Texts from Jane Eyre by Daniel M Ortberg (Corsair, 2015)
This debut work by trans writer Daniel M Ortberg started life, as many a first publication does these days, in the form of a blog. Each post involved re-presenting the gist of a classic play or novel in the form of text messages. He then got a book deal to publish the blogs as a single book, and away he went.
I came across Texts from Jane Eyre having first read Daniel M Ortberg's more recent recasting of fairy tales and folk horror, The Merry Spinster. I reviewed the latter for the Horror Tree website, which is one of my regular gigs. For Texts from Jane Eyre, I was prepared for a re-telling of classic stories, albeit in a rather different format to the originals!
The layout of Texts from Jane Eyre is chronological, with all the most august works in the canon of western literature assembled before the reader in a single volume that could be very overwhelming. Thankfully, Daniel M Ortberg's tone is light and playful, and frequently ironic.
The book works because somehow he always grasps the essence of each story in only a few short exchanges. It doesn't drag if you know the plot. It's also somehow intelligible even if the work isn't familiar. That's because he tapped into the eternal verities of each book he summarised, and provided enough lighthearted and unique detail from the original to keep each text exchange amusing.
Texts From Jane Eyre was funny, and very much self-aware and postmodern in that regard. But it was sincere, too, in a way that I had expected from the subtlety of The Merry Spinster. Its meaning went far deeper than a superficial laugh at other writers' expense, and that's just not who Daniel M Ortberg is anyway.
I particularly appreciated the treatment of Wuthering Heights, which brought to the fore the very real possibility that Heathcliff is in fact Mr Earnshaw's illegitimate son. Once you hear that prospect voiced, the sound lingers like a bell that cannot be unrung, not least of all because of the decidedly uncomfortable consequences that has for the undeniable sexual attraction between Cathy and Heathcliff. The real awfulness is that Daniel M Ortberg is probably right: it might actually have been true.
During the last half, just as the format and style was in some danger of becoming a little repetitive, fresh impetus was injected via a pivot to a very different kind of fiction. Sweet Valley High and Nancy Drew were included as examples of modern literature to set alongside Greek, Shakespearean and Victorian classics. I enjoyed this, partly because I have decidedly eclectic reading tastes, and partly because Daniel M Ortberg and I appear to share very similar tastes in modern books. The text summaries of some of my favourite characters and franchises were hilarious.
I can see why Texts from Jane Eyre worked as a blog, and it is genuinely very, very funny. As a book, I found a single read through a little heavy by the end, and I might dip into it next time rather than reading it straight through in a single day. It's probably best enjoyed that way, but I did love it for its freshness and its nuances.
Producing something so perceptive and imaginative about classics that have so much depth to offer, while avoiding being silly or gauche, is incredibly difficult from a writing perspective, but Ortberg certainly carries it off.
I'd definitely recommend giving Texts from Jane Eyre a go, and it would also make an excellent stocking filler or Secret Santa for the discerning bibliophile of your acquaintance.
Thank you for reading this Why Not Wednesday post from John C Adams Reviews. Please share your thoughts on this book, or any other LGBTQIA+ author you admire, in the comments section below. My next review is on Friday - a Weekend Watchers post.
If you fancy something different, you might like to take a chance on my review of Time and Again by Jack Finney here.