Mr Rochester by Sarah Shoemaker

As I’m not usually a fan of sequels, prequels or retellings of classic novels, I wondered if I was making a mistake in reading Mr Rochester, a book which, as you have probably guessed, is inspired by Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. However, I’ve always found Mr Rochester an interesting character and the premise of this novel was intriguing enough to tempt me. And I enjoyed it more than I thought I would; the first few sections of the book are excellent – but the last part doesn’t work as well, for reasons I’ll explain shortly.

In Jane Eyre, we meet Edward Fairfax Rochester at his home, Thornfield Hall, where Jane has come to take up a position as governess. We do learn a little bit about his family background and his life before Jane, but is it enough for us to fully understand what made him the man he is? I’ve never thought so and clearly Sarah Shoemaker didn’t either because in Mr Rochester she takes us back to Edward’s childhood to explore the people and events that may have shaped his character and formed the man who will eventually fall in love with Jane Eyre.

At the beginning of Shoemaker’s novel, Edward is a lonely little boy who is largely ignored and neglected by his father and older brother Rowland. At the age of eight he is sent away to be educated, along with two other boys, at the home of his tutor, and although at first he is heartbroken at having to leave his beloved Thornfield Hall the friendships he forms at school will have a big influence on his life. On the rare occasions when he is reunited with his family, he receives no love or affection at all, yet it is clear that his father has not forgotten him and has his future all mapped out. Edward ends up in Jamaica where he takes over the management of the Rochester plantation, Valley View – and is pushed into marriage with the beautiful Bertha Mason, the woman who will become Brontë’s famous ‘madwoman in the attic’.

I really enjoyed the first two thirds of the book, covering the period described in my previous paragraph. This is the part of Rochester’s life Charlotte Brontë didn’t tell us about – at least not in any detail – so Shoemaker is free to use her imagination. I loved reading about Edward’s early childhood, his schooldays and his apprenticeship in a mill; this could have been the basis of an interesting piece of Victorian historical fiction in itself, even without the Jane Eyre connection. The Jamaican chapters are compelling too. There are some similarities with Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, but this time our sympathies are intended to be with Mr Rochester as well as with Bertha. Shoemaker’s Rochester does his best for Bertha under difficult circumstances and I found him a more likeable character than both Rhys’s Rochester and Brontë’s…until the point where he returns to Thornfield and meets Jane Eyre.

The rest of the novel – about a third of the book – is a fairly straightforward retelling of Jane Eyre, written from Rochester’s perspective instead of Jane’s. This is where things start to fall apart, in my opinion. Shoemaker puts Brontë’s words directly into the mouths of Rochester and Jane rather than her own – and although she has written in a suitably ‘Victorian’ style throughout the novel, her writing is obviously not the same as Brontë’s, which means the sudden change in the dialogue feels unnatural and uncomfortable. I think I would have preferred her to have simply followed the broad outline of the Jane Eyre plot instead of trying to stick to it rigidly.

The Mr Rochester for whom I’d gained so much sympathy earlier in the book, the quiet, lonely, obedient little boy whose life paralleled Jane’s in so many ways, the insecure man pushed into a career and a marriage not of his own choosing and who longed for nothing more than to go home to Thornfield Hall – that man is gone and I had trouble believing that Shoemaker’s Rochester would behave the way he does in the final section of the book; the whole Blanche Ingram storyline feels out of character, for example.

In other words, if this had just been an original novel inspired by Jane Eyre and set in the Victorian period I would probably have loved it; it was the retelling of the familiar Brontë plot that I didn’t find entirely successful. I didn’t feel that this book really added to or changed my feelings about Jane and Mr Rochester, but there were enough things that I liked about it to make it an enjoyable read anyway.

Thanks to Headline Review for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

My Commonplace Book: June 2016

A summary of this month’s reading, in words and pictures.

commonplace book
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary



“Do you know what, that does interest me. Not the fact that he was popular before he was arrested. He’s a good-looking man, there’s nothing remarkable in that. What fascinates me is the number of women who, by all accounts, write to him in prison. Why would they do that, do you think?”

“All notorious killers have a fan club,” he says.

Daisy in Chains by Sharon Bolton (2016)


Oh, there was pomp and pageantry and all the splendour of trumpets and gold brocade and wine flowing from the conduits, but there was something more that I can only think of as passion – the passion of a queen for her people and of the people for their queen. Already Elizabeth had the gift of investing the most ordinary action with an almost symbolic nobility, and, conversely, the ability to draw a touch of humanity from the most solemn ceremony.

The Virgin Queen by Maureen Peters (1972)


At heart he could not abide sense in women. He liked to see them as silly, as light-headed, as vain, as open to ridicule as possible, because they were then in reality what he held them to be, and wished them to be — inferior, toys to play with, to amuse a vacant hour, and to be thrown away.

Shirley by Charlotte Brontë (1849)


Katherine of Aragon

Katherine thanked him, drew the curtains and huddled back into her furs. She had found Prince Henry a little disturbing. He was a handsome boy, with undeniable charm, and even in those brief moments he had dominated the courtesies. Arthur had been reserved and diffident, and she could not stop herself from wondering how different things would have been had she been betrothed to his brother. Would she have felt more excited? More in awe? She felt disloyal even thinking about it. How could she be entertaining such thoughts of a child of ten? Yet it was so easy to see the future man in the boy. And it was worrying to realise how effortlessly Arthur could be overshadowed by his younger brother. Pray God Prince Henry was not overambitious!

Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen by Alison Weir (2016)


He claims to be himself the author of the nickname. Signor Pronto, he says, was a character in a popular farce, — a most obliging person who always turned up in the nick of time to arrange matters for everybody. The catch word of the farce was: Pronto will manage it! Some great lady was lamenting the difficulties of arranging charades at her country house party; ‘But,’ she cried, ‘I expect Mr. Lufton tomorrow and he will manage it for me.’ At which Crockett, who was present, said: ‘Oh ay! Pronto will manage it.’ After that they all called Lufton Pronto behind his back.

Troy Chimneys by Margaret Kennedy (1953)



Catrin woke and stared round in the dim light of a flickering fire. Her heart was pounding from the horror of the dream. The dream she had shared, did she but know it, with another woman; a dream she had dreamt recently, at home in Sleeper’s Castle. But she wasn’t at home. She pulled her cloak around her, shivering, confused as to where she was. Then she remembered.

Sleeper’s Castle by Barbara Erskine (2016)


She had not come to God with her wreath or with her sins and sorrows, not as long as the world still possessed a drop of sweetness to add to her goblet. But now she had come, after she had learned that the world is like an alehouse: The person who has no more to spend is thrown outside the door.

Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset (1920)


Favourite books this month: Kristin Lavransdatter, Daisy in Chains and Troy Chimneys

Shirley by Charlotte Brontë

Do you anticipate sentiment, and poetry, and reverie? Do you expect passion, and stimulus, and melodrama? Calm your expectations; reduce them to a lowly standard. Something real, cool, and solid lies before you; something unromantic as Monday morning, when all who have work wake with the consciousness that they must rise and betake themselves thereto.

Shirley I’m not sure why it has taken me so long to decide to read Shirley. I have read all of the other novels by the Brontë sisters (Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights as a teenager and Agnes Grey, Villette, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and The Professor in more recent years) but for some reason haven’t felt motivated to read Shirley – until a few weeks ago when, looking at the remaining titles on my Classics Club list, I decided I couldn’t leave it to languish unread on my shelf any longer.

Shirley (published in 1849) is set in Briarfield, a small Yorkshire community in which a mill is the major employer. The year is 1811 and England’s economy is suffering from the effects of the Napoleonic Wars. Robert Moore, owner of the mill, is struggling financially and, as the novel opens, he is preparing to take delivery of some new machinery which will enable him to lay off some of his employees. Needless to say, the millworkers are enraged by this and set out to destroy the machines; uprisings like these would take place all over the country and become known as the Luddite Riots.

Against this political and social backdrop, the stories of two very different young women are played out. One is the local clergyman’s niece, Caroline Helstone, a quiet girl of eighteen. Caroline is in love with Robert Moore but he is reluctant to return her feelings due to her lack of money and position. The other is the title character, Shirley Keeldar, a beautiful young heiress. Shirley is a strong and spirited person with independent wealth – and although Caroline likes her very much, she becomes convinced that her new friend is going to marry Robert.

The title of the novel is Shirley, but this is as much Caroline’s story as Shirley’s (in fact, Shirley herself doesn’t appear until Chapter Eleven). I found them both interesting characters; there are many differences in personality, situation and outlook on life, but as the two become close friends we see a bond developing between them as they discover shared values and interests. They are described in the novel as ‘a graceful pencil sketch compared with a vivid painting’. After finishing the book I learned that Charlotte Brontë is thought to have based the character of Caroline on her sister Anne, and Shirley on Emily (she would lose both of her sisters to tuberculosis during the writing of the novel).

Another interesting fact about Shirley is that before the book was published, Shirley was usually a male name rather than a female one:

…she had no Christian name but Shirley: her parents, who had wished to have a son, finding that, after eight years of marriage, Providence had granted them only a daughter, bestowed on her the same masculine family cognomen they would have bestowed on a boy, if with a boy they had been blessed.

I can’t say that I loved this book – maybe because, as Brontë hinted in the opening lines (quoted at the beginning of this post) it lacked passion and I never felt that I had been truly drawn into the stories of Shirley and Caroline the way I had been drawn into Jane Eyre’s or Lucy Snowe’s. This was a slow read for me and at times quite a dry one, but I did find a lot to like and appreciate, from the relationships between the main characters to the historical background. Even though this hasn’t become a favourite, I’m pleased to have now read all of the Brontë sisters’ novels.

Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye

Having enjoyed Lyndsay Faye’s Timothy Wilde trilogy, I was both intrigued and dubious when I heard that her new novel, Jane Steele, was going to be a retelling of Jane Eyre. I always have doubts about books that are based on or inspired by classic novels and usually try to avoid them, but because I loved Faye’s other work so much I was happy to give this book a try.

Jane Steele Once I started to read, I quickly discovered that Jane Steele is not so much a retelling of Jane Eyre as a homage or tribute to Jane Eyre. Jane Steele herself is a fan of the Charlotte Brontë classic, which she reads over and over again, and she can’t help noticing that there are some unmistakable parallels between her own life and Jane Eyre’s.

Like the Brontë heroine, Jane Steele has an unhappy childhood. She and her widowed mother live in a cottage in the grounds of Highgate House, the home of her late father’s family. When her mother dies a sudden and unexpected death, Jane finds herself at the mercy of her cold-hearted Aunt Patience and vile Cousin Edwin, but unlike Jane Eyre she takes drastic measures to defend herself against them. I won’t go into too much detail, but the words “Reader, I murdered him” on the front cover should be a clue!

Sent away to Lowan Bridge School, Jane’s life again seems to be following the same pattern as Jane Eyre’s. Lowan Bridge is a harsh and forbidding place, presided over by the tyrannical Vesalius Munt, and the only positive thing Jane takes away from her time there is a close friendship with a younger girl known as Clarke. Forced to resort to murder again – not just once but several times, though always to protect herself and her friends – Jane eventually has the chance to return to Highgate House as governess to Sahjara, the young ward of the house’s new master, Mr Thornfield.

As Jane settles into her new position – and begins to search for evidence that will prove she is really the rightful heir of Highgate House – she gets to know the new inhabitants of her childhood home. Mr Thornfield has recently returned from the Punjab and all of his servants are Sikhs, including the butler Sardar Singh, whom Jane suspects of not being all he appears to be. Mr Thornfield himself, as you’ve probably guessed, takes the role of Jane Eyre’s Mr Rochester, but before Jane Steele can allow herself to love him, she wants to know how he will react to the revelation that his new governess is actually a serial killer…

You may be thinking that I’ve given away the entire story here, but I can promise you that there’s still a lot I haven’t told you. More than half of the novel is devoted to the time following Jane’s return to Highgate House, the development of her romance with Mr Thornfield (a more instantly likeable character than Mr Rochester, by the way), and an intricate mystery involving stolen jewels, of which I’ll say no more other than that it felt like something Wilkie Collins might have written.

I liked Jane Steele but I can’t say that I loved it as unreservedly as most other readers seem to have done. The first half of the book was great – Jane has a very distinctive, darkly funny narrative voice and it was fun to spot the echoes of Jane Eyre in the childhood and school chapters. I also enjoyed reading about Jane’s adventures in London (before starting her governess job) and the Dickensian characters she meets there, such as Mr Grizzlehurst, publisher of the “Daily Report of Mayhem and Mischief”.

The second half of the novel felt quite different from the first, with the focus on the stolen treasure and the history surrounding the Anglo-Sikh Wars. I have read a lot of historical mysteries set in the Victorian period, as well as a lot of Victorian sensation novels, and I just didn’t feel that I was reading anything new here (apart from the details of Sikh culture, which were interesting to read about). It didn’t help that this part of the story includes a lot of long accounts of past events and people we previously knew nothing about. I found it difficult to care about this new set of characters and just wanted to get back to reading about Jane and her life.

This is only a small criticism, though, of what was otherwise a very enjoyable novel and I do love the fact that Lyndsay Faye avoided writing a simple retelling and instead came up with something so brave and imaginative. I would personally have preferred another Timothy Wilde mystery, but having written three of those books I can understand why Faye might have wanted to write something else, and I think Jane Steele will have wider appeal. Reader, you’ll probably love it.

Thanks to Headline for providing a copy of Jane Steele for review.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (re-read)

Jane Eyre was the book chosen for me in the Classics Spin in December. When I discovered that this was the one I’d be reading, I was delighted – it’s a book I love and which I hadn’t read for a long time. I immediately pulled my copy off the shelf to start my re-read and from the familiar opening line – “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day” – I was drawn into the story once more. The gothic atmosphere of the novel made it a perfect read for dark December nights and I finished it just before Christmas.

Jane Eyre I think I was probably eleven or twelve years old when I had my first encounter with Jane but on that first read I didn’t get past the Lowood School section at the beginning and more than ten years passed before I decided to try again. My second attempt was much more successful; being older and better able to appreciate the story and the quality of the writing, I read the whole book and loved it. This most recent read was my third. I was curious to see whether I would feel differently about it now, after another long gap, but although I did notice things this time that I don’t think I picked up on last time, my overall opinion of the book is unchanged.

Jane Eyre, for those who don’t know the story, is an orphan raised in the home of an aunt and three cousins who make it obvious that they don’t like her and don’t want her there. At the age of ten, Jane is sent to a charity-run boarding school for girls, another harsh and unwelcoming environment. However, Jane is able to take two positive things away from her time at school – a brief but much-valued friendship with Helen Burns, and the education which later enables her to find a position as governess to Adele, the young ward of Mr Rochester of Thornfield Hall. Jane soon begins to fall in love with her employer but when she discovers that he is hiding a dark secret, it seems that her chance of happiness has been destroyed.

*Spoiler warning: I will find it difficult to discuss the book any further without spoilers, so if you haven’t read Jane Eyre yet, I would advise skipping to the end of this post.*

I loved the experience of reading Jane Eyre again. Although much of the story was familiar to me from my previous reads and many of the scenes had stayed in my mind – including Jane’s imprisonment in the red room at Gateshead Hall, the tragic death of Helen Burns, Rochester disguising himself as a gypsy woman and the revelation of Bertha’s existence – there were other parts that I had forgotten and that I enjoyed discovering again.

I also loved being reacquainted with the characters. I know there are a lot of people who have problems with Mr Rochester and I can understand why – apart from his treatment of Bertha, there’s the fact that he lies to Jane and that he’s prepared to enter into a bigamous marriage with her, but despite this I have always liked him as a character. Jane is not my favourite literary heroine (although I do admire her for her honesty, integrity, inner strength and sense of right and wrong) and Mr Rochester is not my favourite hero but they both feel so real and I can believe in their relationship and their love for one another – a love that I think they both desperately needed.

Of course, there’s much more to Jane Eyre than just the romance. There’s also some social commentary, with the descriptions of conditions at Lowood School and with the exploration of class, gender and religion. It’s an interesting read from a feminist perspective, portraying Jane’s search for independence and depicting the options open to a woman faced with making her own way in life in the early Victorian period. Having read about the lives of Charlotte and the rest of the Brontë family (something I hadn’t done when I first read this book) I can see how autobiographical some parts of the story are.

My least favourite section of the book is still the part where Jane leaves Thornfield Hall during the night and is taken in by St. John Rivers and his sisters. I remembered intensely disliking St. John on my last read, but I wasn’t sure whether that was because of the character himself or just because I was impatient for Jane and Rochester to be reunited. However, I didn’t like St. John any better this time round. I find him cold and controlling – Jane herself describes his nature as “austere and despotic” – and he doesn’t seem to care at all about Jane’s own opinions and wishes. Even though I had read the book before, I was still relieved when Jane rejects him!

*End of spoilers*

I thoroughly enjoyed my re-read of Jane Eyre, if I haven’t already made that clear! I’ve heard it said that people can either love Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights, but not both – well, I do love both, but I have always preferred Wuthering Heights. I’m planning to re-read it soon too and it will be interesting to see if I still do like it more.

Since finishing Jane Eyre a couple of weeks ago, I have now read the prequel Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys for the first time and will be posting my thoughts on that one soon. Then I have a copy of Lyndsay Faye’s new Jane Eyre-inspired novel, Jane Steele, which I’m looking forward to reading – and I also still need to read my only remaining unread Brontë novel, Shirley. It seems I’m having a very Brontë themed start to the new year!

The Professor by Charlotte Brontë

The Professor was Charlotte Brontë’s first novel. She was unable to find a publisher for it during her lifetime and it was eventually published posthumously in 1857. Like Jane Eyre and Villette, this book is written in the first person, but with one difference – the narrator is a man. This is interesting as it shows us Charlotte’s views on how a man would think and behave and what his feelings towards women might be.

The narrator’s name is William Crimsworth, and at the beginning of the novel he is starting a new job as a clerk, working for his brother Edward, a rich mill-owner. However, William finds Edward impossible to get along with – he’s cruel and cold-hearted and treats William badly. Finding himself out of work again, William takes the advice of another businessman, Mr Hunsden, and goes to Belgium to teach English at a boys’ school in Brussels. Here he becomes involved with two very different women: one is Zoraide Reuter, the headmistress of the neighbouring girls’ school, and the other is a poor friendless student-teacher, Frances Henri.

This is the third book I’ve read by Charlotte Brontë. I first read Jane Eyre when I was a teenager and it immediately became one of my favourite books, but I didn’t begin to explore her other work until just last year, when I read Villette. Villette, like this book, is set at a school in Brussels and in many ways is a very similar story to The Professor, but with a female narrator and a more complex, layered plot. In both The Professor and Villette, Charlotte was able to draw on her own personal experience of teaching and studying in Brussels. This is obvious both in her descriptions of the city and in the way she could write so knowledgeably about education and the relationship between teachers and pupils.

What I love about Charlotte Brontë’s writing, as I mentioned in my earlier post on the author, is the way she writes about feelings and emotions. In The Professor she perfectly captures the loneliness and isolation a man might feel on arriving in an unfamiliar country with no money and without a friend in the world.

William is not as sympathetic a character as he should be though, due to Charlotte Brontë expressing some of her own views and prejudices through his narration. There’s a lot of racism and anti-Catholicism throughout this story, particularly when William is describing the girls in the school, making assumptions about them based on their nationality and considering them inferior to Protestant English girls. I’m sure it’s not a coincidence that the scheming, manipulative Zoraide Reuter is Catholic, while the quiet, honest Frances is Protestant (and half-English). Even allowing for the fact that the book was written in the 19th century, some of these passages were uncomfortable to read. And because I could never really warm to William’s character, I didn’t find this book as moving as I might have done otherwise.

Brontë also includes a lot of French dialogue in this novel, which it is assumed that the reader can understand. Some editions of the book provide translations in the notes, but the French is not translated in the original text and it can be frustrating to feel that you might be missing out on something essential to the plot. Also, the constant references to ‘physiognomy’ started to really irritate me (physiognomy is the concept of judging a person’s character based on their appearance). The word seemed to appear on almost every page, whenever William met someone new!

I know I’m probably giving the impression that I didn’t enjoy this book, but that’s not true. Charlotte Brontë’s writing is beautiful and for that reason alone I would say this book is definitely worth reading. Just don’t choose this one as a first introduction to Charlotte’s work – my recommendation would be to start with Jane Eyre and then move on to Villette before deciding whether to try The Professor. I can’t comment on her other book, Shirley, as I still haven’t read that one – maybe later in the year!

A Classics Challenge – January: Charlotte Brontë

This year I am taking part in a Classics Challenge hosted by Katherine of November’s Autumn. The goal is to read seven classics in 2012 and on the 4th day of every month, Katherine will be posting a prompt to help us discuss the book we are reading.

The first book I’ve chosen to read for the challenge is The Professor by Charlotte Brontë. I’m almost halfway through the book and have been enjoying it so far. I’ll be posting my thoughts about the book itself after I’ve finished reading it, but for this month’s prompt, Katherine is asking us to focus on the author – in this case, Charlotte Brontë.

There are three different levels of participation this month depending on how far into the book we are, and I feel I’ve read enough of The Professor to answer the questions for all three levels.

Level 1
Who is the author? What do they look like? When were they born? Where did they live? What does their handwriting look like? What are some of the other novels they’ve written? What is an interesting and random fact about their life?

Charlotte Brontë

Charlotte was born in Thornton, Yorkshire on April 21, 1816, the third of the six children of Reverend Patrick Brontë and his wife Maria Branwell Brontë.

The Brontë Parsonage Museum

The Brontë family lived at Haworth Parsonage, now the Brontë Parsonage Museum.

Charlotte Brontë is the author of four novels: Jane Eyre, one of my favourite classics, Villette, which I read last year, The Professor, and Shirley. I am reading The Professor now and will hopefully have time for Shirley too before the end of the year.

Charlotte Brontë's signature

Here’s an interesting piece of trivia about Charlotte: A tiny manuscript of an unpublished Charlotte Brontë story was sold at auction in 2011 to a French museum. The story was written in 1830 when she was fourteen years old and each page measures only 1.4 x 2.4 inches.

Level 2
What do you think of their writing style? What do you like about it? or what would have made you more inclined to like it? Is there a particular quote that has stood out to you?

I find it hard to explain exactly what I like about Charlotte Brontë’s writing style, but I obviously like it enough to want to read all four of her books! I love the way she expresses the feelings and emotions of her characters; she chooses exactly the right words and phrases to convey their sadness, loneliness and suffering as well as their moments of happiness and love.

However, there are a few aspects of her writing that I don’t like so much. Two problems I’m having with The Professor are the overwhelming number of references to physiognomy (judging a person’s character from their appearance) and also a tendency to include a lot of French dialogue which is not translated, making it difficult for a non-French speaker to follow what’s being said. Overall, though, I do like the way she writes and am looking forward to reading the rest of this book.

Level 3
Why do you think they wrote this novel? How did their contemporaries view both the author and their novel?

The Professor was Charlotte Brontë’s first novel, although it remained unpublished until after her death. The main character, William Crimsworth, is a teacher at a school in Belgium. As Charlotte herself (like her sister Emily) had spent some time studying and teaching in Brussels, she was able to draw on her own experiences when writing this novel. It seems that The Professor wasn’t very highly regarded during Charlotte’s lifetime and she was unable to find a publisher for it, even after she began to have success with her other novels.

Have you read any of Charlotte Brontë’s novels? What do you think of her work?

Don’t forget to visit Katherine’s blog post where you can find links to other participants’ responses. We are all reading different books so a variety of different authors are being highlighted this month.