Tuesday, 27 April 2010

The Eyre Affair

I just read - on long-standing recommendation - Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair, the first in his 'Thursday Next' comic fantasy/SF series. Briliant: I recommend it too.

The Eyre Affair is set in a 1980s Britain superficially like our own, but with various differences. Genetic engineering has been perfected (England now has wild dodos) but general technology is at a 1950s valve electronics level. Wales is a radical republic, and England and Russia are still entrenched in the Crimean War, of which the protagonist Thursday Next is herself a veteran. But the chief difference is the central importance of literature: just about everyone's name is literary allusion or wordplay, and literature is of consuming interest and controversy, requiring a large hierarchy of Special Operations groups to tackle the many forms of literary crime. The higher, secret, echelons even have access to time travel.

Thursday is an operative in the low-level SO-27 - a literary detective dealing with counterfeiting and fraud - until the theft of the manuscript of Martin Chuzzlewit brings her into contact with the secret SO-5. The thief, it appears, is the charismatic and near-invulnerable master criminal Acheron Hades, and Thursday is one of the few surviving people to know what he looks like. She also has unusual abilities: she is able to resist Hades' powers of persuasion, and also is a one of the few who can spontaneously slip between literature and the real world. One of her early memories is of stepping briefly into Jane Eyre as a child and causing the accident where Mr Rochester's horse slips (this isn't previously in the book, which also differs from our version in that Jane at the end goes to Africa as St John Rivers' assistant).

This slippage is central to the story of The Eyre Affair as Thursday's uncle invents a machine enabling anyone to cross the divide (as in Woody Allen's The Kugelmass Episode and the TV series Lost in Austen - see Lost in a book, previously). Hades captures the device and intends to use it for literary terrorism, first removing and killing Mr Quaverley, a minor character from Martin Chuzzlewit, before turning his attentions to Jane Eyre. Thursday is caught between triple interests: her own desire for justice; the plans of Hades; and the sinister Goliath Corporation, which also wants the device.

I won't give away more, but it's great fun. Fforde paints a marvellous picture of this literature-obsessed world where, for instance, Richard III in Swindon is as long-running as The Mousetrap and features Rocky Horror style audience participation (the audience don sunglasses at the words "this sun of York" and stamp their feet at "I, that am rudely stamp'd"). I admit I found it slightly hard to read without constant interruption, as every unfamiliar name repays Googling: for instance, I didn't know Dic Penderyn , who in the book is revered for sparking off the Welsh revolution, was a real Welsh activist.

Much recommended. Jasper Fforde has an extensive - possibly confusing - website, Fforde Grand Central, relating to this and his other books.

- Ray


  1. Ordered two of his books from Alibris. Is Thursday Next a reference to "The Man Who Was Thursday" by G.K. Chesterton?

  2. I'm very glad to hear that you enjoyed it as much as I did :-)

    And I have now a copy of the first Bryant and May novel sitting in the bedside queue!

  3. Is Thursday Next a reference to "The Man Who Was Thursday"

    I'm sure of it. The idea of literary detection pitched against an evil terrorist genius has strong thematic similarity to Gabriel Syme, the poet who is recruited as a "philosophical detective" to infiltrate an anarchist conspiracy.

  4. Hands up ... I never spotted the Fforde/Chesterton!

    Haven't read any Chesterton at all since my teens ... perhaps it's time to revisit him − starting The man who was Thursday :-)

  5. If you can bear reading online (I only cope with it if necessary), it's on Gutenberg (E-Text No. 1695).