Jasper Fforde’s first novel also introduces his main protagonist, Thursday Next, an agent for LiteraTec Special Operations who has now appeared in seven books by Fforde. The books exists in an alternate history where, in the case of this book, the year is 1985 and the Crimean War is now into its 135th year, there are companies commercially genetically engineering extinct species so a popular pet is a dodo and Special Operations includes division 27 which looks after works of literature. In fact literature seems to dominate society with people changing their names to that of famous authors to such an extent that they are legally obliged to have a number tattooed on them to identify which John Milton you are talking to for example. There is also the Goliath Corporation a firm that has made billions in financing the Crimean War and seems to have various shadowy sidelines of it’s own which are strictly for the good of the corporation.
A running trope through this book is “Who wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare?” sometimes there are short discussions regarding Bacon or Marlowe and in one tedious section which ruins the flow of the plot a whole series of pages are dedicated to this discussion for no good reason whatsoever.
The book after all is theoretically about Jane Eyre, although in fact for almost half the story it is about Martin Chuzzlewit. The basic conceit of the book is that there is a master criminal who obtains a machine invented by Thursday’s uncle Mycroft which allows people to travel in and out of works of literature. Archeron Hades steals the original manuscript of Charles Dickens’ work, removes one of the minor characters and has him killed in the present day. This changes all copies of the book, even those already printed, and he threatens to do the same to Chuzzlewit himself unless a ransom is paid.
For various reasons the plot is foiled and the ransom not paid but Hades escapes to the fiercely independent Republic of Wales where he cannot be followed by English justice, only to try again by this time stealing the original manuscript of Jane Eyre and kidnapping Jane herself immediately before she rescues Mr Rochester from his flaming bed. All copies of the book are therefore much shorter and there is uproar. Thursday Next is sent to get Jane and the book back together.
As implied above there are numerous sub plots, in fact far too many sub plots, as the book is overly complicated by them. You get the feeling that Fford is trying to show off his literary erudition at the expense of just telling a good story and there is definitely a good story to be found in there if you work at it. I’m inclined to forgive him as this is his first published work and I will definitely read at least the next volume about Thursday Next entitled “Lost in a Good Book” which is set a few months after “The Eyre Affair”.
The book cover by the way is printed to look as though it is rather dog-eared, my copy is brand new.
There is an ongoing joke in Fforde’s books regarding chapter thirteen or rather the lack of one. If there are numbered chapters then there is always one listed in the contents at the start but in fact chapter 14 always immediately follows chapter 12 and the page given for chapter 13 to start is either blank or part way through chapter 12. They do however have titles:
- The Eyre Affair – The church at Capel-y-ffin
- Lost in a Good Book – Mount Pleasant
- The Well of Lost Plots – Reservoir near the church of St Stephen
- Something Rotten – Milton
- First Amongst Sequels – Cross Lewis’ number
- One of Our Thursdays is Missing – 14th May 1931
- The Woman Who Died a Lot – A Penguin
- The Big Over Easy – First on the right
- The Fourth Bear – 111110000
Note: assuming 111110000 is binary then the decimal equivalent is 496, it is anyone’s guess if this is significant or if there is any meaning to the choice of titles for the missing chapters; although the 14th May 1931 was a Thursday.