Sarah Shoemaker’s Mr. Rochester derives from Jane Eyre but is an entirely different work that stands independently as a full-fledged recounting of the varied life of Bronte’s dashing, diffident hero. As a child growing up in vast Thornfield Hall, eight-year-old Edward finds himself isolated by a father who leaves much of the estate’s responsibilities to the steward while he travels to London and to Jamaica, intent to build his business interests around Rowland, Edward’s favored older brother. Edward has no idea how to speak with his father, but he has never actually been mistreated by him.
Edward is told to learn the ways of second sons, to step away from childish things and perhaps one day join Rowland and his father in this glamorous, isolated island. The early chapters convey how this once-powerful aristocratic family has fallen on desperate times, turning to the merchant class to reconsolidate their wealth. With this is mind, his father orders Edward to go into tutelage with Mr. Hiram Lincoln of Black Hill. The remote, exclusive boy’s school will be the origin of Edward’s love affair with Jamaica as well as providing the seeds of his friendship with young Carrot, whose bold ventures will touch Edward in ways he never could have expected.
Edward hardly has time to catch a breath before he is shipped off to work in the counting house at Maysbeck, a broadcloth-producing woolen mill. Placed under the wing of Mr. John Wilson, Edward is ready to learn everything he needs to know about becoming a man. Torn between manners and truth, and with a reputation worthy of the Rochester name, Edward prepares for Jamaica, undertaking an education appropriate for someone in his position: “I would put away any childish dreams and expectations and do whatever necessary to become a man my father would be proud of.”
Although the plot is predictable (we know from the outset that Edward will fall in love with Jane and Bertha will be imprisoned in the third-floor attic of Thornfield Hall), at least some surprises exist between past and present when Edward lands in exotic, garlanded Jamaica, a vivid and exciting tropical paradise that becomes a humid prison of consumption, loss, isolation and slavery. In Spanish Town, Edward courts young, charming Bertha Antoinette, daughter of Mr. Mason. Of Creole heritage, Bertha is famous for her beauty. She’s also the pride of the town and is sought after by many suitors. Readers familiar with Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea will know that Bertha cannot help becoming a victim of her madness. Any hope for a life of security is quickly dashed by a man who does not love her and is entirely disconcerted by a world so alarmingly different from his familiar English propriety.
Beyond the intense sun and heat, the aromas, andthe constant reminders of slavery, Edward imagines his new wife soon tied to him forever in marriage. Edward loves Bertha’s wild, mercurial spirit—so unlike those docile simpering boring proper English women: “I was mad for her, I was wild with longing. I could not wait to have her for my own.” With a golden future ahead of him, Edward contemplates marriage to “this most beauteous creature,” though he explains that he was not warned of the violent insanity running in the Mason family, or that the past three generations succumbed to it. He assumed Bertha's mother to be dead and was never told that she was in fact locked away in an asylum. With a mad wife who looks and acts like a harridan, Edward realizes he can no longer be at Valley View Plantation with Bertha: “I wanted it to over; I wanted to be shut of Bertha forever.”
Shoemaker hurls us into a whirlwind of Edwards’s innocence and frustration, his ultimate betrayal of Jane, and his father’s deceit—all wrapped up in sad ribbons of dreams that reference lyrically across the tumult of his life. When Rochester finally arrives back at Thornfield, Bertha—drugged daily with laudanum—is looked after by Grace Poole, the only woman competent enough to deal with her. Grace proves to have a firm enough grip over the lie steadily unfolding in the third-floor apartment. With the arrival of young Jane—an experienced governess looking for a position with a family—Edward is finally faced with the dilemma of two women existing under his own roof. Edward can think of nothing but Jane and Bertha, his mad-wife in the attic, and the need above all else to keep his shameful secret to himself and Grace. Naïve Jane is blindsided by Edward’s unforeseen affection for her in a frantic labyrinth of expectations denied and fortunes that spiral out of control.
If Mr. Rochester was a song, it would be a haunting elegy to Victorian lives trapped in dark webs of humanity, stifled by propriety and a ruling-class ideology that uses masculine power and empirical dominance to oppress minorities. Weaving a poetic, fractured tapestry of Jamaican society fraught with financial insecurity, elitism, and human frailty, Shoemaker constructs a strange brew of social convention where no one is innocent but many are vulnerable. Beautiful and heartbreaking, the novel effectively captures the burdens of Bronte’s iconic literary hero and the despair of a lonely, sad, half-mad woman trapped by the social strictures of her time.