We’re celebrating the launch of our Gothics issue by finding out what it is about the Gothic that appeals to our authors, and what inspired their Issue 17 stories.
Lackington’s: ”Swans and Roses and Snow” reimagines a character from one of the most popular English Gothic novels of all time, Jane Eyre. More than one author has felt the need to reinterpret Charlotte Brontë’s story, most famously Jean Rhys with Wide Sargasso Sea—a book you also nod to in your tale. What did you feel was left unsaid about Brontë’s characters that made you want to revisit them in “Swans and Roses and Snow”? Is your story a sequel, a response, a rebuke…?
LF: Jane Eyre relentlessly demands the reader’s sympathy for Jane, from the scenes of her childhood and its injustices, through her life as an obscure governess and her unlikely love story, to her rags-to-riches ending. When I first read the book—I was quite young when my mum first gave it to me and I couldn’t count how many times I’ve read it since—I gave that sympathy quite readily, and I don’t remember if I saw anything incongruous in the way Bertha, Rochester’s first wife, is portrayed—at best an obstacle to Jane’s happiness, at worst a horror and a humiliation to her husband, and never, certainly, a human being; she growls, bites people, crawls on all fours “like some strange wild animal.” Maybe I did and skipped over it, maybe I was just caught up in rooting for Jane.
Part of growing older as a reader is seeing the holes in the things you love, and there’s plenty in Jane Eyre, as there is in most nineteenth-century British literature—racism, colonialism and a fear of and contempt for mental illness, just to start. There’s something quite chilling about the way that not even a tiny fraction of the reader’s sympathy seems to be requested for Bertha; it’s all Jane’s. Rochester is supposed to be quite virtuous for locking Bertha in a nice dry attic and not deliberately killing her with damp, and whilst we’re supposed to be annoyed with him for lying to Jane and compromising her, it doesn’t seem to matter all that much that he simply loathes his own wife for things she cannot help.
My story is partly an attempt to open up stories for Mrs. Rochester—my original intention was to give her magical powers that came from having been dead, or to write a revenge tale, of a super-strong automaton destroying her enemies, but in the end it became more a story of who she was and could be—the things she once loved, in balance with her anger and sense of betrayal. I wanted to give her power, and a choice—perhaps vengeance, perhaps a child who could be a better man than his father.
Lackington’s: The revenant Mrs. Rochester is a hybrid of human and machine, patched up by the helpful sexton. Is there something about Mrs. Rochester that made it logical for her to be resurrected in this way? Or did the idea come from somewhere else?
LF: I can’t remember where the idea came from, as I wrote the first couple of paragraphs four or five years ago. There’s a certain aesthetic appropriateness, to my mind, because of Charlotte Brontë’s life in the industrial north of England, where I’m also from. (Machinery of a kind figures in her work too, in Shirley.) Mrs. Rochester’s resurrection by the sexton is just another kind of commodification, really; he makes a product out of her, and probably would try to use it/her for his own benefit, somehow, only she turns out to have ideas of her own.
Lackington’s: Some of the most Gothic elements of Jane Eyre are the isolated house, the unpredictable antihero, and horrible secrets. These elements are present in your story, but used much more subtly and obliquely. How do you view “Swans and Roses and Snow” in relation to Gothic literature, and why did you build a Gothic tale using pieces from other readily recognizable genres, such as steampunk?
LF: I grew up in Bradford (Charlotte Brontë was also born there, in Thornton; it wasn’t part of Bradford then but the city has eaten it up now) and I think of it as a pretty Gothic-looking place, all the ornate Victorian architecture, so much of it blackened by smoke, the moors all around it, the old factories and mills. Much of it falling down, in my childhood, though it’s quite a different place now. Machines and decay and wreckage. That is to say, things I write often turn out a little bit Gothic by accident, if I can interpret the term loosely. I’ve never really tried to write steampunk but I needed a way to bring the character back from the dead so I borrowed the trope of improbable clockwork.
Lackington’s: Is there something about unconventional modes of storytelling that you find especially compelling? Why do we need to make space for stories that don’t always work the way that readers have come to expect?
LF: I think one of the most important things to remember as a reader (and editor) is that stories don’t have the same shape for everybody, and only paying attention to ones that work in certain ways is pretty similar to having a literary canon; that is, closing your eyes to so much of the world. So often there are things that we’re told are principles of good writing that are just how things often have worked, not how they should. It’s important to take liberties and also to keep your ears open, because if you’re only listening for one kind of story that’s all you’re ever going to hear.
The main reason I like to try and tell stories in unconventional ways, sometimes at least, is that I have a short attention span and get bored very easily. I need to keep myself interested.
Having spent the last five years hauling herself, her partner, and their books between Vancouver, Galway, Yorkshire, Donegal, and West Cork, Laura Friis now writes and studies in Manchester, England, ably assisted by her two-year-old. Her short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed Magazine and she is one of the co-editors of Samovar, the SFF in translation magazine.