Retelling of Brontë classic from Rochester’s perspective comes up short

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A review by Julienne Isaacs for the Winnipeg Free Press.

Wikipedia has an entire article devoted to “Adaptations of Jane Eyre,” another reminder that Charlotte Brontë’s classic still has a tight hold on the popular imagination. Any new riffs on the theme need to be unique to pass muster with publishing gatekeepers and Eyre lovers alike.

It’s perplexing that Michigan author Sarah Shoemaker’s novel made it past these checks. Mr. Rochester takes the perspective of its eponymous hero instead of one of the novel’s many female characters and was written, according to its editor, because “Sarah was eager to read Brontë’s story from Rochester’s point of view — but… no such novel existed.”

There is, in fact, at least one other Jane Eyre retelling devoted to Rochester’s perspective. But, more pertinently, if a new novel is to be devoted to Rochester’s (privileged, white, male) viewpoint, shouldn’t it productively add to existing conversations about race, social inequality, mental illness, sexual politics and agency in Jane Eyre?

Well, maybe readers just want to have a little fun. There’s lots of fun to be had in the raw material of Jane Eyre: romantic obsessions, big houses, mad wives in the attic and more.

Shoemaker depicts Rochester as a sensitive but neglected child who grows into a sensitive but neglected esthete who just wants to “be with a woman” and longs for a “true companion.” Rochester goes to great lengths to explain to the reader how he is manipulated into marriage with Bertha Antoinetta, the beautiful Creole daughter of his Jamaican business partner. At first entranced by her bold sexuality, Rochester begins to note her slow descent into “madness” and rue his decision.

When he comes into personal fortune in England, Rochester drugs his wife with laudanum and brings her to his estate, Thornfield Hall, installing her in the attic while he pursues love affairs across the continent — and eventually with the young governess Jane Eyre.

It would be tough for any writer to make Rochester’s behaviour sympathetic. Shoemaker is confined to Brontë’s bare facts, but she takes great pains to frame them in as soft a light as possible in Rochester’s favour.

Is this a valid reading? Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys’ 1960s reframing of Jane Eyre, positions the events of the novel very differently: Bertha’s “madness” is the product of, rather than the precursor to, her marriage and her displacement.

Viewed through Rhys’ post-colonial lens, Jane Eyre turns dark indeed, with Bertha the victim of both personal and institutional silencing. Patricia Park’s recent, entertaining Re Jane puts a contemporary spin on Jane Eyre — Jane is a Korean-American tutor who falls for her married employer, Ed Farley. But in Re Jane Farley’s privilege is obvious, and Park gives both Jane and Ed’s wife space to explore their roles in their shared tragedy.

In Shoemaker’s version, Rochester is given 400-plus pages to explain away his destructive behaviour.

As in Brontë’s original, Rochester meets justice in the end, but his comeuppance — which might have yielded Mr. Rochester’s most interesting moments — is given only a handful of pages at the end of the novel, which are swiftly capped by the same breathless happy ending that makes Jane Eyre’s conclusion oddly unsatisfying.

As a bildungsroman, or novel dealing with a character’s formative years, Mr. Rochesternever goes deep enough to adequately explain its lead’s later errors, and his voice remains stubbornly banal. Try as Shoemaker might, Rochester still isn’t the victim in Jane Eyre.

And the voice of the woman in the attic still is silenced.

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