The French Dancer's Bastard by Emma Tennant

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The French Dancer's Bastard by Emma Tennant

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: A reworking of the Jane Eyre story told from the point of view of Adèle Varens and with an intriguing sequel. It makes a good read if you've read the original or seen the autumn 2006 television dramatisation.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: October 2006
Publisher: Maia Press Limited
ISBN: 1904559239

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Adèle Varens is the rather shadowy child in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. She came to Thornfield Hall when she was only eight to live with Edward Rochester, who might, or might not have been her father. Her feckless mother was a celebrated French actress who deserted her daughter when she ran off to Italy with her lover. Adèle longs for the glitzy streets of Paris and her loneliness is only assuaged by the arrival of her governess, the eponymous Jane Eyre. She's an inquisitive child and her explorations in Thornfield Hall bring to light certain, er, irregularities that will put everyone's lives and reputations in danger.

Charlotte Bronte's original novel is well-known and is being serialised on television in autumn 2006. This book has been published to coincide with the four-part drama. The French Dancer's Bastard looks firstly at Jane Eyre's story, but through the eyes of Adèle and then picks up the story after the disastrous fire at Thornfield Hall.

The story is told by each of the participants, from their own point of view. Emma Tennant has the knack of conveying the voices and styles of speech; in the first part of the book she catches the tone of Jane Eyre to perfection. It's a device that she's used before, in her books Pemberley Revisited and An Unequal Marriage, the 'sequels' to Pride and Prejudice. I've often wondered what happens to characters in novels after the story ends and Emma Tennant takes classic texts, looks at them from a different angle and continues the story. It's a brave task to tackle as the reader is likely to come to these books after reading a book which has stood the test of centuries. I doubt that anyone will be surprised when I say that the writing in this book is not on a par with the original, but it is still good.

The continuation story is a good one and the plot convincing. I thought that I had worked out how the story would end, but I was wrong and the denouement came as quite a surprise. It is ingenious and satisfying - and there is nothing that I can remember of the original that would contradict this explanation. A great deal of research has obviously been done into late eighteenth-century history and I found the scenes set in post-Revolutionary Paris very convincing, particularly with regard to social conditions. The scenes set in England were rather sterile by comparison. The book's not completely un-put-down-able, but I read it with enjoyment over the course of an afternoon and evening.

I found the character of Adèle completely convincing along with her mother, Céline Varens. This may be because the author was not greatly constrained by the original and was able to flesh out the characters to her satisfaction. We see Adèle as an eight-year-old and later when she is fourteen. The different ages and attitudes are captured well and the girl seemed more real than in the original. I was less convinced by Edward Rochester, but Jane Eyre did impose considerable constraints here.

If you enjoyed the original, or this autumn's television serialisation of Jane Eyre then I think you will find this a good read. It takes nothing away from the original and does open up other lines of thought about what might have happened. I wouldn't advise reading it if you haven't read the original or seen the serialisation.

I don't often comment on book covers, but this one is really quite stunning - courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Thanks to the publishers, Maia Press, for sending us this book.

Buy The French Dancer's Bastard by Emma Tennant at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The French Dancer's Bastard by Emma Tennant at Amazon.co.uk


Buy The French Dancer's Bastard by Emma Tennant at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The French Dancer's Bastard by Emma Tennant at Amazon.com.

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Magda said:

Oh, I think I might read that! The title seems to allude to the Fowles' French Lieutenant Women, is there an attempt to emulate Regency style the way Fowles alludes to Victorians and Hardy?

Most modern sequels to classics I have ever read (OK, about 3 perhaps) were full of anachronisms, esp. in the field of sexual morality - probably in an effort to appeal to the modern female readership's sensibilities.

Sue replied:

No, it's not actually Fowles, Magda, but a reference to something said in Jane Eyre. There is some copying of style, but not to the point where it becomes painful. It's actually pre-Regency in setting. It's rather difficult to answer the question about anachronisms particularly with regard to sexual morality as Adèle's mother is an actress in name but in fact seemed little better than a prostitute. She, and her world, feature strongly in the book.