The Enigma of Mr. Rochester: Mary Sharratt talks to debut author Sarah Shoemaker
Mr. Rochester, Sarah Shoemaker’s tour de force of a first novel, was inspired by her monthly book group.
About five years ago, Shoemaker’s book group read Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel, Jane Eyre. The discussion concerning Edward Rochester, Jane’s employer who falls hopelessly in love with her, became quite heated. What are readers to make of a man who keeps his wife locked in the attic—even if she does suffer from mental illness—while he romances his young governess and nearly succeeds in luring her into a bigamous marriage? On top of that, he’s a slave owner, with a plantation in Jamaica!
And how are readers meant to interpret this man who is sometimes demanding and sometimes playful, who seems angry so much of the time? How is it that he can attract the independent, strong-willed Jane Eyre?
Some members of Shoemaker’s book group argued that people can make terrible mistakes in love while others insisted that Jane Eyre’s strict moral compass should never have allowed her to fall for such an ethically compromised man. (I must confess that I am one of the many lovers of Jane Eyre who never quite understood what Jane saw in Mr. Rochester.)
Shoemaker, however, takes a completely different view. Her book group’s spirited debate convinced her of two things. One was that Charlotte Brontë knew exactly what she was doing by creating such a complex and mercurial male lead. The second was that someone ought to write Edward Rochester’s story in order to help the reader more fully understand him and why he acts the way he does. By the time Shoemaker was halfway home from her book group meeting, she challenged herself to write that book.
As Shoemaker read Jane Eyre over and over, she felt that Brontë was giving the reader plenty of reasons to feel sympathetic toward her brooding hero. He is a man tricked into an untenable conundrum. While still very young, he was unknowingly drawn into marriage with a woman who was already starting to show signs of a disturbed mind. Neither divorce nor annulment was available for him in early 19th century England or its colonies. Shoemaker views him as a flawed hero, doing the best he can in an impossible situation. He is a man who has never known love—until Jane comes into his life. Only then does he feel for the first time that he is truly seen honestly as a person in full.
So what does young, innocent Jane see in Mr. Rochester?
“Very early on,” Shoemaker says, “he asks her a question no lord of the manor ought to ask an underling, a person only slightly higher in rank than a servant: ‘do you think me handsome?’ And she responds bluntly in a way no one in her position would be expected to respond: ‘No, sir.’ This signifies a very different relationship from what one would expect between master and servant: a lack of any social barrier and pretention—total honesty. They are soul-mates.” Mr. Rochester can see past Jane’s outer guise as the “plain little governess,” as Jane describes herself in Brontë’s first person narrative, and Jane can see straight into Mr. Rochester’s tormented soul.
Charlotte Brontë herself, Shoemaker points out, suffered terribly from her unrequited love for a married schoolmaster, Constantin Héger, whom Brontë, then aged 26, met while teaching at his school in Brussels, Belgium. Brontë fictionalized her heartbreak in her novel, Villette. Shoemaker believes that Jane Eyre was Brontë’s attempt to write the happy ending that Brontë herself could never experience with the object of her desire.
Mr. Rochester is masterfully written and the language feels authentic to the time. Shoemaker, a former university librarian, spent about a year researching, starting with novels written in the same period as Jane Eyre to get a sense of language, expressions, rhythm, as well as ways of life, dress, and monetary values. An avid hiker, Shoemaker and her husband visited Yorkshire ten times, where they walked the long distance footpaths. Her love of the English countryside shimmers in her book’s evocative descriptions of the Yorkshire moors.
Shoemaker’s stunning debut, inspired by her own reading group, is sure to delight and stimulate book groups everywhere as they discuss her take on one of literature’s most complicated and infuriating heroes.
“I know that some Jane Eyre aficionados have very strong opinions and may feel somewhat possessive of their understanding of the text,” Shoemaker says. “They may not like my reading of it, and what I have done. But I hope that at least some of them will give Rochester a chance, and attempt to understand this admittedly flawed person that Jane herself so dearly loved.”
About the contributor: Mary Sharratt’s novel, The Dark Lady’s Mask: A Novel of Shakespeare’s Muse, named one of the Best Books of 2016 by the Saint Paul Pioneer Press, is now out in paperback. Her new novel, Ecstasy: A Novel of Alma Mahler, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in Spring 2018. Visit Mary’s website.
Posted by Claire Morris