Thornfield Hall, as I’m sure many of you will know, belongs to the Rochester family. It’s where Jane Eyre goes to be a governess and falls in love with Byronic hero, Edward Fairfax Rochester. Jane Stubbs takes us back, long before Jane’s arrival and, through the eyes of Alice Fairfax, housekeeper, gives us a different view of the hall and the events that unfold within its walls.
My mother was gentry. As the daughter of a gentleman and the widow of a clergyman she claimed it as her birthright. She clung desperately to that status. It seemed to console her for the poverty and the meagreness of her life. Throughout my rather miserable childhood she drummed into me the importance of this mystical privilege that a gentlewoman must at all costs cherish and preserve. Never mind that we dined on crusts and scraps and had no fire before six o’clock of an evening; we were gentry and we had a servant to prove it, some poor unfortunate twelve-year-old village girl cozened into washing our dishes for a few pennies a week. If my mother ever discovered that I had swapped genteel poverty and semi-starvation for the good food and warmth enjoyed by the servants of a wealthy man she would turn in her grave.
The novel begins with Alice’s arrival at the hall following the death of her parson husband and their baby daughter. It is soon followed by the death of Mr Rochester and the hall passing to Edward Fairfax Rochester, the black sheep of the family, who is Jamaica. Rochester writes to Alice informing her that he will be coming with a companion who will need specialist care. ‘The patient is not one of my kin,’ he states. This allows Stubbs a significant period of time – it spans more than a third of the novel – before Jane Eyre arrives. During these pages, she introduces the reader to events on the third floor, creating a version of Bertha Mason quite different to that painted by Charlotte Brontë.
Initially, Bertha is cared for by a Mrs Morgan but Alice soon becomes suspicious of her:
The only furniture in the room was a small iron bed. A great nest of black hair sprawled over one end of it. The rest of the figure was hidden by a thin blanket that no self-respecting horse would have endured wearing. I could not be sure it was a person in the bed until I saw the arm. It was a thin, wasted arm that hung over the side. On its wrist was a heavy manacle; the chain was fastened to the leg of the bed.
‘Like I said. She sleeps.’ Mrs Morgan gazed down at her charge with an expressionless face. I strove to keep mine similarly blank.
‘I heard the blacksmith had been.’
‘It was necessary. They do it in the asylum when they have their fits.’
Speaking your mind is regarded as a great virtue in Yorkshire. Most of the time, I say what I think. On this occasion a gap as wide as a church door opened up between the thoughts in my brain and the words that came from my lips. What I though was, ‘You have chained her like a convict to make your life easier, so you can go and get your breakfast and stuff your face and then feed that poor soul the scraps.’ What I said was, ‘So it is a method practised by the medical profession?’
Eventually, Mrs Morgan is dismissed and Grace Poole takes her place. This allows two things to happen: Bertha is cared for in a manner more befitting a human being and Alice makes a friend. The conversations between the two women were the highlight of the book for me; Stubbs uses them to show the power that women could have at the time, even if they were in domestic service. Alice and Grace are intelligent, thoughtful and caring.
The key to the book is Bertha’s story, although not, I understand (I haven’t read it), in the same way as Wide Sargasso Sea. Here Stubbs limits herself to Brontë’s version of the story and while Bertha is humanised and her condition is likened to more of a nervous breakdown than long term mental health issues, there are still some moments that made me cringe while Grace and Alice come to understand who Bertha is. However, Stubbs through Alice’s narration, doesn’t allow Rochester to go unchallenged – she becomes to realise what the nature of his dealings in Jamaica must be and comments on them, although she has a difficult time reconciling the man she thinks she knows with the one involved in the slave trade and the mistreatment of a young woman or three.
I enjoyed Alice’s narration; I liked the servants, they were well-drawn, interesting characters and I enjoyed the feminist spin on Alice and Grace’s stories in particular. Unfortunately, I wasn’t entirely convinced by the Bertha Stubbs creates and I’m really not sure what to make of the book’s ending – having stuck closely to the plot of Jane Eyre for the majority of Thornfield Hall, there’s quite a shift towards the end, I’d love to know what other people thought of it. An interesting one for Jane Eyre devotees then but it’s inspired me to do something I should have done years ago: read Wide Sargasso Sea.
Thanks to Corvus for the review copy.