Jane Eyre’s Fairytale Legacy at Home and Abroad: Constructions and Deconstructions of National Identity

By Abigail Heiniger. (New York: Routledge, 2016. 186 pp. $149.95)

 A Review by Justy Engle

Jane Eyre has been transformed into silent films, feature films, radio dramas and theatre productions, and has inspired a wide selection of literature that both refigures and continues the original tale. The most recent feature film adaptation (2011) stars Mia Wasikowska as the titular character and Michael Fassbender as Rochester. The cover of the film’s DVD release, of the titular character in a blue dress, hearkens of Cinderella. This hint at the fairy tale is not far from author Abigail Heiniger’s mind, as her 2016 book, Jane Eyre’s Fairytale Legacy at Home and Abroad: Constructions and Deconstructions of National Identity, focuses on the fairytale legacy of Jane Eyre and specifically considers the implications of the tales of Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast.

In this, her first book, Heiniger considers the idea of Eyre as “heroic changeling” in four sections. Throughout the text, Heiniger explores this tale that serves as a female bilgundgsroman, an alternative to the traditional Victorian heroine (17). The first section considers Jane Eyre in relation to Beauty and the Beast and creates the argument for the text as reimagined fairy tale. The second section outlines the European resonances for the new mother in subsequently published texts influenced by Bronte’s work. The third section moves to America where Heiniger considers the text as an American Cinderella story. The fourth section explores the worldwide impacts of the “Bronte effect in America.” In the conclusion, Heiniger posits that the story and its Cinderella resonances directly address critical theory in regard to postcolonialism. Heiniger relates the text directly to Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, produced over a century later, because of its failed Cinderella narrative. Heiniger also includes appendices that provide three versions of Cinderella from the second half of the nineteenth century, two stories from Harper’s New Monthly Magazine and one from The Atlantic Monthly.

Heiniger’s penchant for connecting the thread of the fairy tale and its undercurrents to the time period and subsequent texts provides the reader with a fascinating study that takes into account the literary antecedents and descendants. Heiniger places the text squarely in its cultural context and demonstrates how it functions in relation to the other texts that came before and came after and draws the threads together and ties them up in such a way that her readers can see the literary genealogy in action. Rather than address the text in isolation, Heiniger grounds the text within the sprawling intricacies of the fairy tale and moves it forward through the bildungsroman and sees it through to postcolonial theory. The issues of gender and identity are prevalent throughout the book and are vital in understanding the changing status of women and their roles in the nineteenth century. Heiniger’s conclusions help the reader connect the intersection of personal and national narratives in relation to the women who wrote in response to Jane Eyre.

Abigail Heiniger is Assistant Professor of English at Bluefield College, an institution that is part of the Appalachian College Association, in Bluefield, Virginia. She received her Ph.D. in 2013 from Wayne State University in English, Nineteenth-Century, Trans-atlantic Literature after receiving a dual B.A. in English and Humanities and an M.A. in Nineteenth Century English Literature and another M.A. in Humanities with a concentration in Literature and Art History. Her focus on Jane Eyre began while still an undergraduate during which time she published the article “The Faery and the Beast” in Bronte Studies.

Justy Engle is assistant professor of English, Campbellsville University. She has completed a doctorate at the University of Louisville. The title of her dissertation is “To Write a Life: Three Women in History”. Her areas of academic interests are women’s spiritual autobiographies and medieval literature, fourteenth through the fifteenth centuries.