After taking a week to reread Jane Eyre, I immediately dove into Sarah Shoemaker’s soon to be released (May 9th) book Mr. Rochester. As the title implies, Mr. Rochester aims to give voice to Jane’s difficult, and notably ugly, love interest, Edward Rochester. Mr. Rochester takes us through Edward’s childhood, from boarding school as a young boy, through an apprenticeship with a mill owner, to the West Indies, and then back to England and through the time period we are already familiar with in Jane Eyre. This historical span felt quite ambitious, and as I had just read Jane Eyre itself, the most pressing question seemed to be how well Mr. Rochester succeeded in creating a viable voice for Mr. Rochester, and furthermore how Shoemaker’s imagined history enhanced Mr. Rochester’s story.
Where we find Mr. Rochester to be mostly terse and unfeeling in Jane Eyre, Sarah Shoemaker writes a very sentimental telling of his life. He is very affectionate towards his fellow boarding schoolmates, which is an interesting contrast between the coldness and distance of both his father and brother. Shoemaker’s Mr. Rochester is neither stoic nor weak; he seems to operate in a very neutral, detached space that makes her sentimentalization of him also seem very detached from the character we are supposed to be coming to understand better, which is to say that it frequently felt like too smooth of a brush stroke. The foreshadowing felt fairly heavy handed and blunt. Most of the earlier chapters ended with large, sweeping statements declaring an understanding of faulty foresight, and/or deeming it all pending disaster tolerable because all ill fate leads to Jane. Like Jane Eyre, Shoemaker is narrating the story in retrospect through Mr. Rochester, though unlike Jane Eyre, it is much less introspective.
Shoemaker’s version of Mr. Rochester’s time in the West Indies, which we already understand as his downfall in Jane Eyre, felt mostly like a farce. Mr. Rochester’s comments about slavery seemed inaccurate and incredibly naive. Would the island’s slavery really have been such an uncomfortable surprise for him? Bertha’s character, too, is confused. Her insanity is conflated with the island’s mysticism, though she seems to be at least functional in this less confined space. Mostly Bertha is just overly sexual, though the scene in which she states to Edward that she wants to “fuck him” seemed like too modern a retelling for my Bronte enthusiast self.
Once the book got back to England, and back to the beginning of Jane Eyre, the wheels really did come flying off the wagon. The strength of Jane Eyre is the difficulty of the relationship between Jane and Edward, the social nuances of Jane’s response to marriage and womanhood as the backdrop for Edward’s destructive seduction of her. Shoemaker writes Edward as sappy and doting, even towards Adele, whom he openly loathes in Jane Eyre. Perhaps my biggest grievance is that Shoemaker retells the story almost verbatim with this overly sentimental version of Mr. Rochester, and it just didn’t seem to work. It lacked insight or imagined complexity. It was as if Edward had been slipped a few tabs of ecstasy and floated through the story unaware and high as a kite.
It’s not that I was expecting Mr. Rochester to be written as if it had been an undiscovered novel of Charlotte Bronte, but in really offering no additional insight into Edward, I found myself wondering if the book was simply rewriting Jane Eyre as a romance. Perhaps this was the point and curmudgeonly me simply refuses to let go of Jane Eyre‘s depth and wisdom. Even as a 21st century lady I found myself highlighting and nodding in agreement to a lot of Bronte’s statements about marriage and womanhood through Jane in the original novel.
If you’re a fan of Jane Eyre, you could definitely enjoy this as pure fan fiction, and on some level it was nice to continue spending time with Mr. Rochester and Jane after I finished Bronte’s work. But Mr. Rochester did little for me in expounding on the essence of Edward, or in imagining him before he encounters Jane. Perhaps Mr. Rochester would have been stronger for me if it hadn’t attempted to explain so much history, and had only told his story before we meet him in Jane Eyre. I could even let him be a little sentimental before he returns to England and the harsh reality of his first marriage settles in. Otherwise, this version of Mr. Rochester did not feel like a viable counterpart for Bronte’s Rochester, even in allowing for a little room to write him slightly more idealized and simplistic.
Am I asking too much of Sarah Shoemaker? What does Shoemaker really owe to Charlotte Bronte and/or Jane Eyre? I’m not entirely sure, but perhaps Mr. Rochester wasn’t enough of a farce to be funny or light, and not serious enough to feel like a real examination of the original character or work.
*Photo credit: watch4u