The French Dancer’s Bastard by Emma Tennant (2002)

Book review: The French Dancer’s Bastard a.k.a. Thornfield Hall a.k.a. Adèle by Emma Tennant (The Maia Press, 2006 [2002])

Adèle Varens is only eight when she comes to Thornfield Hall to live with the forbidding Mr. Rochester who may or may not be her father. She longs to return to the glitter of Paris and to the mother who has been lost to her. Her loneliness would be complete were it not for the young governess who arrives to care for her, although Adèle at first regards her with suspicion and dislike.

But there is another shadow hanging over their lives: the dark secret locked away in a high garret. Adèle’s curiosity will imperil them all, shatter their happiness and finally send her fleeing, frightened and alone, back to Paris.

Emma Tennant is the author of more than twenty books including memoirs, novels, comic fantasies and revisionary versions of classic texts. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and lives in London.

SPOILERS AHOY!

First published as Adèle in 2002, this is version 2 of the story, Thornfield Hall is the third. Or possibly it’s just an American title. It’s the same book, either way you look at it. Had it been a particularly good book, it might not have mattered that it has three different titles, but as it happens, it has some problems that cannot be duly overcome.

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve read another Emma Tennant book: Pemberley, which is a sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice. I quite enjoyed that book, as it happened. This one … not so much. I’ve heard that people take a fairly harsh view on her books, and now I know why. Good grief.

Before I even go into what it’s about, I’d say the book is very confused and incoherent. Most of the chapters are from Adèles point of view, like you would expect – it’s supposed to be about her, after all. But then some chapters are instead from Rochester’s perspective, or even Grace Poole’s! What is the point of this?!

The back of the book (quoted above) makes it sound like it’s a coherent story, but it isn’t. It keeps jumping in time and first, Adèle is in Paris. Then she’s at Thornfield. Then she gets chummy with Bertha. Then Jane arrives. Then a few years skip past. And so on, and so on. Things which are major in the original novel just gets brushed over. And that’s where we start to encounter the problems this book has. In fact, they start with the introduction, believe it or not. Has Emma Tennant actually read Jane Eyre? At all? She could’ve at least had the courtesy to check with the original to make sure she got some basic facts of it right!

For easy reference, I actually started noting down the inaccuracies in a notepad, the ones that I came across up to and including chapter eight or so, when I couldn’t be bothered anymore, because it was mainly the same faults being repeated over and over.

The book begins in France, where Adèle lives with her mother, and they have lots of friends who are very artisty (artisan, even?), and there’s this ugly, awful man who comes to see Adèle’s mother and then there’s an argument between them, a conservatory is smashed, and there’s even a parrot, but it doesn’t get burned alive in this one, luckily. (That’s a mental image from Wide Sargasso Sea that stays with you for far too long.) Adèle goes to Thornfield, doesn’t like it very much and wishes she was back in Paris or at the Mediterranean villa with her mother and, maybe, her Papa as well, but just maybe; and happens upon a French-speaking woman called Antoinette who lives up in the attics, and becomes a friend.

Meanwhile, Rochester is courting Blanche Ingram, then jump cut to Jane Eyre arriving as a governess and Adèle isn’t too impressed by her, but doesn’t dislike her very much either. Then Rochester proposes to Jane, which is bad, because how can he not marry her dear mother instead? Whom she has been writing to, but without getting a reply?

Then there is a weird bit where Grace Poole moves Bertha to a hay loft in a barn and Bertha is discovered by Leah and her beau, who have gone there to … well, you know. Then jump again to Jane being gone and Thornfield burning down and then, after Jane and Rochester have been married for some time, a body is discovered in a field. The body of Bertha Mason Rochester, as she’s wearing a locket which identifies her. She must have died not long after she escaped the hay loft, so she’s properly dead, but who was the person they buried in her stead? (I think it was mainly brushed over, because I don’t remember who it was – Céline? Someone completely insignificant?) Before this, Bertha had shown her mad self to Adèle, who no longer wished to associate with her.

Adèle runs off to Paris to reunite with her mother’s friends from her childhood, and she doesn’t find Céline anywhere. Instead, she finds out that she has a twin brother. As it happened, the vicomte who duelled with Rochester also of course had his ways with Céline (or she with him), and the result was a pair of twins. Rochester took charge of the girl, the vicomte of the boy, as no one could tell who the actual father was, but it was bound to be one of them.

And in the end Rochester (who has followed Adèle to Paris) takes her home and they all live happily ever after, because maybe Céline is dead and long gone and that Jane person isn’t so bad after all.

At that point, I was surprised to discover Adèle wasn’t the person who set Thornfield alight all those years ago. This book is too similar to the godawful Mrs. Rochester in places, and they’re both good reads, if they weren’t trying to use the characters from Jane Eyre, because that’s what’s letting this one down. It’s confused, doesn’t really have much of a plot rather than for the most part, Adèle whines over not being in Paris. I enjoyed the French parts to a certain degree. They had a nice French texture to them, but it didn’t feel particularly suited from a Jane Eyre perspective.

Adèle is a haughty brat whom it’s difficult to like, and so much goes against the book that I just couldn’t like it. The nods to Wide Sargasso Sea were a … (“nice” isn’t the word, as I don’t like the actual story of WSS) spiffy touch, but on the other hand, it feels like Emma Tennant has been reading that with more fervour than she has the original book by Charlotte Brontë, and that’s a massive fail, as far as I’m concerned. If you’re writing a spin-off get your facts right. And Tennant doesn’t.

I might not sound as passionately hateful about this as I did with Hilary Bailey’s Mrs. Rochester, but this also classes as a crime of fiction. And on that bombshell, here’s that list of errors I mentioned earlier:

“Her mother, circus trapeze artist and comedy actress Céline Varens” (this is from the introduction, which was my first “WTH?” moment) – erm, Tennant, think you’ll find the original says she was an opera dancer. You know, like Meg Giry.

Okay, the rest are in no particular order, as I only started after a few chapters and then went back over the first ones to pick stuff out.

“John and Mary, who make ready Ferndean Manor down in the damp woods for the servants of Mademoiselle Blanche and her mother.” – Makes it sound like Ferndean is at the bottom of the garden of Thornfield or something. Ferndean is 30 miles away. If you’re having guests over and Thornfield isn’t big enough, you don’t put them 30 miles away. In a dingy old mansion that used to be your father’s hunting lodge. (See what I did there? I read the original!) We’ll get back to distances a bit later.

“I detest the creature Papa has ordered from a seminary to come here as my gouvernante.” – No, Adèle was very fond of Jane. Adèle here also hates Rochester (her “Papa”), which she certainly doesn’t in the book – where he might be a bit harsh at times, but still spoils her with cadeux, which she loves. Not to mention that Rochester left it to Mrs. Fairfax to sort out finding and hiring a governess.

Rochester bought Céline a three-story house with a conservatory in Paris, where she stayed with Adèle. Sooooo, not a hotel? You know, like it says in the original? Also, Adèle feels way too eloquent for an eight-year-old. It just doesn’t feel right for a child, and I don’t get the feeling I’m being told a story by a little girl, and that’s what it professes to be at the start.

“I am a murderer. Under French law at least. In defence of my honour, I have killed.” – Rochester, who wounded the vicomte in some “insignificant place”. Not very insignificant if it’s a kill shot, is it? Adèle is also under the same impression, by the way: “the vicomte is dead and Monsieur Rochester can no longer return to France.” Then there’s someone whom I don’t remember (might be Grace Poole), who says: “her luring the man she truly loves into killing the vicomte”, so it’s not as if it’s not repeated over and over! (Céline truly loving Rochester? Yeah right.) As it happens, it turns out later in the book that actually, the vicomte wasn’t killed at all, but according to the original, Rochester already knew this from the beginning, and he would’ve had no problem going back to France if he so chooses.

“Low and dark as the Thornfield forest in which Antoinette always refused to walk” / “the woman he calls his ‘Antoinette'” – I get it, she’s read Wide Sargasso Sea too. But umm, WSS ain’t canon, it’s fanon. Jane Eyre is canon. Stick with the original. The woman’s name is Bertha.

“Why else, otherwise would I wed Blanche Ingram, as everyone knows I mean to do?” – Oh. My. Gods. She’s seriously having Mr. Rochester believe he should marry Blanche? Girl, what you on?

“and to my cousin Mrs. Fairfax” – is that cousin as in the old everyone who’s even vaguely related is a “cousin”, or is it just an error? Considering it’s coming from Rochester, I’m opting for error. Mrs. Fairfax says in the original that her husband is a second cousin or something to the late Mrs. Rochester, or that it’s an even more distant relation, and that she “never assumes on the connection” or something like that.

Rochester is home, Blanche Ingram comes to visit (even though I get the impression the first time they meet after quite some time in the original is when he goes off after the fire), and Adèle is there. Whereas it should be that they don’t meet until Rochester brings the house party back with him. Plus Mrs. Fairfax is half-plotting to see those two get married. Wrong!

Adèle meets Bertha, whom she befriends. Just … wrong. Not to mention the bit where both Bertha and Adèle are spying on Rochester in the bath. Eight-year-old girls checking out adult men’s privates? Creepy! Eww!

Adèle wants Céline to come to Thornfield and marry Mr. Rochester, so that they can be a proper family … and writes to her. Say, Adèle, weren’t you under the impression your mother had gone to the Holy Virgin?

“the room Grace Poole calls the boodwah of Madame Fairfax” – What’s with the botched French? Both Adèle and Rochester speak it well enough to know how to bloody spell “boudoir”. Speaking of Grace Poole, she’s not allowed to cook upstairs. Really?

Adèle hides in the bamboo (bamboo? In 1830s England? Doesn’t sound right, but I’m no expert) and witnesses part of Rochester’s proposal to Jane. Eh …

“On another journey with Monsieur Rochester, to Whitcross or Millcote” / “John goes into Whitcross on errand” – I think she confuses Whitcross and Hay. Whitcross is only a place about two to three days away on a coach, as it’s near Morton. It’s as far as Jane’s 20 shilling can take her. It’s not exactly next door! Millcote is about five miles away or so, so yes, it’s a place where you’d go to run errands, perhaps, but Whitcross? Tennant, you are deluded.

“from the sugar estates his father had” followed by “it’s all tobacco now” – Where does it say Mr. Rochester Senior actualy had estates in Jamaica?

“woman from the Port of Spain” – learn your words, Mensch. Bertha’s from Spanish Town, or at least that’s what Brontë calls it.

“orchard where you used to like to go walking when you first came to Thornfield” – because at that point, Bertha wasn’t already barking mad and had to be locked up? And also, it says they give her very cold baths and are generally very cruel to her at Thornfield. That doesn’t sound right either. Grace Poole was a hired professional and Rochester kept Bertha out of a sense of duty and, to a certain extent, care. The cold bath treatment torture thing might have been what they did in Victorian asylums, but that’s exactly why he didn’t put her in one in the first place! He’s not a heartless bastard, GODSDAMNIT!

Richard Mason “comes here to get money from the master” – really? What gave that impression? And gosh, Grace Poole is drinking Tokay with him, and they’re scheming to blackmail Rochester.

Did they really have boilers, steam irons and skylights in the 1830s?

“Spice islands she paid the master to take her away from” – No, Rochester was in Jamaica and was miserable there, felt a breeze and was reminded of home and decided to head back to England, and the whole going to Thornfield almost as soon as the honeymoon was over? He was in the Caribbean a few years, wasn’t he?

“He wants Miss Blanche’s land of course” – he doesn’t want her at all, it’s just a trick to try and get Jane to fall in love with him. Duh. And before that, he’s not even pursuing her! They had met socially, but he never seemed to take an actual fancy to her.

“Made me think of their colour as green and not the dull ‘hazel’ she has told me they are” – That’s just an outright lie. Chapter 24: “/…/ the satin-smooth hazel hair, and the radiant hazel eyes?” (I had green eyes, reader; but you must excuse the mistake: for him they were new-dyed, I suppose.)

It’s the Red Room for you too, Emma Tennant. Or, no, actually (it would mean Hilary Bailey would get some company) – it’s the attics of Thornfield, where Grace Poole can give you cold baths for the rest of your duration. This book should not have been written. 1 out of 5, and that’s me being quite generous.

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