Sunday 13 September 2020

Neo-Victorian Voices: Mr Rochester, Sarah Shoemaker (2017)

When it comes to Jane Austen vs. the Brontes, Austen definitely has a winning number of twenty-first century novels that take her life and works as their inspiration. However, one of the best parts about releasing my own Bronte-inspired novel, Bronte’s Mistress, this summer has been connecting with other writers who have taken the Brontes, not Austen, as their subject.

I recently reviewed Bella Ellis’s The Vanished Bride and Syrie James’s The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte. This week it’s the turn of Sarah Shoemaker’s 2017 novel, Mr Rochester.

Among modern Bronte readers, Edward Rochester, the hero of Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, has a mixed reputation. To some, he’s a swoon-worthy male lead. To others, he’s deeply problematic, due to his time in the colonies, not to mention his mentally ill wife in the attic. Most, I think, find Rochester flawed, but not irredeemable, although this interpretation lends credence to the idea that all a troubled man needs is the love of a good woman to save him.

Sarah Shoemaker makes no apologies for being a devoted Rochester fan and the focus of her novel is on fleshing out his life prior to his meeting with Jane Eyre. The book is made up of three parts, uneven in length—1. Edward’s childhood. 2. His time in Jamaica (including his marriage to Bertha Mason), and 3. The story we’re familiar with from Charlotte Bronte’s most famous novel.

Shoemaker’s prose is beautiful and demonstrates her familiarity with nineteenth-century fiction and Charlotte Bronte’s style in particular. This is the sort of historical novel that could at times pass for a novel written in the period it’s set in. I found this especially true in the early chapters, which chart Rochester’s education and apprenticeship as the neglected second son. Shoemaker paints a believable picture of how a boy in Edward’s position might have been raised, and his experiences provide an interesting, gendered counterpart to the childhood we know Jane Eyre will later live through.

In Jamaica, a young Rochester never fully confronts the horrors of slavery, expressing some discomfort at the idea, and queasiness at the brutal punishments delivered on behalf of him and other White landowners, without having a profound moment self revelation. While this response is believable, I was longing for a little more reflection, as Rochester matures into the man whom Jane can fall in love with.

The section covering the same material as Jane Eyre is close to the source material. While Shoemaker does enhance the plot, adding a few more complications, purists will be pleased to see the reverence with which she handles Bronte’s work. The novel made me went to read Jane Eyre again, or even have the books open side by side to double check what was twenty-first century invention.

In her dedication, Shoemaker mentions her ‘fascination’ with Rochester, and her passion for the character and for Bronte’s book really comes through in the text. But I couldn’t help but wonder if part of a Gothic hero’s fascinating charm is in his unknowabilty. Now that we have access to Rochester’s thoughts, can he be as fascinating as he was before? And at those times when Jane Eyre is inscrutable to him? Well, thanks to Charlotte, we know exactly how she feels.

Do you have recommendations of books I should read next, as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist

And have you ordered your copy of Bronte’s Mistress yet? Oprah Magazine named my book one of this Fall’s top reads, while Christian Science Monitor calls it ‘a stirring defence of the maligned Mrs Robinson.’

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