The author of the novel Re Jane discusses why Jane Eyre’s Rochester isn’t all that.
I am no fan of Mr. Rochester, though I recognize these are fighting words for Jane Eyreheads everywhere. Jane is eighteen to Rochester’s almost forty years of worldly (and, ahem, carnal) experience. When he speaks to Jane, he barks—commanding her when to come and go. He blatantly flirts with another woman and forces Jane to sit in the parlor and watch. He deceives her, first with minor offenses: dressing up as a fortune-telling gypsy woman to pry forth her secrets. Pretending he will marry that other woman, just to toy with Jane’s emotions.
Then, his ultimate betrayal: minutes before Jane and Rochester exchange their wedding day I-do’s, she learns he is already married—to a “madwoman” locked up in his attic. Funny enough, the attic bit is the least offensive of Rochester’s actions, at least by Victorian standards; it was far kinder than carting your wife to the insane asylum.
Which is not to say Rochester is entirely without enticements: he’s a wealthy member of the gentry, for one. He’s got brooding, if not exactly handsome, looks: a sweep of dark hair, square jaw, powerful shoulders. He’s an acerbic wit who engages Jane in tête-à-têtes—the likes of which she had never experienced before. Though she refuses to be made Rochester’s mistress and runs away, she eventually returns to him—newly widowed, as well as “blind and lame into the bargain”—and takes over his care. And Jane Eyre culminates with the iconic line, “Reader, I married him.”
I wish she hadn’t. Jane Eyre was an orphan who’d been mistreated her whole life; when you’re starved for love, you bolt down what little is rationed your way. When you’re a woman trapped in Victorian society, your options are few and far between. Though it isn’t fair to hold a 19th century novel to modern-day standards, their union had always struck me as one between unequals—one where the power dynamics were stacked unfairly against Jane.
Rochester was the first man to take a shine to her; would Jane still have chosen him if she had lived in modern times? I started to imagine what would happen if Jane Eyre were translated to present-day, where contemporary heroines have choices—and not all of them have to end with marriage. So I retold Jane’s story in my novel, Re Jane.
I shrank the twenty-year age gap between Rochester and Jane. I set the novel in my version of a modern conservative society: the Korean-American community I was born into in Flushing, Queens. I made Jane an orphan of similarly humble roots: a mixed-race Korean in a culture that traditionally valued ethnic homogeneity. But the power dynamic between Jane and Rochester is preserved—after all, we are still a society that skews in favor of older (white) males. Yet this time I gave Jane more options than those afforded to the typical Victorian heroine: marriage, inheritance, and/or death.
In other words: I rewrote, “Reader, I married him.”
I’m not the only writer audacious enough to overhaul a classic story—or a classic line at that. Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea is told from the perspective of Rochester’s first wife, and the novel challenges not only her “madness” but also Rochester’s motives. Francine Prose’s “The Mirror” features a Bluebeard-like Rochester who drives each wife mad before replacing her with another. Lorrie Moore’s The Gate at the Stairs, offering subtle nods to Jane Eyre, features an absentee and unsympathetic Edward. Revising Rochester is definitely trending.
We can still treasure a beloved novel but take issue with it. It’s time we stopped romanticizing Rochester as a dreamy Byronic hero. We have more options than our Victorian sisters; we don’t have to blindly accept what few crumbs are tossed our way. As we reach the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Brontë on April 21, it is worth remembering the words Jane Eyre herself cried when Rochester grabbed her in the garden and forced a kiss on her lips: “I am no bird, and no net ensnares me.”
Image: Jane Eyre (2011)
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Patricia Park is the author of the novel, Re Jane (Penguin/paperback edition pub-date April 19, 2016), and contributor to the anthology, Reader, I Married Him, edited by Tracy Chevalier (William Morrow, March 2016). She has written for the New York Times, Guardian, Salon, Bitch Magazine, and others. Follow her on www.patriciapark.comTwitter, Instagram and Facebook.