Mr. Rochester

  • By Sarah Shoemaker
  • Grand Central Publishing
  • 464 pp.

The dashing hero from Jane Eyre is given his own multifaceted backstory in this wonderful tale.

Mr. Rochester

What is it about love that it can strike in an instant, from unexpected quarters, and at inconvenient times?

In Sarah Shoemaker’s wonderfully imagined new novel, Mr. Rochester, we explore such an occurrence through the eyes of one of the most renowned heroes of the literary world, Edward Fairfax Rochester of Jane Eyre fame.

Both fans of Jane Eyre and readers new to the story will delight in this novel. Not only will they discover who and what shaped Rochester into a dashing but infuriating landowner who is equal parts forceful and capricious, but they will also enjoy a compelling tale in its own right.

Structured in three parts, Mr. Rochester first explores Edward’s youth: a hard father and mean-spirited brother; an unusual schooling with the eccentric Mr. Lincoln; an apprenticeship with the fatherly Mr. Wilson at Maysbeck Mills; and, finally, the study of law at Cambridge.

The second part relates Edward’s years in Jamaica, where he matures amongst the slave-owning society of sugarcane plantations and marries a wild beauty named Bertha Antoinetta Mason. Like a master puppeteer, Edward’s father makes these life-altering decisions without any consideration for his son’s preferences or desires.

In part three, Edward is finally free to return to England and his beloved Thornfield Hall, ultimately hiring Jane Eyre as governess to a young child he looks after.

It’s a bold task to take on a heroic figure from such a well-loved novel, and it’s easy to imagine fans rejecting any attempt to dabble with a story often read not once but several times. However, readers are safe and well entertained in Shoemaker’s capable hands.

Instead of adopting a more modern style of writing, the cadence and phrasing of the prose are reminiscent of Charlotte Bronte’s, as are the pacing and propensity for description. In Jane Eyre, we have Jane’s strong voice and “dear reader” style — an intimate telling of her life story as though she and the reader are enjoying a cup of tea while they talk — and in Mr. Rochester, Edward adopts a similar style. Readers will also appreciate familiar scenes told through Rochester’s eyes and gain a fresh understanding of Bronte’s heroine.

Historical events play only a minor role in Mr. Rochester, which seems like a missed opportunity. However, as one might expect of a novel set in the early part of the 19th century, matters of class and breeding are featured, as are notions of primogeniture, patriarchy, a woman’s rightful place, dreadful boarding schools, the idle rich, and fortune-seeking young women.

Sarah Shoemaker activates all our senses as we experience alongside Edward the noise and tumult of a woollen mill, the crack of a cat-o’-nine-tails on a sailor’s back, a first taste of grog, a woman’s descent into madness.

Both stories embody gothic and romantic elements involving secrecy and horror along with passionate love. Shoemaker tells Rochester’s story chronologically and, indeed, does not introduce Jane Eyre until three quarters of the way along. The result is a deep understanding of the forces that shaped his character and made him fall in love with Jane.

Mr. Rochester is thoroughly satisfying and creatively imagined. Readers will enjoy Shoemaker’s tale whether they’ve read Jane Eyre or not.

[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2017.]

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, Time and Regret,was published by Lake Union in August 2016. Mary’s other novels, Lies Told in Silence and Unravelled, are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play, and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads, or on her website.

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