I have been recommending Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair ever since I first read it in 2004. Nothing compares to its anarchic take on literature and the jokes still have me chortling. Every time I read it, I catch more references. (This time I finally understood the Vorpal’s Special gag at the Cheshire Cat bar.) But when I mention those gags and the fact that The Eyre Affair takes place partially inside Jane Eyre, some readers demur and say they don’t know enough to understand. This is a mistake. Five minutes with Wikipedia and anyone will know enough to understand the plot. I also know from personal experience that this book and the rest of the series have inspired me to dive into classic literature so that I get the rest of the references. Oddly enough, this hilarious book and the rest of the Thursday Next series are great entry points into nineteenth century literature, Shakespeare, and the glories of literary imagination. Do I sound hyperbolic? Well, it’s only because I love these books so very much.
Thursday Next is working as a LiteraTec (a cop who specializes in literary crimes) in an alternate version of the 1980s. The Crimean War is still going on. Her father is a rogue time traveler. And her uncle, unbeknownst to Thursday, has just invented a device that allows people to travel into works of literature. This discovery is not unknown to the Goliath Corporation, the monolithic company the rules England, or Acheron Hades, a criminal mastermind who plans to steal great works of literature and shock the world.
After the original manuscript of Martin Chuzzlewit is stolen by Hades, Thursday is put on the case. She is one of the few people who’s actually seen the man. The first encounter is disasterous and Thursday heads home to Swindon for a new job to lay low for a while. Her past follows her, however, and it isn’t long before Hades kidnaps and kills a character from Chuzzlewit. Things go from bad to worse with Hades steals the original copy of Jane Eyre and kidnaps the protagonist. It’s up to Thursday to rescue her.
This summary omits a lot. The plot is not the main attraction in a Thursday Next novel. The best parts of the book are scenes like the audience playing along with a production of Richard III like audiences do in our world for The Rocky Horror Picture Show; Thursday’s father showing up to quiz her about history and wonder if French revisionists are trying to win Waterloo and Trafalgar; or when surrealists respond to rioters with giant, floppy watches. When I read for plot, I tend to race. If you race through The Eyre Affair you’ll miss the best stuff.
I highly recommend The Eyre Affair and its sequels to all readers.