Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre remains a cultural touchstone 174 years after its debut. It is one of the best examples of Gothic Romanticism, a predecessor of modern domestic suspense. Gothic novels are characterized by sensational aspects, such as strange noises, dark houses in desolate settings, shattering secrets, and women in distress. But Jane Eyre was one of the first to emphasize the female experience, centering Jane’s voice through first person narration, just as many domestic suspense novels center female narrators.
In light of this, it is not surprising that Jane Eyre is an ur-text for not only other Gothic and domestic suspense novels, but for a sub-genre of Jane Eyre-inspired stories. In recent years, writers moved from retelling to reimagining, particularly with the characters of Jane and Bertha Rochester.
This list comprises some of the most intriguing and imaginative offerings, ones that crack open the liminal spaces in the original text or show it in conversation with its cultural and social legacy. Each one represents a reader response to aspects of the novel that have intrigued, inspired, or even irritated decades of readers.
Reader Response—Bertha Got a Bad Rap: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
A classic of feminist literature, Rhys’s novel was published in 1966, long before the other texts under discussion in this column. It is a hauntingly beautiful prequel told from the alternating points of view of Antoinette (short for Antoinetta, Bertha’s other name) and Rochester (who is not named at all in the text.) It describes Antoinette’s childhood in Jamaica marred by prejudice and tragedy, her honeymoon in a remote home, and her time in the attic at Thornfield. The longest section concerns the honeymoon and shows Antoinette’s unraveling due to past trauma and ill treatment by her new husband. It interrogates and shatters the trope of the nineteenth century madwoman, by showing the very human origins of Antoinette’s “madness.” The Jane Eyre section is the briefest (only 8 pages). This is Antoinette’s story, reclaimed from the problematic narration of Rochester, Jane, and the patriarchy.
Reader Response—We ❤️ Jane Eyre: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
This charming detective novel, published in 2001, is also one of the older books on this list. It is the first in a series about a literary detective named Thursday Next, who lives in an alternate universe England in 1985, where literature and crimes against it are very serious business. Acheron Hades, a villain with whom Thursday has a personal connection, figures out how to get into books and kidnap characters, thereby marring and even destroying narratives. He starts with Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit, but soon moves on to Jane Eyre. Although the text and characters of Eyre are sprinkled throughout the text and Thursday’s life, it doesn’t become the story (literally the story as Thursday enters is to find Hades) until the last few chapters. But it’s worth the wait and Thursday and her world are worth reading for their own sake. This combination of slapstick, satire, hard-boiled detective fiction, and sci-fi/fantasy demonstrates, through the outrage over the desecration of Bronte’s text, just how deep the love of this novel and its main character run. There is also a bit of redemption for Bertha at the end, while remaining true to the original text. I adored this book and can’t wait to read the rest of the series.
Reader Response—We Need To Help Jane Find Her Inner Badass: Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye
Now we come to the books from the last five years that are in conversation with the text rather than retelling it. I classify this as a YA/NA serial killer thriller. Intrigued? I sure was. This is an alternate universe Jane Eyre, except that the book exists in this world and the main character, Jane Steele, is a huge fan with a life strangely similar to the fictional Jane’s. Except that she is a serial killer. But there is so much more to her than that. The Bertha character doesn’t really exist in this interpretation, but she’s not needed. Every character is rich and complex. Jane Steele’s relationship to Jane Eyre is ambivalent. She loves her and reads the book constantly. But she is also frustrated by Jane’s morality derailing her happiness and allowing her to accept ill treatment from so many. I can relate to that frustration with Jane and I bet many other readers over the centuries have felt it, too. This book is fanciful, funny, fascinating, thrilling, and even heartwarming.
Reader Response—What If Jane Eyre Was Based On Real Life?: My Plain Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows
This is the second in the “Lady Janies” trilogy about famous Janes, both historical and fictional. They start off sticking closely to the narrative, then veer off to a better ending. In Plain Jane, the characters inhabit an alternate universe where Jane Eyre is a teacher and former student at Lowood school. The Bronte sisters are students and Charlotte is Jane’s best friend. But even Charlotte doesn’t know that Jane can see ghosts. The narrative kicks off with a ghost troubling a local pub. Jane goes to see for herself and runs into Alexander Blackwood, a Seer for the Society for the Relocation of Wayward Spirits, in the midst of relocating the ghost with the help of his assistant. Jane is horrified by the process of trapping the ghost and Blackwood is intrigued by the fact that Jane can not only see ghosts, but seems to have power over them. He pursues her to join the Society. Jane flees to a job at Thornfield. Charlotte, desperate to work for the Society, pursues Blackwood. The rest is wacky, funny, literary reference-filled fun, where Bertha, Jane, and Charlotte have agency. And don’t worry: it isn’t a spoiler to reassure you that Charlotte will still write her most famous work with the “real” Jane’s stamp of approval.
Reader Response—What If Jane Lived In Modern Times?: The Wife Upstairs by Rachel Hawkins
This is the book that inspired this topic. (Besides Jane Eyre itself, that is.) In this domestic thriller, loner Jane Eyre works as a dog walker in the neighborhood, Thornfield Estates. She meets Eddie Rochester when he almost runs her over with his sports car and becomes dog walker to his dog, Adele. She finds out his wife, Bertha (Bea) Rochester, founder of the successful lifestyle company Southern Manors, recently died. Soon, Jane moves out of the nasty apartment she shares with her equally nasty foster brother John Rivers and moves in with Eddie in his huge house that was lovingly decorated by Bea. This seems too good to be true. And what are those strange noises she keeps hearing? This is a twisty book which makes you question what you know about every character. The characters and plot points of Jane Eyre slide right into this very 21st century domestic thriller.
Not only did it embody one genre and inspire another, Jane Eyre itself continues to resonate and fascinate. Each generation claims her as their own, even as they question the racial, cultural, and gender biases of her story. Only a truly amazing character from a fiercely intelligent and talented author could remain accepted as her true self while inspiring so many others to protect and elevate her through new narratives. I suspect that, a hundred years from now, maybe even more, stories about Jane Eyre and her creator will continue to proliferate.
Sara Farmer lives in Austin, TX, with her husband, three kids, and two cats. When she’s not chasing kids and cats, she reads and writes mysteries. You can find her at www.kittymomma.com and on Twitter @avonlea79.