Reviewed by Ian Lipke
In Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre we meet Edward Fairfax Rochester one January afternoon when his horse slips on ice and its rider is thrown. Rescued by the governess Jane Eyre, he becomes known for his brooding, taciturn manner while the story unfolds. In Mr Rochester, Sarah Shoemaker has given us an imaginative construction of the man’s life in the years preceding that tumble on the ice.
To write a story that will mesh seamlessly with Charlotte Bronte’s famous work takes a lot of courage and an equal amount of gall. It is not just a nineteenth century idiom that has to be mastered but also Bronte’s own style. Yet Sarah Shoemaker has succeeded and the world now has a story that is the equal of the Bronte creation. Think about that for a moment and consider what a breathtaking achievement that really is.
In Shoemaker’s fertile brain Rochester is a young boy whose father and older brother do nothing to show any love for him. At eight he is sent away to be educated in a thoroughly creative way by Mr Lincoln. Here he meets Touch, a young boy who leaves a lasting impression and Carrots, whose later life reveals his noble roots. After Lincoln, Rochester is sent to work in a mill and some years later is told that he must make his way to Jamaica and make a life for himself there. While living on this island Rochester meets the exotic but unstable Bertha Antoinette Mason and goes through a form of marriage service with her. Returning to England on the death of his father Rochester and his ‘mad’ wife inhabit Thornfield Hall where Bertha is confined. It is soon after this that Rochester meets the far from exotic Jane Eyre.
In substance Shoemaker’s story is a very feasible lead in to the Bronte classic. There is nothing in the content of Jane Eyre that was not explained by Shoemaker’s imaginative creation. However, nothing in Bronte’s original jarred as much as the downright foolish antics Shoemaker’s Rochester indulged in as he attempted to woo the hand of the governess. I found that while Chapter 14 and nearby chapters did follow the original text, the Shoemaker version lacked the magnificent prose of the earlier chapters. The gypsy in particular tried my patience severely. The fine touch of Charlotte Bronte was lacking. Jane Eyre, the governess, was ready to believe in Rochester’s love for her as a woman, while I saw a childish fool heavily in love with himself.
But the two creations – Rochester as a boy and a mature young man on the one hand and Rochester in the role of suitor – are not mildly different but cataclysmically so. The initial two thirds of the book is told in convincing, enjoyable and stirring prose that never lets the reader down. It is faultlessly written and has a narrative that is convincing and bold. By contrast, the latter part of the book is inadequate.
The characters inhabiting Rochester’s childhood are warm and generous caricatures. With the exception of Rochester’s father and elder brother, who are rotten to the core villains, they do no harm, each in his or her own way contributing values to the young boy that will stand him in good stead. Mr Lincoln is clearly well versed in the ‘doing rather than telling’ school of learning and his immersion method of teaching a foreign language works well with Rochester. Mr Wilson, the mill owner, is vastly different except in the area of knowledge of his trade. In this he is as knowledgeable as Lincoln is in educating young men.
Rochester’s father is a character not often seen in fiction. Opinions of him vary reader by reader and according to how far into the book readers have progressed. His reasons for making over land in Jamaica are not as the reader might suspect. He is an interesting psychological study. Obviously a self-made man he yet is content to demand virtually nothing from his elder son except that he enjoy the unearned life of a lord. His hatred of his younger son borders on the pathological, but no reason is revealed.
Wisely, Shoemaker stays away from a detailed analysis of Jane Eyre. This is Emily Bronte’s territory. Jane Eyre has to be part of Rochester’s story. Her character, indeed her impact on the flow of the Shoemaker creation, are muted.
My enjoyment of this novel cannot be severed from my admiration for the courage it took to create a childhood and young adult history of such a well-known character. While envious of Sarah Shoemaker’s success, I am with C. J. Dennis. I, too, dips me lid!
Thoroughly recommended! A great read!
By Sarah Shoemaker