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Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2007 03:41 am

Literary sleuthing

Clever story will leave you dizzy with literary references

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The Eyre Affair: A Thursday Next Novel By Jasper Fforde, Penguin, 2003, 384 pages, $14
Untitled Document Recently, during my family excavations, I unearthed a homemade booklet, “Books Read in 1900,” belonging to my grandmother. She’d have been 30. Inside the cardboard cover she’s quoted, “Wondrous indeed is the virtue of a good book.” She begins Jan. 1 with a virtuous book: Happiness: As Found in Forethought Minus Fearthought (1898) and remarks, “a book everyone should read.” She calls Good Books as Life Teachers “very grand.” However, Winston Churchill’s Richard Carvel (1899; 578 pages) receives “A good story, have read better.” Next comes a historical novel, The Romance of Dollard, about the return of the Iroquois to Quebec, and she’s only to Jan. 13. The next, Janice Meredith by Paul Leicester Ford, a Revolutionary War story, rates this trenchant comment: “A very good story well written but why were all the women of that time so very pretty but equally weak?” My grandmother spends the next 10 days reading Charlotte Brontë’s Villette: “Do not like it very well.” A further choice, “I do not know if I like it or not,” and then, “Have just finished Jane Eyre again. Mr. Rochester is a man to admire, pity, love.” Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona: “It gives anyone a very good idea of the country and life in the early days of California.”
Other books through February are judged as “a cute story of school life,” “good indeed,” “a very improbable story” (this was 1900’s bestseller To Have and To Hold, still on The New York Times Top 10 list years later and then made into several movies; I read the complicated plot, and it is improbable). The last entries are David Harum and When Knighthood Was in Flower; then Grama quit recording. There weren’t pages left to last her through the spring anyway.
I’m impressed with Grama’s reading. Most are solid books, recently published, requiring thought. Several were turned into movies and later refilmed. On the Internet I can find all but one still in print; Forethought is called “a cultural heritage.”
Returning to Jane Eyre, I recommend rereading it and also reading Jasper Fforde’s recent The Eyre Affair, a hilarious romp into Dickens and Brontë by a literary detective, Thursday Next, who lives in an alternate world — England in 1985 — where her Uncle Mycroft has invented a “prose portal” that allows her to enter books in search of literary villains. In Jane Eyre she accidentally improves the ending — it’s the villain who sets fire to Thornfield and kills Bertha but Thursday, aided by Mr. Rochester, who gets Jane to return from the loveless St. John. For good measure, Thursday also frees her Aunt Polly, who’s been imprisoned in a Wordsworth poem, and saves the Dickens oeuvre from a steady drain of characters. This superclever story will leave you dizzy with all the literary references you catch, and you’ll wonder which ones you’re surely missing. You’ll find laughs on every page, and you’ll hurry to the library for Thursday’s next adventure, Lost in a Good Book. Once there, you might notice Fforde’s Nursery mystery series and check out the one where some dastard shoots Humpty Dumpty through the albumen. 

Jacqueline Jackson, books and poetry editor of Illinois Times, is a professor emerita of English at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
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