Article published on December 1, 2014.
The Rochesters are very good at keeping secrets…
Thornfield Hall, 1821. Alice Fairfax takes up her role as housekeeper of the estate. But when Mr Rochester presents her with a woman who is to be hidden on the third floor, she finds herself responsible for much more than the house.
This is the story Jane Eyre never knew – a narrative played out on the third floor and beneath the stairs, as the servants kept their master’s secret safe and sound.
We had an opportunity to speak to Jane Stubbs about her re-telling of the classic novel Jane Eyre – see below to read what she had to say…
Is Thornfield Hall your first novel?
It’s my first published novel, let’s put it that way. I have three in the cupboard in various stages of completion – well, they’re all completed but I was learning how to do it!
Did you study creative writing, was that part of your learning process?
No. I studied English at University. In those days you didn’t really do creative writing – you did Old English and Middle English and you read Beowulf and Milton and the greats. I thought there’s no way you can compete with these people so it took me a long time to recover from that! I have studied it vaguely at evening classes but basically I learnt by doing it. I’ve done a lot of reading and I’ve belonged to book groups so I found out what readers actually like.
That’s good to hear – we very much support book groups! Why Jane Eyre?
I’ve loved it as a book since I was a child and I cried endlessly over Helen Burns! And I’ve taught it. But it’s always bothered me that Mrs Fairfax, who is a very God-fearing woman – and at the time marriage was an extremely sacred institution – she knows that Mr Rochester has a wife in the attic and she’s very fond of Jane so why doesn’t she warn her before Jane goes to church? There must have been a very powerful reason to stop her telling Jane that she’s about to commit bigamy. After Mr Rochester tells Mrs Fairfax of the engagement Jane finds her reading her bible – she’s obviously wondering what she should do. She’s not the central character in Jane Eyre so we don’t get to know too much about what she’s thinking.
We can assume, perhaps, that she’s wrestling with her conscience?
Yes. She doesn’t congratulate Jane on her engagement as you normally would but suddenly on the day of the wedding she’s reconciled to it and she and the other servants do go to congratulate Jane and Mr Rochester as they return from the church – so something has happened in the meantime to change things. I think she probably decided it was for the greater good.
So you wanted to explore this change of heart and also the character of Bertha Mason?
Yes. Bertha Mason does exist, she is a person and she has a life but she’s written off as a crazy creature – well, lots of us are crazy at certain times in our lives. I wouldn’t like to be shut away, the way she was. I felt that with care, good food, a little bit of occupational therapy she could recover. She’s obviously not very bright but in a kind world she could manage. She was in an unkind world.
There was a lack of understanding around mental illness and the effects of emotional strain at the time Charlotte Brontë was writing compared to now – was this partly why you wanted to vindicate Bertha, for the modern reader?
Yes, partly. I always had people ask me about the poor madwoman in the attic and people did worry about her so I thought I would try and cure her! She has certain mental strengths – she’s very good with numbers, she can sew and she’s very good at cards but she can’t cope with emotion or practical matters. She needs support in her daily life, which is what Mrs Fairfax and Grace Poole arrange for her.
You write with a lot of sympathy for Alice Fairfax and Grace Poole in Thornfield Hall – was that deliberate?
Oh yes. I had sympathy for Mr Rochester as well because he’s in a bit of a fix. He has this wife who he loathes – he accuses her of being unfaithful, debauched. He calls her ‘my black Messalina’ after the Roman empress who was notorious for her sexual adventures. And yet, she’s his wife. Divorce at that time was extremely rare – I think it averaged out at about four a year – and required an Act of Parliament which would involve unwelcome publicity. Charlotte Bronte set Jane Eyre in the early 1830s and at that time there was talk of changing the legislation – if people married and one of them became mad afterwards then the marriage was still valid but if one of them was mad at the time of marrying then the marriage could be invalidated. Bertha was obviously in her right mind when she married Mr Rochester, she gave informed consent – so the marriage would be indissoluble, except through a divorce court.
Where do you think Charlotte Brontë’s sympathies lay?
Oh, with Jane. She’s totally with Jane. With all the difficulties, the rage of being an impotent child – she doesn’t like that at all. Charlotte Brontë was the daughter of a parson and would have been very much aware of the conventional views of marriage, so poor Mr Rochester has to be battered before he’s allowed to marry Jane. He becomes a shambling wreck of his former glorious self before Jane is allowed to walk up the aisle with him.
Do you think Charlotte Brontë neglected her other characters because of the focus on Jane?
I’m not going to accuse her of neglect! I’m the greatest admirer of her as a writer. I think she puts in as much as necessary to build the world of the book. Take the character Sam, as an example – there’s a footman called John in Jane Eyre, who is quite regularly mentioned but suddenly a Sam appears, who I’ve turned into a ex-sailor and becomes involved with another member of the household. But in Jane Eyre he’s just a name – he shows Jane into a room at one point and then she dismisses him. He’s there as much as Brontë needed him to be.
Apart from re-reading Jane Eyre what other research did you undertake? What did you need to know in order to recreate this world for yourself?
I did quite a lot of reading. I’m not a historian but I used books written by historians and I like to see things written in at least three different books to be sure of it. I researched the clothes that the characters would have worn – in fact, I made a costume that matches the one worn by Mrs Fairfax so I could feel what it was like to be her and wear these clothes. She had a small, frilly pinny that was more of a token gesture really – it showed she was staff but also a member of the family. I read a lot about women and marriage in the nineteenth century.
Did you discover anything that influenced the direction of the story you wanted to tell?
Oh yes, it did. I wanted to spend time with Bertha and I really wanted her to get better and my research made me understand the importance of near-Victorian respectable society. It was very important to them to protect marriage as an institution. Even if a couple were utterly miserable it was better, to them and for society, that they stayed together. Also, the status of women. Bertha is pretty helpless. She’s in a foreign country, she has no friends, no family. She is totally isolated.
Landscape is important in both Jane Eyre and Thornfield Hall – do you have personal experience of this part of the country?
I know Lancashire better! It’s only because my father was born in York that I feel I can do this! Yorkshire people are very, very particular about their county – it’s God’s own county. I do know the landscape, I know the moors. You only have to read Emily Brontë to know that moors are wonderful. Great open spaces where people had time to think and look at the sky and to develop a sort of individuality that you don’t get in towns. Funnily enough I’m going to spend Christmas in Harrogate! So I’m going to have another look at these spaces as I haven’t seen them in some years.
And what about Thornfield Hall itself?
I stuck with Jane Eyre. I didn’t go for describing the outside of it. I had great trouble working out how many floors there were in this building and what they were used for. I took the dining room and the entrance hall from Charlotte Brontë’s description as she’s quite specific about them. The third floor I split into two parts because she’s quite clear that the servants sleep on the third floor at the back so I moved Bertha’s rooms to the front so at least the poor woman had a view – although I doubt the view from there could have consoled someone who was born in Jamaica.
How did you develop the character of Alice Fairfax from the original? Did you make any significant changes?
I hope not. I hope she grew out of what Charlotte Brontë gave us. She was very kind, and motherly towards Jane. Jane thinks Alice is the owner when she first arrives. I knew she was fond of her bible as this is mentioned by Jane but she’s not conventionally religious. She obviously goes to church but she doesn’t have much time for Mr Wood, the parson, as he’d taken over the house that she’d occupied with the former parson, her husband. I also used the character of Alphonse to show how servants learned how to work their employers, to get them to want what they wanted. Alice refers to it as working with the grain of people and this is what they all did.
And what about Grace Poole? There seems to be much less of a focus on her drinking habit than there was in the original – was that deliberate?
Yes. All I made her do was drink a glass of porter which, at the time, was highly recommended to nursing mothers. But she worked what we would call now 24/7 – she had no time off so she liked a drink. I don’t think she was such a drunk. I’ve left her a little mysterious because I think that’s how she should be. I’ve tried to convey that her past was tinged with tragedy of some sort and to me she is a single mum who has managed to keep her child through a difficult time and that has made her very tough.
The friendship that develops between Grace and Alice is an important part of the plot – would you say it drives your story?
I think friendship between women is an important part of society, frankly, and in this case there are no men to spoil the balance. If Mrs Fairfax’s husband were alive I don’t think the friendship would have developed. Grace has a son and she cares about him enough to want to go and live near him but he is living an independent life. They form a very close partnership I think.
Martha is a new character you added for reasons that become clear at the end of Thornfield Hall – were these reasons why you felt she had to be unconnected to the original? And did it make her easier to write?
Yes. She’s young, she’s inexperienced and she’s a bit careless and irresponsible, as many young people are. She’s just – unlucky. She has unrealistic ambitions. For me, she had a function to perform which was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and she was really rather good at that.
Were there characters and events from Jane Eyre that you wish you could have included in Thornfield Hall but were unable to because of the perspective you were writing from?
No, I don’t think so. I suppose I could have had Jane recount more of her childhood but I really wanted to concentrate on her time at Thornfield Hall and the build-up to it. I wished in a way I could have gone to Jamaica and got Mr Rochester married there but I couldn’t do that because I really only had one pair of eyes and that was Mrs Fairfax. She couldn’t stray too far from Thornfield Hall.
Was your decision to write in the first person made quite early on in the process?
Yes and that came from working with book groups – we do seem to like a continuous thread of narrative, linked by a person. A lot of people seem to like that. And a lot of people are interested in the lives of Victorian women – often, they’ve traced their own families back this far – and they want to know what life was like for them.
What do you think Charlotte Brontë wanted to achieve with Jane Eyre and did this influence your writing of Thornfield Hall?
I don’t think she had a specific target. She was an extremely clever, intelligent, imaginative and passionate woman who wanted to express herself. That’s what she was thinking about all the time – she had a compulsion to create and she couldn’t fight it. It came out in such an original and revolutionary way.
Did you want to change readers’ perceptions of any of the characters?
I think Mr Rochester is the main contender there. So many people find him extremely alluring, with his dark Byronic looks and his passionate nature and some people find him an absolute monster, for the way he treated his wife – his first wife, that is. Alice falls under his spell because he’s obviously a very charismatic person but if you count up his actions, they are pretty nasty! Confining his first wife to an attic, cavorting on the continent, wilfully trying to commit bigamy…but he has this allure.
Do you think the relationship between Jane and Mr Rochester is surprising and maybe even unlikely?
I do think it was probably wish-fulfilment on Charlotte Brontë’s part! I think she saw herself as Jane and with her passionate nature would have liked a man like Mr Rochester.
What kind of reader do you think would enjoy Thornfield Hall?
I’d say – I’d hope – that anyone who has read Jane Eyre would read it with pleasure and find it interesting to compare. I hope others who haven’t read Jane Eyre will read it for the plot – it’s a bit different. The main events are the same but the end result is different. It’s probably more of a woman’s book, it’s a book group book. It’s for people who like the formal and the traditional in the use of language, who enjoy that in their reading. I’ve tried to keep the tone of the period but also to make it suitable for the modern reader.
Do you think it’s better to have read Jane Eyre before reading Thornfield Hall?
No, I don’t think so – I hope not. Most people know a few things about the story. They always quote ’Reader, I married him’ to me and they have the image of the figure jumping from the roof. But I like to think it stands alone. I like to think it’s a bit snappier than the original!
Are there any other retellings of classics that you’ve read and enjoyed?
I’ve read Wide Sargasso Sea and I really struggled to understand that book because it’s very lyrical, it’s totally different from Charlotte Brontë. And some of it’s done in different voices, which confused me. Jean Rhys changed a lot of the details – she moved it from Jamaica to Dominica, for instance – and I didn’t like that. I read Longbourn recently and that was well done but we didn’t see a lot of the Bennett family and I wanted more. I was a bit taken aback when that came out because I’d already started mine and thought mine’s quite different. I felt that Charlotte Bronte had built this perfect little house and I could walk round it and meet those people on the stairs, in the drawing room, in the attic. I could see it in 3D.
Did you enjoy the experience and would you do it again?
People always say where do you get your inspiration from and it isn’t really inspiration – it’s a compulsion, to write. It’s an addiction I think. I have tried to give it up but it doesn’t work. I’ll go and paper a room, or make a dress, design a garden and then it all still comes back. I think books, and narratives in particular, are very, very important to us as people. We need narrative to make sense out of our lives. I think that’s what Mrs Fairfax was doing – she was making sense of her life.
Jane Stubbs studied English at London University. She went on to teach the subject to a variety of ages in colleges and schools. As well as raising a family, she has worked for various charities, has written a weekly column for a Scottish newspaper, and has won prizes for her short stories.
Thornfield Hall by Jane Stubbs is published by Corvus, am imprint of Atlantic Books, in paperback on 4th December, 2014 and you can read an extract here.
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