Overview: Have you ever wondered what happened after Jane found Mr Rochester, blinded and crippled by the fire that destroyed Thornfield Hall? After the death of his wife freed him to marry his young love, and the destruction of his home and estate forced the two of them to start life anew? Hilary Bailey answers these questions and brings in a plot of her own with this sequel to the Bronte classic. She builds a new world for the new Mrs Rochester, centred on her husband, whose sight is slowly healing and whose attitude is forever changed by being happy in love, and her young son, the joy of both his parents. For ten years after Thornfield Hall and all it stood for crumbled, Jane and Mr Rochester live in wedded bliss, spending their days in an idyllic family unit at the small manor of Ferndean.

But when Mr Rochester decides to rebuild Thornfield Hall, Jane fears the ghosts that might be brought back with it, and her fears are not unfounded. Mrs Rochester rewrites Jane's 'Happily Ever After' as a twisted tale of interrupted bliss, haunting pasts, and frightening vendettas that follow the Rochesters to their newly rebuilt home. Old wounds are re-opened, grudges once thought buried resurface, and accusations abound, resulting in a mysterious, fast-paced re-imagining of a timeless favourite.

 

Mrs Rochester A Sequel to Jane Eyre by Hilary Bailey Book Chapter One

 

Here in my calm, light room at Thornfield Hall, I sit on a window-seat writing, sometimes looking down on to the broad swathe of lawn below, my pen and inkwell on a small table beside me. It is May now and the orchard in the walled garden to my left is in bloom. Soon, there will be roses. Looking up into the cloudless blue sky I know content; I am safe again after storms.

Yet in my mind I am not fully here in the magnificence of the restored Thornfield Hall. I dream, recalling those last happy days at the manor of Ferndean, thirty miles away. I remember the September of last year at Ferndean, dear Ferndean, my Paradise, my shelter, my joy during the first ten years of my marriage.

Let me go back in memory to those September days.

Years of love and patience had transformed that formerly gloomy house in its wooded valley into a calm and delightful home, surrounded by a garden, made with my own hands, full of scent and colour. Small as it was by the standards of the great, it was large enough for us. Who, living with those they truly love, will wish to be separated from them by a spread of imposing rooms and great lengths of gallery and corridor? Such distance may end in distances of the hearts, I believe. For my husband and myself, the small pretty dining-room, one charming drawing-room and an even smaller study and library sufficed. When we were alone in the evenings by the fire, my husband would look about him, lean back in his chair and tell me often, ‘My dear Jane – you could make a home in a desert, of that I’m sure.’

‘I am so glad you are pleased with me, sir,’ I might then tell him, in jest. ‘Is there aught else I can do for you?’

Then, ‘Well,’ he might return, ‘first you might bring me my book and then you might bring me yourself and then sit near me while I read to you.’

How I recall the closeness we had then, and the quiet activities which filled our days in that little house where began my happiest years, those of my marriage. This thought comes to me seldom during the daylight hours, but at night I dream of Ferndean, nestling in its hollow, its red brick gleaming in the sun, the old mulberry tree under which we used to sit.

I recall so well the quiet routine of our days there. Each morning Edward and I would breakfast quietly together, talking of the pattern of the coming day, little varied, it must be said, from day to contented day. Oh the delight, the joy of seeing that dear face across the table from me each morning.

Then Edward would go into his study to conduct his affairs, for, apart from his estates, he had business interests to occupy him. Later, I would bring him some refreshment – Edward looks up from his desk – huge Pilot gets up from his position by the desk, wagging his tail and I, with some tea or lemonade on a tray in my hand, go to my husband, and, laying my hand on his shoulder, ask him, is there any help I may give him.

Sometimes he would say, ‘Well, little scribe, can you find the time from your household tasks and garden, and the school and all your other multifarious businesses, to act for a time as my secretary? Will you make fair copies of these letters for me? Will you add up these figures and check the totals? Play the lady of business?’ And then I would set to at the little desk opposite his own and gladly do what I could, rejoicing in the opportunity to assist and to understand the progress of his affairs. Knowing all his dealings, I was able to keep in tune with his movements and his moods. At other times, though, he would refuse my help, saying, perhaps, ‘No – I am managing well enough without my handmaiden. But will you take Pilot about your business with you, for he pines for activity.’ And I leave the room, Pilot at my heels. (This was not the old dog, now long dead, but some son or nephew of his.)

All this while, my boy would be at the rectory, receiving his lessons from the curate with his two young companions, the sons of our vicar. Often I would walk my little Jonathan there in the mornings, not because he could not find his way down the lane to the rectory, but for the pleasure of being with him at the start of the day. On his return we would all, Edward, Jonathan and I, take our midday meal together, talking of what we had done that morning. My time during the afternoons was for my dear son.

How well I recall these last, happy, Ferndean afternoons. Picture us both: I, so small of stature that already my boy came almost to my shoulder, walking hand in hand with him through the orchard, heavy with fruit, then through the fields and down to the river bank. There I and the bright-haired child who had gladdened my life for every moment of each day of all his six years, walk the river banks, which were fringed with trees on either side, their leaves just beginning to turn from green to red and gold.

As we stroll we see all manner of things to exclaim over – a red squirrel leaping from branch to branch, an otter slipping smoothly from a rock into the water, gliding off, its friendly brown head just above the surface. Then Jonathan scrambles down the bank, through the brambles and bushes, clutching a little pail, and, keeping a precarious balance above the fast-moving stream, mercifully shallow, begins to pluck the juicy black fruit. Then, we wander home together, where he hands his pail to Mary, in the kitchen. She will be sure to make a pie of his fruit for supper, or say that it was made of all he had plucked, even if the amount had turned out to be insufficient.

Jonathan settles to his milk and bun in the kitchen, and afterwards wanders forth to help the gardener, the coachman or the groom with his labours – his, I say, for these important functions are all carried out by the same man, Jeremy, son of Mary and John, our loyal housekeeper and her husband.

Meanwhile my dear Edward and I are taking our tea in the late sunshine of the day at a rustic table I have had put in the garden, beneath the old mulberry – Ah, dear Ferndean, how I loved those last, peaceful days we spent there – all the dearer, for they were so soon to end.

There may be some who will protest – this woman tires us with her continual affirmations of her own peace, happiness and contentment. What has she to say to us, who are leading lives of effort or challenge, ever attempting to respond to situations not of our making? What has she to say to those who are over-busy in the wide world, who have the care of large families, who are afflicted by sickness or anxieties of many kinds?

To this I respond, my life had not always been as it was in those days. Imagine me, ten years earlier, at eighteen, the small, dove-grey figure of a governess, hair tidied away to invisibility, hands doucely folded before me, eyes downcast, betraying no expression, a creature like some timid woodland animal, seeming to seek only concealment. Imagine this subdued figure. Imagine the torments within. I was passionately in love, yet knew my love was impossible, that the object of it could never be mine. Then imagine that love returned – magnificently returned. Then think of hopes dashed, desolation, a state of despair making death seem almost better than life. Think of flight, loss, poverty, near starvation and then, almost by chance, the recovery of love…

It was through this, tribulation that I, once Jane Eyre, came to be Jane Rochester, Mrs. Edward Rochester.

I had come to Thornfield Hall – the old Thornfield – as governess to Adèle, Edward’s ward. He did not appoint me himself; that was done by his housekeeper, a kinswoman of his, Mrs. Fairfax. I knew nothing of my employer’s existence, nor he of mine, until he, a proud man on a high-stepping horse, came across me, standing quietly by a stile.

He has said I was beautiful then, but if so, I did not know it. In my own eyes I was a slight and insignificant figure, a veritable mouse. Yet he has told me since, ‘I saw a lovely girl, little more than a child, with great compelling eyes, full of subdued life and thought (which, though you tried, my dearest, you failed to conceal from me). This girl’s dear face had a delicacy of form and feature such as I had never seen. And I thought, the man who overlooked that face, that form, would be he who would put aside the finest of water-colours in favour of a great daub of an oil painting.’

Yet my Edward says I am better now than in those days, that I have more colour, a flush in a healthy cheek, my brown hair gleams, those grey eyes of mine have more lustre than they had all those years ago. Well, I believe that ten years of happy marriage will make a beauty of any woman, but even now I can see nothing remarkable about myself. ‘I would have you continue to believe yourself plain and insignificant, my Jane,’ Edward tells me, ‘for if you did not, who knows, you might decide to start going out in society and cutting a great figure in the world, and then farewell to tranquillity, farewell to the domination of Edward Rochester over his wife.’

As if he could ever occupy anything but the first position in my heart! As if I could ever seek out the world! I am by nature retiring. Better, I maintain the pleasure of well-loved friends and members of the family than loud and noisy gatherings of people not necessarily loved or admired. At Ferndean our chief visitors were few – our good clergyman, Mr. Weatherfield, and his admirable wife; the worthy Miss Crane, a lady who lived quietly in our village and was the main teacher, other than myself, of the little school I had begun there for the sons and daughters of the rural people. Others were Edward’s trusty friend Sir George Lynn, my cousins Diana and Mary and their excellent husbands, Captain Fitzjames and the Revd. Mr. Wharton.

This was all the society we craved, or needed. After we married, at first Edward was too ill to wish for much company – later, when he was recovered and I questioned him as to whether he required more society and entertainment, he replied that the pleasant quietness of our lives had become so agreeable to him he could not contemplate an alteration. Gone was that restlessness which in old days had taken him from place to place, country to country, and which had filled his house with a throng on the rare occasions when he honoured Thornfield with a visit. No longer was he fleeing despair, seeking noise and movement in an attempt to dull an inner pain; now he was a happy man.

And for myself – I wonder, what need has a happy woman of constant society? Certainly I had no such desire – my husband and child were all in all to me, their company all I required for perfect happiness, Indeed, I must confess that after a long visit even from my dear cousins or the best of our friends my heart would begin to yearn again for the quietness and uninterrupted company of my two dear ones.

But I digress. I must bring myself to tell of the past, though it pains me to relate it again. Yet I must, for my own sake and disarm my imaginary critics, those who might be impatient of a catalogue of benefits, rolled out seemingly without thought or consideration for others whose lives are more troubled or difficult, whose burdens sometimes threaten to overwhelm them. Let me return to the painful contemplation of the past, return to when I first met my employer. I did not know him to be so, then discovered he was indeed Edward Rochester, the man with whom I was destined to share a roof during those times when he chose to be at home.

What can I say of that house, Thornfield Hall, where I found myself? It was stately and imposing and yet, from the moment I entered it, I felt some apprehension. Befriended by the worthy Mrs. Fairfax I was ever astonished by the menacing presence of the servant Grace Poole, whose sewing-room, an eyrie on the top floor, was seldom allowed to be entered or approached. I knew nothing, only sensed mystery.

I came to love Edward Rochester, despite his brusqueness and rages, but knew I must hide this from others, often wishing in my heart I could hide that love also from myself, hopeless as it was. Yet there were other times when, bearing within me a love I knew could never be returned I still rejoiced – that Edward was at Thornfield, that there I might see and speak to him daily – simply – that I loved him!

I had believed he could never return that love – yet he did! And confessed his love; we planned to marry. And then came tragedy.

My poor Edward – he should not have tried to deceive me, yet what choice had he? He told me, when he returned home after years of wandering, he found a good, bright creature, clear-eyed, clear-headed, one who, he knew immediately, was capable of reviving his jaded heart, who could help him towards a new life. But this girl, whom he needed so greatly, was forbidden him by law.

Locked in the house guarded by Grace Poole, was the wife he had married when young. She was mad, a bestial creature, unclean and raving, her only thoughts of doing violence to any she came near. I did not know of her existence, nor did even Mrs. Fairfax, but others did, and those included her brother and his representatives. Edward and I were on the verge of marrying, in the church itself – when one stepped forward to denounce the wedding as illegal. Edward had a living wife.

Edward offered me a life as his mistress; I could not accept. I fled into the world, friendless and in despair. I know now how easily I might have perished. But Providence led me to friends, to relatives of whose existence I had not known, even to a modest fortune. And thus I prospered and began to renew my life, though I knew I could never feel joy again, having lost him whom I held most dear.

And then I found him again. I searched, found Thornfield Hall a ruin, burned to the ground by the madwoman. Edward, gravely injured in the fire as he attempted to rescue his wife from the flames, had gone to Ferndean, blind and lacking his right hand. He had decided to end his days there, in a kind of death-in-life. It was at Ferndean that I found him, and vowed never to leave him whether he willed it or not – and there we married and made our lives. So I will tell those who may say I have dwelt too much on my own happiness that it did not come easily. We both, Edward and I, suffered much, before we found content.

That is the past. What had we made of ourselves since, during our ten years at Ferndean? Edward calls me beautiful, and, be that true or false, so long as I am beautiful to him, what matters the rest? I live in his light. Without it I would be plunged in utter darkness.

And Edward, Edward Fairfax Rochester, my Edward? Well he had not lost his dark look; he could even still be harsh, as once he was, but that was seldom those days. When I asked him playfully not long after our marriage why he no longer cried out impatiently or gave his orders in a loud and demanding tone, he said, ‘What need, when a man is contented as I am?’ That happiness lasted the length of our time at Ferndean.

The house, as I have said, was small, which meant we were prevented from employing any more than dear Mary and John and their son to serve us. I was able therefore to carry out many small but useful tasks myself, taking care of my boy, tending those few precious articles I brought with me on my marriage, an old writing-table from the last century, a set of precious teacups and saucers, fragile as eggshells, which I loved, some old volumes I felt only my own hands could dust and preserve. These tasks I loved.

It was I who planned the garden and planted much of it and later, when my boy was toddling, I began the little village school, where I and good Miss Crane taught by turns. How my heart soared when I saw the children begin to blossom and considered how their lives would be changed by their acquisition of learning.

So diligent was I, even from the first days of our marriage, that one evening, as we sat peacefully in firelight, Edward took up my hand and looked at it, a little reproachfully, I thought, and said gently to me, ‘Though I see no signs of harsh toil here, my little dove, I must ask, do you feel truly you must always be working? Sometimes it is your garden, then you will be sewing a shirt for me, now I see you frowning over the accounts. There are days when I wake with the nervous fear I shall walk out to find you on the roof, attaching tiles! I must ask – do you believe Mrs. Rochester must earn her bread by labour? For if you do, I must disillusion you. Mrs. Rochester has no need to earn her bread. She keeps her place by love, by being – just – Jane.’

I smiled, yet I felt a pang. At that time Edward was still a little blind in his one good eye, though his sight was returning. I knew, too, he felt the loss of his right hand, so badly burned when he tried to rescue Bertha Mason from the inferno at Thornfield, that amputation was the only recourse. Edward Rochester, master of Thornfield, was not then, in his own mind, the proud land-owner and mighty figure he had been before.

For this reason, I hastened to tell him, ‘Oh, Edward, I wonder, what would you have me do? Should I sit merely enjoying my happiness in a world which has given me so much, or try to make some little contribution to it – sew, or plant a rose bush which will bloom to delight us in a year or so? But if you wish me…if you feel’ – and here I began to falter. I feared that in my zeal I had not pleased, but indeed had begun to injure, the man to whom I owed all my happiness, he who had created afresh the person I now called Jane. I had been Jane Rochester a year, and, from the moment when I assumed the name, I had begun to transform. That name had brought me out of darkness, loneliness, enforced self-containment into light and warmth. But was I causing distress to the man who had given me so much, my husband?

But all he said to me, smiling, was ‘How could I expect you, my Puritan maid, to be happy if you are not useful and active?’

‘Do you think I neglect you?’

‘Jane,’ he said soberly, ‘you have been my eyes. You saved me from solitude and misery like to have ended in my death. Now my good eye improves, and my strength and spirit return. You, my heart, would not help me by hovering over me and pressing on me attentions I do not desire, or, if I think I desire them, I do not truly need. The Rochesters have ever been a sturdy, stubborn race. Ask yourself, is it likely that I, their last representative, would be any less so? No, Jane. It was not for a nurse that I married you. Do all you wish. I am recovering. I need you still and will always need you, but I would not have you a slave to me.’

I wept, understanding again the man I had married. Perhaps I had partly feared him in the old days. Now, refined by his suffering, he was that truly great thing, a man strong as a rock and because of that very strength able to be gentle as a woman. He was peering at me through the mist which I knew was always before his eyes. ‘I think you weep,’ he said. ‘You believe you can hide it from a blind old man.’

‘You are wicked, Edward,’ I told him. ‘And what shall I do with you when you recover so fast?’

And he did, indeed, recover quickly, aided by his own strong will. The sight in his eye improved until it became as keen as ever before. He learned, with patient, manly effort, to use his left hand as well as he had once used his right. And gradually the memories of the past faded – their obliteration, I believe, came when the self-styled ‘last representative of the Rochesters’ discovered that he was no longer entitled to make that claim – when he became himself father of a son.

I ask myself now whether, lapped in happiness and contentment, we should not have spoken more of the past we had both in our separate ways endured. In the pleasantness of day-to-day life, in our constant communication, our shared interests, our delight in each other, it was easy to forget. Yet perhaps there is a price to be paid for turning one’s back on those parts of life one would rather ignore. Perhaps when trouble came upon us we were less well equipped to face it than we would have been had we not, for the best of reasons, so firmly put the past behind us.

Were we right in choosing to forget what it would have spoiled our happiness to summon up? Did we purchase a decade of unalloyed happiness by turning away from that which we would have done better to have confronted?