The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

This book is dedicated to the great and wonderful art of cheering us all up. It works for me, anyway.

I can understand that some people will hate it. They will think it trivial, because on the face of it, it doesn’t tackle any of the most pressing political problems that face the world. Others may dislike it because it is fantasy plus, and they don’t care for fantasy. There are more people who say, ‘But it’s so dense that I couldn’t get along with it’. Still more will say it’s unrealistic because there is no painful violence in it, nothing to upset the digestive processes, no copulating, and no bad language.

Students of Real Literature will complain that there is nothing here which is deeply meaningful, no desperate inward-looking and distinctly doleful examination of the id, no probe into the underbelly of life, no dwelling on the hopelessness of mankind. To deal with the last complaint first, there is actually considerable time spent on whether you should or should not stand up to bullying and corruption, false rumour, and general wickedness.

With regard to the complaint that it is fantasy, that is perfectly true – but so are fairy tales. I can’t help feeling that fairy tales enrich our experience of life as we grow up, but I won’t try to persuade those who don’t like fantasy, to try this.

With regard to density; yes, the book is densely written and that may well be a problem for some, but on the other hand, it bears re-reading, and there its very density is a plus and not a minus factor.

With regard to the complaint that it lacks everything to appeal to the modern reader, I have read all too many books in which there is the fashionable amount of violence, sex and swearing, and I can tell you here and now that a) these fashionable devices alienate a large percentage of the possible readership, and b) that none of it is necessary to gain and carry a readership along with you. The truth of the matter is that – although perhaps I am not everyone’s idea of a general reader – I don’t notice the absence of sex, violence and swearing when a book is such a good read.
So my apologia for having selected this book for review is that I enjoyed it, I relished the jokes and the literary references, and I thought it worth drawing to your attention.

The Eyre Affair was first published in 2001 by Hodders as the start of a new series of fantasy books based on the world of literature. Rather like Epstein, the sculptor, or Philip Pullman, Jasper Fforde had one brilliant idea which, although it is covered by the word ‘fantasy’, immediately took it into a class of its own. There are two premises in fact; the first is that within the framework of a fairly routine story about little people fighting a villain who is aiming for world domination, is the idea that characters from fiction can cross into everyday life and vice versa. The second premise is that time is so flexible that you can sometimes be in two places at once.

This book entered the fantasy section of the bookshops and immediately made a big impact, because although it is of the genre, it takes it one step further.

Although comparisons are odious, yet Terry Pratchett and Jasper Fforde have used the same starting points for some of their flights of fancy. For a start, you need at least a glancing acquaintance with the classics to get the jokes. Sometimes Fforde explains the background to the jokes, sometimes not. Blink and you’ve missed something, such as the enormous stadium built not for football or rugby but for croquet matches, matches which have all the built-in hazards of an Alice in Wonderland golf tournament.

What else do the two writers have in common? Fantasy, a mixture of human, animal and legendary characters, a mad inventor, time jumping; all these have been used before, but adding nursery characters and characters from famous books, having them jump in and out of scenes is something which only Fforde does, and it all adds up to a very odd, and distinct sub genre.

Perhaps you could say that the Pratchett storylines are slightly better crafted, whereas Fforde tends to take ‘What if?’ and add a chapter, ‘And then what if?’ and add another chapter. If the journey sometimes lacks coherence it is always amusing, and to be fair Fforde has invented some rather wonderful villains. I particularly liked the way characters from Greek mythology are woven into a plot by the cosmos-wide Goliath corporation who are, of course, seeking world domination.

There will probably be many who are annoyed by the forewords at the start of each chapter, supposedly written by various pundits. My favourite is definitely Millon de Floss (who turns out to be the heroine’s officially appointed stalker in a later book). These forewords comment upon and explain the action as it goes along, and are prize entries in themselves. Here’s one of my favourites in which Bowden Cable, the heroine’s new boss, describes the day she joins his operations:
‘I cannot help thinking that she is particularly unsuited to this area of work and I have my doubts as to whether she is as sane as she thinks she is. She has many demons, old and new, and I wonder whether Swindon is quite the right place to try and exorcise them.’

This is not only informative but also has a kick in the tail. Without these forewords, there would have to be a whole lot more information packed into the text. It is a literary device which works well.

To start at the beginning; the covers of all four books in the first series have been devised to create an impression of harum-scarum skulduggery with cars attached. This works pretty well. The covers are also ‘distressed’ to give the impression that they have been dog-eared through much reading. I’m not sure that this does come off, but it does achieve the aim of setting the books apart from others on a shelf.

The Eyre Affair is set in the future. Transport is by car, airship or gravitube which drops you through the centre of the earth to Australia in 40 minutes. During WW2, England was occupied by the Germans, Wales was neutral – though is now completely divorced from England – and the Crimean War is still going on, but fought with modern weapons. The monarchy has gone, and George Formby of ukulele and When I’m Cleaning Windows fame is the President. (You don’t get all this information in the first book, but it gradually comes out).

The Goliath Corporation has taken over the known world and owns the media. The link between books and reality has been broken so that some characters can move out of books into this world, looking and acting like humans, and the Chromoguard has mastered the art of time-jumping. They are human, not like the time lords in Doctor Who, and they don’t need a Tardis to jump. Oh, and they stick to earth…I think.

Thursday Next is the heroine of the first four books, each of which runs at least three major plot strands at once; there is some military threat to the world, a literary scam to uncover, and a personal threat to the heroine’s happiness as well…plus an exploration into the oddities of time and literary peculiarities…oh yes, and usually a gun battle, fisticuffs and a car chase or two thrown in. The pace is frenetic; it never ever lets up.

Fforde describes Thursday’s physical appearance as brown haired but I totally disagree with him about that. She is definitely a strawberry blonde, not that all tall but feisty. She is human but with all the traits of the old-fashioned heroes, doggedly determined, quick-witted…and a registered Dodo owner called Pickwick, which she has generated from a home-brew kit. I do like the idea of Pickwick being a dodo.

Thursday is an extremely likeable heroine which is a great relief after the large number of books I’ve been reading recently, where I couldn’t give a toss about any of the protagonists. Looking at the world through her eyes, the writer gets me to identify with her in a breathless, headlong romp through adventure after adventure. It’s a bit like an Alice in Wonderland strip cartoon on speed. In a later book, the Gryphon actually becomes her barrister in her trial before the Wonderland King and Queen while there is yet another trial set in Kafka country.

Why is she on trial? Because she altered the ending of Jane Eyre. The original ending, you must know, was unhappy. Jane went off to be a missionary with St John Rivers, leaving Rochester & Jane to live apart and grieve for all eternity. But to start at the beginning…

The first sentence of this book reads: ‘My father had a face that would stop a clock.’

As first sentences go, this is a goodie, hooking the reader into the story without effort. Most books written from the point of view of a particular heroine, would start with the heroine’s story, but not Jasper Fforde’s. Oh, no. He starts with a couple of pages of explanation as to why Thursday’s father has a face that would stop a clock, and then, to make sure we’ve understood the premise, we get him appearing in person to give his daughter some good advice – oh yes, and to ask some pertinent questions about characters in history who may or may not have been written out by French revisionists – such as Nelson dying before Trafalgar and Winston Churchill dying before he entered Parliament. Later Colonel Next even comes up with some kind of solution (which I for one reject absolutely) as to the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays.

Be that as it may, Colonel Next dives in and out of the story, sometimes at convenient moments and sometimes when his daughter rather wishes he hadn’t. Unlike most time-stopping literary moments, Thursday is able to move furniture, get out of the way of bullets, and even deposit a gun behind a car before time resumes its normal course. This device allows her to take actions which have consequences which are only worked out in a later book. So don’t worry too much if you think there’s a loose end or two hanging around – like Rowling, Fforde obviously worked out the whole series before he published the first book.

The plot has several strands to it. The first is that Thursday, as a minor official in the LiteraTec Department in London, is called in to trace the original mss of Martin Chuzzlewit which has gone missing under mysterious circumstances. She recognises with horror the signature of Acheron Hades, an archvillain of mythic ancestry, possessed of superhuman powers, who can bend people’s minds to make them believe their eyes are deceiving them, appear and disappear at will, is impervious to bullets, and totally devoted to the pursuit of evil for its own sake.

The second thread is that of Jack Schitt (say it and you get the point!) acting on behalf of the giant corporation Goliath (get it? Giant!) Jack is human, but very very nasty, as is Goliath, which controls the media. Jack Schitt controls Thursday’s LiteraTec department and pokes his nose into Thursday’s investigation. There is a shoot-out – the first of many – and Thursday ends up in hospital. (Yes, I know I’m missing out chunks, but if I gave you everything, we’d be here till midnight)

The next strand is that of the mad inventor uncle Mycroft . Perhaps we should deal with the matter of the names now. The variety is astounding. Pratchett, of course, also invents names which resonate nicely in the mind but Fforde – probably laughing hilariously – takes not so ordinary names and gives them to appropriate characters. For instance, he doesn’t use the name Sherlock Holmes for the inventor uncle, but calls him by the name of Holmes’ elder brother, Mycroft. Braxton Hicks may not be a name familiar to most men, but most women know that that is the name given to early childbirth contractions. Sturmey Archer is the name of a certain type of gear used on bicycles. ‘Spike’ is the pet name of the man who deals with werewolves and vampires. I really enjoyed these names. No doubt you have your own favourites.

To get back to Mycroft. The starting point may have been Pratchett’s mad inventor, who can never see the destructive possibilities of his inventions. Mycroft, however, wants to destroy anything which could be used to hurt others. My particular favourite of his ploys is the sticking front gate, which runs the television for an hour on the energy involved in opening it. Mycroft has invented a Prose Portal and invites his wife Polly to go through it to visit Wordsworth in his poem about the daffodils.

It is of course Acheron Hades who has stolen the Dickens mss. He kidnaps Mycroft and the prose portal with Polly inside it, and whisks them away. Now Hades can use the Prose Portal to visit any book he likes, so he sends his assassin to extract and kill a minor character from another classic novel. At that point every copy of the book loses this character because every copy is taken from the original manuscript.

The next strand – and it is interesting to see how eventually all the strands tie up and meet – is that of Colonel Phelps, rabid war veteran keen to keep the war in the Crimea going because otherwise all those chaps who’ve laid down their lives fighting for us, will have died in vain. He wants Thursday at his side when he addresses a big pro war meeting at which he plans to introduce the invincible weapon Stonk, backed – of course – by the Goliath corporation. Jack Schitt is naturally following this closely.

Now Thursday has her own memories of the Crimea in which she lost her brother and eventually also her fiancé, Landen Park-Laine. (Say it out loud and you’ll get the joke). After the Charge of the Light Brigade, Landen told the court martial that it was Thursday’s brother who had pointed the way for the almost complete annihilation of the allied army. Thursday has never forgive him for this but after her return to her roots in Swindon – why Swindon, you may ask! – she finds herself trying to come to terms with what has happened.

We now return to almost normal cops and robbers territory. Hades demands a ransom, Thursday is set up to deliver it, everything goes wrong – of course – but there’s a nice shoot out and car chase to keep the reader amused until the trail disappears into the Out of Bounds territory of Wales.

Now at this point, dear Reader, we must digress to allow me a few words of bitter grievance about writers who think writing the story from different points of view is A Good Thing. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t. The big problem, and we’ve all met with it, is that no sooner do you get used to one character and become sympathetic towards them, than you are presented with a completely different character, and race off in an entirely different direction. Most of the time you couldn’t give a toss about the second character, but lo and behold, you switch to yet another character telling the story, and you either scream or put the book down never to pick it up again.

In this case, I got pretty well turned off by having to switch to Mycroft and Polly, and even more turned off when Hades gets to talking to his side-kicks. But I do see why this constant switching is done in this case. The book could hardly have been written wholly from Thursday’s point of view. I can’t say that I ever warmed to Hades – perhaps that is precisely the point – but I did rather like Mycroft and Polly.

Anyway, Mycroft tries to thwart Hades by burning the original mss of Martin Chuzzlewit which makes Hades think of searching for something else…and he sets his sights on Jane Eyre, under guard at Haworth. OK, he steals the mss and sends his operative into the book to remove the key character of Jane Eyre.

To quote:
Within twenty seconds of Jane’s kidnapping, the first worried member of the public had noticed strange goings-on around the area of page one hundred and seven of their deluxe hide-bound edition of Jane Eyre. Within thirty minutes all the lines into the English Museum library were jammed. Within two hours every LiteraTec department was besieged by calls from worried Bronte readers. Within four hours the president of the Bronte Federation had seen the Prime Minister.

National uproar ensues.

Now Thursday has certain links with Jane Eyre and Rochester already, dating back to a childhood intromission of hers into the book. She thinks up a scheme to smuggle herself into Wales to find the mss before all is lost. For once the LiteraTecs get Government backing. By this time Landen, Thursday’s love, has tried and failed to get Thursday back on track, so to speak, and is planning to marry Daisy Mutlar (who is nasty and also over-weight).

The reader is then given a potted version of the story of Jane Eyre, just in case they haven’t read it, with the ‘original’ ending where Jane goes off to India.

Confrontation with Hades & Co in his Welsh lair leads to another shootup which also involves Jack Schitt, He, it turns out, wants the Prose Portal to create an invincible Stonk, because in real life the boffins can’t make it work. This particular shoot out is interrupted by a happy visitation from Thursday’s dad, and Acheron escapes through the Prose Portal into the book. Thursday seizes Jane and follows, leaving instructions for a password to re-open the Portal when she’s found and captured Hades. It doesn’t quite work out like that, though, as Hades flees from Thornfield and takes up residence in the nearby village.

Thursday has to take up residence at the Manor till Hades makes his move, which he does after Jane’s wedding is stopped and she leaves for Ferndean. At this point Hades tries to trick Thursday into giving the password to let him back through the Prose Portal into our world, is rumbled, shot at – again! This time by Rochester. Hades returns fire, maiming Rochester. Hades runs up to Mrs Rochester’s rooms where he is attacked by her, starts a fire, runs again, throws Bertha over the battlements, starts more fires, is finally slain by Thursday with a silver bullet which Spike has given her – remember Spike, the vampire killer? – Rochester tries to save Jane – I mean, Thursday, rushes her down the stairs, the stairs give way, he is blinded and…Jane wakes up at Ferndean. Have you got all that?

Thursday didn’t change the way Rochester was blinded and maimed in the book, or the fact that Thornfield caught fire. Hades did. But – wait for it – Thursday isn’t finished yet.

Thursday now intervenes in the story, groaning ‘Jane, Jane, Jane!’ under Jane’s window as St John is pressing her to go to India with him. Jane rushes to pack and returns to Rochester, leaving the story with the ending which satisfies everyone except the Bronte Federation, who split into those who do and those who don’t approve.

Oh, and there’s a few extra characters I haven’t got round to, like Mrs Nakajima from Japan, who runs tourist visitations to Thornfield from present day Japan.

However, to return to Jane – I mean, Thursday -. She gets out of the Prose Portal and back to Wales where Jack Schitt is waiting for the plans to the Prose Portal. He reaches inside the Portal to get the Stonk manual out, is pushed inside the book and the Portal is destroyed. Unfortunately for Jack, the jacket of the Stonk Manual has been swapped for a copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s the Raven – and Jack is locked inside that, instead of the manual for Stonk.

Thursday streaks off for Landen’s wedding to Daisy, which is stopped by Mr Briggs (the solicitor who stops Rochester and Jane’s wedding in Jane Eyre), as it appears Daisy had a previous undissolved marriage. (I didn’t see that coming, did you?) Consternation in church. Landen and Thursday turn the event into an engagement party…and finally we get their wedding at which most loose ends are tied up.

Of course this is only the beginning of the saga and there are three more books to come, in which the heady mix is repeated, with added ingredients. Mr Stuggins, for instance, the Neanderthal who only appears at the wedding, is a vitally important character in another book.

It’s all great fun, if you don’t weaken.

The next book continues the fun where the last one leaves off. To summarise briefly, Lost in a Good book sees Aornis, the sister of Hades, arrive to avenge her brother, leading Thursday a merry dance through more great adventures, culminating in the eradication of her husband Landen, who supposedly died as an infant. This leaves Thursday carrying his child, and threatened on all sides. She takes refuge in The Well of Lost Plots, which I cherish for its insight into the technical background in which a writer builds up a character, in that two blanks – characters without any particular shape, form, or nature – gradually turn into 3D people. Thursday is coached by Miss Havisham from Great Expectations, and is appointed the Bellman, who is the final arbiter of what books fade out of consciousness, condemning failed characters to oblivion. Incidentally, Miss Havisham also takes the cast from Wuthering Heights in Anger Management courses.

The last book in the first series is called Something Rotten, and sees Thursday return to this world with her infant son and Pickwick the Dodo – who has also given birth – in a fight to reverse Landen’s eradication. He wavers in and out of existence, as does Jack Schitt – whom Aornis (Hades’ sister) wants back to help with the usual world domination bit. Here we have the result of the trials of Thursday for altering the end of Jane Eyre, in which she is condemned to wear blue gingham for life – and a weird tie-up, which I don’t think works properly – in which Granny Next (who is never seen except in blue gingham) finally dies, surrounded by her descendants, her father and grandson, etc., etc. It turns out that Granny Next is actually Thursday. And no, my mind refuses to accept that as she drives off into the distance with her happy husband Landen, and their infant – who turns out to be another Time Traveller..

So that’s the rough storyline.

The writing is fine, not literary, but in a straightforward adventure style. Sometimes you think Fforde is just being too clever for his own good. There was one sentence which contained three qualifying words such as ‘very, great and just’, and I sat up straight, thinking that I would never allow such a sentence to go through, and then I realised that Fforde had actually done it on purpose, at which thought I had to smile, if wryly.

I don’t think Fforde had any ambitions to be a great literary writer; I think he’s obsessed by the stories that flood into his head, and just has to get them out onto the computer as quickly as he can.

He has a great gift for a story with a twist and with humour. To my mind we can’t have enough of people like him. Will he last? Perhaps not as long as Pratchett, but so long as he makes people laugh out loud, I’ll vote to keep him in with those authors that I can read and re-read.

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