A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to be given a copy of Alexa Donne’s YA novel, Brightly Burning, ahead of its UK release on 12th June. I’d never heard of it, nor Donne, however, the friend who passed it on to me knows of my love of all things Brontë and suggested I might like to write a blog piece on this re-telling of Jane Eyre set in space. Yes, you read that correctly; Charlotte Brontë’s masterpiece Jane Eyre, updated for a 21st century young adult audience and SET IN SPACE. My friend was quick to reassure me that it would be ok if I hated the idea and didn’t read it, but with a premise that interesting, how could I resist?
Updating or re-telling Brontë fiction is a tricky thing to master. Get it right by striking the balance between source material and new ideas and you’re looking not only at pleasing Brontëites everywhere (Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca, Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, Juliet Bell’s The Heights) but also ensuring the legacy of your own creation. I won’t name names, but get it wrong and you’ll be remembered for nothing but murdering and/or ripping off some of the most beloved texts in literature. So how does Donne’s text fare?
This is spoiler free in regards to original developments from Donne’s text, but I’m going to assume readers of this piece are familiar with Jane Eyre. If not, read ahead at your own risk. Or maybe just go and read Jane Eyre.
Let’s begin with the premise; sometime in the future, a new Ice Age has engulfed Earth and forced the population into space where they are split up amongst different ships of varying degrees of luxury and comfort. Seventeen year old Stella Ainsley (our Jane substitute) is unlucky enough to inhabit the dilapidated Stalwart, long rumoured to be the next ship doomed to attempt probable fatal re-entry to a frozen Earth. Desperate to leave the Stalwart, Stella applies for jobs on other ships, finally receiving an offer of employment from the elegant and wealthy ship, Rochester. Although Stella jumps at the chance, she hears strange rumours about the ship and its occupants, with rumours of hauntings and the fleeing of previous governesses.
Stella settles into life reasonably quickly and adapts well to her young charge Jessa, and other crew members including Officer Xiao, Grace Poole, and Orion Carmichael. However, she finds the ship’s captain, Hugo Fairfax (our updated Rochester) both mysterious and alluring. When a series of strange occurrences threaten Hugo in particular, Stella begins to believe that there is some truth to the rumours regarding the Rochester, and sets out to investigate. Eventually, the truth is revealed about both Hugo and the Rochester, leaving Stella faced with the most difficult choice of her life.
Anybody familiar with the source material will know how this novel is destined to end, however, there are a few surprises in store along the way as Burning Brightly is not solely a re-telling of Jane Eyre. There’s a hearty mix of science fiction and material from other sources (including Donne’s own creations) which keep things interesting. Donne’s characters are all likeable enough although I’m not sure how I feel when one suddenly, and uncharacteristically changes for the better after pages of scheming and histrionics. It just feels a little forced but is another surprise for those thinking they know exactly how Donne’s novel will play out because they have read Jane Eyre.
I enjoyed Brightly Burning’s futuristic setting and the science fiction element, however, the opening in which life on the Stalwart is described and Stella’s removal to the Rochester took too long for me personally. The novel really kicks into life when Stella begins to explore her new home and interacts with the crew of the Rochester, including Hugo Fairfax. This is the part of the novel that is the most faithful to Jane Eyre, and it’s the most rewarding. The highlight of the text is Stella and Hugo’s blossoming relationship, which like Jane and Rochester’s is charming, flirty, and passionate. The arrival of the Ingrams and Stella’s torment is another particularly solid section of the narrative, interrupted by Stella’s visit to her aunt (a subplot from Brontë’s text that really could have been left out). Following Stella’s return, her relationship with Hugo feels a little flat but the revelation of the source of the strange happenings is a slight twist on the original which keeps things fresh and interesting, as does the red herring in the form of a hard-to-pin-down character.
The choice that Stella is forced to make following this revelation sees her leave the ship once more (a plot familiar to Brontë fans), but Donne adds another twist of her own which keeps even Brontëites guessing. The remainder of the novel can’t quite match the heights of the excellent middle section, although it is an improvement on the beginning and the plot which sees Stella leave the Rochester is intriguing and very typical of science fiction, but in a good way. I like how Donne meshes the source material with the science fiction in this particular part of the novel as it does mirror the basics of Jane’s predicament but offers something new to it too.
The build up to the final act feels a little rushed and as if the characters are somehow ridiculously well prepared for events that follow despite the fact that in actuality only one of them is (let’s call him St. John). Consequently, the ending feels a little too easy and smooth. There just aren’t enough obstacles in the way to heighten the drama. Although I would have liked a bit more closure for a handful of characters, I’m glad the ending holds a sci fi mirror up to its parent text, blending both old and new ideas.
Although this is written specifically for a Young Adult audience (which I’m not) at its core, surprisingly, this is no bildungsroman that documents the development and growth of its heroine but a sprawling YA, SF romance set in the stars. Despite being the protagonist, Stella comes to us fully formed, and doesn’t really develop or change over the course of the novel; there is no learning curve for her, only revelations that she deals with, but which do not force her to grow or learn. She gets by largely due to the help of her friends, which is no bad thing, but Jane has more independence, more spirit, and more fire. That’s not to say Stella isn’t strong or likeable, because she is, believe me I couldn’t have continued reading otherwise. Stella is more of a team player though despite being the one pushing the action forward in certain parts. Again, that’s no bad thing though, as she certainly needs to be by the time the final act takes place.
To conclude, I enjoyed Brightly Burning. A lot. It was a fun way to re-visit my old favourite and I’m pretty sure that it hits the mark with its YA target, even if they know nothing of the source material. Hopefully it will inspire another generation of readers to pick up what they may only see as an old classic forced on them in schools, or as a text too challenging to read due to its age. It would certainly be a good addition to the reading lists of higher education science fiction courses. Brightly Burning is a clever, unique, and enjoyable update of a classic and I’d recommend giving it a try if you’re a Jane Eyre fan.
By Nicola F. a.k.a. The Brontë Babe.
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