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Updated: November 3, 2012 19:22 IST

Brontë with bedroom romps

Vaishna Roy
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Jane Eyre cannot be bettered with explicit sex scenes, never mind the ringing of cash registers around the world, says Vaishna Roy.

Jane Eyre Laid Bare; Eve Sinclair, St. Martin's Press, $14.99

It has a corset for a cover and the title says Jane Eyre Laid Bare. The tagline explains that it’s the classic novel with an erotic twist. It should be enough preparation. But it’s not. It’s still a bit of a jolt when immediately on Page 3 you encounter Jane, on her way to Thornfield in a one-horse carriage, preparing to pleasure herself on the leather seat. Obviously, Eve Sinclair does not believe in wasting time on unnecessary preliminaries. After that first frisson, you sort of gird yourself, and quickly realise that there is a pattern to the erotic encounters, a sort of progression in deviation. You also realise that this is a textbook exercise that could have been produced at any one of a dozen erotic fiction workshops. (Yes, they exist). Wayne Brookes, publishing director at Pan Macmillan, apparently said when he read the opening chapters, “The idea is genius.” Sure it is; pure marketing genius.

And what better novel to sex up than the brooding works of the Brontë sisters? Reams have been written about the suppressed passions and sexuality that run through them. Unfortunately, that’s just the problem — Jane Eyre is the masterpiece it is precisely because it is so carefully contained. The pressure cooker of Victorian social mores is a perfect container for its seething storyline. It allows it to be coloured with an energy that threatens to overflow any minute but always stays just within the lines, investing it with a rightness that is quite complete in itself. To go all explicit here is so obviously wasted that one wonders at the attempt.

Of course, you must compliment Eve Sinclair for sheer cheek. She has probably sent a whole generation of faithful fans into apoplectic fits and that’s always an amusing thing to do. Sinclair has said that erotic writing is a genre that allows women to explore their sensuality. And that’s fine with me. I just don’t see why this exploration is always conveniently set in the territory of the classics. Now, if Sinclair had decided to celebrate sexual mores with a new book all of her own, that might have been something. But think of the hard work involved… plot, characters, scenery. So much easier to take the fan fiction route — ‘Oh I love and admire Jane Eyre so much I just had to mutilate the novel as a tribute.’ Come to think of it, is it actually a kind of S&M tribute? Given the whole whip-and-leather routine Sinclair does, it could well be. In which case, I am now thoroughly tangled in my metaphors.

Been there, done that

On to firmer ground: the numbers. Worldwide sales of EL James’ mommy porn Fifty Shades of Grey stand at roughly 50 million copies thus far. No surprise then that every Eve and publishing house want to get on to this gravy train, preferably using the classics as a springboard. Curiously, it’s not even a very new idea. Did you know that a Collette Gale has already written Unmasqued: An Erotic Novel of The Phantom of the Opera and Bound By Honor: An Erotic Novel of Maid Marian? A further search yields Pride & Prejudice: The Hidden Secret, where I am told that both Elizabeth and Darcy have same-sex lovers.

Clearly, the lit-erotica genre was thriving, thank you, long before EL James mainstreamed it; but now that we have accorded Fifty Shades a grudging nod, a sort of uneasy salute where we are afraid that to pan it is to say you are unhip (and really, how do you explain the sales figures?) we can sit back and wait for a whole bunch of me-too efforts. Just think, there’s the smouldering Mill on the Floss and the wicked Vanity Fair, the complex drama of Great Expectations, so much scope for “adult re-imaginings”. And soon, the desi mill of re-re-imaginings will follow suit, with Monsoon Bedding and much more. And imagine all the merchandise! Goodbye Voldemort wand, welcome pink fluffy handcuffs. Can you hear the ka-ching?

My only cavil is when the focus strays from handcuff sales and wanders to literary territory, where authors and their publishing houses claim that the re-writes will make the classics accessible to a new generation of readers. I am prepared to agree that lacy lingerie on the cover and racy scenes inside will make more people buy this version, but will it make them read the real thing?

After the barely there version, I had to re-read the original, if only to check if memory was exaggerating Brontë’s claims on my affection. I found myself riveted. All the bits that Sinclair has left out (or at any rate relegated to smutty flashbacks) — especially Mrs. Reed’s home and Lowood School — ring with immediacy and brilliance. She writes, and that in 1847, with a clarity about morality and prurience that cannot be bettered by throwing in gratuitous romps in the bedroom (and garden and bathtub and horseback). Fact is, Brontë or Thackeray’s novels are perfectly sexy and don’t need the help. As for the cash registers, well, that’s a different matter.

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