Jassy is one of those Norah Lofts novels set in East Anglia around the fictional town of Baildon, patterned on the real one of Bury St. Edmunds. So the landscape is bleak, flat and stark, and those of us who’ve lived in those parts remember that biting East wind in winter that seems to come straight from Siberia.
The landscape is a fitting backdrop for this story, which is at once stark, haunted, beautiful, noble and sordid.
Jassy is an outsider. To make matters worse she is female, and as everyone is well aware, strong, intelligent women often seem to be the lightning rods for society’s frustrations.
And so it is here. Jassy is unusually intelligent and perceptive, and she carries herself well. She impresses people. But she has some qualities that put people’s backs up. She has trouble governing her temper. She is the kind of person that things happen to. And she has powers of prophecy. Jassy is not bland, neutral or easy to ignore. People either love her or hate her. That is what makes her such a wonderful protagonist. It is also what leads to her downfall.
What is so striking about this book from a craft perspective is that none of it is in Jassy’s voice, breaking the conventional rule that one gets from agents, that the best way of making a character vivid is to use first person.
In spite of the fact that throughout this novel we are NOT privy to Jassy’s own thoughts via interior monologue and the like, the reader will come away from this knowing Jassy thoroughly.
How does Ms. Lofts do it?
The novel is written in four books, and each one is narrated by a different person, so that we get a collage of opinions and impressions of the protagonist. What I found really helpful was at the beginning of each book, Ms. Lofts has included a quote about Jassy from the person narrating the book, as well as an introductory sentence about that person. So Book One opens: GENESIS IN EXILE. “She was a local girl , of rather peculiar parentage…” So this story is told by BARNEY HATTON, who lived next door and took an interest in his neighbours. (Barney Hatton is a young man of around Jassy’s age.)
Wonderful! It was a brilliant way to orient the reader to the narration that followed.
Book Two is narrated by Elizabeth Twysdale, who ran a school for Young Ladies.
Book Three is narrated by Dilys Helmar, a young lady of around Jassy’s age, who escaped with Jassy from school and brought her home to Mortiboys.
Lastly, Book Four is narrated by Belinda Wicks, who is subject to Visitations.
All four of these people have strong reactions to Jassy, and it is through THEIR interior monologs as they try to puzzle her out that we learn so much about her. What a novel, and interesting way of writing about a protagonist.