The Rochester Riddle

(Before I begin I’d like to apologize for the delay that’s been a problem all year. I’m in a transition stage of finishing school and plunging into the working world. This blog is a priority however and always in my thoughts. I don’t know when the hectic schedule will end but when it does I hope to put new life into this blog. Thanks for understanding.)

No, I haven’t seen the new Jane Eyre movie yet. My only excuse is that it’s only playing in select theaters. And that’s not much of an excuse since a select theater isn’t that far away from me.

But it is one of the reasons I’m writing this. And I’m also prompted by a debate between two of my favorite authors Robin McKinley and Melissa Marr about whether or not Rochester is an attractive character. (McKinley likes him. Marr so does not. Here are the links here and  here )

Usually I am with you, Robin McKinley. Despite (and because) of Mr. Rochester’s “fatal flaws,” when I read Jane Eyre I am swooning for that man. But the older I get, the more I wonder if I should be twitterpated for this man. My wonderings were only compounded as I stumbled across two re-tellings of the story. So…let’s take a look and analyze this man.

Original Flavor

If you haven’t read Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, go do it. Seriously. There are only a handful of books I feel everyone should read or at least have seen the/a movie version of. This is one of them. (Pride and Prejudice, Farenheit 451 and To Kill A Mockingbird are def on the list, among others) But the basic summary is this: (HERE BE SPOILERS. THEY WILL CONTINUE)

Orphaned Jane Eyre endures a painful childhood and awful boarding school to become a quiet, pious young woman.  She takes a post as governess at Thornfield Hall, a remote manor owner by the absent Mr. Rochester.

After Jane has settled in and made friends with Mr. Rochester’s ward Adele and his housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax, the man himself arrives. He is enigmatic, passionate, mysterious and the reader can tell that he has a fondness for Jane even though she would never presume as much. Despite the complications of class and another woman vying for Rochester’s hand, Rochester proposes to our heroine and she accepts. Yes, there are mysteries in the house: the sound of wailing at night, several attacks on Mr. Rochester and a passing visitor but surely that is just the slightly addled servant Grace Poole. Nothing to fret over once they are married…

…but that never happens. At the church on the day of their wedding we discover that Mr. Rochester is already married. Years ago he married a Bertha Mason, not realizing that she was insane until they were wed. He did what he could and ultimately decided to keep her in the attic with the servant Grace Poole, rather than submit her to the conditions of an insane asylum. Unable to marry Rochester and unwilling to degrade herself by becoming a kept woman, Jane flees Thornfield.

She is taken in by a trio of siblings: Diana, Mary and St. John Rivers. All three are kind, good people but the reserved, devout St. John is the one drawn most to Jane. They become good friends and he offers her a place as his partner-and wife-on a missions trip to India. They do not love each other in the romantic sense but Jane wonders if this is her best option…

…until she returns to Thornfield to find it in ruins. Bertha set the manor on fire, resulting in her death and Rochester’s blindness when he tried to save her. The pair is reunited and Rochester is a broken, sorry man but with Jane he regains his strength and some vision back and two live happily ever after.

Rochester is no prince, he has his flaws. Especially the wife in the attic. By the standards of the time he isn’t so terrible:  putting her in the attic was preferable to the asylums of the time. He definitely did Jane and Bertha wrong by trying to have two wives but I can at least see why he would feel compelled to do that even if I don’t agree with it: he was desperate for love.

I think the reason I like Rochester (besides his swoony alpha tendencies shown before Bertha is revealed) is because he changes before he and Jane get together in the end. He turns to God, he becomes humbled. For me that earns major points.

But this is all in the context of the 19th century. What happens when you put the story in the present day? Or the future?

Jane by April Lindner

This version is a smart update, story and character wise. Jane is a 21 year-old girl, forced to drop out of college with her parents’ death (and their leaving all the money to her abusive older brother and pretty, vapid sister). Mr. Rochester becomes Nico Rathburn, famous rock star who once was into living/partying hard but has since cleaned up. Jane comes to be nanny to his daughter Madeline, the result of a union with French pop star Celine.

I liked how Lindner adapted the book to modern times. Bertha becomes his first wife Bibi, who was an innocent girl until she met Nico and became involved with the drugs he is, which triggers her schizophrenia. Yikes. St. John is River St. John, a religious young man interested in leaving for Haiti to help with the earthquake relief (and wanting to bring Jane with him as they grow closer). I’m going to admit that when I first read the original in novel, I liked St John. Mostly because my giddy heart was thrilled by the “Rochester =fire, St John = ice” and I always liked the hero with an icy heart that needed to be melted. It wasn’t till a little later that I realised St John meant the death of all passionate love for Jane.

I think Lindner really got that with River. He doesn’t love Jane, he says it outright. But he knows that eventually they’ll be drawn to each other physically in Haiti and wants them to be married when that happens. Any vestiges of my St John squee faded away when I read his cool speeches to Jane. He was also more judgmental in this version of Jane’s past with Nico Rathburn. I was struck by how well I got to know his character in the small section he was in and recognized that he was the type to do all his Godly duties without having the real heart for it.

As for Nico himself…

This is where it gets “ehh” for me. Not because of how he was written but because it’s difficult for me to accept the events of the relationship in a modern context. For a few reasons. The age difference is one. Jane Eyre in the original is young but women in her age had little options for advancement outside of marriage. By modern standards, Lindner’s Jane is still very young and has a lot more to experience. As for Bibi: Nico fears the psych hospitals and what they’d do to her. While I don’t think they’re that bad, I have never been in one so I can’t comment. But it’s very clear to the reader and to Jane that he still has feelings for her.

I think what really gets me though is the ending. I mentioned that I liked Rochester’s repentance in the original Jane Eyre. In Lindner’s book, Jane discovers in a documentary that Nico lost his eyesight and the use of his hand in a fire. He won’t get surgery because he is just so depressed from Jane’s disappearance. Okay. But Jane’s response is “oh what have I done?” and she rushes back to Nico. While I liked her take-charge attitude with him (telling him he needs to stop wallowing and get that surgery while she returns to college and oh btw, the wedding is back on)….I never got the sense that Nico had to apologize for anything. I get it, the man is injured. But he still kept a wife in the attic and tried to marry you without telling you about Bibi. In a modern hero, that doesn’t sit with me.

Not that this is a bad book. Actually it’s a great book and Lindner translated it into the 2000’s very well. But modern day Rochester/Rathburn just doesn’t do it for me.

Man Grade: D

Jenna Starborn by Sharon Shinn

Jane Eyre is Jenna Starborn, a test tube child created for a woman who rejects her early when she has a child of her own. A girl who endures school and living as a “half-cit”, a person of barely any citizenship in the galaxy’s rigid caste system. After years at Lora Tech School, first as a pupil and then a teacher, she takes a post as a nuclear technician at Thorrastone Manor on the planet Fieldstone. The manor is owned by the enigmatic Everett Ravenbeck, a “Level One” citizen in the strict social hierarchy. They could not be further apart in class but they form a deep connection.

I was more comfortable with the love story in this one than in Lindner’s version, for several reasons. Jenna is older and secure in who she is: a woman who believes that all people are equal, that is modest and witty. The use of this strict society that requires 19th century-flavored etiquette puts the story closer in feel to the original. Bertha is Beatrice, a woman who was reconstructed with robotic parts after a horrible crash. She doesn’t know she is a cyborg and her body is shutting down from malfunctions. Everett can’t have her shut down forever or restarted. If he divorced her, she would lose the status she gets from her marriage to him and would be recycled or destroyed.

I don’t condone Everett for lying but he has somewhat understandable reasons for keeping Beatrice a secret. Jenna leaves him because he is married, but also because he doesn’t necessarily agree with her view that everyone–First Class, half-cit, cyborg–are equal. This isn’t disagreement isn’t as resolved as I would liked but Jenna never apologizes for her beliefs or her faith in “the Goddess” who created and loved everyone.

I liked how sexy Everett was. He had the same charisma that the original Rochester had and was trying to put the moves on Jenna once their engagement is set. But like the original Jane Eyre, Jenna keeps him at bay. As much as she loves him, she is still a half-cit and only has her reputation to her name.

Overall I liked Everett, despite the Rochesterian flaws. He wasn’t as swoonworthy for me as original Rochester but I think Shinn did a really cool job in creating the story in a complicated new universe.

Man Grade: B-

Summing It Up

So how do I feel about Rochester? I think I will always like him, even as I know he’s not the greatest prize. The original will always be the most special and likable but these two remakes were really fun, despite my qualms with some portions.


5 Responses to “The Rochester Riddle”

  1. 1 Merriska May 9, 2011 at 3:09 am

    Great post.

    I know you mentioned at one point you would have one of these up for Irial, I hope soon.

    • 2 allyjs May 9, 2011 at 4:32 am

      I hope to do a post on Irial after I get my hands on the last book in the Wicked Lovely series. Which I really hope to be soon.

  2. 4 Traxy May 9, 2011 at 2:47 pm

    Ooh, interesting. Didn’t really think about that when I read “Jane”, to be honest, but you’re quite right. “Jenna Starborn” is on the to-read-list still, and from what you’ve written about it … it sounds, umm, peculiar. Nevertheless, will be interesting to read, and from reading this, that book just got promoted to higher up on the waiting list. 🙂

    (Team Rochester all the way!)

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