Here’s the thing about modern adaptations: you’re always going to end up comparing them to the original. Alexa Donne’s Brightly Burning is a reimagining of Jane Eyre set in space. Stella is “Jane,” our stubborn, clever heroine. Faced with living out her life on a failing spaceship, the Stalwart, Stella chooses instead to leave her home and becomes a private governess for the Rochester, a private spaceship orbiting the moon. Yep, it took me about thirty pages to put all of this together (it helps to read the book jacket!). Like the original, the Rochester has a mysterious, slightly gruff captain, Hugo, and like the original, he has a secret that will ruin everything.
That’s about where the similarities end. The problem with Jane Eyre in space is twofold. First, the novel needs to account for why people are in space and how they plan to survive there. The answer? People have fled to space to escape an ice age and have been in space for about 200 years. Some of the ships have considered reentering the atmosphere, but no one knows if it is safe. Second, people who live in space — according to the novel — apparently do not live very long. This means that the age difference between Hugo and Stella is drastically reduced, and it also means that the reason Hugo cannot immediately marry Stella is…different.
What I Loved
Stella Ainsley. The first and primary reason I love both Jane Eyre and Brightly Burning is the protagonist. Stella is fierce, stubborn, and independent. She loves to read, to draw, and to take care of others. Stella is someone to aspire to be, and even if she doesn’t go through all of the challenges that Jane does, she still has her own struggle — her own difficult choice that leads her on an unexpected journey.
The repartee between Stella and Hugo. Donne does an amazing job of capturing the developing relationship between Stella and Hugo. I love the required hours in his study, reading original books like Agatha Christie and Charles Dickens. I love that he gives Stella a new drawing tab and frames her photos in her room. I love when Stella saves Hugo from the fire, and they have a moment.
The reimagined setting. It’s unique? Well, it’s not unique exactly. I’ve read plenty of books with space as the setting (see: The Lunar Chronicles, Defy the Stars, etc). But it’s unique for Jane Eyre, and I liked it. I liked that Stella has to travel between ships rather than across the moors of England. I liked that each of the ships seems to have their own issues and problems. I liked the attention to details on the Empire, the home of what seems to be the remainder of Great Britain, the Stalwart, a failing farming ship, and the mysterious Rochester, Stella’s home for much of the story.
What Didn’t Work For Me
The frequent references to contemporary pop culture. As a reader, we get the impression from the beginning that Stella is a solitary and independent figure. This primarily manifests in her love for books. When Stella gets aboard the Rochester, she has access to many Earth classics, and she makes frequent references to what she is reading. I’m sure that this is meant to make Stella relatable, but given that the novel takes place 200 years in the future, the references to Hermione Granger and Agatha Christie just felt weird. What was weirder was that Donne clearly had developed her own “space” canon, so it wasn’t like the references to Harry Potter were necessary.
The emphasis on romance? At times, I thought that Brightly Burning tried to combine plot and romance in a way that simply didn’t work for me. The novel focused too heavily on the romantic elements of Jane Eyre, not enough on the social, cultural commentary that makes the novel perfect. It was a bit like watching the 2011 movie — all fast-forward romance and nothing else. Of course, there is a background plot that makes every stick together, but it just felt like too much?
Brightly Burning is for you if you like young adult, romance, or post-apocalyptic space dramas. The love story between Stella and Hugo keeps the pages turning, while the background plot adds a level of intrigue to the original. That being said, Brightly Burning may not be for everyone — especially if you’re a classics purist.