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Saturday, December 23, 2006

The French Dancer's Bastard

Ha! Here we go again:

THE WILDLY DIFFERENT settings of post-revolutionary Paris and 19th-century Yorkshire provide much of drama in Emma Tennant's novel, a historical fiction about the life of one of literature's bit players: little Adèle Varens, from Charlotte's Brontë's Jane Eyre.

Not that the tale is without drama in the first place. Why did Brontë introduce Varens into her novel? She needed a child for Eyre to teach, a reason for her going to Thornfield Hall and meeting Rochester, certainly. But Brontë was also enough of a craftswoman to realise that another intriguing back story for Rochester, besides his stay in the Caribbean, would not only add to the exotic nature of his past, it would add another nail in his coffin of dubious moral values - values that Eyre ultimately restores to him.

Tennant is not happy to rest with Adèle as either plot device or moral counterpoint. As she tells Adèle's story, we see the Paris where she spends her early childhood, a bohemian, artistic Paris that is about as far from industrialising Yorkshire, hemmed in by wild moors, as it is possible to get.

It is here, in this convivial atmosphere, that Adèle lives with her adored mother, Celine, a beautiful actress and performer who flirts with counts and has mime artists and political agitators for friends. The haphazard presence of the dour Englishman, Rochester, who pops up from time to time, disrupts this easygoing life for little Adèle, who doesn't approve of his attentions taking her mother away. But this is nothing compared to the moment when her mother leaves Paris. Adèle is abandoned and only Rochester can look after her now - there's a clear implication that he is the child's true father.

But Adèle never adapts to Yorkshire; the meek little girl obsessed by ribbons and bows that Brontë paints, hides a vengeful, angry child in Tennant's re-visioning. On the surface Adèle plays the stereotypical child of Paris that her new "family" expects, vain and frivolous. Inside she is hardening, though, perhaps claiming that part of her that is the moors, the only part of her that is English. When she comes across the lonely Antoinette in the attic, she is at first overjoyed to meet another foreign soul, then horrified to discover who Antoinette really is. And so it is back to Paris that Adèle runs, after Thornfield Hall is destroyed by fire, returning to a much more politicised city, where her mother's friend, Jenny, introduces her to the feminist cause.

This is an interesting and ingenious twist - Jane Eyre has long been read as a proto-feminist text, full of symbolism about a young girl's adolescence (Jane's imprisonment in the red room by Aunt Reed, for example) and statements about female independence and how women are erroneously judged by their beauty alone. Now Adèle becomes the independent woman, making a living for herself on the high wire ("I was also ecstatic in my new career, neither woman nor child as I swung and pirouetted above the crowd"). This is the time of radical clubs and George Sand, easy to remain ignorant of out in the wilds of the Yorkshire moors.

Tennant uses a number of viewpoints to dramatise her story, giving Adèle, Rochester, creepy Grace Poole and Mrs Fairfax, their own voices. It's a strategy that works well, offering competing versions of the same events; more importantly, it allows us to see the change in Rochester and the emerging maturity of Adèle directly, rather than by report.

Fans of Brontë's classic can be assured that Tennant's story - even when she gives new interpretations of well-known events - is a fascinating complement to the great original.

Fascinating? ...Surely you jest? This was the most hilariously bad novel I've ever read. Although the reviewer deserves a gold star for tactfully avoiding any references to the inane plot (and plot holes unless this is a revised version of 'Adele' which she published some years ago). No mention of the gratuitious nudity (why wouldn't there be a hole in the bathroom large enough for Adele and Bertha (on a rocking horse) to look down at Mr Rochester while he takes a bath? Personally I find it all very fascinating. I also enjoy contemplating why he stands naked in the street earlier as well. And why Mrs Fairfax wants to kill Jane.

I must say that I am growing irritated with authors republishing their own novels under different names, trying to palm them off as new works. Is there a shortage of writers trying to get published? Not a few writers have approached me for assistance in publishing so that can't be the reason.

More to the point, why would a publisher choose to republish Adele? Would the delightful new title really make the book more appealling? Maybe if we republished Jane Eyre as Poor Starveling Possible Tramp we'd get more people to read it?

1 comment:

melrose plant said...

Are you kidding? This should be literary genius compared to The Bronte Project by Jennifer Vandever which pretends to be Villette in disguise but fails miserably rendering itself a hybrid of the dastardly "Jane Austen Club" and the worst brand of chicklit.

It's so bad it deserves the run-on sentence I just gave it.