I've heard about this novel a few times now through Cannonball Read, though most people were reading the latest sequel. I took it with me when I visited some family friends for Christmas, and it turned out that their son's girlfriend had read it (they are a German family but their son is basically a genius and has been studying in London for a while now and the same applies to his girlfriend - I definitely enjoyed the fact that I could switch back and forth between German and English during conversations because some things are much easier for me to articulate in English). She didn't remember all the details but she definitely remembered enjoying the novel, and we also discussed a few other books. Basically, it was nice, relaxing Christmas with good food - lamb and knoedel.
The Eyre Affair is set in 1985 England in an alternate reality. The Crimean War is still ongoing, planes have not been invented, people like to clone extinct animals as pets such as dodos (the flightless bird), there are several more types of special operations in the British police forces, including Chronoguards who are supposed to fix temporal issues and travel through time. Wales is its own country, and literature is very important - four thousand people go by the name John Milton because he's their favorite poet, forgery of manuscripts is such a booming business that it is its own section of law enforcement.
The main character and narrator is Thursday Next, a member of the LiteraTec, or the office in charge of literary related crimes and misdemeanours. Her father who makes several appearances throughout the novel is a former member of the Chronoguard gone rogue, who spends much of his time trying to fix history, saying that time is out of balance. After all, it seems suspicious to him that the Duke of Wellington was assassinated before the Battle of Waterloo, his most important battle. However, while her father's visits are entertaining, and I wouldn't mind hearing more about a plot to change history, the story is Thursday's and deals with one of her cases as a LiteraTec.
Thursday is called on the case after the original manuscript of a Charles Dickens novel is stolen (it's Martin Chuzzlewit, a novel I had never heard of before and I briefly even wondered if it was one of the alternate things about this alternate world - turns out, it's not). There is no one on the video cameras, and the display case also seems untampered with except for a smudge or something on one of the sides. However, one of the very secret departments above Thursday's level quickly involves her in their case because they think a man named Acheron Hades is behind it, and she is the only one known to have refused him and know what he looks like, being a former student of his. They manage to track him down but the bust goes bad, leaving Thursday as the lone survivor. The manuscript is still missing, assumed destroyed and Hades is assumed dead.
After receiving a visit from her future self on the hospital bed, Thursday decides to go back home to Swindon to pursue the case further where the reader meets her uncle Mycroft, a incredibly intelligent, creative and somewhat flight inventor. His latest creation are bookworms and a machine that allows people to enter a novel/poem/written text (however, there have been occasions where a machine is not needed for this; Thursday once did it accidentally as a child, even slightly changing the narrative of Jane Eyre, and there have been other suspected cases in history based on character listings of novels at the time of release vs. a later time). While it sounds like something that could be rather fun, it turns out if used on the original manuscript, the machine alters all versions of the piece in question not just that one copy - wait, what was that about a missing manuscript in the hands of a presumed dead supervillain?
Hades uses Mycroft and the invention to kidnap a minor character of Chuzzlewit and kill him, threatening to kill the main character if his demands for ransom are not met. After that novel, his next target becomes Jane Eyre (hence the title), a loved and revered classic novel with one flaw that all agree on: the ending - no one is happy that Jane went to India to help her cousin rather than marry Rochester.
In addition to needing to save Jane Eyre, Thursday Next also has to contend with the corporate giant Goliath represented by Jack Schitt (gee, I wonder who's the bad guy? The other bad guy that is) that have a bit too much power and say in Britain, and are very interested in Mycroft's invention. She also has to confront her past by coming to Swindon, including her former boyfriend whom she hasn't quite moved past in the last ten years, and his statements about her dead brother's actions in the war.
It was a very fun read, and I quite enjoyed Rochester's appearance in this novel, more so in fact than I did in Jane Eyre. I of course also loved how important literature was in this alternate world, and look forward to reading about more random characters come to life in the series. There are also see a few different things briefly mentioned in this novel that could be interesting if expanded upon, such as her father's role in fixing history, and those that disagree with him. The only thing I was waiting for in the novel that didn't happen wasn't a big deal - I thought there might be a bit more of an explanation of Acheron Hades's powers (honestly, I thought maybe he was a character that had escaped from another novel, hence his imperviousness to bullets) but it didn't really affect the novel. Besides with some evil characters, it's better to just know they are evil, inexplicably so, without getting a background story (though in my defense, I didn't care why he was evil, just slightly curious as to why he was so powerful). I could definitely relate when he went on a rant about Martin Chuzzlewit, because I have felt something similar about characters in a few 19th century novels:
I was made to study the book at O-level and really got to hate the smug little shit. All that moralizing and endless harking on about theme of selfishness. I find Chuzzlewit only marginally less tedious than Our Mutual Friend. Even if they had paid the ransom, I would have killed him anyway and enjoyed the experience tremendously. (234)
I can't think of anyone in particular I'd pick of the top of my head but Pamela in Pamela annoyed me a lot as did Robinson Crusoe. Not sure if it was enough to make me feel homicidal, though.