In the classic English novel Jane Eyre, written in 1847 by Charlotte Brontë, we meet the protagonist narrator as a child on the book’s first page. Both her parents having died, she was taken in by an uncle, but when he also passed away, responsibility for the orphan girl had fallen to his widow, Jane’s aunt by marriage, who finds the child a terrible burden. Her three cousins bear her no love, either. The boy particularly delights in tormenting her, knowing his mother will always take his side.
The resentful aunt unburdens herself by sending ten-year-old Jane away to a residential charity school. Lowood School is a harsh environment at first, and the girl has no vacations away from it, but she does make one close friend and finds a kind and sympathetic teacher. In time, life at the school improves. Eventually, at age 16, Jane becomes a teacher there herself.
Having achieved through education the means to be independent—and longing for a world beyond Lowood, which is all the world she has known other than the home of her unloving aunt—at age 18 Jane advertises for a governess position with a private family. Her ad brings in a single response, and so Jane travels to Thornfield Hall for an interview and gets the job. After her first quiet, introductory weeks, the master returns to his residence. Life at Thornfield grows much more interesting! The master is, of course, the enigmatic Mr. Rochester, one of English literature’s most mysterious and compelling male characters.
This is the story we all know. Jane and Rochester meet in the twelfth chapter of Jane Eyre, when he is 35 years old to her 18. So much for background.
But what was Rochester’s life before Jane Eyre came along? How different was his childhood and youth from hers? Why did Jane appeal to him so strongly? What were his motives and inward thoughts and feelings as he fell in love with and courted the plain, solemn governess while concealing from her a prior, still-binding marriage? And what allowed him in the first place to think himself justified in locking his wife away, keeping her very existence hidden from the world?
One reader, Sarah Shoemaker, kept asking herself, “What kind of man does such things?” Of all these matters, Charlotte Brontë has told us next to nothing, because her story all comes to us through the eyes and ears and from the heart of Jane, leaving Rochester a tantalizing mystery.
Shoemaker, however, probably because she is a writer as well as a reader, could not silence the questions in her mind. The mystery of Rochester’s earlier life would not let her go. And because she felt compelled to imagine a past for the man who, by the end of Charlotte Brontë’s book, finally marries the literary world’s beloved Jane Eyre, we now have a companion novel to the nineteenth-century classic. That is, we will have it very soon, for Sarah Shoemaker’s Mr. Rochester, from Grand Central Press in New York, is due for release this coming May 9.
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As Brontë did in giving us Jane Eyre’s childhood and girlhood, Shoemaker gives us Edward Rochester as a boy and young man. In the end we are brought to Brontë’s familiar conclusion but from a very different starting point and along a very different, much more exotic path of adventure and misadventure.
We meet Jane first as a poor orphan, while Edward is to the manor born. But his mother is dead and his father so cold and so seldom at home that Edward’s boyhood is mostly solitary until he is sent away to school at the age of eight. Informed that he is to be sent away, rather than tutored at home as was his older brother, the boy is shocked. Schooling, however, turns out to be one of the happiest periods of Edward’s young life. The friends he makes in the course of his studies, the freedom the boys enjoy, and the eccentric teaching of their master, Mr. Lincoln, who loves maps and battle strategy, combine to make this part of Shoemaker’s story a sheer delight. Edward’s only sorrow while at Mr. Lincoln’s establishment is that, unlike the other boys, he never goes home over vacations. In that, his experience mirrors Jane’s at Lowood, although it is different in almost every other respect.
Edward’s father has business interests in Jamaica and spends much of his time there, so it is not entirely surprising that the boy becomes obsessed with the island, anticipating the day he will join his father and brother there. “Jam,” the other boys and Mr. Lincoln take to calling him. (All the boys go by nicknames.) But when Edward leaves school, he is neither summoned home to Thornfield nor abroad to Jamaica: instead his father has arranged an apprenticeship for him in a mill where broadcloth is made. He is not to work on the floor himself but to learn the ways of the “counting house,” in preparation for his future. From there he goes off to university and earns a degree.
(In both novels, social class plays an important role. Jane’s parents had “nothing,” she attends a charity school, and as a governess, she lives on the uncertain middle ground between servants and gentility. Edward’s father, though titled, chose the active life of business, but because Edward’s older brother will inherit Thornfield and all his father’s properties in England, Edward must follow in his father’s footsteps in Jamaica and make his own way in the world. The head start his father gives him is education, experience in running a business, and a going concern, his sugar cane plantation in Jamaica. In both books, unlike those of the receding century, the servants are given names and have visible presence in the stories.)
Part Two of Mr. Rochester, then, is set in Jamaica, where Edward finds he has inherited slaves as well as land. His marriage to the beautiful Bertha is all but arranged for him, and he knows little of her beforehand other than her beauty. The only other Brontë spinoff I know is The Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys. Also made into a movie, the Rhys novel tells the story from Bertha’s perspective but was not, for me, anywhere as satisfying or convincing as I found Mr. Rochester. (Maybe I should read it again, too?)
--But don’t look for a spoiler here! I have no intention of detailing the Jamaica section, which sets the stage for so much of what follows. No, you must wait for the book to come out and read every word for yourself, but you wouldn’t have it any other way, would you?
Then there are the years that Rochester leaves the running of his plantation to an estate manager and allows himself a licentious, rootless life in Europe. Again, details await your reading. The child Adèle, I’ll mention, Jane Eyre’s charge, is one consequence of the European sojourn. Another, planted in Jamaica and afterward expanded in Europe, is Rochester’s suspicious attitude toward women, his belief that they are not to be trusted.
In Part Three we are on familiar ground, back at Thornfield Hall, where Jane is ensconced as governess to Adèle, and there unfold the events familiar to us from Jane Eyre--but different now, because we are seeing them through new eyes. In the older novel, we had access to Jane’s heart and saw the world through her eyes; in Sarah Shoemaker’s new novel, we see the world through the eyes of Rochester, and are privy to the secrets of his heart.
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I first read Mr. Rochester in manuscript almost three years ago, and before opening my advance reading copy this winter, I re-read Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Still, despite knowing that all would come right in the end, I found myself spellbound. I was gripped with anxiety through all Rochester’s turmoil! His many trials and setbacks, one after another, and the series of wrenching discoveries that are not over until almost the last page of the book all made any happy ending seem wildly improbable, even though I already knew the ending! This, of course, was the author’s challenge from the beginning: since all who have read Brontë’s noel remember Jane’s closing, “Reader, I married him,” how can the story be retold in such a way as to create suspense? Simple. All the writer has to do is to create a story that will fully engage the reader from start to finish, as if what is happening on the page is happening in the very moment of (or the moment just before) the reading. That’s all. Simple! Simple???
Sarah Shoemaker does much more than imagine Rochester from the inside. She imagines and lays before us entire worlds, notably Mr. Lincoln’s school, the broadcloth mill, and life on the island of Jamaica. To be believable and keep us immersed in the story, these worlds must be historically accurate and, at the same time, come across as immediate experiences to readers, not as history lessons. Shoemaker succeeds on both counts.
Then there are her original characters, individuals who people these other worlds of Rochester’s. You did not meet them in Jane Eyre, but you will not soon forget the boys Touch and Carrot at the school, Mr. Wilson at the mill and his motherly wife, the worker called Shap, and others.
So mark your calendar! It’s Tuesday, May 9, and the time is 7 to 9 p.m. I’m giddy just thinking about it!