Review: Thornfield Hall — Jane Stubbs —"A Jayne Eyre spin-off that's actually good!"
The classic Charlotte Brontë novel Jane Eyre has been given the literary spin-off treatment. Thornfield Hall is the story of Jane Eyre from below stairs...
The reimagined classic is thriving. We’ve seen countless sequels, spin-offs and reworkings of Jane Austen’s oeuvre, including PD James’s murder mystery Death Comes to Pemberley – and not forgetting Seth Grahame-Smith’s audacious bestseller Pride & Prejudice and Zombies, which is now being adapted for release in cinemas later this year. At the turn of the 21st century Madame Bovary was given the graphic novel treatment by Posy Simmonds’ Gemma Bovery, set in modern times.
Here we turn the spotlight on Charlotte Brontë. There is a long-standing, bestselling prequel to her genius novel Jane Eyre in the shape of Jean Rhys’ modern classic Wide Sargasso Sea, which tells the story of the early life of the ‘madwoman in the attic’, the first Mrs Rochester.
If readers have a burning desire to spend more time with the characters from Jane Eyre, they won’t be disappointed with Jane Stubbs’ Thornfield Hall. Even the sniffiest of readers who don’t believe in extending the life of Brontë’s creations shouldn’t ignore this lively and well-written novel. If anything, it allows us to experience the central characters in a more rounded way. Is there anything heroic about Rochester? Was he justified in locking up his first wife, or is he simply a nasty piece of work? Is Jane as naïve, uncertain and constrained as we were taught to believe at school? Was she even aware of what was really going on in the house she came to live in? All will be revealed!
Thornfield Hall works because it doesn’t rewrite the original, but reimagines it from another point of view – that of the housekeeper Mrs Fairfax. It is through her eyes that we see the full goings-on at Thornfield, from the moment she joins the household, widowed and penniless. Young Edward Rochester is away in the Caribbean, and he only returns when he inherits the estate after his father’s death.
Mrs Fairfax and the rest of the servants keep the house in order and become privy to the deepest, darkest family secrets. Why has a mysterious dark-skinned family friend arrived and why is Rochester so intent on keeping her identity hidden, going so far as isolating her to the third floor ensuring only a handful of staff know of her existence and swear on oath to never tell another soul?
Jane Stubbs has been true to Brontë’s original by keeping the setting, language, style and events intact. When Jane Eyre herself first arrives at Thornfield, she is exactly as Brontë painted her. Stubbs’ only addition is in showing us how she comes across to Mrs Fairfax, as she witnesses events and behaviours we are already familiar with from the original novel. But Stubbs makes the book her own by focusing on the Victorian attitude to mental health and by introducing a sharp twist in her tale that in no way contradicts the story we know and love.
There is drama and humour throughout this cleverly constructed novel; and warm friendships and romantic liaisons intermingle with suspicions, cruelty and menace. The characterisations are beautifully woven and it’s great fun to see the real Bertha Mason emerge like a phoenix out of the ashes.
The publishers Atlantic Books are determined to position Thornfield Hall alongside Jo Baker’s equally entertaining Longbourn, which, in a similar vein, tells the story of life in the Bennet household in Pride & Prejudice from the servants’ quarters. The covers of the two books look like they are part of a series. It’s a clever ploy. Both novels are very good indeed and will satisfy fans of the originals in equal measure.
So what’s next? Little Women from Laurie’s point-of-view? A prequel to Middlemarch? Mrs Danvers’ take on Rebecca? Gulliver’s Travels straight from the houyhnhnm’s mouth? Share your suggestions in the comments section below.
Read an extract from Thornfield Hall
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