I spent a few hours last weekend searching through my bookshelves for a copy of Jane Eyre, the 1847 classic by Charlotte Bronte. I wanted my eldest daughter to fully experience summer reading – a time for both light beach reads and revisiting classics.
I also liked the symmetry of the situation. While I looked for Jane Eyre, I was reading a new novel by Patricia Park that advertised itself as a Korean-American reinterpretation of Jane Eyre. The title character in this new book, Jane Re, is an orphan growing up in New York with her surly immigrant uncle. While the rest of the family enjoys leisure time, Jane Re is put to work in the family business, a rundown convenience store. That is, until Jane leaves the oppressive job, and becomes a nanny in a large, intimidating house in Brooklyn.
Re Jane follows the same pattern as other novels that recast classics in modern settings, such as the popular 1996 novel Bridget Jones’ Diary by Helen Fielding — based on the Jane Austen classic, Pride and Prejudice.
In these reinterpretations, characters, place names and general plot lines are recognizable, but both the tone and writing style of the modern books are lighter, breezier and more focused on plot than beautiful turns of phrase.
In Re Jane it’s an interesting challenge to look out for the many connections – details such as a minor character named Currer Bell¸ which was the pseudonym Bronte used when first publishing Jane Eyre.
Unlike the classic it’s based on, Re Jane isn’t a novel ahead of its time. Jane Eyre is heralded for changing the art of fiction by dramatizing a character’s internal conflict, and contained daring challenges to ideas about class, social structure and feminism. Re Jane is also full of social commentary – but nothing shocking. It’s more along the lines of the tried and true: a fresh-faced sneakered woman discovers that wearing pancake makeup and heels isn’t an expression of her true self.
I imagine that if Charlotte Bronte were writing today, and tackling the ideas of race identity that are found in Re Jane, her interpretation would be more complex and nuanced than Park’s. But Re Jane is meant to be a lighter book, and is perfect for the beach.
I didn’t end up finding Jane Eyre on my overflowing shelves, so we did the next best thing and watched the 2006 BBC classic miniseries. The substitution served the same purpose – reacquainting us with old stories, and spurring on us on to look for more classics to tackle this summer.
Heather Allen is a writer and reader living in Penticton.