Jane Eyre's Rival: The Real Mrs RochesterJane Eyre's Rival is a two-into-one sort of book, helpfully separated into chapters with different fonts by the author to help the reader differentiate both sides of the book. The chapters written in a modern sans serif font broach the subject of relationships, initially from a fictional point of view, as thought out by an imaginary American woman named Lisa who is studying at Cambridge and who is a descendant of Bertha Mason. The chapters written in a more classical-looking font are those that concern us, BrontëBlog, the most.
Kindle Edition/ Paperback
File Size: 203 KB/ISBN: 978-1-907527-00-5
Blue Ocean Publishing; 1 edition (10 July 2011)
Of course this isn't the first time that Bertha Mason has sprung off from the pages of Jane Eyre - she most famously did that in Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, where she was renamed Antoinette. Wide Sargasso Sea focuses mostly on her life before England (with the exception of the final part of the book where a brief explicit connection with the narrative of Jane Eyre is made) while Clair Holland picks it up from there and tells about her life in England, locked away with Grace Poole as her keeper and renamed, after Bertha, after Antoinette, Louella. A powerful symbol of writers trying to reach the 'actual' woman and not just Charlotte's madwoman in the attic, which she herself came to think of as somewhat unfair(1).
Clair Holland portrays Louella's confinement and eventual hope in the shape of a stable boy(2) while the reader, well-acquainted with Jane Eyre, fills in the voids and finds the chronology of the novel. As Jean Rhys already made clear, Rochester as seen by Bertha/Antoinette/Louella can't be a likable character for obvious reasons, however, although we do admit to some partiality towards Rochester, we think that Clair Holland's Rochester is a bit over the top:
You dirty whore, I wish you were dead. I rue the day I ever set eyes on you. You bewitched me against my will with your black magic charms all those years ago. But now I will have me a new wife, a slip of a girl so pure and so innocent I will love her for all eternity. If I were more of a man, I would kill you now with my bare hands and be rido of you forever. No, Bertha, you will not thwart me, I will have her. (p.70)Our perception of Rochester and whether he's saying the truth when he states in Jane Eyre that
my plans would not permit me to remove the maniac elsewhere--though I possess an old house, Ferndean Manor, even more retired and hidden than this, where I could have lodged her safely enough, had not a scruple about the unhealthiness of the situation, in the heart of a wood, made my conscience recoil from the arrangement. Probably those damp walls would soon have eased me of her charge: but to each villain his own vice; and mine is not a tendency to indirect assassination, even of what I most hate. (Chapter XXVII)is open to interpretation and whether we choose to believe him but the actual facts - that Bertha is indeed sort of looked after - would seem to prove him right, puting him slightly out of character in Clair Holland's story.
Much has also been written about the chronology within the novel and though it's impossible to say what Charlotte Brontë had in mind (if anything), Clair Holland's follows here the Wide Sargasso Sea chronology which places Edward and Antoinette's wedding in:
late 1830s after the Abolition of the Slavery Act of 1833.That would push forward Jane Eyre's story almost thirty years (as generally agreed) and therefore Jane would be writing her 'autobiography' in Charlotte Brontë's future, which is strange.
At the same time she explores Louella's changing outlook, Clair Holland who is actually a psychologist discusses relationships. A combination of themes which is to say the least unexpected and despite the writer's efforts to join them together we are not sure the subjects actually work together. Still, as we said above, the different chapters are helpfully separated and can be read independently.
Jane Eyre's Rival is one more spinoff to come out of the combination Jane Eyre/Wide Sargasso Sea, which has become a new kind of canon, and though we often wonder what Charlotte Brontë would make(3) of them and what new writers have done with her characters we think - hope? - that she would at least be quite proud of the long-lasting, inspiring characters she created which have given way and continue to give way to so many new stories.
(1) Quoting Charlotte herself:
It is true that profound pity ought to be the only sentiment elicited by the view of such degradation, and equally true is it that I have not sufficiently dwelt on that feeling; I have erred in making horror too predominant. Mrs. Rochester indeed lived a sinful life before she was insane, but sin itself is a kind of insanity; the truly good behold and compassionate it as such. (Charlotte Brontë to William Smith Williams, 4th January 1848)(2) As far as we can tell and judging by her acknowledgements Clair Holland went to great lengths to get her horse-related vocabulary right and in keeping with the historic period.
(3) Or Jean Rhys for that matter, because Clair Holland's also builds a Wide Sargasso Sea backstory with the birth of a mulatto child which Rochester claims as not being his.