Mary Sharratt talks to debut author Jane Stubbs about Thornfield Hall
In the spirit of Jo Baker’s Longbourn, Jane Stubbs’s novel Thornfield Hall is a revelatory retelling of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, exposing the hidden story that Jane Eyre never knew. Our narrator is housekeeper Alice Fairfax, keeper of the manor’s secrets. In this most accomplished debut, Stubbs makes Charlotte Bronte’s treasured classic come alive, from its evocation of Yorkshire to its glimpse into the intricacies of the Victorian class system and the often constrained lives of Victorian women.
My first encounter with Jane Stubbs took place over a decade ago at a writers critique group based in Manchester, England. At the time she was working on contemporary and futuristic, speculative fiction. Then she moved away to Wallingford, a lovely market town in Oxfordshire, where her writing took a radical departure from what she calls her early “apprentice pieces.”
“I did not choose to retell Jane Eyre,” she says. “It chose me.” In her years teaching Jane Eyre in secondary schools, Stubbs says that the relationship between Jane and Mrs. Fairfax puzzled both her and her students. The childless housekeeper is so motherly toward the orphaned governess, yet she doesn’t warn Jane that Mr. Rochester’s marriage proposal is a sham. “Mrs. Fairfax’s behaviour shows she’s in turmoil when the engagement is announced,” Stubbs explains. “She fails to congratulate Jane, she has to consult her bible and she suddenly talks of her late husband, the parson. I felt that Charlotte Bronte was giving the reader a series of clues and I could not resist following them.”
Although Thornfield Hall delves deep into the mystery of Bertha Mason, the first Mrs. Rochester, it is utterly different in tone and scope from Jean Rhys’s haunting novel, The Wide Sargasso Sea. “Jean Rhys took liberties with the original I would not dare to take,” says Stubbs. “She moved the characters to Dominica, she changed their names. Her book drips with sensuality and tropical heat. It’s a long way from the bracing air of Yorkshire.”
Like the Bronte sisters themselves, Stubbs was born and raised against the wind-scoured backdrop of the northern English moorland. Her father hailed from York, while she herself was born in Preston, Lancashire. As for the famous Yorkshire versus Lancashire rivalry, Stubbs points out that the moors are no respecters of county boundaries. Though Stubbs now lives in southern England, her native north still has a powerful draw on her: “I always love the moment when driving north you come to moorland and see the world open up in front of you and feel the sky expand above your head.”
Thornfield Hall offers a fascinating window into the class structure of 19th-century rural England. A clergyman’s widow, Alice Fairfax belongs officially to the lower gentry, but her genteel poverty forces her to take the “lowering” position of housekeeper, and yet as housekeeper, she wields surprising power. “Mrs. Fairfax for me is the perfect narrator,” Stubbs says. “She is not only a respected servant, she is also a distant family member. Unlike Jane, who has the awkward status of a governess, Alice knows what happens on every floor of the house.”
Alice Fairfax’s narrative voice is one of the most compelling aspects of the novel. The housekeeper’s observations are filled with a sly wit that lends a delightful sense of humour to what might have otherwise been a heavy-handed storyline. When I asked Stubbs how she managed to strike just the right tone, she says that Charlotte Bronte herself set the tone: “When Jane saves Rochester from his burning bed he forbids her to fetch a candle until he has found something to wear. He does not wish her to see him naked. And all this from a Victorian spinster whose father was a clergyman!”
Stubbs reveals that Alice’s voice came to her through a replica of a Victorian dress that she made—what better way to get under the skin of her heroine than to find out what she wore? “She wears black, the colour of mourning and of the servant who must fade into the background and become invisible,” Stubbs says. “She protects her valuable silk dress with an apron and with [a] detachable collar and cuffs. She progresses through her house in her long sweeping skirt, her back held erect by her tightly laced stays.”
Stubbs still uses this costume as a visual aid when she gives talks on the lives of Victorian women for the Women’s Institute and other organisations. “Not just what they wore,” Stubbs explains, “but also the daily drudgery of domestic life—cooking and cleaning and raising children. It made me so glad I live in a world with electricity.”
When I ask Stubbs if her description of Thornfield Hall is based on an actual stately home that she visited, she says no. Charlotte Bronte so skillfully created the manor house in Jane Eyre that it took on the reality of a 3-D model for Stubbs. “I could open up the front of it, like a giant doll’s house and see all the floors,” she says, stressing that she tried to remain as true to this model as she could. “I tried to behave as a guest in Charlotte Bronte’s house. It would be impolite for me to rearrange the furniture.”
Stubbs is at work on a new novel, told in a man’s voice and set at the end of the 18th century before the constraints and conventions of the Victorian era held sway. “It’s much spicier than Thornfield Hall,” she says, but is reluctant to reveal more. “Writing a book is a bit like having a baby. You don’t like to be too precise about the finished result.”
About the contributor: Mary Sharratt’s novel Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen won the Nautilus Gold Award and was a Kirkus Book of the Year for 2012. Her new novel, The Dark Lady’s Mask, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in April, 2016. Visit her website.