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Rochester by JL Niemann (2009)

Book review: Rochester by J.L. Niemann (Trafford Publishing, 2009)

“After years of self-centered wandering, shielding my shattered spirit from further vain expectation, I now knew what it was to be loved.”

Yet…

“A cursed, damaged, aging wretch as I had no right to one so innocent, lovely, good and gifted as she…”

Edward Fairfax Rochester. He remains one of nineteenth-century English literature’s most enduring sex symbols, and, to this day, women the world over continue to swoon for him.

Rochester is an imaginative exploration of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre as seen through the eyes of a fiercely sensuous and introspective leading man. His story is told with all the realism of a passionate, masculine heart in narrative enriched with keen observations of settings and fellow players. Through Edward’s words, we leave behind coincidence and politesse to wander through his evocative world and probe what otherwise might have happened from that compelling first meeting onward. We are given Edward’s life of pain and travel beside him to absolution through the unsullied form of a lonesome young governess.

Here, Rochester tells of their journey in his own uninhibited, saucy, conceited, funny, manly way and would never dream of fading to black when the bedchamber door shuts.

Summary: If you don’t mind a Jane Eyre which doesn’t follow the book more than loosely and has added sex scenes, this is the one for you.

I only found out about this book a few weeks ago through the BrontëBlog, and it hasn’t been out very long either, from what I can tell. When I looked it up on Amazon and read the excerpt I knew I had to read it, because the excerpt showed me the sort of Rochester I have imagined, somehow J.L. Niemann seemed to have got it right. The book arrived to my delight on Thursday and I started reading it on the train to work… sneaked in a page or so at lunch and then read all the way home, and found it very challenging to put down. Well, now I have, and that’s because I’ve finished it.

The story follows Mr. Rochester from his villa in France, where he wants some absolution from his dreadful loneliness and sinful ways, and decides to return home, and in chapter two, he comes across a young woman by the name of Jane Eyre, the governess at Thornfield Hall… his horse slips on some ice and the rest is history. It finishes just before they’re about to head off to church to get married. The bits inbetween is a “somewhat” reworked Jane Eyre, from Rochester’s perspective.

It’s clear the author has been inspired by the 2006 adaptation, if the foreword and acknowledgements weren’t enough to convince us of the fact. It seems to have started its life as postings on a Toby Stephens fanforum or something along those lines, and was very popular there, so now it’s a book. It clocks in at 325 pages, being the first of three books – the story is said to continue “soon” in Rochester: Consummation.

This review will contain spoilers about the book for quite some time now,
just so you know.

Having now read this one, the title of the next installment comes as no surprise. This book is steamy, and if you like it hot, you’ll love this. I didn’t mind the sex scenes – and believe me, there were a fair few of those – but the way it was done… I don’t know.

Let’s start from the beginning. The first thing that irked me was the continuous description of Jane’s “gray-green” eyes – they’re hazel, according to Brontë’s Rochester (who also refers to her hair as hazel, not chestnut), and Brontë also says Rochester’s eyes are dark, not green. Second, when he had proposed, it was just an overload of “my young bride” which just made darling Edward sound rather pervy. We know there’s as good as 20 years between them already, give it a rest. Third, Blanche Ingram is a blonde, and while I know she is blonde in most of the filmed adaptations, she’s dark-haired in the book. These small details might seem a bit petty to be annoyed by, but it makes it clear that the author’s characters are from the 2006 adaptation, not the book which spawned it, which actually takes some of the pleasure away for me. Now, I love the 2006 adaptation, don’t get me wrong, but it just seems weird to base a book on it, instead of on the actual original work, and imagining the 2006 cast in the roles… well, it just makes things weird. I’m not sure I want to get that kind of intimate picture in my head of Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens in the throws of passion, no matter how much I love his Rochester.

There is a lot of alcohol in this book, and I do mean a lot (as in, “shouldn’t he be dead by now?”), and a lot of cigarette smoking. I thought Rochester smoked cigars, not cigarettes? There’s a lot of crying too, which Niemann thankfully has Rochester reflect on at one point – and he points out to himself that he’s never been much for crying and all of a sudden, it seems to be the only thing he does. Yeah, it does get a little tiring when he starts crying in almost every chapter, especially when he doesn’t strike me as the type, unless he gets really overwhelmed by emotion, such as when Jane returns and finds him crippled. Sometimes it gets a bit dragged out with his emotional ramblings as well, but Brontë had the prescedent of melodrama, so at least that shows a connection to the original, if in a different (and to me, more palatable) way. Overall, I think she (forgive me if you’re a bloke, J.L., but I really doubt you are) has made a good job of capturing Edward Fairfax Rochester. It’s not the way I would’ve done it, but at least her portrayal was a lot more on the money than Jean Rhys in Wide Sargasso Sea, a book Niemann mentions in the acknowledgements and makes several nods to in the book as well, which is interesting, but I suppose she’s taken bits of the Wide Sargasso Sea Rochester and incorporated it into the Jane Eyre Rochester, and because of that, perhaps I find it easier to swallow, even though I thoroughly disagree with Rhys’s portrayal.

The most confusing part is how the events of the original story have been re-worked. While a lot of the things we recognise from Jane Eyre are there, including some exchanges, they’ve been changed around in ways that I don’t fully understand. To begin with, I was waiting for quite some time for Bertha to torch the man’s bed, as that happens fairly early on in the story. Eventually, it came (Chapter 9), and I was hoping for a hold-my-breath-OMG-it’s hot post-fire scene. I got one… but at the same time, I got way more than I wished for, and that had me go “err… but… but… why!?” You see, instead of Jane leaving after she’s cold, she stays. And then there’s kissing… and he even feels her up her breasts good and proper, ending with her climaxing over it. IT’S JUST WRONG!

I don’t mind them having a bit of a feel and a fumble before they marry, but it’s too much, too soon, and it clashes with the book something dreadful. Which is how you can summarise most of the steamier scenes in the book.  I can (sort of) take the wanking, of which there are two instances of this before page 100 (and then no more), but it just seems out of sync with the original to have them that close before they’re even engaged. It’s not until Jane saves his life in that fire that he truly realises that he’s fallen in love with her, and she realises she’s done the same, but here, they’ve both fallen head over heels as soon as they’ve had their first talk, and instead of playing on the sexual tension, Niemann let’s it go completely and there’s snogging! No, it’s just not right.

Jane sneaks off in the night to compose a song, and he’s there and there’s more snogging, ending with her drawing lines on her belly with his, erm, let’s just call it a particular bodily fluid… Throughout the book, they never actually have full-on intercourse (thank gods!) but they’re close enough, ending with some rather heavy petting after he’s proposed to her, and okay, I prefer to read about the sexual tension rather than the act itself, because I think it’s so much more fun and sexy, and here, instead of leaving us hanging and eventually having us cheer when they finally do more than a chaste peck on the cheek, there’s very little tension buildup, it’s just straight down to – rather detailed – business, and it’s such a shame.

Then there’s Blanche Ingram, which Rochester has had a fondle with too in the past (and at one point in the book – both to his own disgust as well as mine) and he’s not the only one who’s done it either, apparently. She’s got quite the reputation! It’s an interesting take on the Blanche character, and she’s way more conniving and sinister in this than she ever was in the book or in any adaptation. She doesn’t give up her claim on Rochester when he’s not interested, she’s out for revenge. In the book, she just gave up on him after he spread some rumours that he wasn’t as rich as she had thought him to be, which shows how shallow she is – but here, she’s something quite different. To the point that she finds out about Bertha (rumoured in the book to be Rochester’s bastard sister) and ends up – for all that we know – courting Mr. Mason. All that to get back at Rochester? Sees a bit over-the-top, but very in character for her in this particular book.

Mrs. Fairfax actually wants Rochester to marry Blanche, and before, I’ve never really felt she took that much of an interest. Her only objection to Jane traditionally is that she thinks Jane an impressionable young girl who has been seduced by her master and doesn’t know what she’s doing. Here, she seems ready to be able to sabotage any plans of not marrying Blanche, which is just plain weird.

Adéle we see very little of, but after all, she’s keeping Jane busy. Leah and John, the servants, we see a lot more of, which is a nice change. Leah is normally quite young, but not so here, she seems around Rochester’s own age, and they’re friends of sorts. Arthur Eshton is a close friend, who’s disinterestedly courting Louisa Dent, until they finally give up and he meets with Diana Rivers instead (…yeah, coming to that). Jane is normally seen either through a door or a window, or in Rochester’s dreams, or in his arms, his lap, or in his thoughts.

Richard Mason comes along in the midst of the house party, when Jane is away at Gateshead (Georgiana is an aquaintance of Blanche here, by the way). Oh yes, there’s a house party, even though it’s fairly pointless if you consider the reason for it in the book was to make Jane jealous in order for her to realise how much in love with him she was. Here, it’s more to distract him from wanting to get under Jane’s corset. When she comes back, she’s been told, through Georgiana who got a fake invite, that Blanche and Rochester are engaged, so she’s already advertised for a new position, and has been offered the one in the Morton school – St. John’s school.

Rochester proposes in her bedroom, they spend the night together (asleep – well, eventually, anyway) and Jane has brought news – she has three cousins, two of which she will be meeting in Millcote. Because after Aunt Reed told her of Uncle John in Madeira, Jane contacted him and he told her she has cousins… and then, later on, it turns out they’re all his heirs.

Meanwhile, Rochester is making plans to move Bertha and Grace Poole to Ferndean, while making inquiries with a solicitor in Jamaica to see if he can get out of the marriage. Bertha might have already been married to someone else by the time she married Rochester. What the end result of this is, I guess we’ll know when the next book comes out. Will I be ordering the next book when it comes? Certainly – I have to see where the author takes this. Will I like it? We’ll see. I think once we’re clear of the events in the book, it’ll be easier to stomach. Now, it’s just weird how things are changed when you know what they’re supposed to be like.

Okay, I’ll stop the spoilers now. You can look again.

So then, do I like it or do I not like it? Yes, on both. Overall, I like it. Hey, it’s all about Mr. Rochester, how can I not like it? 😉 It’s interesting to see things from his point of view, even though that point of view is a little too lewd in this context for my taste. Niemann seems to share my ideas regarding Rochester’s family (the story of how Rowland died is, erm, special :)). She also does a good job of describing food – it’s always quite detailed what’s beeing served.

Rochester is just about as broody and angsty as you can get, and I had some issues trying to part from the book at times. Especially in the beginning, before things got a bit out of hand with changing stuff around from the book, which I’d say is what lets the book down. It completely changes the chronology of stuff and meaning of things, primarily the Jane/Edward relationship and that’s what bothers me. It’s enjoyable and definitely written for a modern audience (if Charlotte Brontë had read it, she would’ve been utterly shocked).

J.L. Niemann has offered an interesting re-working of a classic novel and breathed new life into it, one that doesn’t scream of Plot Device quite as much as the original. Sometimes the brooding gets a bit too much, but I think she definitely manages to get Rochester’s rather complex character in a pretty good way. However, I think it’s trying too hard to sex things up – a modern audience doesn’t need always need to get inside people’s breeches or under their chemises to make a story interesting. But still, once they’re married, I suspect I’ll be loving the story. Right now, I’m just a bit annoyed that it’s not according to the book.

And because I both love it and dislike it, it’s an average, middle-of-the-road 3 out of 5 snogs.

(Does this mean I have to class myself as a fanfic reader now?)

Traxy Thornfield

A Swedish introvert residing in Robin Hood Country (Nottingham, UK) with a husband and two cats. She's an eager participant in tabletop and play-by-post roleplaying, woodworking, photography and European travel. Will get a novel out one of these days, if she doesn't get too distracted along the way.

14 thoughts on “Rochester by JL Niemann (2009)

  1. Thanks for the very thorough review. It sounds like the book has some merit (I mean hello, it is hard NOT to fantasize about Toby Stephens’ Rochester), but it also sounds like they went a bit too far…for my preference, anyway. Thanks again for the review!

  2. @Ruth: Yeah, it’s not a bad book by any means. The author’s a bit too fond of adverbs, but I’ve seen worse. I’m not bothered about the sex because I’m a prude, but because I’m a purist. If you’re going to take on someone else’s work, at least make sure it fits in with it or don’t bother. Even though Rochester is fairly on the money and I can easily see Blanche as the baddie, it just feels wrong to change Jane in the way that’s been done. While it’s still in character with Brontë’s Jane to a certain degree, I feel it lacks Jane’s strong moral code and that dear old Victorian restraint. It’s set in the 1800s, please keep with the times. Just because we’re in the 21st Century now doesn’t mean you have to adapt the story to fit in with modern society, because it’s NOT about modern society. Err… okay, I’m just ranting now, so I’ll stop! *giggle*

    @JD: Oh gods, is it going to veer even further off course from the original? :S I’m guessing book two is going to cover (possibly) the time from the first marriage to when the’re reunited and marry for real, and the third being what happens after they’re married. I’m hoping the third one will be the one I can read without cringing, because at least Jane’s narrative ends with their marriage, and we just get a brief summary of what happens in the next ten years, but the road to get there can be bumpy indeed, if Niemann takes it more off course than she’s done already. Thanks for the heads up! 🙂

  3. Great very detailed review that has motivated me to add this to my TBR list-I think it is hard to look at Rochester the same way after reading Wide Sargasso Sea-I know we differ on this but I think Jean Rhys came very close to the real essence of Rochester-

  4. I have read the rough draft too and I agree with most of what you mention in your review. I could actually feel my liver ache after all that drinking and smoking and I didn’t particularly like the gourmet details too. It is as if the writer didn’t know how to fill the gaps between the love scenes.

    This book is certainly very far from Bronte’s masterpiece and the characters are quite distorted especially Jane. At some point Rochester calls her teasingly “a nymphet” and truly without her morality and common sense she is that in this book (making Blanche an even greater sl*t doesn’ t atone for it). I couldn’t respect Rochester too had he behaved like this. I disliked his being so very intimate with Jane and then remembering to have regrets.

    As for the sex scenes they are really very steamy and stretched for the era and the characters, but without them the book would be utterly boring. For me the writer had a flair for it. I don’t think it is easy to write sex scenes and pornographically the book serves its purpose, but I thanked God that Charlotte Bronte knew how to write about sexual tension without being obscene.

    And another thing that bothered me was the language, the dialogues between Jane and Rochester which are times are far too modern or not at all worked. I remember Rochester actually telling Eston that when Jane resists him “he wants to f*ck her”. What a stupid way to say something that Charlotte Bronte could partly imply in the middle of the Victorian era with the great sentence “a lamb-like submission and turtle-dove sensibility, while fostering his despotism more, would have pleased his judgment, satisfied his common-sense, and even suited his taste less”. The authentic Jane is a smart girl in realizing that one of the reason Rochester likes her, is because she has the force to oppose and to resist him and that to a despotic temperament like his, this is like a red sheet. He likes to hunt and she continues giving him something to chase after.

  5. @mel u: I had no problems looking at him the same way after WSS as I didn’t agree with any of it, like you know. Think we’d better agree to disagree on that one! 😉 It’ll be interesting to see what you make of it!

    @ksotikoula: I’m a foodie, so that’s probably why I didn’t mind the food bits. Some things made me wonder if they were the sort of dishes served in Victorian England – especially something that contained pecan nuts, and that tree isn’t native to the UK. It sounded a bit too American, but I don’t know, perhaps they imported it? That those kinds of details seemed like fillers between sex scenes, though – yes. It was a mix of alcohol, angst, tobacco, food, and more angst… Okay, I’m fine with the angst – a book from Rochester’s perspective should have plenty of it. The rest… She was going on about different types of wine as well. Guess she’s a foodie too.

    I think if it was set when Jane was Mrs. Rochester, it wouldn’t be as weird with her being a bit, umm, modern. Her being a Victorian 18-year-old having lived a very sheltered life in an all girl’s school… “nymphet” sounds really rather implausible. (And rather “Lolita” to boot.) The whole point of the book is that her moral code says even though she fancies the pants off him, she’s not going to let herself succumb to passion – well, at least not until they’re married, when it would kind of be okay. Still, she’s not used to men, and even if she was rather turned on, I’d expect there to be some hesitation and even fear involved. Where’s that?

    The book could’ve still been good without the sex scenes, if it instead had done more with the sexual tension. Hey, it worked for Charlotte Brontë! 🙂 Niemann wrote good sex scenes, though, I agree. It’s so easy for sex scenes to just become tacky and sleazy, and she managed to not just descend into smut. Still, it was a bit too much for my taste here, as it didn’t fit with the book. She scarcely even dared kissing him until he proposed, and here, the first time they even realise they fancy each other, there’s an orgasm involved? The beauty of the original is that there are occasions when you really cry out for a kiss, but the fact that they don’t actually oblige you is what makes it so great! That’s what sexual tension is all about. There should’ve been more of that.

  6. I just finished reading this book myself, and I agree that it’s well done as far as giving us a look at what Mr. E.F. Rochester was thinking, but at the same time I felt…disturbed, at best. I can’t say if it was my chaste little Jane turned into a sexpot or the alterations to the timeline/plot of the original that bugged me more. What bugged me MOST, however were when the author slipped in some entirely too-modern phrases. I’m not sure if Victorian Gentlemen actually said “Yep” or described a shrug as a “Sure, Whatever” gesture.

    Not to say I didn’t enjoy the book, I (mostly) did.

  7. Spot on, Bee. 🙂 “Disturbing” is an excellent summary! The “sure, whatever” bugged me too. The “f***” not as much, because it was used in DH Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” (a book that feels surprisingly modern in parts) from 1928. Then again, that’s 80 years after “Jane Eyre”. From what I can tell from the Wikipedia article, the word has been around for centuries, so perhaps it was used back then. Maybe not in civilised society, though!

  8. Traxy your sentence “I think if it was set when Jane was Mrs. Rochester, it wouldn’t be as weird” made me think another more reason why original Jane Eyre felt so great. Because the love scenes there served many purposes: 1) if the book is an exploration about how a girl matures into a woman depicting her physical, sentimental, logical, ethical development why sexual development should be withheld? 2) what sort of temptation would there be if there was not a sexual side to it too 3) the heroes have a great age difference so it was good that never in the story Rochester was felt like her father. So what I am saying is that Charlotte Bronte wrote love scenes for many reasons and not only because they would be interesting and provocative to the public. That is why Jane Eyre after her wedding tells us nothing there was not need to do so. That would be too voyeuristic for the reader. That is what is wrong with this particular narration. Plus that with no childhood left for Jane you don’t get to feel that she is that innocent and deprived girl of the original story.

  9. Oh my Gosh! So there is somekind of sexual attraction between Jane and Rochester! I have never thought that Jane will stay with Rochester when she saved him from the fire! Please, tell me more about this scenes and about the proposal! Also come to my blog (I’m a very big fan of Toby Stepens!!!) http://springdawnsatheights.blogspot.com
    LOL! Thanks!

  10. So I read the free sample on Google Books, just to make an idea about it. It really amazed me the scene when Rochester cries for the first time in the book, after he sees for the first time the governess on the way to Thornfield (to be more precisely, his conciousness said that he would’n have the governess ever, then he gets emotional).
    I remember, as I was reading through the lines, at page 68, the fun starts: after they put down the fire, he leaves Jane in his chamber alone, then goes to Bertha and Grace, and finally returning to his chamber again. He is starting touching her cheecks, brows, and then gets emotional again! Jane wakes up(because when he was touching her face, she was sleeping) and talks with Rochester about the fire. When she wants to go to her room, Rochester’s counciousness doesn’t allow him to leave her going to her chamber, so he draws her forcefully and starts kissing her. What impressed me very much was the way he was thinking about her first kiss: ‘Control, Edward, this is her first kiss’.

    In the end, I want to thank to the writer about this book. I think I was needing it from the time I was reading Jane Eyre: Jane Eyre is too platonic!!!

  11. Oh god, I’m so tempted to read this. I love the way it started out as internet fanfic, because all the other Bronte spin-offs I’ve read all sound like fanfic but in their neat little dust jackets purport to be rather more substantial. And yet they’re not (ahem cough Emma Tennant ahem).

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