Jane in wonderland

Just when you thought British classics couldn't get any more fun ...

For five years, I dragged freshman boys kicking and screaming through Charlotte Brontë's "Jane Eyre." It was torture - part of the academy's "Nip a Love of Literature in the Bud" program. But finally, those plaintive cries have been answered: Through the miracle of literary-genetic engineering, Jasper Fforde has crossbred "Jane Eyre" with James Bond and Harry Potter.

His debut novel, "The Eyre Affair," is so clever, so loopy, so unabashedly ridiculous that students who hated Brontë's classic will be glad they read it, after all. And, needless to say, Jane's many fans will find this time-bending cloak-and-dagger romp a pure delight.

"The Eyre Affair" opens in a dystopian Great Britain in 1985 - just after "1984." (The novel is a riot of literary allusions.) England has been at war with Imperial Russia over the Crimean Peninsula for 130 years. The country is dominated by Goliath, a corporation that would make Rupert Murdoch drool with envy. And time travel is carefully policed by the authorities.

This is a world in which matters of literature receive the attention reserved in our world for professional sports and politicians' sex lives. Terrorists attack in the name of Jane Austen. Missionaries for Francis Bacon proselytize door to door. Will-Speak vending machines dot the streets so people can hear Shakespearean soliloquies. In one town, so many people have changed their name to Alfred Tennyson that they have to be identified by number.

Our intrepid heroine in this text-obsessed world is Thursday Next, a member of the Literary Detective Division of the Special Operations Network, a vast police force that pursues literary crimes such as forgery, plagiarism, manuscript theft, and the abuse of literary characters.

When Thursday first gets a call that the manuscript of Charles Dickens's "Martin Chuzzlewit" has been stolen, she's not particularly alarmed. After all, an ardent fan had swiped it just two years before. But this time the circumstances are ominously baffling: The guards noticed nothing; the security cameras show no one; the locked case that held the manuscript is still intact; and yet the treasure has vanished.

"A shiver ran up my back and I felt a curious sense of uncomfortable familiarity," Thursday writes, "the feeling you might get when a long forgotten school bully hails you as an old friend."

Soon, that old acquaintance is identified as master criminal Acheron Hades - he who must not be named - a brilliant professor of literature gone maniacally bad, a villain so powerful that he can walk through walls, change shape, and hypnotize opponents into handing over their guns. "Don't ever call me mad," he screams at one victim. "I'm just differently moraled."

In his autobiography, "Degeneracy for Pleasure and Profit," he writes, "The best reason for committing loathsome and detestable acts is purely for their own sake. Monetary gain is all very well, but it dilutes that taste of wickedness to a lower level that is obtainable by anyone with an overdeveloped sense of avarice."

Because she was once a student of Hades' who successfully rebuffed his sexual advances, Thursday is put in charge of the investigation and given a license to kill.

But she quickly discovers that the archfiend isn't her only opponent. An official from Goliath Corp. whose name can't appear in a family newspaper has his own motives for capturing Hades, and he's almost as vicious.

After a disastrous stakeout, in which only Thursday survives, she's relieved of her brief promotion and returns to her hometown to recuperate. But peace is hard to find in this family. Her time-traveling father is having an affair with a woman who's been dead for 150 years, her mother won't stop nagging for grandchildren, and her aunt is trapped in the Wordsworth poem "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud." (The inventions in her uncle's basement pose a significant challenge for J.K. Rowling's next volume. He's got bookworms and thesaurean maggots!)

Thursday hopes to rekindle a long-dormant romance with an old sweetheart, but when Hades and his gruesome henchmen strike again, duty calls. This time, he's shocked the nation by murdering Mr. Quaverley, once a small character in "Martin Chuzzlewit."

And now he's captured Jane Eyre herself. "Comrades," he announces, "we stand on the very brink of an act of artistic barbarism so monstrous that I am almost ashamed of it myself." The boundary between fiction and reality has grown dangerously porous. Citizens panic. The president of the Brontë Federation meets with the prime minister. Delegates at the UN assemble in anxious council. Only Thursday can avert disaster by entering Charlotte Brontë's classic and enlisting the help of her old friend Rochester.

There are moments of triteness when Fforde reaches for social commentary on the evils of war or for psychological depth on the nature of grief. But mostly it's just rip-roaring fun, the kind of cerebral silliness that Brits can do so well while American comedians are doing bug-eyed double takes and kicking each other in the groin.

By the end, Thursday does more than save "Jane Eyre" from Acheron Hades, she saves it from itself, correcting a weakness that's bedeviled readers and critics for 150 years. This is about as much fun as you can have in the classics section without being thrown out of the library. To those students who swore they wouldn't reread "Jane Eyre" 'til Hades freezes over, I have good news: He's out cold. Start reading.

• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to charlesr@csmonitor.com.

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