Tina Connolly, Ironskin

Jane Eyre is one of the books that converted me to literary criticism (I probably didn’t need much converting)–there’s so much you can do with it. I suspect this is a big part of why Ironskin felt so underwhelming. Without Jane Eyre it would be a decent, rather light, fantasy-steampunk-thing with a somewhat muddled thesis about beauty; with it, it just seems inconsequential. The sequel, Copperhead, just came out, but I’ll be waiting for other people’s reviews before I pick it up.

From a column published a couple of weeks ago.

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Hit by a fey curse during the Great War, Jane Elliot wears a mask (“ironskin”) over her face to keep in her supernaturally-induced rage. In the wake of the war, England (if it is England; it is never named as such) has lost much of its technological capability (bought from the fey) and with it its prosperity. Jane’s beautiful sister Helen is able to escape (partially) her situation by marrying a wealthy man; Jane chooses to support herself as a teacher.

It’s at this point that Tina Connolly’s Ironskin begins to make clear its literary debts. Jane goes to Silver Birch Hall to be governess to the daughter of Mr Rochart, a child who is herself fey-cursed in weird and unsettling ways. She finds herself falling in love with her employer, despite knowing that there is some awful secret about him and his house. It’s hard to miss the fact that this is a retelling of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre; Jane Elliot is Jane Eyre, Mr Rochart is Mr Rochester. Even minor characters have names that echo those in Brontë’s novel—there’s a “Blance Inglis”, a “Grace”, a “Helen”.

But what of Mr Rochester’s first wife? “[Jane] did not know what she expected—a row of skeletons, a murdered wife, a madwoman with a mysterious laugh? The nameless terror of her nightmares?”

Jane Eyre is not Ironskin’s only intertext. There are references to “the fey story of Bluebeard, you know” (Ironskin’s approach to literary allusion is never particularly subtle) with its young woman instructed not to pry into her beloved’s secrets, and its mysterious former wife or wives whose shadow hangs over the whole—interestingly Brontë refers to the same fairytale. Rochart himself gives Jane other lenses through which to view this story; with a reference to the old Scottish ballad of Tam Lin (“[s]tolen away by the fey, and for his beloved to win him back, she had to hold him as he changed into a variety of loathsome beasts”) he casts himself as straightforwardly a victim in need of rescue. With an earlier allusion to Beauty and the Beast he is again the victim (though of the two of them it is Jane who bears the physical mark of a magical curse).

Done right, alluding to other well-known works within a book can add depth both to the new work and the original. Reading Ironskin is an exercise in frustration because its insistence that we notice its literary references seems to promise that something will be done with them; that the relationship between this book and those others will reveal new layers of meaning in both, or at least in this one. It never happens.

Connolly’s recasting as fantasy of the years following the First World War is cleverly done— while most of the narrative is set outside the major cities, we see enough of the collapse of an economy dependent until now on fey technology, the social upheavals caused by large scale poverty and the loss of almost an entire generation of men, to make this world seem plausible (though the only time empire is mentioned it’s in relation to dress styles). That this new society should place a premium on beauty and luxury after the recent horrors it has endured makes sense, and the book sets up and interesting debate about physical beauty and our personal and social relationships with it.

But the shadow of Jane Eyre, resolutely “poor, obscure, plain and little” looms over this book. Perhaps my frustration with the book has made me cynical but by the end the multiple literary references begin to feel like so many empty signifiers, scattered across a pleasant but quite lightweight book in the hope that the reader will never quite get to the point of asking what it is, exactly, that they’re supposed to signify.

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