If you’re a fan of Jane Eyre, you’ll either love or loathe this book. It’s the story of Thornfield Hall viewed from the perspective of Mrs Fairfax, the discreet housekeeper who is mentioned in Jane Eyre, but who here takes centre stage. The familiar story of Mr Rochester and his “mad wife” are told from an entirely new direction, and this time it’s a completely different take on his first wife from that given either in Charlotte Bronte’s novel or from that in the more modern classic Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys.
Mrs Fairfax as portrayed by Jane Stubbs has a strong and credible voice – she’s a parson’s widow and a gentlewoman who has fallen upon hard times and has had to seek employment for the first time as a paid housekeeper to a distant relative – Mr Rochester senior. On the death of her “first Mr Rochester” (soon after the death of his own elder son Rowland), young Edward Rochester has to return from Jamaica to take up his responsibilities at Thornfield Hall – bringing with him “an unfortunate invalid who suffers from great weakness of mind” as he describes Bertha in a letter to Mrs Fairfax. (That’s not the description we’re accustomed to hearing of the wife locked in the attic rooms of the Hall!)
Mrs Fairfax’s words lead us through the familiar story but explain key events such as the fire in Mr Rochester’s room in an entirely different way. The novels shows us how “mad” Bertha Rochester lived for many years quietly in the seclusion of the isolated house on the moors, forming relationships with the servants who were her regular companions, taking care of her and of the house and grounds, frequently in the absence of their master. Jane Eyre herself is a relatively minor character in this version of the story, entering into it well into the second third of the novel. The main interest is in Mrs Fairfax herself and in the Hall, the destruction of which is now reinterpreted, so that poor Bertha is no longer seen as to blame for the devastating fire which sweeps through it. As for the famous “Reader, I married him…” ending of Jane Eyre, this novel stops short of showing us that moment or indeed Jane and Edward’s future, instead revealing a very different view of what might have happened after the fire.
Jane Stubbs’ clever book shook up my ideas of both the story line and the characters, and gave me a whole new but connected world of people and events. I loved it and would be fascinated to see Jane Stubbs’ or other writers’ takes on other well-known classics. Anyone want to have a go at the story of another famous fictional Fairfax – Jane Fairfax in Emma?
Rating: 4 stars