Widow and Orphan: What Jane Eyre and Julia Grey Have In Common

I am a latecomer to the novels of Deanna Raybourn.  She has a new release set in colonial Africa out just last week, but just last night I finished Silent in the Grave (2007), which is the first Lady Julia Grey book, a Victorian-set mystery. 6933131

Being compulsive about sequels, I’ve already begun Silent in the Sanctuary (2008), which is the second book in which Julia will — it appears — solve a tangled mystery in the smoldering and rather mysterious company of investigator Nicholas Brisbane.

Charlotte Bronte, on the other hand, has been in my life since my early teens. I’ve posted recently about the enormous influence of Jane Eyre on my tastes and preferences as a reader, as part of explaining (for myself, mainly, and also for anyone else who’ll listen) why the hell I decided to start this blog.  🙂  Jane is a key figure in my literary back story – why I love reading, why I love romance and history and moody gothic tales, why in spite of knowing the absolute opposite is true, I still sort of think being a governess sounds romantic….

I didn’t expect Jane to keep cropping up all over the place this week, but it’s been a week of Big Thoughts about romance and history, and my bedtime reading has put me in a shadowy Jane Eyre mood.  Silent in the Grave is a Harlequin MIRA romantic mystery, so not a traditional HEA romance, but it’s honestly the most achingly romantic book I’ve read in a while.

At the center is an attraction compulsion that provokes me like Jane and Rochester with its subtle complexity and oblique intensity.  Julia and Nicholas positively spark and flare, generating heat without sex scenes, just by being in a room, circling each other, worrying about each other, vaguely threatening each other.

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I realize I am not the first to see Bronte resonances here.  There’s the incredibly tangible atmosphere of a gaslit Victorian England, from the overstuffed privilege of a fashionable family home to the grim surroundings of the expendable classes (prostitutes, orphans). Yes, I know it’s 1886, and Jane Eyre was published in 1847, but I’m talking about a mood here, people.  I can’t wait to get to the third book, where they’ll head north to the moors and I can picture them, windswept and wild, stalking each other until they finally succumb to the lust!

Jane Eyre 2007Because of course the most resonant thing about this book is the relationship itself, and the way Julia and Nicholas interact.  This above all is what puts me in mind of Jane and Rochester.  It’s something about the way they inadvertently both madden and seduce one another, with intellect and conversation and a hands-off but incredibly latent and irresistible sensual appreciation for each other’s physical presence and appearance.

Of course what’s totally different for Julia is that she is in fact a widow, and not an orphan.  Her very involved and encouraging family are another delightful aspect of this book, though even without them, this heroine enjoys a much less precarious position in Victorian society than poor long-suffering Jane.  As MacPudel so astutely pointed out in a Comment on the Historical Romance brouhaha this week, heroines who are believably in a position — economically and socially — to make their own relationship choices — in a historically accurate historical novel — are hard to find.

jane_2006_4_465x310I always thought of Jane as unrelentingly strong-willed, and from the start I loved how she made herself Rochester’s equal in intellect and conversation, but when push comes to shove, her existence as a single woman of no family is dangerously marginal and fraught with peril.  When she does make her own choices, her independence comes at a huge price. But Julia has the means to be independent, or at least as independent as was possible for a young widow with a fond father to be.  Not only does she not serve Nicholas as member of his domestic staff, but she has actually sought his services as an investigator and has a higher social status.

So it would seem Julia and Jane really don’t have very much in common at all.

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Except for the romance.  The intense fixation on a charismatic, brooding and tormented hero who himself is unable to tear himself away from watching and waiting for the woman who challenges and fascinates him.

Bottom line — if there’s anyone reading this who hasn’t already read the Lady Julia Grey series, I’m going out on a limb to highly recommend after only one book.  And I just can’t stop thinking about the ways this book is getting under my skin because of its smoky Jane Eyre echoes. Reader, find. A. Copy.

Fellow Jane fans will likely notice I’ve only used pics from the 2007 BBC production with Toby Stephens and Ruth Wilson.  I know claiming a “best” adaptation is controversial, but in my mind this is absolutely it.  Love love love the sizzling chemistry between these two – it was the first film adaptation where I actually felt the heat, and where Rochester was both unappealingly beastly and astonishingly gorgeous in a way that made sense to me.  

So what about you? Which is your favorite Eyre?  And for those who are ahead of me on this, and have read the Silent series, what do you think?  Are Julia and Nicholas as epic as Jane and Rochester?  

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