In The Next Page, Erin Newcomb reads stuff she likes and reflects on things eternal and earthly in the popular literature of our time.

I’m mid-way through teaching my Women in Literature course this semester, and we’re just about to move past the Jane Eyre section. I start with Charlotte Brontë’s classic, move to the 2011 film directed by Cary Fukunaga, then to Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, and conclude (this time, at least) with Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair. We use the original novel as our collective jumping off point, the text that gives us common ground for discussing the revision and appropriation of the story ever since. With the film, we talk about the shifting gaze and the loss of first-person, and the persistent efforts to emphasize the love story. With Rhys, we talk about postcolonial theory and the real character behind the “madwoman” in Rochester’s attic. And with Fforde, we talk about genre and the critical role of audiences in shaping textual interpretation.

The whole reason I reread is that a good book is never quite the same each time. We all have different impressions of our shared point of origin, and the more we look back, the more we see ourselves at each moment, in each reading.

I’m always torn at this point in the semester, because my love for Jane Eyre runs deep, and I could easily conform the entire syllabus to that theme. My students, however, seem to appreciate Jane Eyre as well as a break from her, so we move on to other texts and topics. Cue my personal reading, where Maryrose Wood’s series The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place combines my love for Jane Eyre revisions with my love for children’s literature.

The book jacket advertises the series as “Jane Eyre meets Lemony Snicket,” and, certainly, the novels seem to borrow from both. There’s the orphaned governess and heroine Penelope Lumley, full of pluck and optoomuchism (Wood’s “word that means precisely what it looks like it means”) and pithy lessons garnered from her education at Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females. There’s the Incorrigible children—Alexander, Beowulf, and Cassiopeia, whose “ahwoo”-filled speech hearkens to their upbringing by wolves, though their artistic talents and temperaments are now nurtured under their beloved “Lumawoo’s” care. And, of course, there’s a mysterious curse that affects them all, along with Miss Lumley’s employer and the children’s guardian, Lord Frederick Ashton (who disappears at each full moon). As a mystery series for children, the stories work well for fans of Lemony Snicket or The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart.

This fifth volume, The Unmapped Sea, overflowing with nautical references, offers some key insights into the mysteries plaguing Penelope and her charges; that said, I would prefer a series that offers slightly more resolution in each book so that each could stand better on its own. I realize that’s not the point of the series, yet I imagine for many readers (especially with the works still under construction), it’s hard to hold all of Wood’s loose ends together without rereading each time a new book gets released. The playful narration and endearing characters bind the books together, though number five felt like the slowest starter in the set. There were so many parentheticals (even for a reader who rather likes those), that it took me a while to settle into the actual story. By the end, though, the auburn-haired governess still tugs at my heartstrings:

“Before the children left, Penelope kissed them, one, two, three. ‘Loveawoo, loveawoo, loveawoo,’ she murmured, which was all that needed to be said.”

Her relationship with the children grows with each installment, and as the mystery unfolds, the stakes are high (no spoilers here).

But what draws me to the series, and what makes it a great shared reading experience for children and adults alike, is not the mystery but the writing style. Take, for instance, the elaborate charade the characters create to convince Lady Ashton she is really on holiday in Rome instead of shivering on Brighton’s beaches in January:

(Interestingly, the idea that the imagination of the audience can be relied upon to accept even highly unlikely plots was invented by the same Mr. Coleridge who wrote ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.’ He called it ‘the willing suspension of disbelief.’ To this very day, most of us are more than willing to suspend our disbelief if it means we can enjoy a rollicking tale about gloomy supernatural birds, angry wolves that spew curses, seashells with romantic insights, or other, well…unusual topics.)

These words, from the latest addition—The Unmapped Sea—aptly describe the fifth volume, the series as a whole, and the magic of Wood’s storytelling. The narrator’s asides, along with an emphasis on etymology and canonical literary references, layer the text with a cultural commentary that’s both playful and witty. As a silly mystery series riddled with references to Romantic Poetry, it intertwines high- and low-culture in a way that comments on culture itself; we can have pleasure and good taste and still not take ourselves too seriously.

That’s a point-of-view that fits the framework of the course I’m currently teaching, where I emphasize feminist revision as a strategy for seeing stories from multiple perspectives. It relates to the literary canon, for sure, but I think the ideas translate into our understandings of culture and theology as well. For one thing, The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place is not a lesser contribution to my understanding of Jane Eyre by virtue of being popular or intended for children. There’s wisdom and insight and lots of great puns in Wood’s books; rather than taking away from Jane Eyre, it enhances its point of origin, reminding me that there’s still room for the enduring lessons in each text. The intertextuality is like a good conversation that nourishes all who are willing to listen.

And much of my focus on feminist revision is about listening—really listening. Because as much as I loved the cinematography of Fukunaga’s film and Mia Wasikowska as Jane, the director’s favorite parts of the story were not the same as mine. Without Jean Rhys, it’s too easy to forget that Bertha Mason (if that’s really her name…) has her own story, and it doesn’t always make Jane and Rochester look so good. And without Jasper Fforde’s zany, circuitous route into the text of Jane Eyre, I wouldn’t think quite so much about how my own escapes into literature alter both me and the book. The whole reason I reread is that a good book is never quite the same each time; reading Jane Eyre feels like catching up with an old friend, and reading works inspired by Brontë’s text is something like a reunion. We all have different impressions of our shared point of origin, and the more we look back, the more we see ourselves at each moment, in each reading.

So while I recommend reading The Unmapped Sea and its series for its own sake, I also encourage readers to use Wood’s metanarrative style as a catalyst for reflections on perspective. I have a feeling if we thought more about point-of-view and our own subjectivity as we navigate the waters of culture and religion, we’d be better at listening. We might see more of the ways that we change in the readings, too. We can bring the same pleasure and good taste to our discussions of theology, while remembering to listen and not take ourselves too seriously. The text of Jane Eyre hasn’t changed, but as I have matured as a reader, I appreciate its nuances more. The same can be said for Christ on an infinitely deeper level, if we only listen.