Guest reviewer: Traxy Thornfield, Jane Eyre enthusiast (among many other things) who blogs at the non-only-but-quite-Brontë The Squeee.
If you love Jane Eyre just the way it is, you will find it difficult to read derivative (fan) fiction. Invariably, the author will get the characters' personalities wrong, misunderstand their intentions or just make a mess of the plot one way or the other. Needless to say, I downloaded this Kindle e-book expecting yet another disappointment, because Mr. Rochester is a notoriously difficult character to get right. To my surprise, it didn't even take half a chapter before I was both hooked and intrigued. Disappointed? More like ecstatic!
Jane Eyre's Husband, like J.L. Niemann's Rochester, is a version of Jane Eyre told from the perspective of Edward Fairfax Rochester, but it's so much more than that - it's truly the life of Mr. Rochester, like a biography, only much, much more interesting to read.
The novel is split into three distinct parts, so if printed, it would work best as a trilogy, as each section equates to over 300 printed pages. Part one is a prequel, stretching from before the birth of Edward Rochester, through his upbringing, his time on Jamaica and with his mistresses on the continent and ends just as the events we know from Brontë's original are about to begin. Part two is Jane Eyre, but seen through Mr. Rochester's eyes. Part three is a sequel, dealing with what happens to the couple during their happily ever afters.
Part one begins with establishing the marriage between Rochester's parents, Elizabeth and John, and then moves on to the birth of little Edward, or "Neddie" as he's known, and his wetnurse. When the wetnurse's own baby was revealed to be called "Grace", my first thought was "don't tell me it's Grace Poole - WHY DOES THIS KEEP HAPPENING?!" However, one thing that Bradley does very well, is to avoid the clichés every other sequel writer falls into (from not understanding distances to rebuilding Thornfield). Yes, as it turns out, little Grace does indeed grow up to become Grace Poole, but the way it's handled and is explained makes perfect sense as opposed to being gratuitous. In fact, while "Neddie" goes away to school, the story follows Grace for a while, and the story of her life could easily make for a whole separate novel, because it's just as interesting and heart-wrenching as that of her childhood best friend.
When Edward is forced to go to Jamaica, he's under the impression he's there to learn about the plantation business, but of course he isn't. There are echoes of Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea for various reasons, but where Rhys got a lot of details wrong, rubbing purists the wrong way, Bradley get them right and they make sense. Perhaps Bradley's acute attention to detail is because she's a Jane Eyre purist herself, and that's one of the things I love about this novel, and what makes it work where other derivatives struggle. It fits in perfectly with the original. We get the story of the sham marriage as Charlotte Brontë actually described it - a young, innocent man being lured into union with a mentally ill woman, because of their fathers' greed. Not, as Rhys had it, a brutal and harsh Englishman forcing himself on a pure little rose of a woman.
For me, the most interesting parts were the events that weren't included in the original novel, or only briefly talked about, such as the time on Jamaica, his former mistresses and what happened during the fire. The level of details of Rochester's injuries after the fire were gruesome and stomach-turning, yet realistic. In fact, any description of illness and injury feel well-researched and therefore believable.
Storytelling-wise, chapters often begin with a short overview of events happening, such as (paraphrased) "During the next three months, Edward tried to adjust to the hot climate of Jamaica and got to know Richard Mason better" (yes, it's written in third person, and the focus isn't always on Edward), I'd think "aww, I wished she'd gone into more detail about that" - but then that's exactly what happens. The details are filled in, in a similar way to when you get "coming up in this episode" on TV and then you watch the show and see those things played out in full. Some people might find that style of writing annoying, but as long as the the details were there, I really didn't mind. There were some parts that I wish had been elaborated on rather than only mentioned in passing, such as Edward's time at school, but you can't fit exactly everything in, I suppose.
The biggest selling-point of the novel, aside from being purist, well-written and a really good read regardless, is that the man Bradley writes about is the same Edward Rochester (not to mention Jane and Adèle!) I see in Brontë's novel. He's a good-natured young man who was dealt a harsh blow by life, which led him to years of bitterness and seeking redemption where there was none. We get to read about Céline Varens, Giacinta and Clara, and the very different relationships he had with each one. Perhaps it's wishful and romantic thinking on mine and Bradley's part, his search for "The One", but it rang true. It portrays Rochester as the character I fell in love with, and does him justice. While we're on the subject, yes, there are sex scenes too - but they're all in context, not over-used or just there for the sake of it, and there's no sex with Jane before they're properly married.
The third part, the sequel to Jane Eyre feels like a very long epilogue more than a story in itself. It chronicles the time from the marriage until the end of their days, and there's no real story arc through it as such, other than their lives together. We find out how they sought medical advice in London with regards to regaining Rochester's eyesight, the number of children they had and those children growing up, Adèle's relationship with the family and her growing up and starting a family, and Rochester and Jane growing older, so in a way, it's more biographical. Still, it's the most enjoyable and realistic sequel I've come across, so this isn't exactly something that spoiled my enjoyment of the novel. Not at all. The very ending of the book, which I won't say what it was, brought tears to my eyes - and it's very rarely that a book makes me cry. It was fitting ending to the story and it was beautiful.
As the novel drew to a close, I couldn't help but feel it's a fantastic accompaniment to Jane Eyre as well as a novel in its own right, and it will be difficult to find something to top it. When I started reading derivatives, I wanted to write about Rochester and how he became the person he was, because no one seemed to understand him. I wasn't even half-way through part one when I gave up the idea of "if no one can do it properly, I'll do it myself" because after reading Jane Eyre's Husband there's simply no need. The desire has gone away, justice has been done and Tara Bradley has said everything that needed to be said about him, and more. If someone was to ask me what I think happened to Mr. and Mrs. Rochester and how their life together worked out, I'd give them the answer Bradley's given, because it just seems like the right thing to have happened. The characters and their lives have been completed.
The only downside of having read Jane Eyre's Husband is that I have real difficulties watching any Jane Eyre adaptations now. None of the actors look right, and as much as I love Toby Stephens' portayal, even he doesn't quite cut it now. "He's very good, but he looks nothing like Rochester, and … no, it's not right!" But if that's the price I pay for having read the definitive prequel, re-telling and sequel to the greatest love story of all time … well, I can live with that. This is a novel that every fan of Brontë's original should read. I hope it will be available in print as well sooner or later, so that it can reach those without a Kindle e-reader or a device with the Kindle software. I'm sure Charlotte Brontë would have loved it, and I'm sure you will too.