Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Death of a Schoolgirl by Joanna Campbell Slan

Death of a Schoolgirl takes place after Jane Eyre, but you may have to squint a bit to recognize the characters.  Mr. Rochester is a loving husband and new father who is slowly coming to terms with his injuries and his role in life.  Jane is a devoted wife and mother who is trying to grow into her new life as  a gentleman's wife and who also happens to dash off for a bit of undercover work to solve a murder.  Surprisingly, it long as the reader doesn't examine certain aspects of the plot too closely.

The story begins about a year after the end of Jane Eyre.  Mr. Rochester and Jane are living at Ferndean Manor, a hunting lodge built by the Rochester family.  Mr. Rochester is recovering from the injuries sustained in the fire that destroyed Thornfield Hall and Jane is recovering from the birth of their son, Ned.  After months of confusing letters from Adèle Varens, Mr. Rochester's ward, they finally receive a letter that includes a hidden request for help as well as a threat made against her.  With Mr. Rochester temporarily unable to travel due to problems with his eye, Jane makes her way to London where she will stay with the wife of Mr. Rochester's best friend, Lucy Brayton, and find out exactly what's happening at Adèle's school.  When she arrives at the school, though, she finds the police removing a body from the school and she is mistaken for the new German teacher.  In order to learn the truth, Jane poses as a German teacher and tries to unravel the mystery behind the death of one of Adèle's classmates.  

As a cozy mystery, it easily exceeded my expectation.  As a story based on Jane Eyre, my opinion is a little more complicated.  Immediately after reading it, I was impressed.  I enjoyed the writing style and it was interesting to see what Mr. Rochester and Jane were doing.  The book also introduced some fascinating new characters and revisited some older characters.   Lucy Brayton is a fascinating character (and one that I think we'll see more of, since the next book in the series is also set in London) and I enjoyed seeing Adèle's new life.  

Death of a Schoolgirl also touched on a few of the themes of Jane Eyre, especially class and the issue of governesses and class mobility.  Several of the teachers at the school are former governesses and have strong feelings on their amorphous role in society.  Unsurprisingly, there was a certain amount of resentment aimed at their employers due to their treatment.  In the words of one of Jane's coworkers:

Our world is larger than theirs...and so we cause the parents grave discomfort.  We are what they shun, and also what they aspire to be: educated.  Thus, we are relegated to the margins of their society.  We are the outcasts, the pariahs--women who do not trade solely on their looks, but who aspire to a higher calling, because we possess cultivated minds.

While women like Miss Jones and Miss Millers, Jane's colleagues, are trapped in a difficult role with very little hope of improvement, there are a few issues of class mobility as well.  Obviously, Jane is an example, going from a penniless governess to the wife of a gentleman.  There are also negative examples.  Maude Thurston, the superintendent of the Alderton House School for Girls, was once a member of high society, but her husband gambled away his fortune and then committed suicide.  Mrs. Thurston took the position at the school in order to pay the bills her husband left behind.  Likewise, Lady Kingston, the founder of Alderton House School, was very wealthy, but she lost her fortune due to her son's drinking, gambling, and womanizing.  

The one problem I had was Mr. Rochester.  Although it's been a while since I read Jane Eyre (high school, perhaps?), I do remember that, while Mr. Rochester may have been considered a romantic hero, I also remember him as a fairly horrible person..  I think that reading Wide Sargasso Sea played a role in my opinion of him, but I also just remember having a negative reaction to certain parts of the book.  I really need to reread <i>Jane Eyre</i> to see how I'll react to it now.  Going from memory, though, Rochester was a wonderful Byronic hero and while the difficulties that they faced in their relationship made for an interesting novel, I'm highly skeptical of how Mr. Rochester will fair in The Jane Eyre Chronicles.  In the first book, he was quite content with his new wife and son despite the difficulties he faced after his injuries.  He seemed to be improving after his injuries and was making plans to rebuild Thorton Hall.  He also show up conveniently to save Jane toward the end of the novel.  It worked for this novel, but if author plans to make Mr. Rochester a major character in this series, she's going to face an uphill battle.  Is it possible to maintain the qualities that made him the hero of Jane Eyre while still turning him into a character that will also be an acceptable spouse for a Jane Eyre with fairly modern sensibilities.  It's also clear that the author is taking the Jane Eyre view toward Bertha, Mr. Rochester's first wife, specifically that Bertha was in the wrong, Mr. Rochester was a victim, and it was utterly tragic for him to have to forgo love in order to marry for money, as ordered by his father.  It's a relatively minor thing (unless her story figures more strongly into later novels and that wouldn't surprise me at all), but pitting two women against each other over a man with one woman ending up completely vilified while the man (often the only one with any real power in these situations) is somehow portrayed as a victim rubs me the wrong way.  It's all well and good to look at books like Jane Eyre and remind myself that the book was published in the 1800's and things are so much different now, but that treatment obviously won't hold up in a book published in 2012.  

Misgivings aside, I enjoyed Death of a Schoolgirl and I'm looking forward to the next volume in the series, Death of a Dowager.  I also plan to finally reread Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea, since I'm way overdue and they're both great novels.

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