Monday 19 July 2021

Review: John Eyre: A Tale of Darkness and Shadow, Mimi Matthews (2021) – Part of the John Eyre Virtual Book Tour

I’m something of a Bronte fanatic. After all, my own debut novel (Bronte’s Mistress) was inspired by a real-life scandal that rocked literature’s most famous family. So I was delighted to be asked to participate in the virtual book tour for John Eyre: A Tale of Darkness and Shadow, Mimi Matthews’s new Bronte-inspired Gothic romance. As part of the tour, 35 online influencers specializing in historical fiction, Gothic romance, and paranormal fiction are celebrating the release with interviews, spotlights, exclusive excerpts, and reviews. 

John Eyre is (as you might have guessed from its title!) a gender-swapped retelling of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847). John is a tutor working under the employ of a fascinating Mrs. Rochester at Thornfield Hall. The housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax has morphed into a butler, Mr. Fairfax. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that the maniac in the attic is a hidden husband, not a secret wife. 

What might be less obvious at first glance though is that this isn’t just a take on one nineteenth-century novel, but two. Bronte’s Jane Eyre meets Bram Stoker’s 1897 Dracula in this fast-paced read. This is not as outlandish an idea as it might seem at first glance. Author Mimi Matthews details in her Author’s Note several passages in Bronte’s novel that borrow from vampiric imagery (e.g. [Rochester:] “She sucked the blood: she said she’d drain my heart.”). And the Gothic Yorkshire setting lends itself to violent, as well as psychological, horror. 

The structure of Matthews’s novel is more indebted to Dracula than Jane Eyre, as Mrs. Rochester’s letters and journal make up a significant portion of the narrative. While John is definitely our main character, this decision means that Mrs. Rochester is available to us in a way Bronte’s Mr. Rochester never is. Matthews’s Mrs. Rochester is still attractive and magnetic—to John and to readers—but our access to her makes her more human and less dangerous than her masculine namesake. It’s also tricky to entirely reverse the original power dynamic in a nineteenth-century setting. John is Mrs. Rochester’s subordinate by position, wealth, and class. But he is still a man, with all the privileges this entails, and he takes the lead romantically and physically at moments when I would have liked Mrs. Rochester to seize the reins. 

Matthews excels at building atmosphere and in delivering clarity at a line level even while her characters move in a fog of confusion. I delighted in the Gothic creepiness of the Milcote mists, the mute children John tutors (a distorted mirror of Jane Eyre’s talkative Adele), the casement bed (hello, Wuthering Heights!), and the role of laudanum in the plot. Obviously, this isn’t the book for those who prefer their historicals firmly rooted in reality, but if you enjoy paranormal details there are plenty to soak in here. 

One way in which John differs from Jane is in the loss of his religious faith, something which preoccupies Jane for much of the original book. This plays to the interests of modern readers, while also removing the driving force behind Jane’s flight from Thornfield, following her disastrous would-be wedding day—her desire to save her soul and her beloved’s. As a result of this change, the dénouement of the novel is action-packed, and the chapter inspired by Bronte’s most famous scene is soon followed by the climax.

John Eyre doesn’t pretend to be a serious examination of gender dynamics, as Jane Eyre often is, and questions of race are also less prominent than in other Bronte-inspired fiction (this Mr. Rochester still benefitted economically from slave labor, but there is no suggestion that Bertha’s heritage may be non-white).

I’d highly recommend John Eyre to other Bronte fans who are happy to read works that play with the sisters’ worlds. This is a book that is beyond anything else fun—fun to uninitiated readers, but even more fun if you’re familiar with its source material. 

Have you read John Eyre? What did you think of it? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. For updates on my blog, my book, and me, make sure you sign up for my monthly email newsletter below.

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