I first read Jane Eyre over twenty years ago, right before I entered high school. I was captivated from the very beginning of Jane’s story, and have revisited Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel five or six times since then. It’s the kind of story I can never imagine growing tired of. So, it should come as no surprise that I leapt at the chance to review Sarah Shoemaker’s début novel, Mr. Rochester, a retelling of Jane Eyre from the point of view of – you guessed it – Mr. Edward Fairfax Rochester.
We first meet Edward as a frightened, lonely eight-year-old boy inhabiting the halls of Thornfield Hall like a ghost. His mother is dead, and his father doesn’t have much use for him; Edward isn’t the heir, so he’s relegated to a life in the shadows, at least during his early years. It’s obvious he has a deep and abiding love for his ancestral home, but his father has other plans for him. Shortly after the novel opens, Edward is wrenched from Thornfield Hall and the surrounding countryside and sent to live with a tutor where he will learn everything a second son needs to know in order to prosper. Years later, he is sent to boarding school, a rather cold and indifferent place which will remind readers a bit of where Jane spent her early years.
The novel goes on to detail Edward’s life as he travels from England to Jamaica and back again. It touches on everything fans of Jane Eyre might expect, including his affair with the opera dancer whose child eventually becomes his ward, and his ill-fated marriage.
The prose is sometimes a little over the top, consisting of long, elaborately crafted sentences. Most of the time, I found Ms. Shoemaker’s writing quite beautiful, but there were a few occasions when I had to reread entire passages over again just to make sure I had grasped their meaning.
I loved that Ms. Shoemaker creates a back story for Edward that answers so many of the questions readers have had concerning this enigmatic hero without deviating too much from the character Charlotte Brontë crafted over one-hundred-and-fifty years ago. It would have been so easy for her to remake Edward into someone the author never intended him to be, and I respect her immensely for not going that route. She uses her imagination to expand upon the information laid down in Jane Eyre without changing things unduly.
If you read this book just to see Jane again, I must caution you that she doesn’t appear until nearly two-thirds of the way through, and Ms. Shoemaker doesn’t really shed any new light on the romance between her and Edward. Sure, we see her through Edward’s eyes, but it’s not all that different from the original novel. I honestly think this final portion is Mr. Rochester’s weakest point, because I was hoping for more than I got out of it. I wanted some of the romantic tension I loved so much in Jane Eyre, and this story doesn’t deliver that. Edward’s idea of love is so cold and clinical, and, while we’re supposed to believe loving Jane changes all that, Ms. Shoemaker didn’t convince me.
Ultimately, however, Mr. Rochester is an engrossing piece of historical fiction with richly drawn characters and some great writing, but it isn’t quite the romance I was hoping it would be. I recommend this to people who are fans of story retellings, and to those who are looking to understand Edward Fairfax Rochester a little bit better.