Book review: Rochester by J.L. Niemann (Trafford Publishing, 2009)
“After years of self-centered wandering, shielding my shattered spirit from further vain expectation, I now knew what it was to be loved.”
“A cursed, damaged, aging wretch as I had no right to one so innocent, lovely, good and gifted as she…”
Edward Fairfax Rochester. He remains one of nineteenth-century English literature’s most enduring sex symbols, and, to this day, women the world over continue to swoon for him.
Rochester is an imaginative exploration of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre as seen through the eyes of a fiercely sensuous and introspective leading man. His story is told with all the realism of a passionate, masculine heart in narrative enriched with keen observations of settings and fellow players. Through Edward’s words, we leave behind coincidence and politesse to wander through his evocative world and probe what otherwise might have happened from that compelling first meeting onward. We are given Edward’s life of pain and travel beside him to absolution through the unsullied form of a lonesome young governess.
Here, Rochester tells of their journey in his own uninhibited, saucy, conceited, funny, manly way and would never dream of fading to black when the bedchamber door shuts.
tl;dr: If you don’t mind a Jane Eyre which doesn’t follow the book more than loosely and has added sex scenes, this is the one for you.
I only found out about this book a few weeks ago through the BrontëBlog, and it hasn’t been out very long either from what I can tell. When I looked it up on Amazon and read the excerpt I knew I had to read it, because the excerpt showed me the sort of Rochester I have imagined, somehow J.L. Niemann seemed to have got it right. The book arrived to my delight on Thursday and I started reading it on the train to work, sneaked in a page or so at lunch and then read all the way home, and found it very challenging to put down. Well, now I have, and that’s because I’ve finished it.
The story follows Mr Rochester from his villa in France, where he wants some absolution from his dreadful loneliness and sinful ways, and decides to return home, and in chapter two, he comes across a young woman by the name of Jane Eyre, the governess at Thornfield Hall. His horse slips on some ice and the rest is history. It finishes just before they’re about to head off to church to get married. The bits in-between is a “somewhat” reworked Jane Eyre, from Rochester’s perspective.
It’s clear the author has been inspired by the 2006 adaptation, if the foreword and acknowledgements weren’t enough to convince us of the fact. It seems to have started its life as postings on a Toby Stephens fan forum or something along those lines, and was very popular there, so now it’s a book. It clocks in at 325 pages, being the first of three books – the story is said to continue “soon” in Rochester: Consummation.
Having now read this one, the title of the next instalment comes as no surprise. This book is steamy, and if you like it hot, you’ll love this. I didn’t mind the sex scenes – and believe me, there were a fair few of those – but the way it was done … I don’t know.
Let’s start from the beginning. The first thing that irked me was the continuous description of Jane’s “gray-green” eyes – they’re hazel, according to Brontë’s Rochester (who also refers to her hair as hazel, not chestnut), and Brontë also says Rochester’s eyes are dark, not green. Second, when he had proposed, it was just an overload of “my young bride” which just made darling Edward sound rather pervy. We know there’s nearly 20 years between them already, give it a rest.
Third, Blanche Ingram is a blonde, and while I know she is blonde in most of the filmed adaptations, she’s dark-haired in the original book. These small details might seem a bit petty to be annoyed by, but it makes it clear that the author’s characters are from the 2006 adaptation, not the book which spawned it, which actually takes some of the pleasure away for me. Now, I love the 2006 adaptation, don’t get me wrong, but it just seems weird to base a book on it instead of on the actual original work. When you factor in that you’re supposed to be imagining the 2006 cast in the roles … well, it just makes things weird. I’m not sure I want to get that kind of intimate picture in my head of Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens in the throws of passion, no matter how much I love his Rochester.
There is a lot of alcohol in this book, and I do mean a lot (as in, “shouldn’t he be dead by now?”), and a lot of cigarette smoking. I thought Rochester smoked cigars, not cigarettes? There’s a lot of crying too, which Niemann thankfully has Rochester reflect on at one point – and he points out to himself that he’s never been much for crying and all of a sudden, it seems to be the only thing he does. Yeah, it does get a little tiring when he starts crying in almost every chapter, especially when he doesn’t strike me as the type, unless he gets really overwhelmed by emotion, such as when Jane returns and finds him crippled. Sometimes it gets a bit dragged out with his emotional ramblings as well, but Brontë set a precedent with regards to melodrama, so at least that shows a connection to the original, if in a different (and to me, more palatable) way.
Overall, I think the author has made a good job of capturing Edward Fairfax Rochester. It’s not the way I would’ve done it, but at least her portrayal was a lot more on the money than Jean Rhys in Wide Sargasso Sea, a book Niemann mentions in the acknowledgements and makes several nods to in the book as well, which is interesting, but I suppose she’s taken bits of the Wide Sargasso Sea Rochester and incorporated it into the Jane Eyre Rochester, and because of that, perhaps I find it easier to swallow, even though I thoroughly disagree with Rhys’s portrayal.
The most confusing part is how the events of the original story have been re-worked. While a lot of the things we recognise from Jane Eyre are there, including some exchanges, they’ve been changed around in ways that I don’t fully understand. To begin with, I was waiting for quite some time for Bertha to torch the man’s bed, as that happens fairly early on in the story. Eventually, it came (Chapter 9), and I was hoping for a hold-my-breath-OMG-it’s hot post-fire scene. There is one, sure, but at the same time it’s way more than I wished for, and that had me go “err … but … but … why!?” You see, instead of Jane leaving after she’s cold, she stays. And then there’s kissing … and he even feels her up good and proper, ending with her climaxing over it. IT’S JUST WRONG!
I’m not entirely against them having a bit of a feel and a fumble before they marry, but it’s too much, too soon, and it clashes with the book something dreadful – which is how you can summarise most of the steamier scenes in the book. I can (sort of) take the masturbation, of which there are two instances before page 100 (and then no more), but it just seems out of sync with the original to have them that close before they’re even engaged. It’s not until Jane saves his life in that fire that he truly realises that he’s fallen in love with her, and she realises she’s done the same, but here they’ve both fallen head over heels as soon as they’ve had their first talk, and instead of playing on the sexual tension, Niemann let’s it go completely and there’s snogging! No, it’s just not right.
Jane sneaks off in the night to compose a song, and he’s there and there’s more snogging, ending with her drawing lines on her belly with his, erm, well, you know. Bodily fluids. Throughout the book, they never actually have full-on intercourse (thank gods!) but they’re close enough, ending with some rather heavy petting after he’s proposed to her. I prefer to read about the sexual tension rather than the act itself, because I think it’s so much more fun and sexy, but instead of leaving us hanging and eventually having us cheer when they finally do more than a chaste peck on the cheek, there’s very little tension build-up, it’s just straight down to – rather detailed – business, and it’s such a shame.
Then there’s Blanche Ingram, which Rochester has had a fondle with too in the past (and at one point in the book – both to his own disgust as well as mine) and he’s not the only one who’s done it either, apparently. She’s got quite the reputation! It’s an interesting take on the Blanche character, and she’s way more conniving and sinister in this than she ever was in the book or in any adaptation. She doesn’t give up her claim on Rochester when he’s not interested, she’s out for revenge. In the original book she just gave up on him after he spread some rumours that he wasn’t as rich as she had thought him to be, which shows how shallow she is – but here, she’s something quite different. To the point that she finds out about Bertha (rumoured in the book to be Rochester’s bastard sister) and ends up – for all that we know – courting Mr Mason. All that to get back at Rochester? Sees a bit over-the-top, but very in character for her in this particular book.
Mrs Fairfax actually wants Rochester to marry Blanche, and before I’ve never really felt she took that much of an interest. Her only objection to Jane traditionally is that she thinks Jane an impressionable young girl who has been seduced by her master and doesn’t know what she’s doing. Here, she seems ready to be able to sabotage any plans of not marrying Blanche, which is just plain weird.
Adéle we see very little of, but after all, she’s keeping Jane busy. The servants Leah and John we see a lot more of, which is a nice change. Leah is normally quite young, but not so here, she seems around Rochester’s own age, and they’re friends of sorts. Arthur Eshton is a close friend, who’s disinterestedly courting Louisa Dent, until they finally give up and he meets with Diana Rivers instead (… yeah, coming to that). Jane is normally seen either through a door or a window, or in Rochester’s dreams, or in his arms, his lap, or in his thoughts.
Richard Mason comes along in the midst of the house party, when Jane is away at Gateshead (Georgiana is an acquaintance of Blanche here, by the way). Oh yes, there’s a house party, even though it’s fairly pointless if you consider the reason for it in the book was to make Jane jealous in order for her to realise how much in love with him she was. Here, it’s more to distract him from wanting to get under Jane’s corset. When she comes back, she’s been told, through Georgiana who got a fake invite, that Blanche and Rochester are engaged, so she’s already advertised for a new position, and has been offered the one in the Morton school – St John’s school.
Rochester proposes in her bedroom, they spend the night together (asleep – well, eventually, anyway) and Jane has brought news: she has three cousins, two of which she will be meeting in Millcote. Because after Aunt Reed told her of Uncle John in Madeira, Jane contacted him and he told her she has cousins … and then, later on, it turns out they’re all his heirs.
Meanwhile, Rochester is making plans to move Bertha and Grace Poole to Ferndean, while making inquiries with a solicitor in Jamaica to see if he can get out of the marriage. Bertha might have already been married to someone else by the time she married Rochester. What the end result of this is, I guess we’ll know when the next book comes out. Will I be ordering the next book when it comes? Certainly – I have to see where the author takes this. Will I like it? We’ll see. I think once we’re clear of the events in the book, it’ll be easier to stomach. Now, it’s just weird how things are changed when you know what they’re supposed to be like.
So then, do I like it or do I not like it? Yes, on both. Overall, I like it. Hey, it’s all about Mr Rochester, how can I not like it? It’s interesting to see things from his point of view, even though that point of view is a little too lewd in this context for my taste. Niemann seems to share my ideas regarding Rochester’s family (the story of how Rowland died is, erm, special 😅). She also does a good job of describing food – it’s always quite detailed what’s being served.
Rochester is just about as broody and angsty as you can get, and I had some issues trying to part from the book at times. Especially in the beginning, before things got a bit out of hand with changing stuff around from the book, which I’d say is what lets the book down. It completely changes the chronology of stuff and meaning of things, primarily the Jane/Edward relationship and that’s what bothers me. It’s enjoyable and definitely written for a modern audience. If Charlotte Brontë had read it, she would’ve been utterly shocked.
J.L. Niemann has offered an interesting re-working of a classic novel and breathed new life into it, one that doesn’t scream of Plot Device quite as much as the original. Sometimes the brooding gets a bit too much, but I think she definitely manages to get Rochester’s rather complex character in a pretty good way. However, I think it’s trying too hard to sex things up – a modern audience doesn’t need always need to get inside people’s breeches or under their chemises to make a story interesting. But still, once they’re married, I suspect I’ll be loving the story. Right now, I’m just a bit annoyed that it’s not according to the book.
And because I both love it and dislike it, it’s an average, middle-of-the-road 3 out of 5 snogs.