Book Review: Mr. Rochester, by Sara Shoemaker
enough to write a novel when your audience doesn’t know the ending. Authors spool
out information only on an as-needed basis to keep the suspense as high as possible.
So imagine how hard it would be to write a novel when most of your readers do know the ending. To tell a story about one of literature’s best known romantic male leads, featured in not one but two prior novels. True Edward Rochester was not the main character in either Jane Eyre or The Wide Sargasso Sea, but he certainly played a key role in both.
That is precisely what Sarah Shoemaker has done in her novel Mr. Rochester. Jane Eyre fans will recognize the name as belonging to Edward Rochester, master of Thornfield Hall and guardian to young Adele, the child for whom Jane Eyre is hired as governess. Jane and Mr. Rochester meet on a dark road on a stormy night and begin one of literatures most tortured love stories.
Shoemaker, a self-proclaimed Jane Eyre fan, has taken on the task of creating a backstory for the mysterious Mr. Rochester. She sends young master Edward off to a school that, while lacking the majesty and acreage of Thornfield Hall is not Dickensian either, and then to apprentice at a “manufactory,” and finally off to Jamaica. Here he meets and marries Bertha, the subject of Jean Rhys’s The Wide Sargasso Sea, and the major obstacle between Edward and Jane’s future happiness.
In the sections of the story where Shoemaker has the most latitude, i.e., those not covered by Brontë or Rhys, she manages to present Rochester as a sympathetic, if somewhat dull character, a victim of his father’s whims and greedy nature.
Where Shoemaker cleaves to Brontë’s plot she is obliged to invent explanations for Rochester’s sometimes questionable behavior, especially notable between the time he falls in love with Jane and [spoiler alert for anyone who hasn’t read Jane Eyre] his asking her to marry him. The plot he hatches and the way he goes about wooing Jane make him appear, at times, mean spirited and manipulative. Not attractive qualities in a romantic lead.
From Jane's point of view, a woman of much lower economic status than Rochester, his behavior (dressing up as a Gypsy and telling Jane's fortune to elicit information about her feelings toward him, for instance) can be dismissed as merely eccentric. Jane and her readers are privy only to Rochester’s actions, not his motivation or reasoning. We believe, as she does, that even if he were smitten with the petite governess, he would never marry beneath his station. And we do not know, initially, that Rochester has a wife locked in the attic.
Shoemaker’s readers, however, do know about crazy Bertha before Edward ever meets Jane. And we know, because he tells us repeatedly, that he is in love with Jane and determined to wed her. While we can sympathize with his plight, this wedding cannot take place, legally or morally, and so our allegiance and sympathy shifts to Jane. Not ideal for an author writing a book entitled Mr. Rochester.
That said, Mr. Rochester is well researched and well written. Its prose and pace make it feel as though it had been scribed as Charlotte Brontë was scratching out the page of Jane Eyre. The novel will provide Jane Eyre fans with fun and satisfying details, such as Edward’s acquisition of Pilot and Mesrours, his beloved dog and horse, as well as offer a thorough backstory for Richard Mason, who plays such a pivotal role. Shoemaker introduces many interesting, new characters (especially during Rochester's time in Jamaica) to populate previously untold aspects of the story.
While some Brontë fans might feel that Mr. Rochester, at times, reads like Jane Eyre without the drama or romance, those who’ve longed to know Mr. Rochester’s past will find much here to appreciate.
Available at the Norwich Bookstore and wherever books are sold.
Katharine Britton is the author of three novels HER SISTER'S SHADOW, LITTLE ISLAND, and VANISHING TIME.