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Monday, March 13, 2017
JANE EYRE Was Inspiration For MR. ROCHESTER
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
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 isa 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.
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 preceding century, the servants are given names and have visible presence in the
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,
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.
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 novel 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.
When Dog Ears Books hosts the party to launch Mr. Rochester and to celebrate author Sarah Shoemaker, it will be
almost three years since I first gained entrance to this mesmerizing story. It
was on the morning of June 1, 2014, that I read the last manuscript page, and
since then I never doubted for a minute that this book would eventually be made
available to a world audience. Now, the time is almost here! 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!