A review of Jane Slayre, a literary mash-up with bite
I’m all for mashing up literary classics and reanimating them with some humour and a little horror. Fill their pages with vampires, zombies, mummies or androids, it does them no harm. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Sense and Sensibility, they’ve stood the test of time and can certainly weather a little humorous parody, especially as the current enthusiasm for literary mash-ups strikes me as a passing fad. Once the idea of the mash-up has been established, there isn’t much scope for ongoing originality and the novelty of encountering the unexpected in the familiar pages of a literary classic will wear thin as it becomes the norm.
Which probably explains why there has been an explosion of literary mash-ups in the last twelve months as authors and publishers ride the wave. The fad took off last year with Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and now includes Little Vampire Women, Mansfield Park and Mummies, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters amongst others, and my favourite title for witty originality, Android Karenina. If Grahame-Smith can be said to have kicked the whole thing off, the benchmark has been set with Jane Slayre, Sherri Browning Erwin’s affectionately irreverent parody of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.
For parody to work well, the perpetrator needs to understand what they’re setting out to send up. When applied to a literary classic the least that is required is an appreciation of the language of the original, but perhaps more important is a sensitivity to the interplay of aesthetic, moral, historical and cultural influences which gave birth to the original novel. A great parody doesn’t simply reflect the original, it reveals something hidden beneath its surface.
So much for the theory. If you’re familiar with any of the novels in the literary mash-up fad, you’ll know that they are a long way from being great parody. To be fair to the authors, I don’t think they set their sights so high. Mostly the mash-up takes the original plot and setting and simply slots in something supernatural or unexpected. At its best, and Jane Slayre is probably that, the mash-up handles the original material with great skill and dexterity so that when the unexpected is introduced it convinces.
Jane Slayre sticks closely to the plot of Brontë’s novel, with Jane narrating her life from early childhood at Gateshead as the orphaned ward of an abusive aunt. Erwin’s Jane, with her Buffy inspired pun of a surname, is a Slayre and slaying the undead is in her blood. Her cruel aunt is a vampire and really only kept from eating the child through a preference for more aristocratic blood. Life at Gateshead is miserable and pointless until the ghost of Jane’s uncle urges her to find others of her kind and learn the slayer ways.
Sent away to Lowood boarding school Jane discovers that her headmaster is reanimating dead students to be trained for domestic service, and driven by her Slayre instincts and heartfelt compassion Jane beheads her zombified friends, liberating their souls and discovering her true vocation. With time she takes a job as a governess at a country estate where love blossoms with her employer, the brooding Edward Rochester, but a terrible secret locked away in his heart (and the attic) is revealed on their wedding day: he is already married. To a werewolf. Jane runs away to pursue her destiny, but looking to the day when she can return and liberate Edward from the terrible burden of a lycanthropic wife.
For the most part I thoroughly enjoyed Erwin’s novel. Not only is she an accomplished writer, but she demonstrates a good appreciation of Brontë’s novel, a mastery of its language and its aesthetic. For the first hundred or so pages Erwin sustains the novelty and humour of introducing the undead into Brontë’s dignified universe and for a while at least the supernatural is a seamless inclusion in Jane’s world.
But Erwin’s novel is just shy of 400 pages and the weakness of the genre eventually becomes apparent: it’s a one trick pony and the novelty does indeed wear thin. Episodes of the supernatural take on a predictable regularity and begin to feel increasingly as if they’re simply slotted in to Brontë’s novel.
I’m not a fan of the literary mash-up, not because I object to the premise but because there’s not enough scope for ongoing originality once that premise has been established. I’m unlikely to read many more in the genre but I would recommend Sherri Browning Erwin’s Jane Slayre as a great way to enjoy the best the genre currently has on offer.
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