't on her itinerary, but on meeting the enigmatic Edward Rochester, she's powerless to resist his preternatural charm. In letters and journal entries, she records the story of their rapidly disintegrating life together, and of her gradual realization that Mr. Rochester isn't quite the man he appears to be. In fact, he may not be a man at all.
From a cliff-top fortress on the Black Sea coast to an isolated estate in rural England, John and Bertha contend with secrets, danger, and the eternal struggle between light and darkness. Can they help each other vanquish the demons of the past? Or are some evils simply too powerful to conquer?
Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is the quintessential 19th century gothic novel. Some pair it with Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as the best literature of that era. However, unlike Pride and Prejudice, Brontë’s work has not been given the myriad adaptations and retellings that Austen’s has. Author Mimi Matthews has taken it upon herself to re-envision Jane Eyre with a bit of a gender swap, plus an extra dash of the paranormal as well. Given Brontë’s style of writing, the gothic tone and the lack of the “rom-com” formula that is so common in today’s Austen adaptations, taking on Jane Eyre was a brave choice.
In the source material, the titular character Jane joins the Rochester household as a governess, and she develops a relationship with her employer, Edward Rochester. In John Eyre, the main character is a young man brought into the household as a tutor for two young boys under the care of Mrs. Bertha Rochester. There are other amusing similarities between Jane and John Eyre, but it is sufficient to say that Matthews’ novel is very much its own entity. Brontë’s plot is not rehashed scene by scene. There is a darker element that makes itself known early on in the narrative, and builds to a larger presence near the conclusion.
The vast majority of the novels that I read are historical fiction, with very few including supernatural or magical elements. I would count Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series (which includes time travel) as the main exception to that trend, and those novels are read separately from ones for review on The Calico Critic. So John Eyre was a bit of a departure for me as a reviewer. That said, I was not disappointed in the venture. Mimi Matthews’ writing is excellent. Her word choices and turns of phrase made for compelling reading. Her characters were well-drawn, and the murky ambience of the tale was almost palatable, but not discomfitingly so. Given the alternating timeline device that was used, the carefully-divulged secrets that lay within the life of Mrs. Rochester were mysterious, but not in a way that made this reader overly uncomfortable for the majority of the novel. Only during a couple of key moments near the conclusion did the plot traipse into an area that was darker than my usual fare, but those times were brief. In general, John Eyre’s narrative style could almost be likened more to a mystery, rather than a paranormal gothic novel.
As I read, my mind initially “cast” the actor Timothée Chalamet as John Eyre, but as the story developed I felt that Tom Hiddleston would be a better choice. John was a very sympathetic educator and protector, showing maturity and a groundedness that were beyond his years. For Mrs. Rochester, I waffled between seeing a younger Angelina Jolie (sporting an European, non-American accent) and Jessica Brown Findlay in my vision of the beleaguered woman in black. Angelina’s beauty probably exceeds that of Matthews’ personification of the character, but Bertha had a strength, road-weariness and vulnerability that Jolie could embody. Actor Jessica Findlay also has a softness that Jolie lacks. So these two women somehow simultaneously held that role in my mind.
For my conservative readers, this novel may or may not be your cup of tea. Overall the “mature” material is very mild, with very little colorful language, and the sexual content is also fairly modest. The paranormal aspect of John Eyre is very much like what is found in 19th century literature for the majority of the story (although I’m no expert in that era’s material). For the last few chapters, some dark elements do creep in. That said, it’s often within the framework of good vs. evil, with even a few discussions of faith (or loss of it), the church, prayer to God, etc. It’s by no means a “religious” novel, but touchstones of faith are briefly mentioned. With this in mind, I would not necessarily recommend John Eyre to the ultra-conservative reader, but if a little bit of darkness (paired with the light of what is good) doesn’t scare you off, then this might be a good match.
Dark and compelling, with captivating characters and a narrative that builds to an exciting conclusion, John Eyre has been heralded as one of the “25 of the Best Books Arriving in 2021.” Those familiar with Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel, as well as readers who are unfamiliar with Jane Eyre can both find much to enjoy in Mimi Matthews’ latest title. In a world of darkness and shadow, light and love are the most powerful forces of all.
About the Author
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