Jane Eyre is certainly a hot property these days. Earlier this year, British novelist Jasper Fforde released a marvelously surreal literary fantasy, The Eyre Affair. Now talented fantasy author Sharon Shinn has published a futuristic re-telling of the classic novel that manages to be loyal to the original while adding a few interesting twists. While not as stunning as Shinn’s Archangel trilogy, Jenna Starborn is an absorbing, thought-provoking read. However, I suspect that it will probably appeal more to romance readers than hard-core sci-fi enthusiasts.
I hope I don’t have to provide a synopsis of Charlotte Brontë’s masterpiece. Suffice to say that Jane Eyre tells the story of a plain but plucky orphan who takes a job as a governess and falls in love with Edward Rochester, the master of Thornhill. I’ve always loved the story because of its happy ending, a rarity among many classic novels of the Victorian era. Rochester is humbled but Jane still loves him, and, according to the famous first line of the final chapter, “Reader, I married him.”
Sharon Shinn places her futuristic heroine in a world where interplanetary travel is routine. Jenna Starborn is an orphan, of sorts. She was commissioned by a childless woman and grown in a gestation tank. However, soon after her “harvesting,” the woman found a way to bear her own child via an artificial womb, and poor Jenna was immediately redundant and unwanted. She endures years of torment at the hands of her aunt’s son, but one day Jenna fights back.
Soon after, she is sent to Lora Tech School, where she learns nuclear technology. After years of studying and teaching at Lora, Jenna decides to move on. She impulsively accepts a technician position at Thorrastone Manor on the distant planet of Fieldstone. There she meets the enigmatic Everett Ravenbeck, whose quick wit ignites an attraction in Jenna that she can never acknowledge. For, conceived in a gen-tank and never fully acknowledged by her aunt, Jenna is only a half-citizen in a world where the citizenship hierarchy is rigidly defined. Ravenbeck, however, is a wealthy and prominent Level One citizen, destined to marry someone else of his class.
There are two questions that must be asked when an author revises a classic novel. First, does the update do justice to the original material? And second, does the revision add anything that makes the reader see the story in a new light? The answer to the first question is a resounding yes; to the second, a somewhat less enthusiastic but still solid affirmative.
Shinn doesn’t just loosely adapt the source, she embraces it, with a very faithful retelling of the story. While Jenna’s childhood is a greatly condensed version of the original, it includes Lowood Institution and her doomed childhood friend Helen. At Thorrastone Park, characters such as Mrs. Fairfax, Grace Poole and Blanche Ingram have their futuristic equivalents. Many scenes are almost identical but updated; for example, the charades game that Jane is forced to endure during Rochester’s house party is now a sophisticated video game. But the core love story remains, including the final reunion and reconciliation scene that always causes me to get out the tissues.
Shinn’s talent for creating memorable characters serves her well; the futuristic characters come alive for the reader instead of feeling like pale, wooden imitations. While the novel’s dialogue is modern, it never feels too colloquial, which would have been inappropriate for the characters and plot. One might hope that the Victorian class differences would have been eradicated in a futuristic world, but Shinn makes a compelling case for why democracy and egalitarianism have not fared well in the future. Thus, the differences that keep Jenna from declaring her feelings for Ravenbeck feel valid and not dated.
Shinn does insert one unique character - the governess of Ravenbeck’s ward, the intriguingly named Janet Ayerson. The fate of this alternate Jane is an interesting one, causing the reader to ponder the reason behind this one lone departure from the original. Jenna and Janet are two sides of the original Jane Eyre. Their divergent outcomes demonstrate how a character with a similar background but different personality from strong-minded Jane might have fared.
The futuristic setting serves to accentuate some of the themes from the original Jane Eyre. When Jenna flees from Thorrastone Manor upon discovering Ravenbeck’s horrifying secret, the distance she travels is much greater than anything Jane ever encountered, making their separation seem even more tragic. Jenna’s unique mode of conception makes her more vulnerable than the orphaned Jane, and brings up some interesting ethical issues regarding artificial reproduction. Even the tragedy that caused Ravenbeck’s duplicity is more shocking in the future, as Shinn utilizes a surprising twist to explain why he must lock away a piece of his past.
But by remaining so loyal to the original Jane Eyre, Shinn loses the opportunity to let her imagination take flight. Her futuristic world is serviceable but hardly unique, lacking the innovative touches that highlighted her earlier works. Jenna Starborn is more of a tribute than a radical departure. This isn’t necessarily a weakness, but die-hard sci-fi fantasy fans who are looking for something new and different will be disappointed.
Reading Jenna Starborn is like seeing an old friend who has had a makeover - you’re intrigued by the changes but glad to see that the person you know and love is still underneath. I think Brontë would be honored by this tribute, and it deserves a wide audience. I’m sure Shinn will return to her own fantasy worlds for future novels, but for now I thank her for reminding me that some classics will endure through millennia of change.