What happens when you retell a classic like Jane Eyre
Published on: 07 January 2020 Author: Tanya Landman
Tanya Landman was shocked when her teenage sons told her they didn't like her all-time favourite novel, Jane Eyre. So when she had the chance to retell this timeless story in a different way, she took it.
Modified image from the film Jane Eyre (1921) with Mabel Ballin
I actually can’t remember the first time I read Jane Eyre – the book has always seemed to be part of my life and its heroine a close, personal friend.
Growing up, I returned to the novel over and over again as a comfort read. I adored Jane and saw myself in her, even though we were separated by more than a century. She was plain, like I was. As a child, adults disliked her the way many of them disliked me. She simmered with righteous fury, as I so often did. But she was also quietly strong and self-possessed and had a sense of her own worth that I could only aspire to.
And – on top of all that – it was such a good story! Cruelty, starvation, sickness, death, disaster, romance, horror – Jane Eyre had it all.
Victorian prose and piety
Jane Eyre was on the background reading list when my sons did their A-level English Literature. I could hardly wait for them to read it.
Great! I thought. How wonderful! They’re going to love it just as much as I did! We can discuss it over meals.
Sadly, those earnest conversations never took place. The boys did not share my enthusiasm.
The oldest gave up reading soon after Jane left Lowood. The youngest abandoned my heroine soon after she ran away from Thornfield Hall.
I was dumbfounded. How could they not be as entranced as I was?
When I interrogated them, they complained about the Victorian prose, the tedious descriptions, the piety and soul searching and endless banging on about God.
‘But it’s such a good story!’ I kept saying. ‘It’s so scary! So gothic! What about the red room? What about the laughter in the empty corridor – didn’t that send shivers up your spine?’
‘Yes, that bit was great, but… The rest, Mum. It’s all the rest.’
Getting inside Jane's head
After I’d finished writing One Shot (a YA book inspired by the legendary sharpshooter Annie Oakley), Barrington Stoke asked if I might like to consider doing a modern twist on a classic. Were there any novels I was especially fond of that might inspire a spin-off story?
Jane Eyre sprung to mind immediately. I said I’d mull it over. The more I mulled, the more I thought of my sons. I couldn’t quite see the point of a doing a modern twist if readers didn’t know the original. How about a straight retelling instead? It would be a monumental task. Cutting Jane Eyre from 185,000 words to a mere 18,000, reshaping what was left into a coherent, compelling and above all readable narrative – was it even possible? I really didn’t know if it could be achieved. But I wanted to have a go.
I suggested it and then it was Barrington Stoke’s turn to mull over the idea. But by then, I was so fired up that I just started, contract or no contract – I wanted to be in Jane’s head, telling her story to my sons in words they would actually read, creating a version I hoped that they would find as gripping as I’d found the original.
Going back to Jane Eyre as an adult, I noticed things that I hadn’t as a teenage reader. The portrayal of Bertha Mason – the mad woman in the attic – was particularly problematic. How was I to address Rochester’s vile belief that his wife was mad because of her racial heritage? My answer was to keep the madness, keep the debauchery and drunkenness, keep the deceit on the part of her father and brother, but break any link between that and her skin colour.
As for the rest of the book, I wanted to eliminate that annoying "rest" that my boys had complained about. So I kept the plot and cut the padding. I kept the passion and cut the piety. St John Rivers – who I hated and despised as a teen – has been reduced to a mere page. He doesn’t even get a name check.
Once I’d started writing, I couldn’t stop. It was quite possibly the most enjoyable and satisfying experience I’ve ever had playing with words on the page. I didn’t have to angst about plot or character – that was already there for me. All I had to do was to get inside Jane’s head.
Moments of magic
There are sometimes moments of magic in writing when a character becomes three dimensional. They seem to be standing just at your shoulder and speaking all by themselves and you – the writer – feel as if you’re simply taking dictation. With Jane, it was like that from the very beginning. She was already so real to me, I knew her so well that her voice flowed straight from her mouth and on to the page.
I wrote so speedily that Barrington Stoke hadn’t even discussed my proposal when I sent the first draft of my retold Jane Eyre pinging into my editor’s inbox.
And then the self-doubt set in. I started to wonder if I’d done something incredibly stupid. How arrogant I’d been! Who in their right mind would try to rewrite Charlotte Bronte’s perfect prose? Who would dare tamper with one of the most famous, best-loved books ever written in the English language? Had I achieved what I’d set out to do? Or had I mutilated a masterpiece? Created a Frankenstein’s monster of a book I loved?
It was a terrible, anxious wait. But thankfully it was a short one. Everyone who’s ever had the pleasure to write for Barrington Stoke knows that they are an absolute joy to work with. They have boundless enthusiasm and energy and are always open to ideas. The editor loved it, and so did the rest of the team. I am incredibly grateful for that.
And have the boys read the book?
Did they like it?