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.