This is such a beautiful retelling—what was the seed for “The Correspondence Between the Governess and the Attic”?
It actually comes out of a Victorian literature class I took with Ivan Kreilkamp. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre was on the syllabus, a novel I’d vigorously disliked since I was a child. I’d been forced to read it by my parents, who held it up as an example of the kind of classic book I should be reading rather than “all that sci-fi stuff.” Alas for poor Jane Eyre—I was too young to understand what was good about it. For me, it instead became an example of the boring, realist novel in which women marry jerks for no good reason.
So when I encountered Jane Eyre again in graduate school, I was in for a bit of a shock. This was not the dull, safe story I remembered. It was a novel out of Victorian nightmare, clawing against the constraints of its historical period. And this time it was clearly, to my eyes, a fantasy novel: It features a young Orphan With A Destiny adventuring across a landscape infused with fairy-tale imagery. Oh, and at a crucial moment, she gets psychic powers. What else do you call a story like that? Re-reading Jane Eyre was a bit like looking at one of those optical illusion images in which you can see both a vase and two faces, depending on what you focus on. Before, I’d only seen the realist domestic novel. Now I saw speculative fiction.
I wrote a short paper about reading Jane Eyre as a fantasy novel. But while I thought the idea had promise, I couldn’t figure out how to turn it into an effective journal article. At a certain point I started drafting a fiction piece based on my Jane Eyre reading instead, and that’s where “Correspondence” got started.
Can you talk a little about the themes in Jane Eyre that you incorporated into your story?
For me, Jane Eyre offers a glimpse into the subconscious of the Victorian period. It’s rife with repressed anxiety over how women are being treated, how Britain is interacting with its empire, how the space of the “home” is coming apart, etc. Reading it these days, I see it as a fascinating story that’s thinking through the figure of the “Other” and what goes into “othering.”
We could call Jane herself an Other, for example. The novel begins with her being tossed out of the house in which she’s grown up. Her so-called “family” call her evil and want to get rid of her—and they do. So in Jane’s story we get a certain sense of what it’s like to be always be defined negatively, as someone who is not like “us.”
But the novel’s not simple. It also alludes to other figures—most famously Bertha Mason, the “madwoman in the attic”—who are in far worse positions than “outsiders” like Jane and Rochester. Jane has a claim on the Victorian reader’s sympathy in part because she can look and act the part of the respectable Christian white woman. But Bertha—the Other who is portrayed as beyond language and is perhaps from a interracial background—can’t. She stands for all those figures who are beyond the pale of Victorian sympathy.
I wanted to get at that in this story, and also at Jane’s moral culpability. For all Jane Eyre constructs people like Jane and Rochester as “outsiders,” it also shows them participating in the oppression of people like Bertha. Rochester’s the one who locks Bertha up in the first place. And Jane becomes constructed as the ideal woman in part because Bertha is on the scene. It’s Bertha’s othering—and later, her destruction—that allows Jane to finally get a home in British society.
The novel also has odd moments like the one in which Rochester masquerades as a “gypsy” to get information out of his guests. There are, please note, no real Romani showing up as characters in this novel—only a rich Victorian man constructing what he, and his audience, think a racial Other should be, in order to suit his private agenda. It’s at moments like this that I think that Jane Eyre is actually more subversive than more overtly political books from the nineteenth century. The process of “othering” itself is being examined, and the ways it benefits Victorian Britons are being exposed.
So basically, in retelling this story, I wanted to be open about some of the subversive narratives I see at work in the original novel. I particularly wanted to think about what goes into othering and what the cost is of “fitting in” to an unsympathetic society.
You reference “yellow wallpaper” early on; how did Gilman’s story influence “The Correspondence”? Any other influences that you would like to highlight? How did Wide Sargasso Sea enter into your thoughts about how to tell the story?
Jane Eyre may be the most famous “madwoman in the attic” story, but it’s hardly the only one. I’m a big fan of Gothic novels in general, so I worked in references to other Gothic works like “The Yellow Wallpaper” where I could.
Wide Sargasso Sea is probably the most famous of the Jane Eyre retellings, and I don’t think anyone who’s read it can go back to Jane Eyre and not be sympathetic to Bertha. It’s definitely informing my interpretation of the Bertha figure in this story. To me, Wide Sargasso Sea is an example of the power of a retelling versus an academic argument about a text. You can be a lot more specific about how you see a text when you’re writing an academic argument, but a retelling can make your case more powerfully.
Did you experiment at all with first-person narration?
No. Because I was coming at this story from a critical perspective, it always had a third-person point of view. I never wanted to change that, because I wanted the reader to be viewing Jane Eyre from a distance and thinking about what this story means, rather than being immersed in it.
You are working on a fascinating book, The Blank Spaces of the Earth: Atypical Space in the Romantic Century; how is that going?
It’s going well. This nonfiction book is before a publisher right now and I’m waiting on their decision. Blank Spaces looks at how the scientific exploration of areas like the North Pole changed the stories Britons told each other about their nation and their empire. To my SF friends I call it a “pre-history of science fiction,” because a lot of the narrative conventions introduced in this period continue to show up in our movies and books. The movie Gravity, for example, is basically a nineteenth century ocean-shipwreck story in outer space.
Any news or projects you want to tell us about?
I’m working on two more nonfiction books, and I’m in the early stages of drafting a novel that puts the imperialism back in steampunk. I’m also delighted to report that my short story “Wendigo Nights” will be appearing in Ellen Datlow’s Fearful Symmetries anthology. It promises to be a wonderful collection.
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